By Tony Rooney
It all started (for me) back in February. On a cold wet Sunday, at the wall, in UCD. I had not seen Andrew for quite a while and we both happened to be there that day. So we got to talking about what people were up to, and he said that he was going to Alaska, to Denali. Well…before long, I was going too…and so it began…
We set off for Anchorage, Alaska, on Sat. morning 30th may.32 hours later, at 2:00 am local time, we arrived. Three of us altogether. Andrew & I coming from Dublin, and Damian, an Irish ‘ex-pat’, living in Hong Kong. Damian had arrived the previous day and organized a place to stay and car hire for the couple of days we would be in Anchorage.
Up early the next day to go shopping for food and any last minute ‘toys’. The rest of the day was then spent packing the food into ‘day’ bags (one day’s food for three), for twenty-one days.
Monday morning we set off on the two and a half-hour drive to the small frontier town of Talkeetna, last stop before Denali. The guy driving the bus, we all agreed, looked like your typical All-American serial killer!
Arriving in Talkeetna, we headed straight for Doug Geeting Aviation. One of a small no. of aviation Co.’s that make a living flying people to/from Kahiltna Base. When we get there we are told that nobody is flying today. The weather on the mountain is too bad. Although it seems okay to us, here in Talkeetna. So we are resigned to spend at least one day there. Hopefully no more than that.
Up at 6:30am the next. Poke my head out the window of the bunkhouse we are staying in…Fuck…it’s pissin’ rain. Don’t think we will be flying today!
We go have breakfast, then head on over to the hanger at Geetings, where we can hang around getting info on weather, reading books and looking at route maps…and letting the anticipation get a bigger grip!
Slowly…..ooohhh sooooo slowly…the weather changes for the better and people are being flown off the mountain. To give an idea about the weather this year, Denali has a normal success rate of about 50% of about 500 people attempting it. This year in May, only 5 people made the summit!
So, we get on the queue to be flown in. Ahead of us are two teams, one team of four from Vancouver, Canada. The others were three ‘Russian’ types from *@~%$£estan. They looked like they had walked all the way from Red Square!!
The flight in is about forty-five minutes. You’ve a couple of hours to get ready before you go in, providing the weather has not changed in that time!
The flight is nothing short of spectacular. Passing by places I had only seen pictures of before. Just before you reach the Kahiltna glacier you fly through a feature known as ‘one shot pass’, it is called this because you really only do get one shot at it! If you don’t make it on that go…forget it. Then you fly into a long valley that is Kahiltna glacier. The plane banks right and you are on the final few minutes to base. One bumpy sleigh ride later and Celts on ice are on ice…
What a view, with Hunter, Foraker and mt. Francis filling the vista. Wow. What a mix of faces & races, people from the world over…. Irish, American, Canadians, Chinese, Japanese, loads of Europeans and many more.
Right…. To work. First job is to lash your haul bag onto your sled. Each of us carries a full 90 ltr. sac and 90 ltr. Bag on a sled, weighing in at about 120lbs between them. This hauling a sled business looks like a real bitch. Before we set off we cooked up a meal. Our last fresh food for some time to come.
We set off out of base camp at about 7:00pm and passed the Canadians during the night. They had stopped at traditional camp 1, at about 8,000ft. This hauling sleds IS a real bitch…but what a place. The weather is good, and the track is well marked through a couple of rather large crevasse fields that we encounter. Such big crevasses I have never seen. Our plan was to reach the top of ski hill that night at about approx. 10,000ft. But as we approached the 9,000ft. mark, at about 2:30am I got really tired and had a hard time going on. I was absolutely wrecked. It had been such a long, tiring and exhilarating day. Every time we stopped for a rest…I fell asleep! Because I was so tired I started to get cold (the thermometer was reading about –18C) and while putting the tent up, my left hand got pretty badly frost nipped.
The next day we were up at 9 am. I could not eat, as I was feeling nauseous. Andrew’s neck was giving him trouble; an old injury and pulling sleds did not mix.
Damian was as right as rain. The weather was good, so we dried bags etc. and ate what we could (Not a lot in my case). At about 2pm we packed up and got on our way once again. I was still feeling pretty shit from the long day before, and as we passed some people on their way down they told us of an impending storm approaching. So we decided that we would dig in at the top of ski hill, rather than go to 11,200ft and possibly get caught in a storm on the way.
The supposed storm did not really get going. It just snowed lightly for a day, so one night at 10,000 and then up to 11,200ft…. Camp 3.
The plan is to carry a load to 13,000ft tomorrow and the day after move every thing up to the large bowl that is 14,200. But as every body knows, the best-laid plans of mice and men…we got the storm that we were promised a few days before!
The storm was to last for about four days. I had not been in a storm like this before. And for anybody else who has not, it goes a little like this. Every couple of hours, it is somebody else’s turn to go dig the tent out of the snow. This can take a couple of hours when you are on your todd. It is pretty wet and uncomfortable, and will get you nothing but abuse from your buddies as you try to enter the tent, letting in snow and wind and being full of snow yourself!
On one particular occasion, we left it a bit longer than we should have after we all fell asleep. The tent was practically buried. It was Andrew’s turn to dig us out…bummer for him…. and there was no way anybody else was going with him, fuck that! He was out there for about 3 ½ hours! And did a pretty good job, even re-enforcing the walls around the tent. Kudos to Andrew, but he still got hassle coming back into the tent!
Damian brought a small radio with him, so we can listen to some music to while away the day’s. We all also have some books, and I brought a small chess set… so I thought Andrew to play chess (he is pretty good…NOT).
Day five on the hill, Sat 6th July.
We had a late start, but the weather is still bad so a late start doesn’t really matter. We decide that we should do a carry today, weather regardless. We are going to take some food and fuel up to about 13,000ft and bury it.
Climbers descending to the top of motorcycle hill,
with the drop to the peters glacier visible on the right
The first feature you come to as you leave camp 3 is a hill called motorcycle hill, which is at about fifty degree’s. It’s not too bad as you are quite fresh, just out of camp. But this particular day, the weather was pretty bad. On motorcycle hill it was pretty much whiteout conditions. Above that was the same, with the added bonus of a strong wind! As we headed upwards, we had an exposed drop on our left-hand side. 3,000ft to the Peters glacier, but we could not see the drop, which I thought was a good thing. We did not get any further than about 12,500ft with our loads, because the weather just got too bad, so we just buried them there.
The weather was bad all the way back down to camp. We talked to a ranger at camp who had been told that the storm would last at least another 48 hours!
Back in the tent, just about to settle in for the remainder of the storm, and there is a ‘knock’ at our door. It’s one of the guys from the Chinese team, Ah lok. He tells us that their tent has collapsed in the storm and they’ve had to dig themselves a snow-hole. Also he tells us that they have only got one day’s supply of food here at 11,000ft. He tells us that they carried the rest of their food up to 12,500 and buried it there. So could we give them some food to last the rest of the storm? We gave them a couple of bags of our food, which should keep them going for a while, although there are NINE of them! We had only buried half our food up higher, just in case the storm was to last.
During the storm, so much snow fell that the ground level outside the tent area (where we had not being digging) rose by about seven feet!
Andrew’s sleeping bag is soaking up water, this is bad, as it is a down bag. So he has taken to sleeping in it in his gore-tex bivi bag.
The storm blew out the next day, and the weather was quite good. But the trail was very deep snow. So we decided to stay put for one more day, and let other people do the trail breaking through the deep snow for us.
Up early the next day…. Day nine on the glacier.
We are going to head up to 14,200 today. Passing around the infamous feature known as ‘windy corner’. In bad weather this would be a bitch. But today the weather looked good…until we got to windy corner, that is. It suddenly turned foul on us. And dragging sleds did not help in the slightest.
Windy corner is not too much uphill, as such. It is more of a traverse than anything, but it is quite steep in places. Not really too bad as far as the corner itself, but then once you get around it…. Fuck. When the wind blows on windy corner it really BLOWS hard. And it gets quite steep too. It is all hard blue ice, so your crampons are having a hard time keeping you put. As you cross the steep slope, your sled wants to go downhill off to you right pulling you with it, down into building sized crevasses. The guy in front on the rope has crossed over a small hummock is going slightly downhill, while you are still going uphill, at a slower rate than he is.
So you are getting pulled from in front and from the side, the ‘ track’ is only about eight inches of HARD ice, and the wind is blowing hard, and it’s snowing, you cannot see any thing. But you know that there is a large crevasse below you with your name on it!
But you go on (‘cos the guy in front is pulling you and you cannot stop, even if you want to), better to be through and stop, rather than stop here. So for six hours we dragged our sleds behind, until we got to 14,200ft. All we were fit for at that stage was eating and sleeping. My turn to cook….doh!
Ten days in…. plans for a take stock type day go arse over tits when we get forewarned of another impending storm. So we decide to go get our cache at 12,500ft while the weather is not too bad today. Another encounter with windy corner. But its not so bad today, we have light sacs. Windy corner must have known that we had full loads the previous day! Or is it that we are now acquainted and can co-exist peacefully! (don’t think so somehow!)
The biggest problem that I am having at the moment is that my plastic boots are trying their damnedest to carve the words " Koflach was here " into the boney part of both my shins. This makes walking one of the most uncomfortable things that I have to do (God knows I pretty much hate walking at the best of times!). I can hear one say to the other,"Hah, you think that’s deep, watch this…" as I wince. At one stage they got so bad that I was willing to give up and just head back to base. But Andrew & Damien would not let me go. Rightly so. On top of that, I had lost my harness in the storm back at 11,000ft. This entailed rigging a ‘temporary permanent’ harness from nylon slings. Oh what comfort…Which was nice!
We are taking a rest day today. During the summer months the rangers set up a medical research tent at 14,200ft. Andrew is having trouble with his chest, so he takes a trip over to them to get it checked out. When he comes back he does not look too happy. It turns out that he has got an upper respiratory infection, or possibly the early stages of pulmonary edema. This is one of the drawbacks of being at altitude. Pulmonary is like fluid on the lungs and if left untreated can be very dangerous. He is told to take Diamox, a drug which helps clear the excess fluid.
If there is not an improvement in 24 hours…he is to consider going down. Andrew is now drinking about 6 or 7 litres of water a day. I have been barely forcing down three…but have been lucky insofar as all I’ve really suffered from the altitude is breathlessness, and Damian is much the same.
The weather is still good the next day. It is actually the best day we’ve had yet! Damian went up to 16,500 and put a cache up. While Andrew and I used the available heat from the sun to dry out all of our bags and other stuff which had become wet. Andrew thinks today is a good day to change our under-wear, so we swap jox! After which we went down to about 13,400ft to take some photo’s of big crevasses. I took the photos while Andrew posed with the crevasses. I was trying to convince him to go right to the edge (for a good photo), hoping that he wouldn’t fall in. I would have to go home telling everybody how I tried to tell him, "Don’t go too near to the edge!"…
Back in camp we can see Damian making his way down. Time for dinner to get going, and have a brew on for D. when he gets in. Andrews turn to cook. He is feeling a lot better than the previous day, so he decides to carry a load up to the cache with me tomorrow.
Leaving camp, Andrew was not too bad. But when we got to the steeper ground, about 10 minutes out of camp he started to slow down. I got to the fixed ropes in an hour and a half, this is about 1,000ft above camp. Andrew was a good 45 mins. behind me. He said his legs were fine…but his lungs were totally fucked.
The weather was good, which meant quite a few people were doing the same as us, consequently, a queue had formed at the fixed ropes. So I let a few people jump me in the queue and waited for Andrew. The biggest single group was from a US army expedition. This group was made up of marines and S.E.A.L.’s and the likes, which meant they were very fit and strong. But they did not know one end of a mechanical ascender from the other! So they were very, very slow on the ropes.
When Andrew got to the bottom of the ropes, he had decided that we would not need food for him up higher, as he was not going any higher. He had decided that he was not acclimatizing properly. We buried his load at the bottom of the ropes to be picked up on the way down, as he felt that he should at least go up to 16,200, just to better his personal previous high.
The going on the ropes was pretty slow, what with the army guys not really knowing what they were at and a load in my pack, and quite steep in places too.
Just over an hour later and about 900ft. in vertical height we reached the top of the fixed ropes. Wow. What a place. We are in a saddle on the ridge that runs off to our right up to 17,000ft. Pretty exposed too, 2,000ft. down one side and about 1,500ft. down the other. We moved up along the ridge for a bit to look for the cache that Damien had put up the day before. This was a height record for the two of us, just a spit below 5,000m. Feeling somewhat breathless and getting cold in the wind, now we had stopped moving. Andrew found the cache and dug it up so we could add to it. I was happy to just sit down and let him! Go, Andrew, go!
Just in front of us were an Aussie guide and his female Brazilian client. They were digging a platform for their tent. This was not the kind of place I might have picked to stay the ‘night’. Quite exposed to the weather and not very roomy at all.
Time to head downwards, while the temp. is still relatively warm. Unfortunately the army guys had the same idea 5 mins. before us. This meant a tail back on the way down. Which was quite bad, as the descent is now in the shade and getting colder by the minute. Fortunately there are two lines side by side, one for up and one for down. At this late hour of the day, we could see nobody coming up… so the two of us zipped over to the down line, clipped in with cows tails, and down we went.
Going down hand over hand was the quickest way, foregoing ascenders on the downhill. At the bottom of the fixed ropes we collected Andrews’s load, split in two, and continued down. The snow was quite deep in places (knee deep) and being downhill, was a good place to break your leg! We thought it would be fun to get some glissading in. Andrew had not done it before and my glissading experience was limited to a few dodgy tries in the Alps and Scotland! But we gave it our best shot, and after many tumbles and falls and near misses with axes, we thought it would be safer to walk. After all, I do not think there is any merit in being airlifted off Denali with an ice ax sticking out of your head/leg/arm or all of these! It is not long before we are down. Back to the loving arms of a mug of hot chocolate. Damian tells us that he could see two eejits ‘falling’ down the mountain and took a guess that it was us!
All that’s left to do for the day is to take in another of Damian’s dehydrated culinary specials…. Hmmm…what’ll it be tonight? Ahh…I think I will go for the ‘mountain chili’! And so, four hours later… the chemical warfare has begun. What a smell, PHWOARGHHH, brilliant! Of course Andrew thought that I should build a snow-hole and sleep on my own. But Damian just accepts it (as with everything else) as part of the daily rigors of being on the hill, and he should know, he’s a policeman!
The team from Hong Kong went down today. All but one of them. The guy that stayed (Felix) went off for the day with Damian to climb a route up to 16,000ft, by the name of the dennon variation, while we put our loads up. So Damian wants a rest day tomorrow, and the day after we (Damian and I) will head up to 17,000ft. and put a tent in to make a summit bid from there the day after.
Next day…rest day.
Felix comes over for a brew. And we get to talking…he has been to 19,500ft. (Just over 500ft. from the top) last week but was turned back by winds. He wants another crack at it, but also wants to go home. So he suggests that him, Damian and me go for the summit from here. This would be a very long day, but well doable. So I tell them I am willing to try, but want to wait 24hrs. Felix says he wants to go sooner, so Damian says we will go tonight, at 2:00am. I do not think I am ready, but I know that I should go…so it’s agreed…2:00am it is.
2:00am. A cacophony of digital watch alarms heralds the start of the day. Damian tells me to stay in my bag while he gets dressed and he will put on the stove while I get up, I am quite happy to oblige. The small thermometer in the tent says it is 26 degrees below zero. I think to myself, "Fuck…that’s cold", and that’s INSIDE the tent". Felix arrives as we finish our hot drinks. He is ready to go, we just have to fill our water bottles. One thing that worries me is the ridge above 16,500ft. It is not very technical (perhaps equal to English v.diff. or severe). But in windy conditions unroped parties have been blown off it. We have decided to go unroped to save weight, as the ridge is really the only place we would use it. It being safer for all to go solo on the rest off the route. So I am just hoping it will not be windy.
Saying goodbye to Andrew, we left camp at about 2:45am. The thermometer read minus 32 centigrade. My pace was a bit slower than Damian and Felix. This did not worry me, as my natural pace is not a super quick one anyway. But soon they were out of sight. The breeze had picked up not long after leaving. About an hour out of camp, my hat got blown off. Within about five minutes I could feel the cold start to get a grip, so I stopped to rest for a bit, and I then vomited the contents of my breakfast onto the snow. This was bad, as it meant I lost liquid, and before long was really feeling the cold in my hands, feet and head. I started to feel slightly lethargic too! So, I decided to turn back. I felt like shit. Better to get back to my warm cozy sleeping bag. I could not see Felix and Damian, they were too far ahead. But glanced back over my shoulder now and again so that I could wave them on if I saw them. One time I looked up and saw that somebody was coming down. I thought one of them was coming back to see if I was okay. It was Damian, when he could not see me for so long he did not know what happened. But when he passed the vomit in the snow, he guessed. So he decided to turn back too at that stage. Felix was going on, but only to 17,000ft. to retrieve a cache that his buddies had left for him, then he was coming down. As we both ambled back into camp, I imagine Andrew did not know what to think. As it happens (he told us later) he was saying to himself…"fuckin’ bastards, just when you get some peace and a bit of space to yourself!" When I got back to my bag I was getting pretty cold, and it took hours to get warm again, and then…sleep, at about 5:00am.
We got up at about 10:00am later that morning and we were discussing our options when Felix dropped by and told us of another BIG storm that was due in the next few days. I wasn’t sure how the others felt, but I could not afford to get stormbound for too long and miss my flights home, also I think I had had enough of living on the glacier, so as far as I was concerned…it was time to leave. Damien wanted another go at it but neither me nor Felix nor Andrew wanted to stay. So it was mutually (including D.) decided to go down. For a while we sat around thinking…and then everybody agreed that we should go tonight…at 6pm. We were going down to base camp in one long haul overnight, and were to be joined on the trip by one of the rangers (Hendra) who had finished her stint up at 14,200ft.
We roped up from 14,200 down to 11,000, where we decided that being roped and lowering sleds did not mix, it was just a pain in the arse…so from there down we went unroped. Which felt a lot better. Eventually I was left on my own at the back of the group, my pace being quite slow. But I could not think of a better place for 10 hours of solitude. The place was just stunning. I could appreciate it more so than on the inward trip. The only people I saw were three Americans who stopped to say "hi" and share a drink before they overtook me. It was a long bloody way to base camp, probably the best part of 15 miles. It all went pretty well until I reached the very large crevasse fields about two miles outside base camp. Then I thought that it would be nice if I was on a rope, and as everybody knows…the 1st rule of glacier travel is …….always stay in a roped party!
So, there I was…a lonely little dot on the kahiltna glacier. With crevasses that would swallow an eighteen wheel truck (across it’s width!), and me trying to run down the tell tale hollow that is a snowbridge…and back up the other side. Mentally tiring.
When I got into base camp it was 6:00am. Andrew and Felix and Hendra had put Felix’s small two man tent up and squashed into it. Damien just crawled into his sleeping bag in a hollow. Damien was the lucky 1st person I came to, so I gave him a prod to wake him and ask ,"where’s me bleedin’ hot drink?"…but he just grunted something about getting into my bag as he had and going to sleep. So I did just that. The thermometer said about –12C. I was asleep before my head hit the proverbial pillow.…..ZZZZZZZZZZ.
9:00am: Awakened gently by Andrew with a swift kick in the ribs!
"Get up you lazy bastard…we are on the first plane out of here." So up I got. Pretty fuckin’ fucked! We dug up our cache of extra tent and food that we left behind. In the cache we had left some oranges…..mmmmm….they were soooooo good. Just to taste something different after weeks of dehy. Food.
The first plane came in at about 10:00am. Andrew got on that one and took most of our gear with him. We said we’d wait for the next one, which eventually arrived at 8:00pm that evening. So we just sat around in the sun(+35C) all day waiting.
So, back to real food…beer…and comfy clothes, beds and a shower. We all pigged out on food that night, but were too tired for more than one beer.
And so it ends. We did not quite reach the top. But that does not matter(only when you don’t get it!). within a few days the harshness had worn off me and I would go back at the drop of a hat now(although my better half would not be too happy if I did!)
After all of that we let our hair down in Anchorage with a trip to ‘Chilkoot Charlies’ before we came home…if you would like to know more about that night, well, you can talk to Andrew McDaniel!!! Boy,does he have a story to tell!!!!