A Hell of a Climb
Education by Fire on McKinley 1970
“Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.”
“If you are going through hell, keep going.”
I woke from the deepsleep that follows an overworked day. The grey Alaska May night seeped into the igloo covering its contents with opaqueness. My heart crashed in my chest like an out of control pile driver—hard, fast and unnatural. I sat up, struggling with my mummy bag zipper in a claustrophobic frenzy. The first function of my body was unexpectedly berserk and I was only breathing fear. Instinctively, I forced myself to take in air. Hard. Then I forced it out. Again. Pull in. Push out. My lungs weren’t working automatically, they way they always had, and my heart beat too hard, too fast. The life forces were out of control or—more accurately perceived with the gift of contemplation not available to one whose heart and lungs have suddenly changed from angels of life to devils of fear—the life forces were showing me that the illusion of control was just another self serving habit if not addiction. “O shit,” I thought, “I’m dying. O shit.” My mind went to sunny, comfortable California and the fine, controlled life I had there where everything you need is just around the corner for the asking, but in the present reality at 10,000 feet on Mt. McKinley I couldn’t breathe. I pulled in air. Pushed it out. O shit. Pull in. Push out. Shit. My heart was flopping around with the rhythm of an angry tuna in the bottom of the boat. I concentrated on slowing it down but it’s hard to focus when you’re drowning.
Air is precious.
In a short time measured by interminable mind journeys and heartbeats my lungs began doing their own thing, and my tuna fish chest became a regular, strong rhythm.
What the fuck was that?
I looked around in the dim light to make sure the physical world and my place within it were the way I expected. Wally was next to me breathing softly, asleep. The igloo entrance let in a diffused light from a clear night that never reached complete darkness on McKinley in mid May. Familiar world. The security and illusion of control. I could see Wally, which meant the others were surely in the igloo. Relief for the mind but the body was working harder than the efforts of sleep demanded. I listened to my heart and lungs gradually slow down to a gentle, regular rhythm and considered waking Doctor Lito, but cold conquered fear and I zipped up my bag and rested my head on a pillow of rope and wool knickers to wait for warmth. I stumbled into sleep trying to determine what had just happened to my body, somehow already returning to the illusory comfort of control.
In the morning I felt fine and dismissed the episode as an aberration and didn’t mention it to my mates. Our fourth and thus far hardest day on the mountain stretched out before us like Sisyphus’ rock. We were moving fast and what reason could there be to pause when we were moving so well? Six days earlier I had been at sea level in London, England and had gone from there to Anchorage to Talkeetna to 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier where I had carried heavy loads to 10,000 just above Kahiltna Pass. We had moved fast, helped on the night of the third day with the discovery of the well-made two-room igloo left by a party that couldn’t be far ahead. Northwesterners, we decided, and highly organized.
Moving fast and pushing hard, speed and extension, have a catch‑‑the faster you go and the harder you push the faster you want to go and the more you expect from yourself‑‑Catch 22 of climbing. It catches different climbers in various ways at odd times in traps both subtle and profane, but every man has a limit. Our first three days on the West Buttress of Mt. McKinley were marked by speed and effort, but in the heated moment of putting one foot in front of the other hour after hour it sometimes seemed interminably slow, laboriously dull and at the same time the most beautiful, fulfilling movement a body could make. We told ourselves we were on our way toward the first ski descent from the summit of Mt. McKinley, and for some strange reason(s) were confident that we would do it. First we had to reach the summit using skis for the climb as well as the descent. For some strange reason(s) we viewed ourselves as a strong, well-balanced party of six to play the expedition game together on a peak higher than any of us had been before. Though we had all (except one) managed to get up some respectable climbs in the past, none of us had been to 20,000 feet before and some people are particularly unsuited to the rigors of breathing low oxygen content air. I am one. Like many things of life seen in retrospect it is unbelievable (and really irresponsible) that I had never heard of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), but I had not. One medical description reads “Severe AMS can also take the form of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE.) This is where excess fluid develops in the lungs, either in the lung tissue itself or in the space normally used for gas exchange. This means individuals are unable to perform gas exchange properly, and so person cannot get enough oxygen to function normally. It is caused, again, by poor acclimatization and is often more common in males, although it is not clear whether this is behavior related or due to genetic susceptibility. HAPE can occur without the traditional signs of AMS. Indications of HAPE include:
Difficulty walking or inability to keep up
A tight-feeling chest
A chesty cough, possibly accompanied first by a clear phlegm and later by blood.
Gurgling sound whilst breathing. If you place an ear to the victim’s chest, you may hear crackling or gurgling noises.
Breathlessness during rest
Rapid heart rate (90 to 100 bpm at rest)”
Personally, I think that poor acclimatization caused by moving too high too fast is behavior related, though genetics, specifically gender genetics, may play a role.
Like most climbing expeditions, ours was composed of diverse individuals whose strengths and differences we hoped would compliment and support (and cover) each other. For the most part our expectations were met.
Doug Tompkins, 27: expedition organizer and planner, a dark haired athletic man of medium build, a radiant smile when happy and a black seriousness when not, he remembered another time we had spent a couple of months in soaked leather boots and frozen feet walking and climbing on glaciers, and he had gotten the best overboots ever made for us. We also had good packs, new touring bindings and skis, sleeping bags, gloves and everything we needed. Tompkins is good to his friends.
Lito Tejada-Flores, 27: all around savant, he was first to raise the proposal that since we were going to McKinley and were all accomplished skiers, why didn’t we just ski it? Why not? Filmmaker, writer, skier, climber, ski instructor, linguist, punster and friend, Lito is a man for all season in all ways. He had already published the iconic essay “Games Climbers Play,” required reading that begins with this quote by Louis Arragon, “Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction.”An ex-military medic, Lito was, fortunately for me, expedition doctor.
Juris Krisjansons, 34: a gentle Latvian 6’1” 180 pounds of muscle bear with soft blue eyes, wide shoulders and a calm demeanor. At the end of World War II Juris and his parents fled Latvia. When they arrived in America Juris was 12 and spoke Latvian and German and no English. Though he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Ohio State University he made a career of doing whatever it took to climb up and ski down mountains and at the time that included being in charge of keeping avalanches and skiers separated in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Easily the physically strongest in the group, Juris came straight from Yosemite to Alaska with a determination to match his strength.
Rick Sylvester, 28: the physically smallest among us, fresh off the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt on skis, the most experienced in ski touring, in superb physical shape and with an impressive climbing and skiing resumé. We all anticipated that Rick would be a valuable addition and companion on the expedition. Lito and I had met Rick in a liftline at Squaw Valley two years earlier when Lito saw a familiar hat on an unfamiliar head and asked its wearer where he had gotten it. Lito had lost the hat while skiing in Leysin, Switzerland in 1965 and Rick had found the hat in the snow a year later and was wearing it.
Wally Rothgeb, 23: ski racer, adventurous spirit, friend and, most important- good man. He had almost no climbing experience but was an excellent skier. Wally, nearing the end of a fine racing career with the U.S. Ski Team and with just a few credits left before graduating from college, at a transition point in life and looking for new horizons. A week earlier he had dropped by Tompkins’ home in San Francisco just to say hello to find Doug preparing for Alaska to climb and ski off the highest peak in North America. Would Wally like to come? Sure, why not?
And me, Dick Dorworth, 31: I had spent the winter working on a ski film and skiing in Switzerland and France and was enthused and positive about our objective on McKinley and our collective abilities to accomplish it. I was about to receive a hell of a rigorous education about the depths of my own ignorance and some physical limits of my own body, which it (and I) had never before encountered.
That fourth day was as hard as the scenery through which we moved was resplendent. We carried eight days of supplies. In the cramped quarters of the igloo everyone cannot get ready at the same time, and I was the first out. Lito helped me get my pack on and remarked on its heaviness. Good for the ego and will. Makes you grateful for people like Lito and that you are carrying your weight in life. And an hour later I was reminded of how heavy life can be even when lightened by perfect weather, mountains, snow, ice fall wild scenery, clean air, good companions and the present experience of putting an idea into action—climbing McKinley and skiing back down. With the advantages of a two foot wide snowshoe track left by the igloo constructors, tight fitting sealskins on the bottoms of our skis and the relief of being off the slow rising Kahiltna Glacier and onto the steeper actual mountain it was as easy as possible. One foot attached to ski moves ahead and the sealskin prevents the ski from moving back, and the other foot moves ahead, over and over and over. Heavy pack. Heavier with every step. Up a winding path through crevasses and ice falls, around house size blocks of ice in a rainbow world hidden in white, Doug and I roped together and the others scattered behind.
At just over 11,000 we encountered the six igloo makers from Washington. They were pleasant fellows going down for supplies, happy to have us use their igloo and just as surprised that we were moving so fast. They said so and reported they had been on the mountain for two weeks. Even though I’d never heard the terms acclimate, acclimatize or acclimatization something like a shooting star crossed the dense depths of my mind, but I pushed it aside and pushed on. They continued down. A little later Juris passed us and by noon Juris, Doug and I were resting at the Washingtonian’s 12,500-foot camp. I felt strong and put aside any thought of the strange wake-up call of the night before as an unexplainable fluke.
Sylvester caught up to us. Wally and Lito were far behind. Rick’s physical strengths exceed his social skills and it was a poor time for him to come on strong with his opinion that Doug and I were not carrying our share of the load. It was not his opinion, he emphasized, but Lito’s, and Lito was a couple of hours behind. Rick’s short diatribe was demoralizing and surprising and its assertion wasn’t true and we all knew it. More, Lito had said just the opposite the last time I’d seen him a few hours before, but shirking your share in an expedition is a cop-out and hearing an expedition mate accusing you of copping out is demoralizing. Lito, Doug and I had played this game before and I couldn’t understand Lito saying such a thing, but he wasn’t there and so Doug and I picked up our somehow heavier packs and headed for Windy Corner.
The Washington crew had told us we would have to use crampons for this stretch, and they were nearly right. Juris took off his skins and sidestepped. Doug and I barely made it with skins, climbing more on arms than feet. I had one scare when a skin came off my ski but the thought of a thousand foot fall spurred me on. By the time I reached Windy Corner my arms felt like I’d climbed up thereon my hands. Rick, the most experienced at high mountain touring, was equipped with nifty ski crampons none of the rest of us had seen before. Next time the rest of us would know about this handy tool.
We rested and ate at Windy Corner, 13.300 feet. Above us the route took a circuitous route through a crevasse field well marked by flags put there by Ray “Pirate” Genet, McKinley’s first guide whom we had visited in Anchorage. We discussed the situation and decided to rope up, don crampons, leave some food for Wally and Lito and continue on to the site of our next camp at 14,200 feet. Doug and Juris roped up and were first to leave. I was occupied with the details of leaving a food cache, arranging my pack and putting on crampons when I noticed that Rick was no longer with me. He had left without a word, though I had assumed after the discussion that he and I would rope up together. But……..there he was, a hundred yards up the route, alone, on skis, moving on. “Well,” I thought,”……..?????”
Half an hour later I caught up to him sitting amidst a grand design of crevasses and ice blocks exchanging skis for crampons. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied that in case I didn’t have eyes to see he was taking off his skis and putting on his crampons, and I shouldn’t wait for him. I didn’t. Soon I caught up with Juris and Doug who wondered why I was walking around unroped in a crevasse field. I didn’t know but I certainly felt more secure after tying in with them.
By the time we reached the campsite we were fatigued enough to relish some relaxation and Doug was suffering with a severe headache. Lito and Wally were tired, lagging behind with heavy packs, so we determined that Doug should stay and set up camp and Juris and I would go down and help Lito and Wally with their loads. Rick wandered in and, while he felt and said he had carried his share for the day (which was true), he had left his skis below and had to return for them. Juris and I roped up and offered our individualist expedition mate a place on the rope, but he felt ropes an unnecessary encumbrance and carried on alone and unroped.
Even going back down was hard. For the second time that day we passed the boys from Washington, coming back up with loads. We reached Wally and Lito at Windy Corner. They were both tired but continuing to put one foot in front of the other. An immediate and short conversation with Lito and Rick clarified that Rick had misunderstood both the meaning and intention of Lito’s words about our loads in the morning. We aired the matter and started back up with Juris and Lito on one rope, Wally and I on another. Rick insisted on soloing the crevasse field alone, unroped. Halfway to camp he stepped into a sidehill crevasse and in the process of throwing himself sideways in order to avoid falling into the hole he dropped his ski pole, which slid down the trough of the uncovered crevasse. Fortunately, Juris and Lito were close by and they gave Rick a retrieving belay. Eventually, despite ourselves, the rigors of the seemingly ever growing mountain and the diminishing oxygen levels of its increasingly secretive air we made it to camp.
Lito was unlucky enough to wind up nearest food and stove in the four man tent, and he spent hours preparing brews and food while the rest of us collapsed. Doug had bad headaches and my breathing process was like an automobile engine that periodically sputtered for no discernible reason and then resumed running normally. I couldn’t detect the exact malfunction but I knew the internal motor was not ok. That evening we discussed our strategy and voted to devote the next day to rest. For Wally, Doug, Lito and me there was no question—we needed it. Juris felt he could continue without it but thought the acclimatization and rest would be beneficial. Sylvester was dead against a day of rest, which he insisted he didn’t need, and his disgust with our fatigue and weakness was both plain and plainly spoken. Rick had worked on the ski film I was involved with the previous winter in Switzerland and had been included on the expedition at my instigation. I thought his physical strength would be a great asset to our endeavor and he pressed me to let him join us. I had spoken to Tompkins who barely knew Rick and he agreed that his strength would make us a stronger party. Rick was included at the expense of another friend whom we knew better but who was a weaker climber.
That was a hard night for my breathing. I coughed and felt the wretchedness of every mammal that can’t get enough oxygen and I don’t think I slept at all, though you never really know when it’s like that. Strong pains in my chest, coughing, heavy heartbeat. Breath is the control mechanism of life and when it’s out of control there’s not much to say, but how easy to think of the next day and rest.
And a good day it was. Fine weather. Hot. Too hot for six in a one door four-man tent at 14,200 on McKinley. A day doing nothing. Bliss, no matter what the temperature. My health didn’t improve the way I’d hoped, but it didn’t deteriorate and I was optimistic and even thinking about the reality of our endeavor with a bit more clarity. During the day I began something that should have been considered in more careful detail much earlier: looking at some of Bradford Washburn’s aerial photographs alongside a topographic map of McKinley. After four days on the mountain I knew more about what that map and those photos represented in terms of climbing up and skiing down, and my perspective had changed. As the most experienced skier in the group, I suggested and by a 5 to 1 vote it was agreed that we would carefully check three different slopes above us before deciding to carry our skis up them. With six skiers the odds might be higher than the risk warranted, and a fall would be a long one. If we had had warm, stiff Lange boots, if it were at half the altitude, if we had ridden to the top in a gondola, if there were one instead of six of us it could be a different story. However, it was an old story and, among other things, I, for one, was learning the first small lessons in an education that would continue about the physical limitations of my own cardio-vascular system dealing with the thin oxygen of higher elevation climbing. Altitude is a relative term, depending on the system dealing with it, and mine wasn’t dealing very well and never would.
I wasn’t the only one hurting that day. Wally and Doug were slightly snow blind, which didn’t alleviate Tompkins’ headaches. Lito was worked. Rick was dragging more than he liked to let on. Juris seemed to have a source of energy not available to the rest of us, a great Latvian life force that did not wear down.
Not much sleep the night of May 20th, short as those Alaska nights are. Once I woke and was forced outside for a bitter cold urination. I was coughing, wheezing, shivering and weak, but what a universe greeted my wretched being! A full moon night covered the dusk of Alaskan May reflecting off the white-blue-ice Mt. McKinley world, and more wonder than bewilderment at the sensation of being not of this earth and time. My very transitoriness illumined the precious nature of the place, the companions, the experience and the moment that would never come again. We seek adventure in far out places to clear the mind and spirit of its camouflage. I know not how long I stood in that place of diamond clarity before shivering and numbness in my feet reminded me that time is relative even to the transitory. I returned to tent and bag and companions with incredible happiness and a desire for warmth. I slumbered until nearly 1 a.m. when I could no longer ignore with a clear conscience the preparatory activity in the tent.
We were heading for the summit with four day’s supplies. By 2:30 a.m. the first rope of Doug and Juris was nearly ready. Lito and I were closest and would obviously be the second rope. (I had an ulterior motive for roping up with Lito: he was usually the slowest and I was feeling weak and unsure of my own physical capabilities.) Wally, the least experienced, was slow in getting his things together. Rick woke up long enough to be served breakfast but was fast asleep again. Doug requested that Rick get up but Rick was barely stirring when Lito and I took off. The cold hadn’t warmed any and I was glad when we finally were organized and on the move at a slow pace, touring bindings clacking with each step in the morning air. Tompkins and Kristiansen were moving fast and I was impressed because just 12 hours earlier Doug had been silenced and stopped with headache, snowblindness and fatigue. I focused on Lito’s pace, right pole left ski, left pole right ski, knowing that I was much faster than he at this and really looking forward to a relaxed pace behind him.
That’s when I knew I was in trouble, or, rather, that’s when I admitted to myself that I was in more than trouble and was a dumb (and in deep) shit. It was allI could do to keep up with the slow-paced Tejada-Flores who never hurries but always gets there. I knew immediately I wasn’t going to 17,000 that day, but I didn’t know how to just turn around, how to listen to the wisdom of my body, how to admit to my mates that I was coming undone. I was struggling to make each move and wondering what to do or say when we saw Doug and Juris, a few hundred yards higher, remove skis and continue on crampons. Skis work fine on snow, even steep snow, but when snow turns to ice skis must be removed, put on the packs, and crampons attached to boots. The decision had been made and we knew it was the correct one.
Through the clear, sound-carrying air came Sylvester’s voice announcing to Wally and world that he was going to take his skis to the summit. Otherwise, why make the climb?
I felt too miserable in body to think about it just then, but I remember wondering if in some other sphere of his humanity Sylvester didn’t feel just as bad. I couldn’t dwell on it as my own problems were mounting with each step, and by the time Lito and I reached the others’ skis I was shaking with cold and weakness and breathing with lungs that couldn’t be satisfied. The simple task of removing skis and donning crampons loomed monumental in my mind. I stood pondering the inevitable when we suddenly noticed Juris and Doug just above us and coming down. Doug was completely wiped and could go no further that day.
I hope never again to be so grateful for another man’s misfortune and inability to continue.
NEW PLAN. Doug and I would return to 14,200 for a day of rest and acclimatization. Lito and Wally would return to 10,800, spend the night, and return to 14,200 with more supplies. Rick and Juris would ferry loads to 17,000 and return to Camp 4.
Doug and I immediately roped up and returned to the tent. As we left Rick was insisting he would take his skis up, regardless of what Juris chose to do. A suspicion rocketed by but my own problems were as immediate and strong as my body was not, and, besides, who would ever think such a thing?
At the camp we left our skis and packs just lying in the snow and crawled into our bags, removing only boots. Doug’s feet were an ivory hue, so we worked on those for 20 minutes before settling into down bags and our miserable selves. The morning’s exertions had broken an entire inner level of my ability to cope with my rapidly deteriorating health. When Doctor Lito arrived I told him something was beyond control and that I felt really bad. Poor Lito. He became pensive and unusually silent. Lito likes to talk and is a great conversationalist but when he acts he knows why and where and wastes no time in idle chatter. He scurried over to the nearby Washingtonians’ camp and borrowed a stethoscope and came back and listened to the gurgling in my chest, consulted with neophyte climber Doctor Rothgeb, asked and was answered how I felt, and made a decision: pulmonary edema. Many years later Wally commented, “I will never forget the sound of Dicks lungs gurgling through the stethoscope at Windy Pass. Once you hear that sound, you have a new appreciation of the dangers of pulmonary edema.”
Only possible treatment: diuretics and retreat to lower elevation.
But time rushes and crawls to its own tempo and Juris and Rick were back from 17,000 by the time Lito and I were ready to leave. Juris wanted a third on the rope the next time he climbed with Sylvester. No further explanations were needed but I was too sick to care. Thirty-five yellow snow holes and three and a half hours later Lito had coaxed me down with continual chatter, good cheer, acute intelligence and sympathy for my fatigue without allowing stops (except to pee) until we reached the igloo. Lito is a man for all seasons.
We crawled into the igloo and I slept for five hours, woke up long enough to consume a Lito cuisine and fell immediately to sleep for thirteen hours. By the morning of the 22ndmy body was back in control of its functions, though weak, but I had been given a lesson in how humans make habit of the precious, tenuous gift of life and call it control. The depth of my dreams, the simplicity of my thoughts and the clarity of my feelings about those thoughts was part of the lesson that life is a gift.
That afternoon we were surprised by a visit from Juris, Wally and Doug. They were concerned about me and about what Lito might do if my condition required more than lower altitude, and they decided to check on me and to get more supplies. I was weak but getting better by the hour and it was agreed that the next day we would all go back up, everyone but me carrying a load. Rick had refused to come down. He told them he felt too tired from the trip to 17,200 to carry another load up from the igloo. Fair enough, for he had worked harder than any of us except Juris, but we were concerned about Sylvester not only in terms of the expedition but in terms of himself. We discussed it but came to no conclusion, for who can answeranother man’s problem?
That night we ate and talked and planned for the coming day and those following as if plans and control were synonymous. My health improved by the hour. We slept in the igloo on summit dreams.
Tompkins, as usual, was first up and engrossed in morning chores. The rest of us arranged our packs from the sitting sleeping bag position and waited for Doug to serve the much anticipated morning meal. Halfway through cooking breakfast Tompkins was leveled by a sudden headache and sickness that would crack his skull and rot his strength. He returned to his sleeping bag and Juris resumed cooking. When the meal was eaten and everyone ready to start the day Doug was unable to move.
New plan. I would stay in the igloo with Doug. If he got worse I would get him down to the landing field and radio for a plane. The others would go up to 14,200, wait one day for us in case Doug was better and then proceed to the summit without us. They left me in the igloo with the sound of Doug’s heavy breathing and the suspicion that this hell of a climb was not going to be ours.
An hour later began one of those episodes of life that afterwards seems hard to believe really happened….Sylvester showed up. I was surprised but Doug was asleep and it was nice to have someone to talk with…..until Rick announced that he was abandoning the expedition. Oh no! A bummer in the works! I spent the better part of the next hour trying to convince Rick that the expedition was a unity and too small to lose a climber of his strength and caliber. No one wanted him to leave. We would all feel a sense of failure if he went. He would regret it the rest of his climbing life. He had asked to be included on this trip and wasn’t being a very good friend by leaving it early, and this was an expedition of friends as much as climbers. Besides, where did he think we were? On the Apron in Yosemite where if it isn’t going just right you can rappel off and stroll back to Camp 4 where there is every chance of better company? Rick accepted lunch and my unwanted support and advice in silence and mysterious shivers, which sometimes shook his body. I was on the other side of the igloo preparing hot tea delivering my monologue of saving Sylvester from bumming us out, when he did.
Rick told me to save my breath because as soon as the others had left the tent the previous day he had soloed to the summit of McKinley. He didn’t ski down and had just gotten back, having bagged his summit, and only stopped by to pick up his book (appropriately enough “The Magus” by John Fowles) and a few other things. I suppose the only reason he told me about his climb was so that I would shut up.
I did. There was nothing to say that would have been very good. I just turned away to look at the natural mountain scenery and get it back in control. Ho ho. It is beautiful atop the Kahiltna Glacier across from Kahiltna Pass. Over the pass to the northwest you can see green Alaska wildlands whose future has already been sold to the highest bidding oil company. I thought about nature and ecology and mankind for some reason, and it came to me that the difference between competition and cooperation is consideration. I wondered what Rick really thought about us—Doug, Lito, Wally, Juris and me—and what he felt and thought about himself. I was really angry, but Rick had sort ofsoloed McKinley with his expedition mates acting as unknowing support crew which, of course, tarnishes if not removes the solo label, a good feat by a strong mountaineer that no one can ever take away from him. He had covered the whole route unroped and obviously had some luck. Combining friendship and climbing brings out the best in each, but I’d rather have a friend than a feat. Not everyone feels that way and neither did I in other times, but there wasn’t much to say when Rick came out of the igloo with his things and said he was going on down to the landing field, catch a plane and leave.
Rick left and I went in and made lunch for Doug and woke him up and told him what Rick had done. It was better for everyone that Doug was asleep while Rick was there. I was angry and disappointed with Rick, but Doug, a scrapper at heart, was offended and challenged. We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the differences in attitudes towards what we both agreed was a failure of one member of our group. We talked about our feeling that we had all lost something more than we knew how to measure. Perhaps we climb because the mountains give us what we lack as human beings. We climb because of our immeasurable need.
We woke the morning of the 24thto find the igloo entrance filled with snow. Two feet of fresh powder had fallen in the night and a couple of thousand feet higher Windy Corner was earning its name. It was cold and we procrastinated for a couple of hours before determining that we were neither physically nor psychologically prepared to move up to 14,200 feet in 2 feet of new snow. The fun was gone and we were done with a hell of a climb.
Instead, we had the best day and most fun of the entire adventure, skiing several miles down the Kahiltna Glacier after a ragged start. Our packs were huge, somewhere around 70-80 pounds. We started skiing alpine style with our heels locked down and every time we unweighted to begin a turn the packs on our backs would move in the opposite direction of our turn and take us with it. After a few inelegant falls into the soft powder snow and strenuous efforts getting back up I remembered something I had learned as a young skier and hadn’t thought of or used in many years—the Telemark turn. (Remember, this was 1970 before the Telemark renaissance in American skiing, before Park Rangers lived on McKinley to assist clueless climbers like us, before SAT phones, before the officially given name of McKinley was pushed aside by the unofficial and more commonly used name today of Denali, before Facebook and GoPro.) Doug had never seen a Telemark turn but he is a quick learner and we were soon floating down the Kahiltna glacier carving the best Telemark turns that slope had ever seen and having a wonderful time in the present process of retreat. Since we had elected to ski unroped in order to more fully enjoy the skiing we also had a wonderful amount of good luck. At one point I came out of a turn with too much speed to do anything but continue skiing over a ten foot wide dark blue slice in the snow that was obviously a snow bridge over a not shallow crevasse and I thanked Ullr and slowed down in that order as soon as I crossed it.
Near the base of the glacier up which we had to climb to the landing field we encountered some Japanese climbers on their way to try a new route on the West Face. They were friendly, gracious and very happy to tell us that our friend Rick was still at the landing field with the rest of their expedition. Apparently, he was unable to make the radio work and couldn’t call for a flight out. This information gave Doug more energy and enthusiasm for the present moment than he’d had in a few days and as the Japanese party continued toward the West face Doug rushed on toward our camp to see what assistance he could be to Rick. I was tired and took my time, having already set a pacifist example which Doug followed.
A comic memory that isn’t all that funny: trudging up the landing field spur of the Kahiltna Glacier, afternoon sun at my back, the Northwest face of Mt. Hunter before me, dazzling snow-ice-rock walls rising up on both sides. My debilitating fatigue had broken the visual barriers so that snow white was scattered into a billion crystals of color and a palpable gratitude that my physical work for the day and the climb was nearly finished. Despite some disappointment it was a fine state of mind, a magical time in a landscape that is worth the effort to see. And echoing off the walls around was the shouting of Tompkins telling Sylvester what he thought and how he felt, speaking for all of us in his loudest voice. By the time I arrived it was silent. There was nothing left to say. Doug and Rick were sitting outside the tent, looking in opposite directions. The members of the Japanese party camped next door were pretending that we weren’t there until I said hello and waved. Then they smiled and invited us over for hot drinks and snacks, which we accepted. Then Doug got the radio working and contacted Cliff Hudson, the good pilot of Talkeetna, who said he’d be right in to pick us up. We made friends with the Japanese and exchanged addresses and sold equipment and discussed the world scene and a couple of mutual friends as thoroughly as their 20-word English and our 0-word Japanese vocabulary would allow. But you don’t need words to communicate if you truly want to, and when Hudson showed up an hour later I felt sad to leave our new friends. Doug and I were back in warm San Francisco within 48 hours, but Wally described what happened after they left Doug and I at the igloo: “As Yuri, Lito and I were headed back up from the igloo, we encountered Rick skiing down. He stopped and told us that he was going down to catch the plane back to Talkeetna. We asked “What about the summit?” He informed us that he had summited and was going home and then skied off. As I recall, Juris (a man of few words) had some things to say about Rick’s character and ethics. We continued on to Windy Pass. We continued on to the snow/ice cave at 17,000 feet. After another night of difficult sleep for me we started for the summit. As all through the trip, we had perfect weather. Since we all had a different pace, we saw no need to rope up. We were invincible and pioneering the fast and light style.
“As I was hiking toward the summit on the broad low angle ridge on firm wind packed snow, I looked down in to a deep gully to the right, thinking that if someone slipped and slid down there it would be a very bad situation. If you were hurt at all it would have probably been fatal.
“Juris was the first to make it to the summit. I kept Lito in my sight and just put one foot in front of the other. Three steps and rest. Three steps and rest. Don’t rest too long, just a couple of extra breaths. Finally the summit with Juris and Lito. No camera as Doug was the expedition photographer. After a little time on the summit we headed back down to the cave at 17,000 feet and spent the night there. The next morning we went down the fixed ropes and then skied from Windy Pass to the igloo at 10,000 feet. The mountaineers from Seattle were gone. They had left one or two of their 5-gallon metal cans filled with all sorts of delicacies, shrimp and all sorts of food that we had not carried. We gorged ourselves, spent a night well fed, slept well due to the lower altitude and had a great ski down to the landing strip the next morning. Unroped of course.
Cliff landed the plane with beer, milk and oranges. We loaded the plane and took off down the glacier. I remember that the stall warning seemed to squawk for an awfully long time before we gained some altitude. Back in Anchorage we ended up at the house we had crashed at on the way in. Lito and I took wonderful hot showers. Juris decided that he really did not need a shower. I am sure that other passengers on the plane the next day would have disagreed with him.