ACL on Denali
20,320 feet 6,194 meters
Climbing is always a chance: avalanches, crevasses, altitude sickness. And, of course, your own body. While returning from the High Camp at 17,200' on Denali it happened:
POP! Did I step on a dry tree branch? Was an avalanche releasing? The intensely sharp pain in my right knee told me the answer. The same nauseating feeling I had twenty-seven years ago while playing pickup football, my muscle memory now reminded me of what it feels like to tear the Anterior Cruciate Ligament behind the kneecap.
First pulled by my ascender attached to the fixed line, then by my own efforts to self arrest the fall, finally my right crampon points dug into the snow stopping my lower body as my torso twisted sharply. I came to rest in a pile of foot-deep fresh powder looking into the far away faces of my rope mates' anxious expressions.
Mt. Mckinley, Denali or "The Great One", as it is called in the Athabaskan language is the highest mountain in North America and presents a unique set of challenges for any climber. Many underestimate it's force since it is lower than it's Himalayan brothers. But being 300 miles South of the Arctic Circle and 200 miles North of the Bearing Sea, it's weather is unrelenting and comes with no warning.
"Get ready to go in about 3 hours", said Doug Keeting our plump Alaskan bush pilot. His reliable Beaver plane would take three trips to get all nine clients, three guides plus over 40 stuffed duffle bags to the base camp on the Kahiltna glacier. "Can you be ready to go in 5 minutes?" he asked only a moment later. "Sure", said Bill, our lead Guide and with that we set off in a flurry that epitomizes climbing: hurry up and wait and then be ready to change immediately. In other words, never get comfortable.
With Andrew, our British Barrister, riding shotgun; Chris, Laura and I became as one in the tight back seat. Chris, a strong Guide with 6 assaults on the mountain took center and Laura, a refugee from the executive ranks of corporate America balanced the arrangement with me looking out the windows. A short 35 minutes later, the hydraulic skis gently lowered as Doug lined the Beaver up with the fifteen multicolored kiddy sleds marking the makeshift landing strip on the glacier. With a boom, jerk and the deafening roar of the engine, we came to rest in absolute silence surrounded by pure white snow under a cloudless blue sky in a place that we hoped to return after a successful summit of "The Great One".
"Grab a shovel and dig out the cache. It is probably down about four feet and be careful of the fuel down there. Also let's get the tents up." Thus the precedent was set of giving and taking orders and maintaining the decorum in camp. Andrew and I dug with the energy that comes with fresh bodies while teams that were waiting on their flight out looked at us like a father looks at his son's first attempt to explain missing curfew. Six feet later, and stripped down to our long underwear, Andrew and I glanced at the tents already rigged within the snow walls and asked Bill "Are you sure the cache is here?"
Eoin and the rest of the team soon arrived. He had lost most of his gear on his journey from Ireland. He had tried to outsmart the three airline connections by checking his bags into each stop to make sure they arrived as he did, but one of his large bags was lost between Dublin and London - the first leg! Now he had to buy, rent or borrow the most critical gear to ensure his safety and success on the mountain. With a positive attitude, he genuinely seemed to be relieved he was in base camp and could now focus on climbing.
After a short dinner we crawled into our 40 degree below zero sleeping bags full of anticipation for the 3:00 AM wakeup call. It came quickly. "Hot drinks in ten minutes", Bill called out musically. We would come to hate or appreciate this call over the next two weeks depending on how you slept, how you felt and what was up that day. Today was a "single carry" to a new camp at 7,800 feet - just over 5 miles from our present position.
RC, our six foot four inch Guide who leveraged his Souse Chef experience to our delight now as a high-altitude mountain climbing guide worked with Scott to get his sled rigged properly. "Keep the center of gravity low. Tie everything down so that when you fall into a crevasse nothing will fall out", he said gently to the sixteen year-old from upper Manhattan. It was the "when", not an "if" that caused Scott to look at RC carefully. All of us were in awe and envy of Scott's opportunity. Last year he came to Alaska and got a taste of ice climbing and snow camping and now he was back to attempt what some people only dream of.
Blue rope. Red rope. Black rope. Guide in the front, three clients attached behind. I took my position on the anchor of Bill's red rope with Andrew and Ryan complementing me on theirs. Ryan, our resident Doctor, was in between his gauntlet of medical school training and was about to begin his residency after this climb. The Canadian had a fresh, open style that made friends easily and demonstrated his comfort on the snow. He brought his own snow shoes... and they were the best.
With 30 pound sleds attached to 50 pound packs, the twelve of us started moving like has-been dog teams on the Iditarod. Laughs, smiles and sharp wisecracks peppered our travels for the first fifteen minutes - all downhill, heartbreak hill - hmmm - where did this name come from? Once on the flat part of the Kahiltna, a steady pace emerged along with a steady pant. Just like a sled dog.
I glanced at the still-blue sky and took in the five thousand foot mountains that protected our sides. Ahead the glacier rose steadily upward toward the 10,320 foot Kahiltna pass. Behind, the glacier gently dropped lower, making a turn to the East just out of sight. Foraker stood proudly above all of this at 17,400 feet. Covered in snow, producing her own glaciers from the steep sides, she seemed to yell loudly at Denali that she was every much an equal. It felt good to be back in the mountains.
Everyone was moving easily over the snow. Each dark line in the snow brought the danger of a crevasse and we wasted no time getting past the hazard. A few lines had become clear with the absence of a snow bridge. Some only wide enough for our feet and sleds to pass. These we took care for a wrong step which would certainly bring the rope to a halt as well as ... well we moved on quickly. The funny thing was that no one seemed too concerned about the obstacles. Everyone was focused on getting to the next camp. Or maybe nothing really needed to be said.
"Here we are", announced Bill. Here? I thought glancing around at the stadium size space of flat snow. "Do NOT go outside the camp under any circumstances", he continued. There are crevasses all around here and new ones opening up all the time. "Now, let me show you how to set up a tent..." Bill wanted to make sure he was in control and also wanted to make sure he got all his charges back safely. We all listened with attention and respect.
This pattern continued the next 6 days until we reached our first major milestone: the camp at 14,200 feet or basin camp. Two thousand foot ice and snow walls to the East and a two thousand foot drop-off to the West sheltered this five-city block expanse of flat snow. However, this camp had toilets with seats! Talk in the mini-mid over dinner was full of life and strength but tempered with thoughts of what was ahead.
"Al-timeter, said Paul in proper British. "Al-tim-a-ter"", responded Ry and Scott in unison and with clear American accents. With the sides now declared in how to properly pronounce the device that measures altitude, soon everyone was drawn into the argument. I listened carefully while sitting on my pack enjoying the bright sun and rare clear view of Western Alaska. The hundreds of glaciers flowing from the Alaskan Range created four glistening rivers that meandered into the plains. "This is my country, so it is altimeter" Bill said with assumed authority. To which Andrew calmly responded, "But it is our language." Thus drawing the discussion to a close and a draw. Everyone laughed loudly and we continued the climb to windy corner at 13,300 feet. Humor is important on these trips.
When I first saw the headwall above basin camp, I paused. I had not previously seen such a large wall of snow going straight up that I needed to climb. On Ama Dablam, there were many, many stretches that required such a climb and on Cho Oyu, the slope above Camp 3 at 24,500 had a similar attitude; but this one went up for 1,200 feet and then up again for another 800 requiring fixed lines. As I pondered the wall, my confidence grew as I recalled my experiences. I thought about those on our team without this base from which to draw. Some had climbed the highest peaks in Africa and trekking peaks in Nepal, but this was the biggest test for most. Regardless, all had my respect for being here.
A cache needed to be set up just above the headwall at 16,200 so we loaded our personal gear along with food, fuel and other group gear into our packs and began the headwall climb. As usual Bill, Chris and RC lead the way with Ryan, Andrew and I bringing up the rear. The pace was slow and steady. Half way up, we paused for a water and snack break. "Wait!", I yelled to Arlen, the climbing partner of his son Ry, as he climbed past me. I quickly snapped the picture and told him that this was the image that his wife would use to stop all future climbs. Icicles had formed from his busy mustache and looked like tusks on a walrus. A strong man, Arlen was putting everything he had into this trip.
A moment of truth emerged the next day as we moved camp from 14,500 feet to the High Camp. As we paused below the bergschrund on the headwall about 15,400 feet. The first two ropes rested awaiting the last rope to arrive. When asked how we were by Bill, a disturbing quiet ran through the team. Finally someone said "Tired". The heavy loads combined with the altitude and missing a rest day had conspired against the optimistic strength the team had accrued. "How tired?" quizzed Bill while looking at Chris out of the corner of his eye. He had seen this before and was leading the team through the thought process of understanding their own bodies and what was really hurt versus what was simply normal for this part of the expedition. After a few more drinks of water and bites of Grandma's cookies, everyone rallied and smiles re-emerged.
The third rope made it up and the group grew silent once again. Two members were looking down at their feet and sat heavily on their packs. "Can we discuss options?" said one. Bill, Chris, RC listened carefully to the concerns well away from the group so as to provide privacy in this public area. Soon the verdict came back that there would be a "slow" rope that would trail the others and the group gear would be re-distributed so as to increase everyone's chances of reaching the High Camp. Teamwork at it's best. Everyone has bad days and there is no need for judgmental attitudes.
High camp brought another milestone to the team. At 17, 200, it was serious high altitude. The area looked like an abandoned Eskimo village with stark white snow blocks neatly stacked in circles to protect tents from the hurricane force winds. They had been built by the previous expeditions this season. This was one of the advantages of being the last expedition this year, we could use their work! Only one small North Face tent shared the snow field. To the East was the steep slope that held the path to the summit. Starting down, then gently rising to a crest and then jutting upwards with conviction, this path held our future hopes of summit success. The avalanche danger was real along this trail. Even a six inch snowfall could produce deadly conditions if the winds were blowing from the North.
We quickly erected the tents and RC fired up the three small stoves. Melting snow for drinking and cooking water was always the top priority. Everyone fluffed their sleeping bags that rested on top of two mats to protect the sleeper from the cold snow. Space was precious inside the tents - three people per tent plus clothes, boots, water bottles and anything else that was required to protect our fragile skin from the elements. Shoulder to shoulder, sometimes you wake up three inches away from another face breathing heavily in the thin air. Closer than a mother would sleep to her child, we all accepted this in order to test ourselves against this mountain.
"The National Park Service weather forecast is for two weeks of high winds, snow and cold temperatures", Bill led off the update he had received over his radio a few moments ago. "It is forecasted for day after tomorrow and we have tomorrow scheduled as a rest day", he continued in a serious tone. Eye contact became rare. No one sipped their hot drinks. The ramifications of the situation began to sink in. We had heard a similar forecast two days ago in the basin camp but drew comfort from the Guides advice that the NPS almost always gets the weather wrong. But now it felt more real and Bill seemed to be bothered as well. Almost as an aside, he then mentioned that the Park Service had issued a strong recommendation for everyone to clear the upper mountain - exactly where we stood now. There was not a vote, little discussion just a few questions to understand the situation and then back to our evening meal.
The sun was low in the West. Setting as much as it ever does in July in Alaska. The sky was clear, no wind. Peaceful. Restful. Comforting. Or was it the calm before the storm? Andrew was the first to walk over to the edge of the plateau that hosted High Camp. I joined him and we discussed the magic of mountains and why we do the things we do. Soon others came. After a while everyone was there drinking in the view, saying little. We knew tomorrow was the day.
With Ryan and I deep in our bags, Bill called loudly "Hot drinks in ten minutes!" We dove deeper into our private sanctuaries. Soon Laura, Paul and Andrew joined us in our three person tent with the rest next door. We quickly ate our cereal bars, granola and hot chocolate and discussed the impact of genetically engineered foods on humans.
We put on all our layers, topped off the water bottles as Chris spread out lunch out on the snow like you would feed pigeons in the park. Every morning we had been trained to visit the lunch spread and select only one item from each of six small piles. Quick, high fat or protein foods such as Mars bars, gummy bears, jerky, trail mix, Cheeze-Its provided more conversation fodder between the Brits and the Americans on why we ate what we ate. No answers emerged but the conversation helped pass the time and brought us closer together with humor as the common denominator.
Pushing off like eager sled dogs, we began the trek across the snow covered mountain side. Every fifty feet, Bill stopped to drive a two-foot aluminum angle iron into the snow and clip a carabineer to the webbing attached to the spike. One by one each climber paused at the 'biner to clip into thus providing some protection from a fall down the steep slope. Two hours later, we reached Denali Pass, 18,200 feet - 2,120 feet below the summit of Mckinley.
The clear skies had given way to dense spotty fog and the winds were gusting to the predicted 100 mph The third rope was only half way across the mountain side and seemed to be struggling. We followed the usual routine of taking off our pack, sitting on it to drink and eat. GU was my choice for the day. A high energy gelatin formula was easier to eat and digest at these altitudes. Arlen searched for his hand warmers, exposing his bare hand to the elements, I hope he found them quickly. Eoin and I looked at each other as he put his neoprene mask around his lower face. Bill stared intensely at Mt. Foraker and the summit of Denali. Looking that way, I saw the reason for his serious mood. A lenticular had formed over Foraker and high cirrus clouds had given way to dark, moisture laden ones. At this latitude, high winds bring moisture from the nearby sea and give away their intent through cloud formations. The highest mountains jut into the jet stream creating their own weather revealed by beautiful, but deadly airplane wing like cloud formations just above the summit. We now had two - another was forming directly above us on Denali.
With a quick slash of his finger across his throat, Bill announced that this was not the day to be on this mountain. Maybe the weather service was not so bad after all. We quickly gather our gear and reversed course. This was not the time to debate the risks of climbing. Bill, drawing on his previous nine climbs on Denali took the anchor of the red rope while I lead us back to High Camp. We soon caught up with the black rope and entered into camp about an hour later. The end? Another attempt? Was this it?
Six of the nine clients were suffering now. Three had been working too hard for several days now and were at the end of their motivation to climb. Three were still strong and willing to try again, but would there be a chance? Re-hydrating and relaxing in our tents, I became quiet and introspective. I really wanted this summit. I had climbed in conditions like this before and understood the risks. Also, I felt great. No headaches, No nausea, I was eating well and felt prepared to try again. I was disappointed. I began looking for something or someone to blame.
I had worked hard to get here. I had the experience. I had all the right gear. And I had to calm myself down. Doc Ryan held his head in his hands not being able to overcome the severe headache he had endured the last two days. He soon went out of the tent and Bill appeared. I looked at Bill and let the situation sink in. "Good call up there, Bill" I said quietly. He acknowledged me with his eyes and added a small smile. We both understood that climbing should never be a matter of life and death when you control the situation.
Six more in the tent for dinner. Again a world feast of conversational subjects: Canadian politics, Bill Clinton, Keats, The National Park Service, unreasonable customers, and more. Bill mentioned that we would try tomorrow if the weather held, I felt my excitement grow once again. But being careful to keep things in perspective, I told myself that there was a small chance at best. The snow fell gently throughout the night but the winds were quiet. I slept restlessly along side Ryan who struggled with the altitude. When he did sleep, his breathing was deep and labored. Chain-Stokes. Not deadly but also not pleasant.
6:00 AM came none too early for me. Bill unzipped the tent fly and looked at the ridge line for the telltale signal of high winds: plumes. The fresh snowfall was now the real problem. The standard rule is to wait twenty-four hours after a fresh snowfall in order for the new layer to bond to the older layers thus reducing the chances of avalanches. If we went today, it would break this rule. The rest of the camp was quiet. Bill and I looked at the ridge, looked at the sky and looked at each other. The answer was clear: get down so those feeling bad could feel better at a lower altitude and those who wanted to go higher could have any chance another day. With that, we crawled back into our bags for some more fitful sleep. I fell asleep instantly.
Breaking camp always involved mixed feelings. It becomes home even after one night. Maybe because of the false security of the tent or the comfort of a warm sleeping bag or perhaps the closeness of new friends in the tent. Moving on, however brings new hopes and new camps. Also a new day of climbing, the reason we are all here. We dug new caches for next year's expeditions, broke down the tents, spread the group loads, crammed all our personal gear into our packs and set off back down the ridge. By noon, the summit ridge was full of plumes and the sky was closing down fast - validation that we made the correct decision to leave the High Camp at once.
We were careful in the fresh powder; it was deep and slippery in spots. The loads were some of the heaviest of the expedition since we were without the sleds. Each step required concentration. With all our gortex, fleece and capilene on, we moved steady towards the top of the headwall. I was on the lead rope with three others ahead. I saw Eoin slip just ahead and fall ten feet down the ridge line. I reminded myself of the dangers and tugged on my straps just to make sure. Then it happened.
"Is it your bad knee?" called Bill 50 yards down the ridge. I was impressed he remembered our conversation a few days ago about knees and the story of my own. "Yes, but I think it is OK," I called back and drove my front points into the powder to stand up. Standing upright, I begin to feel the pain of a swelling joint. I continued down a few yards until another soft spot took me down. Not as bad this time but still the sharp knife point into my right knee focused my brain immediately. Each following step was carefully calculated to reduce the risk. Just beyond Washburn's Thumb, a twenty foot hunk of rock protruding skyward from the ridge, I could see the top of the headwall. 2,000 feet of steep, slippery, fresh snow. Fixed line up top and nothing down below. I continued my methodical pace.
I clipped my ascender upside down and backwards on the headwall fixed line to catch me if I fell. Now I had three collapses since the initial fall and my confidence in the joint was completely gone. Being tied into three other people removes your ability to set your own pace. I found myself being pulled forward time and again only to yell out to stop or to slow down. It was painful for all of us. The near whiteout conditions had let up a bit but even with dark glacier glasses, hooded gortex and all the best protection, the cold seemed to be seeping into my system. Each step down brought pain and fear. The jumar system was creating more trouble than it was worth. Finally, Ryan called out for me to arm wrap the line, which I did instantly. My speed picked up considerably. Another fall and another. Seeing my struggle, my teammates told me to drop my heavy pack and they would lower it down the hill. Removed of my load and arm wrapping the fixed line, I was soon at the bergschrund in one piece.
With no choice but to continue, we moved the remaining 1,200 feet to basin camp where I collapsed on my pack near our old camp site. I breathed heavily, not from the altitude but from the ordeal. Bill suggested I fly out in the park service helicopter. My first reaction was no-way! I could walk out with the team and that was that. But the more we talked, the more it became clear that this was a sensible solution and my colleagues fully supported the idea. Amazingly, Paul had twisted his left knee just below the bergschrund and was feeling the same pain. What a group! The altitude sufferers were feeling better so there was good news to build upon.
Refusing to sit there and feel sorry for myself, I helped to set up the tents since Bill had declared we would spend at least a few hours here so we might as well get comfortable. He went to speak with the rangers who staffed a Ranger camp at 14,200 and came back saying it was no problem to fly Paul and me out tomorrow. But that was soon to change.
Two Rangers came over to inspect the damaged goods and looked at me as if I had been littering their snow-white mountain with Exxon oil. They demanded that our Doc give me an exam in their presence in order to make a judgment on my disposal. Ryan put my right foot between his legs and conducted the study of my joint. He soon told the judges that if this was his knee, he would not walk on it - especially 7,000 steep feet down with a sled and a heavy pack! The Rangers, not to miss an opportunity to perform their service explained the following:
"Bill, you cannot leave Alan here by himself. That would be a violation of your contract with your client and I would have to write Mt. Trip up for abandoning a client on the mountain. If you stay with him, however, you cannot travel by yourself since the contract between the NPS and Guides prevent Guides from traveling alone. So you would have to have at least three other clients stay behind since you must have a 3:1 client guide ratio at all times. Also, I cannot guarantee you getting out by helicopter tomorrow or even a week from today since the weather is so bad and even when you do fly out, your gear will probably not go with you since we have to get our stuff out first." Proud of himself, Gordy paused for reactions.
I sat stunned. It might have helped if I had vomited, bled on his boots or had a bone sticking out of my leg. Doc Ryan, incensed at this demonstration, asked, "So what is our $150 per person 'rescue fee' for?" "This education I am giving you right now." Gordy wryly answered. And with that, I looked at Bill and quietly said I would walk out.
The phone call to Cathy was difficult. She knew of the bad weather since she had been monitoring the NPS Denali web site. In fact she told me a week ago that they were predicting the event. Amazed that I can get cell phone service up here at all, I placed the call and was relieved to hear her voice. I told her of the weather and our summit bid and then I mentioned that I had a small problem coming down. Surprising myself, I could feel all the emotions swelling in my throat. We have shared tough times before while I was climbing such as when Alex died on Cho Oyu and she waited days to hear from me. So after I calmed down, I told her of the day's events and assured her I could get down safely tomorrowThe guides overslept and we arose at 3:30 instead of 2:00 but no one was complaining. We once again broke down camp, stuffed our packs and started down. The clouds were thick, it was fifteen degrees below zero and the wind was blowing at least thirty miles an hour. I lead my rope once again, but this time it was the slow rope - or the 'gimp' rope as my sensitive team mate called Paul and I with our wounded knees. I felt fine controlling the pace but took it slow and narrow to prevent any extra tension on our knees. Soon we were at the 11,100 camp to retrieve that cache.
With each step, however, the swelling increased and the joint tightened. We made it down motorcycle hill, past Kahiltna pass and began skill hill. Soon the white clouds began to clear the way a windshield does after a heavy downpour lets up. The glacier began to expose itself with fresh snow lining the side mountains and the blue sky painting an amazing contrast before our eyes. The wind had blown all the fresh powder away and the earth was hard packed with a deep layer of crusty snow. It felt good under my boots to have the security of solid footing. We neared the end of the glacier and could see the sleds marking the runway. It was almost noon. We had been traveling for over eight hours and were dead tired.
Soon we started the final climb up heartbreak hill, now the name made perfect sense to everyone. An hour later, we once again sat on our packs, drank ice cold Pepsi from the cache and awaited the bush plane from Talkkeetna. We drew cards to see who would leave on the first plane. I drew sixth, but everyone insisted I leave on the first flight to take care of my knee. Four hours later, the first plane arrived and I said good-bye to the Kahiltna glacier and see you soon to my fellow climbers.
No summit. But 12 climbers. All our fingers. And all our toes.