I left Colorado at 7:00 last night where the sun would set in a couple of hours. Landing in Anchorage five hours later, store the sun was still shining and continued that way into the early hours of the morning. This is to be the pattern for my next 20 days as I climb Mt. McKinley aka Denali.
I arrived at the Earth Bed & Breakfast and immediately went to bed only to wake up a few hours later to start the process of meeting the team. We are a diverse group: several Americans, climbers from South Africa, Netherlands, Ireland and Japan; nine in total plus four guides from Mountain Trip. I was very pleased to see my Everest teammate Jay this morning. A bit of a surprise that he was able to join us at the last minute.
We started the day with a gear check where each of us laid our gear out on the green grassy front yard – the last time we will see grass for a while. Using a checklist, together with a guide we went through our pile thinking about coverage for our lower body, upper body, feet, hands, head; our technical equipment and sleeping gear. We loaded up on snacks for lunch each day and reviewed some of the itinerary.
This is an important time not only to make sure we have everything we need to climb safely on America’s highest peak but also the beginning of building relationships on the mountain. You see, a Denali climb is about as close as you get to your teammates in the world of expedition climbing. There are no personal tents; you sleep three to a tent. There is no alone time; you climb roped into groups of four. Private time is when you close your eyes to sleep each night.
This first day is about seeing who you think you can get along with, who makes you laugh, who makes you think; who you want to trust your life to in case of an emergency. It more than about gear.
We went to lunch at the Bear Tooth, a combination restaurant and movie theater; no time for a movie however. Then some last minute gear shopping at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) or the local REI. Those from outside the US took advantage of good exchange rates to load up.
Now we are unpacking, repacking and generally staring at our gear wondering what we have missed. But also starting to think about the climb ahead.
Denali is a difficult climb. This year there have been 7 deaths caused from heart attacks to hypothermia to falls. It has been a low snow year making the route icy, slippery and dangerous. Reports from recent teams note the lower glacier is slushy with many open crevasses. It has been warm on the lower sections; a team reported a drenching rain at the lowest camp this week.
For me, I am thinking about all of this and my previous climbs. Once again, memories flood my thoughts. As I looked at my gear and a smile comes to my face thinking about where I used that piece on my last Denali climb, or last month on Everest or in December in Antarctica. This time is different on McKinley. This time has a unique purpose.
We leave early tomorrow morning, passing through Wassila on our way to Talkeetna. We have a briefing at the National Park Service ranger station at 11:00. We will hear about the dangers of Denali; history, our responsibilities. Our bush plane is schedule to leave at 1:00 taking us to the Kahiltna Glacier and the start of the climb. I doubt it will be on time – this is Alaska. The weather can changes, the plane can have issues and a thousand more reasons. Patience.
So we are ready. Everyone has a focused look on their face. The last night in a bed, a pillow, a real toilet.
I will keep looking for that sunset. Seeing the glow at 3:00 AM against the Alaskan mountains as the sun touches the horizon. Only I will not know if it is the sun setting or the sun rising. Kind of like life. Sunrise brings anticipation of what the day will bring and sunset allows time for reflection on what the day brought. Time for the memories to settle in.
I am ready for both.
Memories are Everything