With promising indications of a high-pressure weather system building over the next few days, we made the call to head up to the 17,000ft camp. The gain of a further 3,000ft to the High Camp of Denali is known to deliver a step change in coldness, wind speed, and general discomfort. Swiftly packing up our camp at 14,000ft we broke down tents and progressively readied ourselves to head up the Headwall. Excited at the prospect of progressing up the mountain, I erroneously removed one of my mittens while struggling for dexterity when dismantling my tent. Without direct sunlight at this camp, the morning temperatures are sluggish to rise and as such my hand became completely numb and soon after solid as a block of wood. Realising my mistake, I quickly put my glove back on and cracked a chemical hand warmer. Ten minutes later my hand was still completely numb and starting to cause concern, so I headed into our kitchen tent and performed over a hundred well-executed star jumps as a desperate attempt to warm up my frozen hand. A few minutes later my fears of a cold-related injury were quashed to my relief as blood rushed back to my fingertips with an agonising few minutes of severe pins and needles. Through this experience, I learned that no task justifies the removal of your glove in such conditions and at the same time was given a little insight to the excruciating pain that frostbite victims describe when their hands/toes are thawed.
Once the sun hit, temperatures shot up to a balmy -10degC and we headed off. The route took us directly up progressively steeper terrain on a wall known as the Headwall. After negotiating a bergshrund (large crevasse on a slope) midway up the wall, we reached the steepest section that had been fitted with fixed ropes. Due to the terrain’s steepness of over 50deg and the unthinkable consequence of a fall, a rope is fixed by the park service at the start of the season for the uppermost 300m of the wall. With such a rope in place, a climber can clip their device known as a Jumar on and slide it up progressively with each step up the mountain. In the event of a fall, the Jumar locks on the rope and one of the climbers nine lives is surrendered. We reached the top of the Headwall and began the spectacular trek along the ridgeline towards Washburn's Thumb, a large rock precariously balanced on the knife edge ridgeline. A common hazard while negotiating a ridgeline is high wind as air is forced upwards by the mountain and then rushes over the ridge at the top. Freezing air whipped across my face for several hours prompting concerns of a frozen nose. My usual answer to face protection was a Buff, however, this was frozen solid with condensed moisture from exhaled air and caused my glasses to remain constantly fogged however the alternative option of an exposed face was a far more frightening prospect. At 4 pm we reached the 17,000ft camp gratefully and set up tents.
In an effort to reduce loads, we brought fewer tents with us to the high camp and as such squeezed a cozy three to a tent rather than two previously. Crammed into a 3-meter by 3-meter space, three exhausted adults with large packs are inevitably forced to utilise every square inch of said space subjecting each to the greatest test of patience on the mountain so far. Exhaustion of some members was starting to show, as the ability to perform tasks such as pouring a cup of tea or unpacking their sleeping bag and mat to get themselves warm was beyond their oxygen deprived brain. After enjoying what would be our first of many freeze dried meals, I tucked into my sleeping bag hardly able to contain my excitement for the possible summit day to follow. Expectedly unsettled by the altitude gained and knowing that sleep would be challenging I proactively took a few sleeping pills, some Diamox (altitude medication) then put in ear plugs and put on my eye mask. After 2 hours I managed to get to sleep while wishing for good rest for the team.
We were woken at 12 midnight by frantic calls from a climber who had been descending from the mountain above and was losing the battle to save his fellow climber who was suffering extreme exhaustion and high altitude symptoms. Initial calls for ‘Rescue, Rescue’ quickly escalated to chaos as guides in the camp lept out of their tents and headed up the mountain to help the stricken climber. At great risk to themselves, several guides were successful in bringing the climber down to the camp however unsuccessful in saving his life as he succumbed to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (an illness whereby fluid builds up in the lungs). Later we would hear that this climber had attempted to move from the 11,000ft camp to the summit in 3 days, a distance we would be attempting to cover in 12 days. Ignorance and/or arrogance of the effects of altitude when not acclimatized ultimately led to this climbers downfall and served as a stark reminder to the rest of us that this mountain plays for keeps.
The following day we woke to snow dumping at a rate that would bring much joy to any skier or snowboarder at a ski resort however epic disappointment to the 9 of us. Our lead guide broke the bad news that there would be no hope of a summit today and a low-pressure system was coming within the next day inevitably bringing more snow. His recommendation was that we descend and pull the plug on the trip to the agreement of all the clients. All the clients except a pesky Australian that would not offer his vote to descend in a decision that required unanimous acceptance. My view was that while no safety risk was present, we should remain at the High Camp and hold on to the 5% chance that the forecast is wrong. We woke up the following day to a day I could only describe as perfect; blue sky and without a puff of wind. Dressed and ready for action our day came to a grinding halt with the alarming news that one of our guides was very unwell and needed to be evacuated to a lower camp, another reminder that altitude does not discriminate, bringing down its victims regardless of fitness and experience level. We immediately re-orientated our objective of the day and planned the rescue of our guide to the 14,000ft camp. Together with another guide, we helped her down to the top of the Headwall where another group was able to receive her and take her to the 14,000ft camp. Unfortunately, this killed our chance for a summit on this day, however, there was no argument amongst the team with complete agreement that people come first and summits should never be prioritised above safety. Continuing an ever-present sense of hope, the following day was forecast to be clear with low wind and a very good contender for a summit day however with one look out of the tent disappoint landed square like a punch in the gut. A lenticular cloud had formed around the summit and nasty looking spindrifts were blasting along the summit ridge. Again we would be denied. Now with a potentially dangerous snowfall on the 24-hour forecast, we made the very tough decision to descend and conceded that this would not be our year.
Enormously dejected, I spent many hours during the 24 hour descent to Base Camp soul searching to rationalise what had just unfolded. Other team members and guides appeared indifferent to the outcome of the trip and were pleased to be getting off the mountain, however, I couldn’t overcome the belief that we were traveling in the wrong direction and should have been willing to persevere a little more. Following an unsuccessful summit bid, many will say things like ‘well the summit is not everything’ and ‘we had a great trip and that is what counts’ but I think at the core most climbers would admit that it really is all about the summit as that is the appealing objective of the trip that drew them in initially. On the first day, our lead guide stated the primary objective is safety, the secondary is enjoyment and the third is the summit however high on a mountain this order is often rearranged. However, it is a rearrangement of these priorities that led to the unfortunate outcome for our friend with HAPE or the 100% of climbers that suffered permanent frostbite as they moved to the high camp in May against weather forecast advisories.
On reflection, it is all too natural to feel a sense that we should have taken more risk and gone for the summit or waited another few days in hope of summitable weather at the risk of becoming snowed in. Some people put in our position on any of the three days we spent at High Camp may have acted differently and gone for the summit and they may well have been successful and descended safely. However, maybe not. Without a doubt, different people have different propensities for risk. For example, some will say that mountaineering in general, is far too dangerous, while others would say that flying in a commercial jet is too risky or living in the Middle East would expose them to an unacceptable threat of terrorism. Ultimately it is every climber's responsibility to understand their appetite for risk and stay true to this when confronted with a decision high on a mountain. Hindsight is 20/20 and it is critical to respect that you made the decision you did on the mountain given the information you had at the time. If it doesn’t turn out to have been the best decision later then it doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.
Denali is a mountain that I really wanted to summit as amongst the Seven Summits it represents the greatest all round challenge and would have been a brilliant result only achieved with the many hours of training and preparation. However, I think a non-summit taught me a valuable lesson in being calm and composed even though not necessarily happy if the summit wasn’t to be and not to compromise on my appetite for risk. My experience on Denali has made the Seven Summits an achievement that I value and want to achieve more than ever having been denied a perfect path to success. It could be all too easy to become despondent and struggle to look forward positively however behind the disappointment that will pass I am very grateful to have the opportunity to even set foot on these mountains and be part of the game. I cannot wait to return in 2018 post-Everest ready to roll the Denali dice again.
I am off to Mt. Elbrus tomorrow and excited to be attempting a fairly uncommon route; the North to South traverse. Hopefully, with a more fortunate forecast in store, we should be somewhere near the summit around the 18th of July.