Sweeping glacial valleys punctuated by jagged peaks stretch endlessly below us. Our tiny, winged chariot swerves hard right and lands on a nondescript field of snow, more sledding hill than an airstrip. We scramble to unload all our gear and then suddenly the plane disappears with a loud flash.
An eerie silence moves in and a familiar mix of anxiety, exhilaration, and uncertainty enters my gut. This is how any worthwhile expedition begins—with the realization that you are now unarguably on your own.
In 2014, my partner Nick and I spent 25 days on Denali. A horrendous storm forced us off the mountain just 2,000 feet shy of the summit. Though that was a personal trip, it was also a scouting mission for this current climb with Nick’s nonprofit, Veterans Expeditions. I have returned here to Denali as the only non-vet, and only woman, on a team we have named “8 for 22.” The eight of us plan to attempt the climb for the 22 service members who take their own lives every day. We hope that reaching the summit as a team can raise awareness about this staggering statistic among many of the other struggles veterans face.
Back on the glacier, we rig and pack sleds with mountains of gear and snake out of basecamp. We pass other climbers waiting to fly home and we learn that no one has successfully summited yet this season. No one says it, but we wonder what the mountain holds for us.
The next day we move from Camp 1 (7,800 feet) to Camp 2 (11,000 feet). Daniel, a Marine used to being able to push through suffering, struggles under the unrelenting sun and we slow to a crawl. He does not ask for help, but without a word, we empty his sled, lighten his backpack and move onward and upward.
In all my years leading groups, I’ve never seen such grace. No one makes Daniel feel bad or wants credit for picking up slack. These men, who have experienced such loss and heartache, have not allowed it to harden them. I am honored to walk among them.
We are a vulgar, loud, confident, ugly group. Our collective facial hair (fortunately, myself excluded) rivals most gorilla clans. We stink, we’re brash, but we never waver from our mission or give up on each other. This commitment to team comes naturally. Of course, we want to stand on top of North American together, but our purpose, the force that drives us stretches far beyond the summit. We climb for the challenge, fun and discovery inherent in stepping beyond comfortable limits. We climb because we still can; Each kick, each swing is a tribute to fallen brothers and sisters who gave everything.
Six days in, my hands go numb.The wind blows with an astounding, unrelenting intensity that overwhelms my senses. We reach the aptly named Windy Corner, a narrow bend that has claimed lives. Amidst various hollered requests for a break, Nick pushes on, seeming oblivious.
Later, when we reach a safe lunch spot, Nick turns to me with a tear in his eye and says: “Dad told me not to stop. We were walking into the teeth of it and he made it clear stopping would’ve gotten someone hurt. I’ve never felt his presence like that before.” Nick’s dad, a Vietnam veteran, died unexpectedly a month after our last Denali adventure.
Nick’s not the only one carrying someone taken too early. Our group has many memorials to those they’ve lost, some killed in combat, some who couldn’t bear the burden upon returning home. They have brought photos and dog tags, names written on helmets and etched into KIA bracelets and inked into tattoos.
Nearing the end of our move to Camp 3 (14,200 feet), a helicopter with a haul net leaves the ridge overhead carrying the body of an Argentinian climber who perished weeks ago. Bowing my head, I mutter a breathless prayer. I regain my focus on the icy steps and flash back to a conversation we’d had when we started: You hear there’s a body at 17,000 feet? They can’t get it yet until the weather clears. The emotional distance we employ when speaking about this man who died here surprises me. It’s crass, but maybe it’s the only way to cope when facing fear head on. The guys point out this is just one similarity between mountaineering and war: the ability to stay in the moment, be resilient and move on quickly can keeps you alive.
The next day 10 hours into caching at 17,000 feet, we get pummeled by crazy, energy-sapping winds and cold. Dan, an Army vet, and John, a Marine, who both served in Iraq and Afghanistan, pause for a moment while descending the fixed lines. “This mountain is totally within our wheelhouse if we just break it down into smaller, manageable pieces,” John shouts over the howl of the wind.
“Yeah, you see pictures and think it’s so scary, but it’s doable. This whole trip is life changing. It’s just opened up so many possibilities,” Dan shouts back.
From my perch 20 feet below, I crack a smile. By going unguided, with no outside support and no one team or trip leader among us, we climb as equals, relying only on each other. This was our plan. It’s working.
With the cache established, we’re poised for a summit attempt—and then the blizzard hits. We wait it out for 12 days, shoulder to shoulder in the cook tent at 14,000 feet. I cradle a tortilla full of the odd, yet delicious combination of fried reindeer sausage, white cheddar and Nutella. Dozens of groups who have run out of food, fuel or gumption, head down toward hot showers, and loved ones. The thought doesn’t even cross our minds.
At last the storm is over. Tethered together by two neon orange ropes we creep slowly and methodically along a snow-covered ridge, barely a boot-width across. Each team member carefully places one foot in front of the other. A fall here simply cannot happen. Periodically, both rope teams drop as one to the ground—faces and bellies in the snow—to brace against the 80 m.p.h. gusts attempting to toss us off the mountain. We press on. Though only a mile long, the traverse from 16,200 feet to camp at 17,200 feet takes hours. When we finally stop and get in our tents, sleep eludes me. Just one more push.
The next day, we’re somewhere around 19,000 feet when I notice it: Nick’s hands on his hips. I’ve climbed enough with him to know it’s never a good sign. At the next break, he remains in his position ahead of the group, hunched over and resting, not talking to anyone.
Not good, I think. Not good.
Nick’s one of the strongest people I know, but his body often rebels at altitude and we’ve just busted a thousand feet higher than he’s ever been. I alert a couple guys and ask them to keep an eye on him, knowing the last thing he wants is his perky, freak-of-nature, unaffected-by-altitude-girlfriend to ask how he feels.
The next break comes too quickly. “It feels like my brains are coming out of my head,” Nick says. It’s not exactly, what I’m hoping to hear coming from a team member, or this man I love, but he won’t entertain heading back. “I’m getting to the top,” he says. “We are getting to the top.”
Nick’s pain persists, but he wills himself on, despite my growing concerns, until we reach the last challenge, the tricky, technical summit ridge.
In an act of true courage, Nick admits this is more than he can handle right now and he asks Daniel (the same Marine who struggled early on) to switch spots and take the lead. Daniel steps determinedly along the final narrow, snow-covered ridge to the top.
On the summit, there is a noticeable lack of any wind. The world unfolds before us. Still roped together, we share an awkward, puffy, helmet-filled team hug amidst whoops and hollers. Tears freeze at the edge of my eyes.
A barrage of photos begin. Group shot, sponsor shot, individual ones. AJ, a former Army infantryman who served in Iraq, holds up seven different photos of friends from his unit killed in combat. The other guys follow suit. I hold an image of my family back in Jersey—living, but probably worse for the wear after these few weeks. Nick and I pose with a photo of his dad.
They’re all here with us.