Biting down on a real 'Big Mac'

The absurdities of Denali climbing, a bit about my partner, and links so you can follow our progress

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Well, I’m off to climb 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley again with a most unique friend I met last season while filming on the mountain. You don’t see many black climbers from Swaziland among the world’s high peaks, but Sibusiso Vilane and I hit it off. Since we both got skunked by storms in 2007, we’re hooking up for a rematch with The Great One.

Sibu’s a great guy and a strong climber (he’s dragged a sled to the South Pole and climbed Everest twice) so it’ll be a hoot…Or something anyway. I’m not sure I’d call climbing the world’s coldest high altitude mountain enjoyment, at least not in the classic sense. When I climbed the peak in 2003, I spent several nights in a snowcave at 17,200 feet while temperatures dropped to -30F and winds thundered at a steady 50mph. That’s considered moderate weather at high camp. As another climber deadpanned, ‘It’s kinda like fun only different.”

Still, most of my photos from that climb, even of struggling, heavily-laden mountaineers like the one above, show smiling faces. “Huff, puff, cough, gag, ouch, brrrrrr. Dude this is so cool!” Go figure. It’d be a lot cheaper to just chug a bottle of cough syrup and run stairmasters in a meat freezer, but the scenery and company wouldn’t be as good. Whenever I’m gasping and grinding my way up steep slopes like that, I just keep telling myself how good my ass is gonna look. It helps.

We’ll be taking along a SPOT beacon for tracking. You can follow our progress right here. Denali is near the edge of SPOT’s coverage maps, so this will also be a test of the system for central Alaska, but I suspect Denali’s open terrain will work out just fine. Here’s also a link to current Mt. McKinley weather, so you can suffer along with us from the comfort of your desk. So far this spring, the weather’s been atrocious. Two Japanese climbers are missing on the Cassin Ridge, and a Czech dude frostbit both hands summiting the West Buttress. Climber success percentages are hovering around 32%, well below normal. But that could all change overnight, so I’m not angsting about it.

I’ve been packed for days. Our food and group gear is already in Talkeetna. Now I’ve just got to hand in some homework, shake a few tenacious editors off my ankle, and keep up with the formidable Mr. Vilane. Ooof dah! See ya in July.–Steve Howe