After setting out June 21st, full of excitement, prepared and ready to set foot on McKinley’s Pioneer Ridge from the North Side, we come back July 6th, quite worked, humbled and reminded of the mountaineering basics.
This was to be our first serious training session towards our winter attempt to climb McKinley in the winter. Even though we will climb the classic West Buttress route next February, we decided that the best training for us would be a go in what I like to call “Free Mountaineering”: no communications, no rescue, no other teams to rely on and a challenge that can only be fully fathomed once there.
Both Artur and I are in love with Alaska’s McKinley. It is wild, capricious, and a true test of a mountaineer’s fortitude and endurance.
This route was to give us a mental taste of what winter is like on our “Great One” - long, painful at times, heavy, very heavy... Still before leaving home, we could clearly see ourselves on the Pioneer Ridge working our way slowly towards the North Summit.
We first had to cross 40 some miles of wild tundra with over 100 pound backpacks. It was to be a testing approach. Starting from Wonder Lake inside the Denali Park at about 1,900 feet, we would reach the Muldrow Glacier from McGonagal Pass at 6,000 feet. We would have to cross the raging McKinley River, Cache Creek and Clearwater Creek, the mosquito infested tundra hills that roll up and down without seeming end.
The McKinley River is a couple of hours into the approach. Starting later in the afternoon, it was unusually swollen from a day of glacier melting. Artur first with ski poles, me behind holding his backback, we crossed 2/3 of it like a small train until we got stuck on a rock bar. We set camp there and decided to wait until 3 in the morning when the water might be a little less powerful. There I lost our 5 pounds of smoked sausage... we would get hungry sooner than planned!
We reached McGonagal Pass 4 days later, soaked from daily rain and hail storms and decided to take a day off at the Pass. What a beautiful sight we had there - McKinley’s impressive North Side and Wickersham Wall, the Muldrow moraine under us, the Muldrow Glacier Icefalls we would have to cross in the distance. Having been on this pass several times before, Artur was horrified at how much the Glacier has receded and how much more broken the icefalls appeared to be. The Muldrow always was a challenging glacier but the changes in weather are quite obvious there.
We crossed the moraine in the rain, and were starting to worry about the snow conditions we would encounter on the glacier. We were at around 6,500 feet and far from freezing temperatures. The North Side has almost constant direct sunlight in the summer and colder temperatures are a key to manageable snow conditions. Having made camp at the end of the moraine, we woke up at 2 am, the outside of our tent was wet... woke up again at 4, it was frozen. We would take a first look at the Lower Icefall and hopefully bring cache at the top. We slowly navigated through the riddles of crevasses as the bridges looked soft and questionable and we were punching through. We made it out the Lower Icefall in almost 4 hours, the sun was up and dangerously warming up the already slushy snow. However, we wanted to bring our cache higher to a more stable camp area and decided to push on. Within half hour, we were in soupy snow, falling in all over the place, in both snow holes and crevasses. We quickly left our cache on the beginning slope of the 2nd Icefall and headed down towards our camp. We were late, the bridges that had held us on the way up were crumbling underneath us. Working in total symbiosis as a team and walking like ballerinas, we made it back down, not so proud of ourselves anymore.
We spent the next days waiting for a good frost again that never came... We would unsuccessfully try our way up to our cache and food every night. Totally running out of food, we decided to make it back up anyway. We set out at 3 am, fell in more times than I wish to remember, made it to our food at 9 am at 8.600 feet.
We went down to 8,000 where Artur had seen a safer camp place, and waited there for a little bit of colder weather. We were being rained on at 8,000 on the North Side. We carefully stayed within a couple of feet of our tent, as we would sink chest deep in the snow. The following night, we gave it one more try up. The trail we had made up the days before seemed somewhat frozen and was mostly holding us up. We reached our previous turning point, a network of wider crevasses with collapsing bridges we had punched trough few days before. Artur in front fell in once, 3 steps later it was my turn then 30 feet farther, Artut fell in again. I was now spotting him on top of a very questionable 2X3 ice platform, the next crevasse at his feet was wide, it was obvious to us it would not hold him. We could rappel down it, climb up the other side, set up ropes, spend 3 hours crossing it, then what??? the next crevasse was 30 feet away... we looked at each other, that was it, no Pioneer Ridge, no Denali traverse, we were turning around, turning around with our frustration and a weakening feeling in the knees at the prospect of re-crossing the Lower Icefall, then the grueling miles of moraine, the 40 miles of tundra and the McKinley River again.
We set out at 4 am the next night, in a rain drizzle and fog. The snow had yet again deteriorated through the day, more crevasses were opening around us and even though the conditions were all wrong according to glacier crossing 101, we knew this might be one of our last chances to make it down.
I will never forget this trip down the Lower Muldrow, the utter concentration of both of us, carefully controlling each of our step placements, relying equally on our personal and combined skills. We fell in, we got out, we cursed, we laughed, we made it down. 2 days later, we were back in Wonder Lake waiting for the bus out.
I stayed for 2 days with my personal frustration, the frustration of turning around before it really started, the frustration of having already worked so hard for seemingly nothing, the frustration of knowing we were going back to people in failure. And then, as I was watching a grizzly cub nurse happily in the tundra from the bus window, it all came back to me.
I wrote once why we climb : We climb for love of it, for the humbling experience of feeling so small in this immense and overwhelmingly extreme environment, for the many rewards that come from overcoming one's fears and from realizing the power of the human spirit. Besides being partners in life, this is why we climb together. We love every moment of being out there, the breathtaking beauty of the harshest environments, seemingly unsuited for human life but so possibly pleasurable.
Each step forward in mountaineering is a personal victory. Each safe return is the true accomplishment. Goals are set to be tried, and regardless of the outcome, each moment on the way is a gem to enjoy. So until our next big session, I will remember with a smile on my face this fantastic trying expedition that reminded me of what true mountaineering is about.