Lessons from a Failed Summit Attempt on Denali

My thumbs are shrieking with pain, but somehow I manage to cram my giant, mitted finger through a ridiculously tiny metal grip.

I pull back just enough to release the ascender’s hold on the blue and white rope anchoring me to the mountain. Descending an inch, I wait for Nick, who is about 10 feet below me, to do the same. For hours, we sweat, swear and ponder why thumb strengthening exercises aren’t an integral part of every Alaska mountaineering training regimen.

It’s not our shining or most graceful moment, but we make it down safely and the punishment ends. “Wow. Glad that part’s over,” Nick shouts trying to out-howl the unrelenting wind. We share a collective sigh of relief at having finished our first, somewhat harrowing and very awkward descent of the fixed lines that protect Denali’s infamous headwall, a sheer slab of ice and rock linking camp at 14,000 feet with a treacherous, knife-edge ridge at 16,000 feet where we cached food and fuel.

“Give me a sec to trade my goggles for sunglasses,” Nick says. Not a moment later, a sound—like an avalanche—pulls my attention uphill. “Oh God!” I scream, diving onto my belly and plunging my axe into the foot of freshly fallen snow that has quadrupled the slippery nature of the solid ice layer below.

It is not an avalanche, but to my horror a red, white and black ball of a man somersaulting toward us. He misses me by inches, but bounces off Nick, who slides further downhill. When the blur finally comes to a halt, I see that he is coiled in the middle of our rope.

“Where am I?” he says. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“You okay?” I shout to Nick from my precarious perch face down in the snow, shaking and just barely holding us there.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Not exactly the answer I was hoping to hear, but before I can inquire further, I feel a tug and slip a few inches. The guy, obviously dazed and still entangled in our neon orange life line, tries to stand up and stumbles.

“Stop!” Nick and I shout knowing that a false move by this stranger will mean a one-way ride for all of us into the gaping crevasse 50 feet below. My mind flashes back to hours before; on the way up a careless climber dropped a water bottle from this very spot and it took 2.2 seconds for that bottomless brilliant turquoise void to swallow it down whole.

The man—either ignoring our protests or too disoriented to pay attention—is intent on getting up regardless of the consequences. Nick frees the rope with a couple flicks of the wrist and without a word the guy rises and wanders away, slipping and sliding down the steep and dicey slope.

Shaken, Nick and I lock eyes and share yet another “holy-shit-did-that-really-just-happen” moment. Though we could both use a breather, we have to wait until later to regain our composure so we disregard knocking knees and quiet our freaked-out minds long enough to tiptoe down the final, and extremely slick 1,200 vertical feet back to camp—a tiny city built from snow.

The next morning, a park ranger stops by to ask some questions. Only then does the magnitude of this encounter fully percolate my oxygen-deprived brain. “You saved his life,” the ranger says. The man, whose name I will never know, had gotten impatient, unclipped from the fixed line and tried to pass a huge, slow, guided group. He’d fallen at least 300 feet, but he could have plummeted the entire 900. “If he hadn’t bounced off everyone in his path and if you hadn’t clotheslined him with your rope, we’d be doing a body recovery instead of an incident investigation.”

For days, those words hang in the air reminding me of our proximity to death, but I don’t think we’re heroes. We were merely in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time depending on how you look at it) and everything we did was as much an effort to save our asses as to save his.

The most disturbing part of the whole incident, however is this: though a man falling out of the sky was shocking in the moment, Nick and I aren’t really all that surprised it happened to us. You see, despite all our training, planning, preparing and positive thinking, weird, unexpected things have been happening since the moment we left home making this trip more a test of will and mental strength than anything else.

I lay in the tent wondering: if a man nearly pulling us off the mountain feels like par for the course, are we tough, crazy, unlucky, doomed… or just mountaineers? And, the answer comes immediately. If the mountain’s taught me anything it’s this: you choose.

Two weeks earlier, Nick, Dave and I (or Three Dopes on a Rope, as we were officially known by the Park Service) left Colorado to fulfill our dream of climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America. As luck would have it, we fly—or try to fly—during the crux of a freak late May snow storm. Delays and detours mean we eventually make it to Anchorage, but our bags do not.

No big deal, right? Normally, I’d say yes, but Dave sees this as a bad omen and bails the day before we fly onto the glacier. The lost bags—which, of course, show up just in time—are a common casualty of traveling, however, having our climbing partner abandon us in the eleventh hour, delivers a major blow to our expedition. We’ve spent the last six months training and planning as a three-person team and his decision presents countless logistical, emotional, mental, safety and physical challenges. For a moment, I wonder if our trip is over, but we never really consider going home. We’ve put in too much work, time and heart to give up on a lifelong dream so easily.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have doubts as Nick and I—partners in life and climbing—push forward alone. Am I tough enough? Can just the two of us carry everything? Is this safe considering I weigh 100 pounds less than Nick? On the long, beautiful drive north, I push these insidious thoughts aside. There’s no place for them now anyway and I figure it’s a good training exercise for what’s to come. (As it ended up, I have no idea how right I am.)

Despite these hiccups, we land at basecamp just a day behind schedule and begin our journey. It’s slow going at first as we adjust to our newly found “Two Dopes on a Rope” status, but we quickly find our rhythm. Then, on day two, Nick falls into a crevasse carrying a pack weighing more than me. I’ve never seen him show fear, but now it’s palpable in his voice. “Whoa. I just looked down and there’s nothing…” he says shakily.

As if on cue, the sun gives way to a total whiteout at this exact moment. A cloak of haze and snow appears from out of nowhere and envelopes us while the temperature plummets. Even though I can’t see him, I hold on while he works his way out, knowing that if his ridiculous, back-breaking pack goes in, we’ll both be pulled beyond the point of no return.

Eventually and with a bit of struggle, Nick emerges – freezing and wet. “We’re not in Colorado anymore… This whole place is f-in serious. It’s the real deal,” he says acknowledging the gentle reminder we’ve just received from the mountain. Exhausted and frigid, we’d rather rest here, but instead we push forward through the whiteness. Hours later, we reach our second camp where we quickly collapse into deep sleep.

Over the next 22 days, we experience a lifetime of beauty, adventure and trials, not the least of which are constant reminders about the fragility of life, the impermanence of it all. We see people fall, we witness a body recovery and we watch incredulously as a team unties and abandons one of its slower members in a sketchy glacier field. Hillsides sweep away into giant avalanches, crevasses of icy blue open before our eyes, snow melts into rivers, giant boulders peel away from monoliths and tumble across our path. With death so close and the earth shifting beneath us, staying grounded feels both impossible and necessary.

Throughout it all, I find that though I am breathing hard, my muscles tired, my body worked from full days of climbing and pushing limits, more often than not, my mind and heart are working much harder than my legs and lungs. I am constantly pushing aside fear and anxiety, trading what I want for the reality of what is and what needs to happen. And though some of it is instinct (self-arresting when faced with a man tumbling toward me), much of it is a conscious decision (I can’t be scared right now because I have to put all my energy into getting Nick out of this crevasse).

Experienced climbers often say that mountaineering is all about how well you can suffer. While I agree that suffering with grace is critical, Denali tests my resiliency, my ability to bounce back, even more than my capacity to suffer. Do I have enough moxie to get to camp after nearly being dragged into a crevasse by a falling stranger? Can I continue traversing this narrow ridge while listening to a helicopter overhead—knowing they are searching for the body of a woman my age who fell to her death just last week? Can I keep climbing seconds after a fall that could have ended my life? Can I walk head on into a whiteout after almost losing Nick in a crevasse?

Our trip up Denali tests these scenarios and countless others and the fact is, yes, I can, but what other choice do I really have? I can become a permanent, frozen fixture on the mountain or I can shut off my mind and move forward. Like everything else in life, the ability to shift focus is more important than any technical skill. The mountain presents me with choices and I decide what to focus on: the breathtaking beauty surrounding me or how tired I am? Our constant proximity to death or how alive I feel? My freezing hands or how my actions affect those tethered to me? The dumb things people are doing or the kindness shown by a few new friends who have hot drinks waiting upon our return to camp? The fact that we don’t reach the summit or the herculean effort we put in to give it our best?

This last one is perhaps the most difficult. Turning around at 18,200 feet due to impending weather is the right thing to do, but it also feels like a failure which is only reinforced by the countless strangers we pass on our way down to basecamp who ask, “Did you summit?” Unable to deal with their pitiful stares, Nick starts yelling “Summit!” in response. Not a lie, but not an exactly accurate answer either.

Despite laughing each time he shouts this ridiculous response, my frustration grows with each person we pass. I know it’s irrational, but it feels as if they are rubbing it in. This innocent question asked by well-intentioned people focuses on the outcome and their vision of success, but does it have to be ours? Why aren’t they asking us about the three life-changing weeks we just spent in this incredible place, instead of the one day we spent trying to reach the top? It seems like summing up our whole experience with the answer “no” doesn’t do justice to our journey, to what we’ve learned, to how the mountain has altered us. It doesn’t seems fair. And then I realize, it isn’t.

—Chris Kassar and Nick Watson have already begun preparing to return to Denali in 2015. A huge part of their training regimen involves thumb wrestling, meditation and mind games.

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