“How was it,” friends keep asking.
“It was a long month,” I reply, “but I learned a lot.”
I take a few steps and stop, bending over to let the weight of my pack off my shoulders. I look behind, Meredith and Andrew are doing the same. Over 10 hours we’ve traveled roughly 2.5 miles. You do the math. Each step feels like five miles. Between our backpacks and our sleds, we are hauling our body weight in food — too much food, we’d later find out.
We finally reach 14 Camp on Denali in Alaska, short for the big camp at 14,000 feet. After setting up our tents, we fall asleep and wake up in the bustle of people. Climbers are pulling sleds filled with extra food around, trying to minimize their weight on the way down — one of the many reasons not to bring so much in the first place.
I lay in my tent feeling much like a piñata, as the wind batters the thin fabric, threatening to rip it right open. I stare blankly at the pages of my book, unable to focus. It has been three weeks already and still on the summit window. I am starting to daydream of birds and the early summer life of down low. Without a doubt I am learning patience. Patience with the weather, with myself, and with others. Far different from any race or adventure where I’m constantly moving against the clock. In fact, I’ve never spent so long camped in the same spot.
And speaking of the birds, the lack of other life up here definitely points to the privilege of being here. There is no objective contribution to the greater good by doing things like this. “Conquistadors of the useless” is what the late alpinist Lionel Terray dubbed mountaineers and, well, it makes sense. We learn from the park rangers that it’s been a particularly stormy season, with one of the lowest summit rates in a long time. Just another reason to wonder what the hell we’re doing here.
I sit and watch the clouds roll over the peaks below 14 Camp. They look like ocean waves way up here at 14,000 feet. As their shadows drift over the glacier, I try to imagine what it’s like to float along like they do. It looks peaceful and I try to let my thoughts join them. When you’re out of service for a long time, all you can do some days is stare. It’s not intentional meditation, it’s just what you do when you’re out in the wild with no distractions. The thoughts float in and out, like the wind pushing the clouds along.
People pop in and out of their tents like prairie dogs. Staring and rotating, maybe walking around for a minute, then disappearing back into their holes. We puzzle over the forecast, but all we can really do is wait ’til the morning and look out our tents.
Finally, we get a clear sky and start the slow slog to the summit. I feel tired and worn out after all the sitting around, but excited to finally push. I puke on the summit ridge but rally for the descent.
A couple days later, we make the ski out and I maybe tear something in my knee — to be determined — when my sled — oh how I hate them — hits me on the way down. The final follies are comical. There are a lot of times I wonder why we humans subject ourselves to such strange tasks. If ever there was a time that I felt like I was living out “The Myth of Sisyphus,” it is now. Rolling the boulder uphill, only to have it come rolling right back down.
But all this is to say that the real reason I am here is to learn and envelop myself in a completely new — to me — landscape. I hope each time I return to the Alaska Range, I’ll feel a little more comfortable and undoubtedly learn something new. I mean, I even some of Colin Haley’s trail mix that he was giving away, so that’s gotta’ translate to something cool in the mountains … right?
Call for Comments
- Have you been to Denali or elsewhere in the Alaska Range?
- How did you find it?