In many ways, my 1975 ascent of Denali was the trip from hell. Bookended by a minor earthquake and some expertly aimed pigeon excrement, the expedition featured a group that was too large, severe hypothermia, foul weather, an endless diet of instant mashed potatoes, the most uncomfortable and poorly planned bivouac I have ever endured, a pilot who refused to fly us off the mountain and a head guide who was, I believe, certifiably insane. Along the way, however, we saw some of the greatest mountain scenery the world has to offer.
After my 1972 trek in Nepal I knew that I was very strong at high altitude, but I also knew from experience that I was not a very good climber, nor ever likely to become one. There are many big, beautiful mountains that require only modest climbing skills, and I set my sights on these. Denali would be the first.
I joined a trip offered by the same company that had organized my wonderful Nepal trek. We met in Talkeetna, Alaska, a dreary little village that served up some alarming earth tremors our first night there.
A bush plane took us to base camp on a glacier, where we met our guides.
That’s our head guide waving his ice axe in the centre. Out of respect (he later died on Mt Everest) he shall remain nameless, but he clearly had a screw loose, while his cohorts seemed barely qualified for a climb of this nature. The first night on the glacier one of our party came down with severe hypothermia, which was not noticed for hours until he was found, incoherent and helpless, slouched in front of his tent. A few years later I would have abandoned the trip at that point and flown back to Talkeetna with my ailing colleague, but I was still pretty clueless in 1975.
Snowshoes, army boots, big frame packs – and half the time we couldn’t see the mountain. Our guide kept running back and forth between ropes, screaming at us to hurry up and KEEP THE ICE AXE IN THE RIGHT HAND AT ALL TIMES! I never did understand the reason for that command.
It didn’t matter that I was half the size of some of the men in the party – I had to carry the same weight. I’ve had back trouble ever since.
When the sun came out the glacier radiated heat. As soon as the sun was obscured the temperature plummeted and we dove for our down gear. Dinner consisted, clouds or shine, of instant mashed potatoes one night, and freeze-dried cardboard the next
It is, indeed, a glorious mountain.
By the time we reached high camp a number of people had dropped out, unable to handle the altitude. With the group now split into 2 or 3 parts (I was never sure how many), the guide ran back and forth between all of them, seemingly oblivious to the crevasses that lurked under the snow.
After dinner in high camp, our leader decided that the best way to sort out who would go to the summit next day was to have us run around in a circle and see who lasted the longest. This at 17,200 feet!
I felt amazingly well next morning, but the altitude took its toll on the summit party.
In the end, only 6 or 7 guests made it to the top that day. We arrived in a raging storm, took the obligatory photos and staggered down to a flat area about 500′ lower, where 2 tents had been set up and others in our party had taken shelter. The assistant leaders simply dropped ropes, ice axes and crampons in the snow and crawled into the tents. Our head guide didn’t arrive until well after midnight. Earlier he had come upon a group that was not moving well and cut the rope in two, telling the men to go back to high camp. He then tied in with a girl on the other half of the rope and took her to the summit, where she wanted to make a phone call to her family.
So there we stayed for three days: 13 people in two tents, with 6 sleeping bags, one stove, a sausage and some dried soup mix. When the storm finally blew itself out, the summit, which we had never seen, appeared.
But where were our ropes, ice axes and crampons? We had to dig them out of the snow with the cook pots. The guides gave those who had stopped their climb at the tents a chance to reach the summit while the rest of us descended to high camp, passing a couple of shredded McKinley tents at the pass above camp. It had been a wild storm.
We returned quickly to base camp, only to find that our guide had insulted our pilot to the point that he refused to fly us out. Negotiations continued for a couple of days while other pilots took pity on us and dropped some beer. Once we got back to Talkeetna we found a limited supply of hot water, so most of us took ice cold showers. As I was running to catch a train back to civilization a pigeon pooped directly on my head – a fitting comment on the entire expedition!