Nothing I have ever encountered in the mountains
is quite so unsettling as climbing upward into a storm on Mt. McKinley. I squint into the blizzard and pull hard against my harness as the deepening snow drags on my sled, but the weather finally pins my partner and me down at 10,000 feet, where the Kahiltna Glacier turns right and climbs steeply onto Denali’s West Buttress. This frozen, wind-raked saddle is not a hospitable place, but we’re too exhausted to break trail anymore, so we wrestle the kitelike tent into submission, dive into our overstuffed mummies, and begin melting snow.
Some climbing snobs pooh-pooh the “West Butt” as a walkup route. I’m not one of them. There are no gimmes on the world’s coldest high-altitude peak. I’ve humped loads to 22,200 feet in South America and skied first tele descents from 21,900, but I’ve never worked so hard, nor been so exhausted, as the day I carried camp up to 14,000 feet on a 2003 Denali solo. And that was before I spent four nights blizzard-bound in a snow cave at the 17,000-foot High Camp. I made the summit, eventually, after watching a series of climbers get helicoptered off the upper slopes.
In 2007, I returned to find the lower glacier in dangerous condition. By mid-May, there had already been several crevasse falls, a pulmonary edema evacuation, and two climbers dead after a 2,000-foot tumble. Ferocious, unrelenting storms up high forced me and others to retreat. This year, only a week before our June 1, 2008, arrival, two extremely skilled Japanese alpinists had disappeared in a whiteout near the summit. Their remains still haven’t been found.
All of which is to say that I take Denali very, very seriously. In fact, there’s only one thing I regard with more caution, and that’s my new climbing partner. Mountaineering companions can make or break an expedition, and this nasty little storm presents the first opportunity to see how we’ll perform together when things get ugly.
I have reason to be a little apprehensive: My ropemate has a particularly unusual climbing history. Yes, he’s stood atop six of the Seven Summits, but those are the only big mountains on his resume, and until now he’s climbed almost exclusively as a guided client. If not for one chance meeting, he tells me as we hunker down beneath McKinley’s icy bulk, he would still be handholding tourists and stepping in leopard dung as a ranger in a hot, dry, decidedly low-altitude African game park. The truth is, he has more experience dodging elephants than avalanches.