Jaywalker Alumnus: Climbing Denali

Climbing Denali has been in the works for almost two years, starting with having the first inklings of it being a possibility while on another trip in Chamonix. Since that time, as our skill sets grew, achieving that goal became more and more realistic, and how we were going to do that became more apparent. Once we finished planning the trip and booking the flights, all that was left was getting physically ready. But throughout this whole process, one question kept coming back to me. Why do I climb and ski these mountains, and more specifically why do I want to climb this particular mountain?

The easy answer is that it validates me as a ski mountaineer. It validates me using a college degree to work as a valet so I can ski, climb, tour, etc to my heart’s content. It even validates me going through Jaywalker and “turning my life around”. It is a big, recognizable mountain that I can tell people that I skied so that they can congratulate me on the accomplishment. The real answer is much more complex and difficult for me to put into words. There are obviously many moments of pure joy while skiing and climbing big mountains, but there are also moments of pain, fear, anger, etc. It can be a rollercoaster of emotions, in both the short term and the long term. People see pictures of highlights of the ski. Tiny, sometimes framed snapshots of long days in the mountains with a caption attached to it saying something to the tune of it being another great day in the mountains. The real story is much different. To put it simply, I climb and ski these mountains because over the course of an expedition, ski season, or lifetime in the mountains, it fundamentally changes me as a person.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll break the expedition into 3 parts. The first part was the physically hard part, the next part, I’ll call mentally and emotionally draining, and the last part, pure ecstasy. We flew onto the glacier May 20th, and the plan was to make a hard 4 day push to get to 14k camp with all of our gear. Hauling about 110 lbs of gear up a mountain cannot be described as anything other than a sufferfest, no matter how beautiful of a place you are in. Of course there were some periods of enjoyment, but a majority of these 96 hours were not fun by any metric. However it was a huge relief to get to 14 camp in 4 days because we beat an oncoming storm that would hit on the fifth day that would have kept us stuck at a lower elevation for a few days and further delayed our summit bid. These 4 days were largely unremarkable, simply filled with back breaking work.

The night we got to 14 camp, it was beautiful weather, the clouds had broken just as we came around windy corner approaching 14 camp to reveal an amazing view with a cloud inversion and a gorgeous view of Mt. Foraker. But this was just the calm before the storm. Sadly, the 4 days of slogging up the mountain were not the low point of the trip for me. The next 4ish days made me really question why I chose to do these sort of things, more than I ever have in the mountains. It was brutally cold, highs around -15, lows around -35. High winds and snow meant we had to shovel out our tent every couple of hours. We were having to spend pretty much all 24 hours of the day in the tent. I felt broken, mentally and emotionally. 4 more days of really no enjoyment. It honestly reminded me of how I felt being in primary treatment. Constantly second guessing how I ended up here, with what seemed like no end in sight. I would try to tell myself that it will get better, it had to get better, the weather will let up. But it felt more like wishful thinking than a reality. These couple of days really are just a blur to me now. The days blended together, I have some memories of the time in the tent, but really have no frame of reference on when they happened or in what order. Time almost stood still. The light was the same if it was 5 in the morning or afternoon, and time was more or less irrelevant. Oh and it was the coldest I had ever been in my life.

Summiting seemed impossible with the cold temps. It was beyond our level of acceptable risk. There is always an inherent risk in climbing mountains and we all knew that. There are ways to mitigate that risk, but not eliminate. Losing our extremities, which seemed like a certainty if we tried to go up in those temps, was a very high probability, and we were not willing to do that.  We heard about a few people that had tried to go up in the storm. All of them got frostbite. One Finnish climber was pulled off the mountain after spending the night around 17k in an open bivy (no sleeping bag, no tent) and was going to lose all his fingers and toes. We saw him being walked down the mountain as we were trying to go up to acclimate. He looked like a zombie. He was moving on his own power, but he looked broken. It was weird to see somebody in such a dazed state, and it definitely shook us up seeing him like that. We were hesitant to go up, but we knew we had to start climbing up high to acclimate, and it looked like we might have a decent, relatively speaking, weather window for the afternoon. We brought all our warm clothing, massive down jackets and pants, in the hopes that we could get up to 17k feet in spite of the cold temps. We knew we had to give it a shot, telling ourselves that the second we felt too cold we would turn around. Then, something amazing happened. Right as we got above the fixed lines to the ridge (around 16k feet), the wind stopped. People that had passed us going down were telling us how cold it was and they had bailed, but we had to see for ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and that afternoon we got lucky. We had a beautiful ridge climb up to around 17k feet with almost no wind, but still cold. It reminded me why I love spending time in the mountains, and was the first time I had felt that pretty much all trip. It was a glimmer of hope in what seemed like trip destined for failure. Now we were acclimated and all we had to do was wait for the weather gods to cooperate. That night we got word that a ridge of high pressure was supposed to come set up in two days. Summiting, which seemed improbable if not impossible just 6 hours before, was now a reality. Hope was finally restored.

The night before what would be summit day was a mix of emotions. On one hand, a dream was about to come to fruition. Years of work was about to pay off. 6 months of the hardest training I’ve ever done, the most effort I have put into anything in my life. On the other hand, was guilt. Climbing mountains is an inherently selfish endeavour, probably the most selfish “hobby” there is. I risk my life for something that I love with no benefit to anyone other than myself. I debated whether or not to send a message to my parents telling them that tomorrow was going to be the day we made the push. I had typed out a message and was staring at my phone. Tears started to roll down my face as the guilt poured over me. I didn’t want to burden them with the fear of not knowing what was happening to me. It would be potentially 24 more hours before they heard from me again letting them know I was still alive. It almost felt like I was burdening them with the same anxiety as when I was in my addiction. I finally decided to send them the message. I felt guilty that my passion was now possibly causing my parents an anxiety similar to when I was still drinking. The love and support they conveyed in their messages back to me relieved me of most of my guilt. It was incredibly powerful to me because there was so much attached to this. It made me think of the entirety of my addiction and recovery, in addition to everything to do with the expedition, and also my parents unwavering love and support of me, in failure and success.  

From that point on was pure ecstasy. Pretty much everything seemed to work out. It was one of the greatest days I have ever had in the mountains, or on this earth for that matter. We were making good time and moving well. The weather was perfect. Usually while on the route of a big objective I am filled with doubt about if we will succeed, constantly thinking that we are too late or the snow won’t be stable or weather will move in. As we were moving up above 19k feet I didn’t have a single doubt we were going to succeed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it wasn’t going to get too warm or too cold, wasn’t going to get dark (because the Sun doesn’t really set this time of year in Alaska). I knew that we had all the time in the world and all we had to do was keep putting one foot in front of another and we would be at the top. I started crying uncontrollably while climbing up. I had put so much into this. It was 8 years in the making, filled with all the ups and downs of a life spent in the mountains. I’ve had huge success and wild failures.  I’ve had friends die in the mountains. I’ve forged bonds with people so strong that I trust them with my life implicitly. This trip had almost broken me, but here we were just a few hours from the top. This tiny moment, maybe 5 minutes, is why I chose to do this. The happiness that I felt in this moment made the entire 14 days, most of which felt more like torture than anything else, spent on the glacier worth it. It made the 6 months of training worth it. I can’t accurately put into words what it truly feels like, but the fact that 5 minutes of joy made 14 days of suffering worth it is a good start.

The rest of the climb to the top was just a test of patience. We were so close but so far away. I didn’t think it was possible to walk as slow as I did for the last 600 ft or so. The only pace I could keep was to take three deep breathes for every step because of the elevation. My head would start throbbing if I went too fast. The last 600 ft took over two hours. It’s pretty similar to a bowl hike at highlands, in terms of distance and elevation gained, which takes about 20-30 minutes. The altitude was very humbling, but we made it to the top, enjoyed about 20 minutes up there, sent some messages out to family and friends, then realized that we had to get down if we wanted to stop feeling the effects of the altitude. The ski was nothing special, but we made it back to camp. It was 16 hours round trip. We were completely wasted, sitting in the tent at midnight in a state of delirious ecstasy, making water and food looking at each other knowing everything we had gone through was worth it. We were content, we had set a goal and accomplished it. All the pain and suffering was erased. All the training was worth it. I put everything I had into this climb and it paid off. Climbing mountains is a strange addiction, but it can give you unmatched happiness. I know this trip made me a stronger person, and hopefully, a better one.  

Joe K.

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