We wake to bitter cold. Frost showers inside the tent with every gust. Fire-hose winds scour Denali Pass. The weather seems hopeless, but we organize our summit loads and set out anyway–just in case.
As always at altitude, the first minutes of climbing are cell-level torture, every muscle and neuron screaming for O’s, heart pounding out mule-kick beats. Then we warm up and start covering ground. The ascent to Denali Pass is deceptive, with slopes just gentle enough to let you get comfortable, but too steep for a sure self-arrest. Crosswinds create slabs of wind-crusted snow that can break off suddenly, shooting from underneath you like a runaway skateboard. This is where fatalities happen most often on Denali, usually on the descent, in a brief moment of exhausted carelessness.
As we climb, the cloud cover vanishes and winds shift to the east. By the time we take a breather just beneath the pass, the sky is crystal clear but bitter and blustery, maybe–just barely–good enough for a summit try. We huddle in the lee of a boulder weighing options–and decide to go for it.
No room for doubts now–only haste and wariness. We plow through the headwinds of the pass, then turn sharply right toward the black and gray outcrops of Zebra Rocks. Goggled and hooded and face-masked, we struggle in isolation, listening to the roar of the wind and the bellows suck of our lungs. We adhere to a summit-day mantra: Don’t talk. Don’t daydream. Don’t stop because you’ll freeze. Just keep climbing.
After an eternity, the route levels off and rounds the tilted cone of Archdeacon’s Tower, rolling up icy slopes to the Football Field, a broad flat at 19,500 feet. Ahead, Denali’s summit rears as a massive fin-shaped ridge. The sight of our goal draws us up steep, dispiriting Pig Hill. Sheltered from the jet stream and tilted into the sun like a solar oven, the 500-foot grind is so hot I’m instantly sweating. Wet snow balls up on my crampons. After 30 minutes, we pop out atop the South Face into flash-freeze headwinds. In the seconds it takes to reposition my face mask, I frostnip the inside of my nostrils.
From the summit ridge, gullies plunge down into swirling clouds, offering glimpses of crevasse fields 12,000 feet below our boots. We studiously ignore the yawning gulf and tiptoe upward, straddling the airy, roof-gable crest. And suddenly we’re on the summit, the icy Alaska Range floating far below like a separate world, a view from orbit.
Sibu and I pound each other’s backs and do some short-breathed whooping. Then he grows quiet and misty-eyed, so I step aside to let my new friend reflect on his improbable journey. He deserves to savor the moment: He’s stood atop every continent in the search for his own potential, to provide a tenuous living for his family, and to give hope to his downtrodden countrymen.
My eyes get a little wet, too. I’d like to blame the cold wind sneaking under my goggles, but the moment hits me powerfully. Sharing Sibu’s victory is a rare brush with history. I know it’s just a summit, a symbolic adventure at best. But symbolism matters. You could say that Joe Louis and Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were merely athletes whose exploits made no real difference to the world. Except they did. Back home, Obama is poised to take the Democratic nomination.
“Sibusiso walks between two worlds really, and it’s not just race,” Harris tells me later. “He comes from an impoverished area where adventure is simply not done. So he’s using his experiences to make young people aware of different worlds, different possibilities.” In other words, Sibu is half-right: Mountains are transformational–but so are the people who climb them.
I wander back over to my jubilant friend, and we snap summit photos. Our short stay on the peak is almost over, and already I’m thinking of Sibu’s return to an uncertain future. Zimbabwe is collapsing. A million refugees pour south through Botswana and into South Africa, adding to the flow from Mozambique. Global economic woes will make fundraising harder than ever. What will come of Sibu’s hopes and plans? I can’t even imagine the discouragement I’d feel in such circumstances, but Sibu remains focused on possibilities.
“One legacy of apartheid and colonialism,” he’d told me the night before at High Camp, “is that black Africans don’t think they can do anything themselves, that they need a white man to tell them how. But we can solve our problems. Any African, given an opportunity, can rise to great heights.” Ever modest, he’d neglected to mention one important fact: that one African, a goat herder from Swaziland, already had.
Rocky Mountain editor Steve Howe started swearing again shortly after returning from Denali.