Some say when you reach the peak of a mountain, you conquer that so called mountain. I believe you can never conquer a mountain. The mountain kindly gives you the ability to access its highest point.
You can’t take that for granted, because the day you do is the day you may not be coming back to camp.
On May 22nd, the More Than Just Me Athletes jumped on a plane from K2 Aviation and headed from Talkeetna, AK to begin their trek up the highest point of North America. Base camp sat at 7,200 ft. above sea level.
The flight in was epically beautiful as you could see for hundreds of miles as you crossed lakes, rives, and stunning glaciers weaving between snowy peaks.
Landing on a glacier was something that you can never get sick of as our eight seater scurried down the snowy and remote runway. We hopped out of the plane and grabbed our nearly 600 lbs of gear hauling it away from the engine red plane and began getting organized before we roped up and headed to Camp 1.
We set a cache at base camp with some food and fuel just in case we were stranded there after climbing due to weather. As we started to organize the gear and get our weight shifted properly on our sleds that we had to pull along with our pack we saw an eruption just East of us as an avalanche blanketed the upper inlet just beyond the rescue helicopter. We knew at this point that this mountain was in charge.
After doing our normal safety checks, we headed towards Camp 1 that would be 5.5 miles of hiking up only 600 ft. in elevation, but going across deadly terrain as we didn’t know if any of the millions of crevasses would open up and swallow one if not all of us.
Eventually, we reached Camp 1 after 7 hours of grueling through overturned sleds, rope tangles and extreme dehydration. Even though we were in the middle of Alaska on a glacier, it was HOT. One of the biggest keys about this mountain is having the proper layering system or you will sweat through your clothes and then it will turn cold in no time, and then you will freeze and hypothermia will kick in.
After getting to camp we had to probe to make sure we were setting up on a crevasse and then start digging. Roughly two hours later, we had enough room for our Big Agnes Battle Mountain 3 and our MSR Dragon Tail tents as well as an area for our cooking tent. We were completely exhausted and fell asleep like rocks.
The following day we packed up some gear and headed up SKI HILL to 9,600 to cache some gear so we weren’t hauling 145 lbs. each day to each camp. This technique is also used to acclimate properly as we gain elevation. We started the climb and about 20 minutes later the air was turning white. Snow was falling and we were searching for the next wand to make sure we stayed on course and didn’t end up falling into the VOID which is what most climbers call the crevasses that don’t end…
We eventually get to our destination and there are a couple of tents where some climbers decided against fighting the weather to climb higher. We cached and then we were on our way back down to Camp 1 again to sleep at a lower elevation. When we left 9,600 ft., it was a complete white-out with about 50-100 ft. of visibility. We first headed towards some wands we saw but quickly realized we were going the wrong way. We lifted up our Zeal Optics to try to squint to see if we could see another wand, but the mountain was in control and today it decided to blind us with snow and high winds. Eventually, we gathered each other and made a decision that was correct and headed back to try to retrace our tracks and find the proper path that had been covered with new fresh snow. We headed back down to camp - getting there in about two hours and making sure we weren’t finding ourselves off course again.
The following day was another epic storm, so we decided to use it as a rest day. This decision was helped thanks to the fact that we had left about 15lbs of meat back in Talkeetna on accident. Luckily, we had a couple of buddies (Josh & Dan) that picked it up since they were flying onto the glacier two days after us. They brought us delicious bacon, pepperoni, and sausage as we were resting at camp.
On the fourth day, the weather was better so we packed up all of our gear and headed to Camp 2, which lies at 11,200 ft. up the mountain. So, back up SKI HILL passing our cache and to camp. It was a fairly easy day. It was long and a lot of elevation gain as we were still carrying 100 lbs. between our sleds and packs, but it felt nice to slide into camp. Once again, we needed to dig a new camp and this snow was deep from the previous storm. Our first tent we dug 5+ feet just to get a good wall and level sleeping service and then created a tiered system with the next tent about 3 feet deep and our cooking tent on the top of the tier. This created good protection against oncoming high winds and weather.
Day five, we headed back down to 9,600 ft. to obtain our cache and bring it up to Camp 2. It was an easy day as we left later in the day so the snow was harder and safer for us to travel on. We flew on the way down getting to our cache in about 45 minutes then dug it up, separated it so everyone had about the same amount of weight and headed back to camp. These days are the easier of the days because, when you get back to camp, you don’t have to worry about setting up camp. You get back and just relax.
It’s one of the reasons why Denali is considered one of the most difficult of the Seven Summits. You carry your own gear, make your own camps, and cook your own food. It’s very time consuming, adding the fact that you have to melt all of your water. We are talking hour after hour of melting snow just to kind of stay hydrated.
The fifth night, we read our weather report from our meteorologist friend Chris Tomer who was telling us that there would be a good chance for summit on Saturday and Sunday (May 30th/31st). We didn’t really think much of it since it was already Tuesday and we were only at Camp 2. Over dinner though, we started to think more about. “What if we went ALPINE STYLE and just took what we need to get through Sunday up to Camp 3?” This meant really no time for acclimation and Denali is known for high doses of AMS, HACE, and HAPE. These are all bad news and forms of High Altitude Sickness. The other problem is that everyone we were passing wasn’t summiting. They’re getting denied by the weather, so we had to take in consideration that this could be our only chance of getting to the summit.
(Alpine style means you go as light as you can with minimal food, gear, and protection. It allows you to move faster.)
We also had to consider that a climber just tried to push it to get to the summit and his body was still laying at Camp 3 lifeless. The weather had been so bad the last couple of weeks that they hadn’t gotten the chance to retrieve the body.
Through a lot of conversation, thought, and motivation, we decided that we would take enough food through Sunday. If we couldn’t get to the summit by then, we would proceed to come back to Camp 2 and retrieve more food and gear from our cache.
On the sixth day, we once again packed up our sleds and packs and headed towards Camp 3 that sat at 14,200ft. This day would take us up Motorcycle Hill followed by Squirrel Hill followed by the extremely danger WINDY CORNER. The climbs were brutal, taking tiny step after tiny step as we pulled and carried weight up these super steep inclines. As we approached the top of Squirrel, we saw a group of three climbers yelling towards us. They were saying “IS THIS YOUR PACK?!” We confirmed it was definitely not our pack as we just approached then, but they said they had heard someone yell and then found a pack all by itself. This instantly sends you into HELP MODE because a lot climbers will take off their pack and go to the bathroom and not probe slipping into a deadly crevasse.
We searched the area but found nothing and the other team called base camp informing them of the pack and we had to continue up to Camp 3.
(Later found out that a Colombian climber had left his pack there because he was too tired to carry it.)
We climbed up to WINDY CORNER and started to head around it as we constantly focused our eyes to our left to make sure no huge, house-sized rock would detach and take our whole team out. This is the last place you want to stop to piss or take photos. Rocks and boulders are scattered all throughout the path - some looking like they had fallen that morning. The sleds were constantly sliding off the path leading to roll overs and you just tried to flip them back over as fast as possible to get out of the way of DANGER!
We made it to Camp 3 as the shadows crept across camp and the chill of 14k began. We still had to set up camp, but it wasn’t too difficult as there were some old sites that just needed a little maintenance, then we could set up our tents. We decided to not set up our cooking tent as we didn’t plan to stay too long. All we were worried about was getting some rest the following day.
We woke up on the seventh day knowing it was going to be a rest day, which would be the last rest day we would give ourselves in order to hit the summit in our weather window. We relaxed and ate calories prepping for the next three days as they were going to be long and grueling.
We also worked on creating a little more privacy for our “bathroom”, which is just a can you carry from each camp. There are no restrooms; so, when you have to go to the bathroom, you go in a bag that sits in your personal canister and then up to 14k where you get to drop the remains into a deep crevasse marked by an orange flag. You always make sure to drop your poo before heading to the next camp. Once you go above 14k you have to keep it in your canister and take it back down to Camp 3 as there are no “Drop Zones” above this point.
Anyway, we relaxed and rested, getting ready for the HEADWALL the next day. HEADWALL is just steps out of Camp 3 and that’s where we began on day eight as we started this 2,000 ft. climb heading towards Camp 4. The first two-thirds of headwall we climbed the white face, passing expeditions of climbers from countries around the world - all of which were encouraging others and wishing luck to achieve the summit. Eventually you get to the fixed lines. These lines are set up by guide companies and rangers to help assist in some extreme difficult areas. In this case, we were looking at a 700 ft. nearly vertical ice wall. We clamped into the rope with our ascenders and ice axe in hand, started step-by-step, heading towards the end of the rope. The only problem we came across was a group from Seattle and one of their members wasn’t feeling so well. She would take a couple steps up and then stop for 10-20 minutes trying to catch breath, composure, or maybe both. This lead to tired legs as we stayed vertical for three hours.
We achieved the end of the rope knowing we still had another 1,000 ft. to gain before we could start setting up camp once again. This remainder of the climb consisted of climbing 40-50% inclines and using more fixed lines that led to a ridgeline. Being exhausted and then having to focus on each step, your body is begging for rest as your mind is driving your soul to continue. We were half way between the end of the ice-wall and camp when I heard a noise and looked behind me to watch 3 of our 4 tent poles slide down 60 ft. as they fell out of my pack…
Luckily, they stopped on the edge of the cliff like it was a balancing act you watch in Vegas. We had decided to only carry one tent up - shoving four dudes in our three man Big Agnes tent. Without these poles we had to head back down to 14 and possibly give up on the summit as our MSR tent was only a two man and there was no chance on laying four dudes in this tent.
We set up a belay system using a picket, ice-axe, and a double prusik belay system as we lowered our rookie Jeff Haines down this face to retrieve the much needed tent poles. One slow step and release after another, we reached the poles which Jeff obtained and slowly brought back to the ridgeline. We repacked in Jeff’s bag and were off balancing, climbing, and fighting the ridgeline that was constantly scratched by climbers crampons crossing the rocks that were exposed due to high winds.
Going around the final turn, we saw camp 200 yards away and no more than two minutes later, I felt a pull in my right Achilles. It felt like tearing a slice of raw bacon apart and instantly the pain hit with every step. We were close enough to camp that I up hooked from the rope and let the team go to camp as I wobbled in trying to figure out the best way to step with the least amount of pain. It was Camp 4 and I was one day from the summit. I wouldn’t let a tear, pull, or any injury keep me from this summit. I just had to figure out how to work around it…
We get to camp, completely exhausted and dehydrated once again. We set up our single tent and got our sleeping bags and pads out and ready for sleep. After melting water and cooking cous cous for a couple of hours we ate and fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, Jeff woke up with a slight panic attack claiming he could barely breathe and felt like puking. The three of us knew he just had to relax and control his breathing as we were sleeping at 17,200ft. We had already climbed at this height three times and knew that this was normal for the most part. We taught him how to breathe and before you knew it, he was out.
Day nine, SUMMIT DAY rolls around early as we can hear the other climbers getting ready to attempt their summit bid. We were completely spent but knew we had to drive beyond the soreness of our body and the tiredness of our minds as this was bigger than ourselves. This was for all of those that suffered everyday from Cystic Fibrosis. We got out of our tent around 8:30am and got ready to set off by 11 am towards Denali Pass, which is right out of Camp 4.
We rope into each other and head up the pass through the trail that was trenched by the 40 other climbers attempting that morning. I mean, we hadn’t seen a day like this season. It was almost too perfect. As we continued to climb, we hit the 18k mark and one of our climbers/photographers John Burkett felt symptoms of HACE coming on once again as he suffered from it on Aconcagua just a couple of months ago. Even though it was extremely difficult, he made the decision to bypass the summit as he felt depleted, confused, and sick. He made a sacrifice to not affect the group and that in and of itself made him bigger than most that would climb this mountain.
Then there were three…
We continued to push through Denali Pass as we headed towards the summit. It turned to more incline and small steps as we climbed into less oxygen and more dangerous terrain.
Anytime you push like this, you have to be very careful because if any form of high altitude sickness begins it could lead to stumbling and on this terrain that could mean death with one wrong step.
After a couple hours of climbing, we eventually saw and passed Archdeacon’s Tower and decent to drop our rope and solo climb from here. We were past crevasse and avalanche danger, so we wanted to be as comfortable as possible as the oxygen in the air grew thinner. After Archdeacon’s Tower, we came to the FOOTBALL FIELD dropping about 100 ft. into an open valley of snow. Each step we took into the valley, it felt like the temperature was growing by five degrees. It was warming up quick. I was the first to reach the vast valley and sat down to get a drink and wait for Jeff and Mark to arrive. I was trying to keep them close so we could summit together as a team.
I sat and waited until Jeff arrived and I saw Mark cover over the crest heading towards us. I wanted to get moving so my muscles didn’t start to tighten up or cramp. I began my accent of PIG HILL very slowly, leaving the FOOTBALL FIELD. PIG HILL is a 600 ft. climb that you look at as it is laughing in your face sitting near 20k. Imagine you have climbed eight hours already. Your body is destroyed and your mind is so confused with the lack of oxygen and you have to climb nearly straight up for 600 ft. to reach the SUMMIT RIDGE.
This is where your body stops…It’s all mental from here.
WHY ARE WE HERE?! We are here because thousands suffer from disease where there is no summit. There is only one PIG HILL; no matter how much they climb, the mountains continues to grow. There is no cure…
We climb for cause. We climb for a cure. We climb to shine a light brighter than the sun on a disease for those confused or have no knowledge of understanding it.
Cystic Fibrosis now has a fight. A fight against some dudes that won’t stop. Won’t give up. A fight that will get ugly and will make you bleed and possibly take your last breath.
I ask you, though: What is life without love? What is life without adventure?
WE COME TOGETHER TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Tears rolled down my eyes fighting from freezing as the winds picked up and the temperature dropped the closer I got to the SUMMIT RIDGE. I could see Jeff a couple hundred feet down the hill from me. Mark had just reached the bottom of PIG HILL as I was putting on my Kuhl Goretex near the top as the temperatures hadn’t reached their low yet.
Mark was on all four looking as if he was praising the hill and asking for permission to summit. His mind was taking over his body at this point. I could see it from 600 ft. away. I could see his body wanted no more, but his mind wasn’t going to let him stop.
I reached the top of PIG HILL and walked away from the edge to escape the high winds and frostbite temperatures because I wanted to wait for Jeff and Mark as we only had the SUMMIT RIDGE left before we hit the tallest peak in North America - sitting at 20,320 ft. Thirty minutes later, Jeff approached the top and thirty minutes after Jeff arrived, Mark crested the HELL of the Pig.
Exhaustion wasn’t even a word we could use at this point. We begged to only be exhausted. We only had the SUMMIT RIDGE which meant crossing over massive cornices that could break away at any point and drop us thousands of feet to our ultimate death. The terrain itself would scare the devil himself, but as crazy as it sounds the terrain wasn’t the scary part…
While traversing this terrain, we would have to fight the 20-45 mph gusts of wind that were screaming like a witch being burnt trying to literally SHOVE us off of the cornice’s edge.
We drive our ice-axes into the cornice hoping that if the windy witch gets the best of us our axes were deep enough to allow us to self arrest and not fall to our frozen death.
Each step takes three breaths. Each step puts us closer to the summit. The adrenaline pumping through your body is something no Red Bull could ever possess. It’s something only the human body can create. You cry tears of madness as they freeze under your goggles not knowing if your next step is your last.
In a way, it’s one of the most beautiful experiences we will ever have. We continue to climb, getting closer to the summit while enduring high wind speeds. The so-called path that was just created was covered by the wind blown snow. Each climber would have to break their own trail as the edge cut out a new adventure along the backside of the cornice.
Here it was…a small mound that gave just enough elevation to call itself the tallest point of this insane mountain. My cracked bloody smile grew cartoon-like as I stepped the final steps to the top of Denali.
Just inches away from the top, the moon rose its head to say “Well Done”. One day from full and the sun still high in the sky - the Moon was looking out for us as it knew we did not climb for glory, yet for reason.
I dropped to my knees as I saw the official marker, knowing that we had completed 4 of the 7 summits.
We did it…
Jeff was right behind me as Mark was shoot amazing footage with our Zeal Optics Camera goggles and approached something only a handful had that year.
We took pictures, cried, and enjoyed the views of a cloudless sky. Hundreds of miles of vastness were exposed almost as a reward from Mother Earth.
We headed back down to Camp 4, watching each other along the way. Mark had obtained AMS and was stumbling across much of the terrain. You could see the emptiness in Jeff’s eyes as his body craved any calorie or water that it could consumed. We roped back up as we got back to our rope half way down. Took it slow as I was in the back watching over my two brothers, making sure each step was not going to lead to injury or harm.
After 13 hours of hiking, we reached Camp 4 as John was waiting just outside of the camp realm with fresh water and assistance. The moon was so bright to our left and the midnight sun shined its red/orange color giving us one of the greatest sunsets of our life.
I laughed from happiness and the love of adventure as I chatted with John about the climb. We were zombified as we took our tiny steps to our tent and then ate some cous cous John had made. Then fell asleep into a deep coma, knowing we had our final hike the next day.
Our tenth day started with more noise of climbers getting ready to take their chance at the summit. We packed up and headed down around 11 am, going through the same routines just downward and gaining more oxygen with each step. Stopping at Camp 3 to pick up our cache then to Camp 2 to dig up our big cache of food and fuel, eventually making it back down to Camp 1 by midnight. We knew after Camp 1 we had 5 ½ miles of glacier travel, but we continued to grind. With a full moon hanging over Mt. Hunter, we stopped to take a couple of photos as the endless sun still shined on its peak.
Step. Step. Step. Step…
We reached HEARTBREAK HILL which was the final approach to Base Camp, where we would fly out. We took our final step into camp at 4:20 am. This was 15 ½ hours after we had left high camp.
Bruised. Blistered. Burnt. Dehydrated. Exhausted. Torn…
Yet, full of happiness. Full of love.
John and I just grabbed our cell pads and Big Agnes sleeping bags and slept on the snow as Mark and Jeff set up the Battle Mountain 3 to have a little more protection before we approached the Park Ranger (Lisa) at 8 am to call in our flight.
At 2:15 pm, we landed back in Talkeetna, AK - completing the adventure.
Our cache tags we still had showed our return date of June 18th. We finished June 1st summiting on May 30th.
Don’t be afraid to get lost. That’s usually when you will find the true version of yourself.
I Love You.