I pulled the balaclava down over my frosted chin as the bottom half of Denali fell into shadow. In the 23 years that had passed since my last visit here, I couldn’t help noticing that the culture of climbing had changed on North America’s highest mountain. My teammates were watching movies downloaded onto their smart phones, climbing traffic had doubled and, in good weather, tourist-engorged bush planes swarmed over the mountain like swamp-bound mosquitoes.
Modern hoodies—chic-ly worn up even on warm days—made these wilderness mountaineers resemble inner-city, well…hoods. Climbers now pay a $365 fee, submit their registrations 60 days in advance and carry park service issue “clean mountain cans” (CMCs) so that their feces can be disposed of in pre-marked crevasses—only the bravest mountaineers carry their full CMCs all the way back down the mountain.
But some things hadn’t changed. We stomped out a helicopter pad in the snow and I sat next to the dead body of a Czech ski mountaineer. Several days earlier, he’d made three jump turns down the Messner Couloir, caught an edge, fell head over heels, and continued plummeting 1,500 feet toward camp over rocks and bullet-proof ice. In the heat of awful sunlight reflecting off the snow, the slow process of necrosis had already begun—dispersing the atoms that made up his body back out into the mysterious universe of our beginnings.
When the clouds cleared below camp, our park service helicopter would fly in from sea level and carry him out. I stood and gave a respectful bow, and began to shiver, but there had been a time when high-altitude life, and death, seemed more commonplace.
Exactly four decades had passed since the first time I stumbled up here with my scout troop from Massachusetts. That year of 1976, I sat at this elevation next to another corpse awaiting a helicopter, the 18th death in the mountain’s history. Our failure to summit, along with confronting that needless fatality, had spurred me into learning how to safely climb big mountains, and launch a career that kept me in the wilds.
Working as a guide, a filmmaker and a park service ranger, I returned to Denali repeatedly. Unduly influenced by hormones, I climbed “The High One” in winter; through astute planning and more than a little luck, I slunk off the mountain with only one frost-blackened toe. Ill-disposed for government paperwork and uniform dress, I quit rangering and wrote three Denali books to share what I had learned, and then continued my impoverished career as an adventure writer.
This June 2016—volunteering on a park service patrol—I didn’t come to Denali simply to perform rescues. I came to revisit a mountain that had imparted meaning to my life, a wellspring for persistent dreams: laughing with teammates, walking knife-edge ridges above the clouds, and digging snow that fell as fast as we could shovel in tent-burying storms.
I didn’t want any more epics. But since my aging frontal lobe had blurred the suffering into memories of high-altitude bliss, I had to come back to Denali.
Here at 14,300 feet, walking briskly to my tent, I thought about how the Czech skier’s demise—raising the death toll to 123 in the history of climbing North America’s highest peak—could have been tragic bad luck rather than recklessness. Although I didn’t plan on undue risk-taking, as I climbed higher, I would become literally older. The thought of flaunting my 60th birthday on top seemed like a karmic invitation into certain disaster. So I kept the disrespectful fantasy to myself.
Two of my six companions, all half my age, had been here before. On the day we left for the West Buttress high camp, it appeared no one had anything to prove. Still, in fear of becoming the pensioner slowing down young teammates, I had trained a dozen hours a week by running uphill—breathlessly—on my cross-country skis in Colorado.
On past trips to these unseemly elevations I had been clobbered with headaches, while depositing innumerable piles of vomit, forgetting my name, battling insomnia and nearly drowning in my own fluids—regardless of acclimatization. Needless to say, the family ancestry didn’t include high-altitude genes. Still, as masochistic as it sounds, I had to return because it seemed that I had taken for granted the most incredible natural wonders and interpersonal realtionships of a lifetime—all of which I found on Denali.
Fortunately, the West Buttress is a relative walk-up, given several days of good weather (uncommonly found up high) on this mountain. But below the fixed ropes, parboiling in a snowbasin that resembles a fry pan, I developed urgent misgivings. What in the name of retirement am I doing here? I thought. My tweenie sons had tried to convince me that I was too old for Denali. They promised to never talk to me again if I didn’t come home.
Today, being towed up the 20,310-foot massif by rope, all the while breathing like a landed fish, didn’t feel right. Plus, we were cueing up for a mountain that I’d never seen lines on.
“I’m going back down,” I told Ranger Dan Corn, our unflappable leader. To my knowledge, he had never breathed hard or broken a sweat during our last two weeks of toil. I suspected that Corn was the progeny of high-altitude Tibetans, even though he talked like a Virginian. But before I could verify his lineage, an unfortunate meeting with a full, yet topless pee bottle and two sleeping bags had forever banned me from his tent.
There at 15,200 feet, Corn’s shrewd leadership skills would prevail again when he mentioned that I couldn’t descend alone. Since I didn’t want to prevent someone else from summiting while they accompanied me down, I reluctantly continued up.
At 17,200 feet, with the mercury hugging the balmier single digits, we dug in, acting as park service exemplars for the dozens of campers surrounding us. The snow blocks that we quarried, lifted and stacked around our three tents in a towering barricade—before I collapsed, exhausted, several hours after arriving—could have given pause to a horde of invading mongols. Let alone a Denali blizzard.
Amazingly, I had an appetite for the disagreeable freeze-dried food. I slept soundly. And when I woke up—feeling as if resuscitated from major surgery—I had no headache. This time I vowed to forgo the summit and be content with 17, 200 feet. I had to act my age rather than my double boot size.
Yet everything got upended two days later, June 12, on that auspicious date when everyone began singing Happy Birthday. Somehow word had gotten out. Although not pleased to be so publicly reminded of reaching my seventh decade, I did look forward to one more day of repose in the tent before descending to thicker air. Until Ranger Corn announced that I would continue up immediately, escorting the youngsters while he supervised a helicopter removing high-altitude trash. No one defies the lawmen of Denali, or this is how I remembered my own park service patrols back in the days before Corn’s Sherpa parents sowed and raised Corn.
The summit day proved a blur. I hardly remember how late Millennial stallions in harnesses dragged me up. It’s a blur of continually passing or waiting in line with the resting crowds, who warbled out oxygen-deprived versions of Happy Birthday to this frosted graybeard. Apparently, the whole roof of the continent had been let in on my secret. Then, suddenly as a cork popping from a shaken champagne bottle, further ascension became impossible. We had reached the top.
From previous visits, I knew that we were standing on a colossal cornice with a dizzying view down the south face, but fortunately, we were blanketed in cloud and the effect equaled that of standing in a featureless white room after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms. Undoubtedly hypoxic, I still had one epiphany: Through suffering, mountain climbers become incredibly cunning, albeit more than a little brain damaged, otherwise why would we choose to do this again and again?
Then my teammate Michael Hutchins—another high-altitude mutant, though not yet even an embryo the last time I climbed Denali—pulled out a surprise ceremonial kata and tied it around my neck. We all shook hands. Then I hugged and kissed a redheaded stranger in another team joining us on top. It seemed likely that this person was a woman but anything can happen at 20,310 feet above sea level.
I resumed the duck footed descent at the rear of the rope, knees grinding audibly beneath the prosthetic hip, bracing an antique Chouinard ax across my chest in constant self-arrest position. Now, and hopefully for the last time, I had to make it down safely—if only to resume slouching behind my desk, plotting the social security benefits that accrue from sharing these sorts of death-defying adventure tales. As for the future, I can only pray that my sons won’t make me take them up Denali. In the meantime, I will do my level best not to take the mountain for granted again.
Carbondale resident Jonathan Waterman is the author of three books about denali, including IN the shadow of denali. He is now writing a fourth, in between adventures with his sons.