Moving to Canada to work in 1985 put me closer to the next of the 7 summits – Mount McKinley, or as it is now known – Denali, the “High one” in the language of the native people.
This was a serious undertaking by any measure. In Alaska and just below the Arctic Circle, Denali has the highest altitude gain from base to summit of any mountain on earth (14,000 feet compared to Everest at 11,000). It is the coldest and windiest high mountain on earth and in the very short climbing season of June, virtually 24 hours daylight.
I sent in my outdoor resume to an expedition slated for 1987, was a little surprised when I was selected. I trained vigorously for 18 months prior to departure for Alaska. Hiking up and down all the hills in Toronto (there aren’t many) with 60 LBS of bricks in my backpack, I got some interesting looks. Attempting and not completing the Canadian ski marathon February 1987 (despite the fact I had only learned to ski a few months earlier), completed my training.
Nothing can prepare you for the enormity of the Alaskan mountains. A climber as a dot on the horizon can remain just that until appearing in camp many hours later. This expedition gave me my first real lessons of breaking down a trek into daily and sometimes hourly chunks. Using siege tactics, “carry high and sleep low” we gradually advanced up the mountain by the “standard” West Buttress route, finally summitting 20 days after leaving base camp. Trapped for 3 days by a storm at 18,000 feet was sobering reminder of the power of Denali. Several years before a large climbing group had been wiped out by high winds at this very spot.
Climbing down Karsten’s Ridge, the original ascent route back in 1910 made me appreciate not only how small and insignificant we are, but also to respect those pioneers who 100 years before were stepping into the unknown with basic equipment and no hope of rescue.
We hiked out 18 miles over the tundra and were picked up by a tourist school bus at Wonder Lake. Within minutes of our getting on the front of the bus, most of the tourist had huddled at the back, desperately trying to escape the odors from these “swamp things” who had not showered for 30 days. The expedition was over.