A big thanks to Arc’teryx, Onsight Equipment, and the Neil Mackenzie Trust for supporting this adventure.
One after another, my crampons bite into the brittle ice of the broken, glaciated Seattle Ramp. And just like that, my right foot skitters, and I am falling. My feet go out from underneath me, and my hip slams the ice as I begin sliding down the 45-degree glacier ice as if being reeled in by the giant crevasses below, fishing for their next victim. I scream, alerting the three companions I am roped to, my climbing partner, Antony, and our two Catalan friends who are sharing the convoluted approach march to the South Face of Denali before questing off toward a different route. Instinctively, I slam my ice tool down and the tip of the blade sheers through the dense ice as I try to muster enough power to stop my fall. It all happens so fast, but not fast enough to prevent my thoughts from exploring the dark possibilities: Will I be able to stop myself? Will I fall into one of the gaping holes in the glacier below? Will my friends be able to stop me or will I be the one to drag them all down, slowing popping one by one off their precarious stances?
And just as fast, I am still. My ice tool buried and my crampons secure. I don’t relish in my skill, or luck, at being able to self-arrest. I scold my stupidity at falling in the first place. Complacency kills. No more mistakes. I stand, brush off the snow, and rush to catch up with my rope team. No one says a word. Maybe they didn’t see what happened. Maybe they are too shocked to speak. Maybe they are so absorbed with the intensity of our descent down the treacherous Seattle Ramp to be shaken by a silly slip. Either way, my left ankle begins throbbing, and the outer layer of my mental armor shears away as I consider the implications of trying to climb the 9,000 foot Cassin Ridge with only one good foot.
Two weeks prior, Antony and I flew from Talkeetna to the base of Denali, intent on climbing the jewel of North American mountains via the classic Cassin Ridge, which strikes a line down the middle of the steep and foreboding South Face. But not so fast – just like all the other climbers on the mountain, almost all of whom have plans to ascend the West Buttress, we spend several days moving hundreds of pounds of equipment from 7,000 to 14,000 feet, steadily skiing up big glacial valleys, ascending foot after foot up steep snow slopes, and navigating around and over crevasses. Distances are vast and the landscape harsh. It is hard to catch a break between the duality of the scorching summer sun and frigid sub-arctic nights.
Our fitness overpowers our lack of acclimatization and we suffer. Arriving on the mountain from sea level, we climb from 7,000 feet to advanced base camp at 14,000 feet (14 camp) within 48 hours. We set up our tents, one for sleeping, one for melting water and cooking, and crash into four days of high altitude induced headaches and nausea. The days come and pass without much reference or activity, and we then emerge into the world of the upper mountain. No amount of training, preparation, or technology could have offset the negative consequences of our quick ascent. The most basic adaptations of the body simply require time.
We regain our strength quickly, pick up our food cache lower on the mountain, and begin skiing and climbing higher and higher above 14 camp. We make one trip up to 17,000 on the West Rib, and another up to 19,000 on the West Buttress. We feel good and deem ourselves ready. Two days of rest and the weather clears brilliantly – a solid three-day window, steadily clearing as the week progresses. We slam three days and two nights worth of sustenance into our small backpacks and the next morning set off towards the South Face at 5 AM.
The most hazardous part of our journey greets us at the bottom of the Seattle Ramp, when we must cross beneath overhanging ice blocks towering like skyscrapers above the overhead rock buttress. Just like crossing the highway blindfolded in the middle of the night, I think. We numb our minds in the rhythm of our steady trot across the snow slope. I limp. Salvation lies 5 minutes ahead at the bottom of the Japanese Couloir, a 1,000-foot ice runnel that marks the beginning of the Cassin. We breathe a heavy sigh of relief, unshoulder our packs, and relish a slight reprise from the intensity of the approach. We now feel a bit more in control, as the overhead hazard decreases, and we prepare ourselves to start moving up into the realm of steep ice and rock, where we feel most comfortable with ourselves, and each other. Our Catalan friends choose to stop and rest directly underneath the treacherous seracs. I call out to them in Spanish, “Hey! Don’t you think you can find a better place to take a break?” They laugh and stay put. I’d like to think that Antony and I are in it for the long run.
I violently stuff the thought of my sprained ankle into the back corner of my brain and start up the low-angle ice couloir. Each step is laborious, as a previous storm has left a foot and a half of fresh, sticky snow on the route. We weave from side to side of the couloir, dodging the fluffy white flow of spindrift avalanches that pour out of the steep spout marking the crux of the couloir. We forego the crux pitch of steep ice, opting for mixed terrain on the left that steers us away from the firing runnel. Having spent several winters trying to go alpine climbing in coastal British Columbia, the snowy conditions feel familiar. But I also understand their implications. The climbing will be slow and intensive. Steady progress is the key to this puzzle. No rush. No hurry. Hours later we top out the couloir at Cassin Ledge, a small horizontal outcrop that provides the first good bivy of the route. Our legs, as with our minds, begin to comprehend the sheer scale of Alaskan mountains. Although the ledge looks inviting, we are keen to press on.
Two hours later, and only three pitches higher, I am cold, wet, and swimming up a pyramidal face of powder snow atop snotty ice. I am unsure of which way to go. Left, right, they all supposedly lead up to a knife-edged arete which gives passage to the heart of the face. “Hey man, not sure you’re going to like this,” Antony calls up. “But maybe we should rap down to Cassin Ledge and start back up this when we’re fresh in the morning”.
I’m stubborn, but I know he’s right. “This route is kind of kicking our ass,” I reply, and downclimb back to the belay. My ego takes a blow as I remember our casual demeanor days ago, thinking we would cruise to a bivy at 17,000 our first night and finish things up the next day. It is one of the most beautiful elements of climbing mountains – the moment when all of your pre-conceptions of the experience dissipate, and you finally understand what your path entails. Whether the experience is lighter or heavier than what you previously envisioned, you are finally able to fully open yourself to the moment and embrace reality. Back on Cassin Ledge, we unpack our simple necessities, brew water, nourish our bodies, and drift off while perched on our precarious ledge floating on a sea of majestic peaks.
We rise early and reach our previous high point just as the clouds roll in and the snow begins. We’d heard enough about Alaskan weather to not be surprised and are grateful for the lack of wind. My ankle still bears weight and therefore we will continue up. With that decision behind me, I don’t think about it again. I start in the lead, this time finding my rhythm as I steadily clear snow and move up towards the arête. The higher I get, the more inconsistent the ice, and as I pull over onto the ridge I yell to Antony to climb with me. We dispense the infamous Cowboy Arête in a single block. The snow is bad yet holds my weight as I kick steps. I plunge my tools deep into the crest, more for balance then for protection. We find none of the latter, and the rope drifts softly between the two of us, the ultimate symbol of trust and companionship, as a single fall would most certainly result in a twin demise.
Relieved to relinquish the lead to Antony, I follow him up the hanging glacier to the rock bands above. The clouds swirl around us and the mountain fades in and out of the blank canvas. We fork left through a serac band, and angle right to find the correct passage leading up. Plumes of spindrift thunder down, and we wonder about the conditions of the upper snowfields, known for holding deep snow and being avalanche prone. One step at a time.
I take over again, leaving the glacier and traversing right to navigate the first rock band. I build a strange momentum as the fatigue sets in, and flow through several mixed pitches sporting pristine granite cracks and solid ice. Maybe it is the excitement of the small mystery contained in each movement upward, as the fresh snow cover masks the terrain underneath. Each time I find good ice hidden below it is a small victory. Adding them all up, we find ourselves basking in the evening sun at a bivy spot between the two rock bands. We deliberate, weighing the options of climbing higher against rest and rehydration. The latter wins, and we tuck in on a ledge half as good as the previous, but at least we are twice as tired.
Our third day on the route dawns clear. Calm and clear. The most beautiful day of our trip. The cold morning air bites at our fingers and toes as we melt water for breakfast and pack up our damp sleeping bags and frost-encrusted tent. We’ll be happy if we don’t have to curl back up inside them again. Antony leads the second rock band, the last bundle of technical pitches before the long haul up to Kahiltna Horn and the summit. The sun finds us as we reach the steepest sections, pulling, pushing, and stemming through a maze of rock fins seemingly frozen into place. As with the days before, the climbing is slow and tedious. We push upwards, 50 meters at a time, and finally reach the long series of snow slopes that connect to the summit plateau.
I start breaking trail. The snow is shallower here than lower on the mountain. Perhaps it is still too cold up high for heavy snowfalls. Regardless, the going is tough. I count my steps by the hundred, seeing how high I can reach before stopping for a break. The numbers decrease exponentially, until I pause for a breath every 10th step, then every 6th, every 4th. Clouds build beneath us in all directions, as if we have ascended into another room, our staircase slowly winding towards the upper sanctum. As we gain elevation, the day grows late. The mountain is calm and we commit to it. One foot in front of the other, allured by the serenity of our position and the promise of a comfortable camp 6,000 feet down the other side. The immense effort required for each step upward is balanced by an inner weightlessness. My mind drifts into a vivid clarity, a notion of place and understanding in this surreal environment. I reflect on my thoughts from the previous days…
For we don’t need much, one, two, three days of pure focus and movement to satisfy our souls desire, to fill ourselves with a bounty of blissful struggle and singular existence, to convince ourselves of the beauty of human life and our place within the magnificent confines of an endless universe. And when we return to the valley below, full of a multitude of emotions, we will not celebrate our success with hubris, or our defeat with gloom, but will rather relish the act of strapping crampons onto cold boots in the bright dawn of Alaskan summer, and searching for meaning somewhere up there, together, yet very alone, immersed in a beautiful world of indifference.
We crest the south face and make the short traverse to the true summit. We embrace, take a few celebratory photos, and begin a long descent back to camp. After 24 hours on the go, 16 days on the mountain, and several years of friendship, nothing further need be said between us. We sit quietly, listening to the roar of the stove in the early morning hours before anyone else at camp is awake. Returning from this three day dream, we drink water, look each other in the eye, and give in to the reality of sleep. Not 36 hours later, we board a plane, and inhale the sweet smells of summer in the world below.