I could have been on a beach like most of my friends. Instead, I was enduring July 4 at the stormy 17,300-feet high camp on Alaska’s Mount McKinley - cold, hungry and crammed in a tent with three climbers I had met two weeks prior in the Anchorage airport.
Growing up in an outdoor family with an uncle who has led 23 McKinley expeditions, a cousin who worked as a professional guide and a father who summited Mount Rainier and other peaks, the family adventure bar was set pretty high.
But with their help, and after landing a job at The North Face, I was able to gear up and turn my envy into determination.
I didn’t truly understand the size of the the highest peak in the United States until I boarded the ski plane from Talkeetna into Denali National Park and approached the climbers’ base camp, 7,200 feet, on the Kahiltna Glacier.
As my aunt Marjorie would say, “It is the true meaning of mass.”
The climb started on snowshoes, heading up the glacier under a 70-pound pack and pulling a 45-pound sled.
Three long days of grunt work got us to a camp at 11,000 feet - still far, far short of the 20,320-foot summit.
By Day 6, we’re at 14,000 feet, another staging area where climbers from all over the world acclimate, wait for the right weather to make the last one- or two-day surge to the summit. Famous climbers, guides and clients, independents and even wide-eyed 23-year-old Spokane retailers are your neighbors here.
The 8 p.m. weather briefing took full control of our mood and optimism, dashing our hopes daily for a week.
We made one cache carry to 16,200 feet and finally moved camp to 17,300 even though the weather was not looking good for going higher.
When told by Rainier Mountaineers lead guide Pete Van Deventer that our summit chance had dropped to an extremely low percentage, so did my pride and enthusiasm. The walk back to the tent felt longer than three days of sled dragging.
But our patience paid off and we responded quickly to a sudden weather window.
Handshakes, hugs, and good-luck pats were shared among our group of 10.
Soon I was the coldest I’ve ever been as we crossed the Audubon. Climbing above Denali Pass and around Zebra Rocks I began feeling the altitude.
We slogged. False summits came and went. After the infamous Pig Hill, I looked up the Summit Ridge and felt my faith and courage sink.
But I realized most of the people we’d encountered on the mountain were nowhere to be seen. I found strength in having made it this far, and pressed myself on to stay with the guides up the ridge to the summit.
My moment on the top was exhilarating, but too soon to celebrate.
Weather pounded us duringthe two-day descent from 17,000 feet. We had a few heart-racing crevasse drop-ins as snow warmed on Kahiltna Glacier. We hit a narrow window of weather that allowed our flight off the mountain.
My three weeks on McKinley doesn’t make me a badass like the skillful guides that led the trip.
But I learned again that even average guys should never let people define what we can and cannot do.
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