Day 12

I managed to cram down a little instant oatmeal for breakfast. I couldnít stomach my usual homemade glop: a mixture of Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat, Cheerios, dried fruit, dried milk and protein powder. It was just too much to handle with my queasy stomach. Punches gave me some Pepto-Bismol tablets, that guy has everything in his pack! That helped, and as soon as we were underway, I felt like my old self. Well, like my old self breathing as hard and fast as I could.

We left camp about 9:30. I had the lightest pack Iíd felt in almost two weeks, but I was wishing it was even lighter. The trail went across a short valley, then traversed up a steep ridge to Denali Pass. The trail was crowded. Everybody else had heard the weather report, too, so we were all going together. It wasnít a bad trail. Like a lot of spots on Denali, it wasnít difficult, but there could be dire consequences if you fell. It paid to be careful. We were roped up, as were most people. But not the Italians. They came zooming by. I heard David yelling at them. They were trying to pass us on the uphill side. Thatís dangerous. If one of them should fall, he could hit us and pull the whole team down. They relented and passed on the downhill side. The Italians were far and away the rudest ethnic group on the mountain. I know they do things differently in Europe, but this is America. They should find some manners and abide the old saying, "When in Rome......"

As we got close to the top of Denali Pass, we climbed into the sun and everything seemed easier. We ended up waiting for the party in front of us and I took the opportunity of laying down in the snow. Of course David caught me with a camera. He has the nastiest habit of taking unflattering pictures of me. It makes for good laughs back home.

Traversing up the ridge to Denali Pass

Approaching Denali Pass

Simonsen in repose on Denali Pass

Passing the Archdeacon's Tower with the summit in the distance

The trail up Pig Hill

The summit ridge

At Denali Pass we got our first view down the Muldrow Glacier and of the country to the east of Denali. That made me feel closer to the top, although we still had 2,000 vertical feet and miles to go. It was getting colder as we gained elevation, but with the sun out and the winds light it was quite tolerable, almost pleasant. From Denali Pass the trail wound up the ridge for what seemed like a long time. Eventually we came to the Football field. This is a flat area, much bigger than a football field, at 19,500.í I imagined some old timer commenting that this place is as flat as a football field, and the name stuck. I reminded Ryan that I was carrying the nerf football. We decided to play catch on the way down. Didnít want to delay the summit. Across the Football Field was Pig Hill. It looked steep, and it was. The wind was picking up a little and it was getting colder. Someone said it was 20 below. We put our parkas on.

On the way up Pig Hill, we met the Edinborough /Freeport connection coming down. They encouraged us that the summit ridge was spectacular and not much further. I was impressed at their speed. I had seen them in camp that morning. They had passed us somehow. The summit was getting close now, and the adrenalin was kicking in. At the top of Pig Hill we intersected the summit ridge and took a sharp turn to the left. Just a quarter mile and a few feet in altitude and we would be on the summit!

The other rope team of Kyle, Dove, and Punches were ahead of us. I had slowed us down, but I didnít care, I could see that I would make it and the weather was fine. However, Kyle, Dove, and Punches passed a team of Canadians. These were mostly inexperienced folks climbing as a fund-raiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A worthy cause. We caught up with the Canadians just as they got to the narrow part of the ridge. At this section, the ridge was only one to two feet wide. On either side it dropped away as a steep slope, but not terrifyingly steep. Maybe 40 degrees. And the snow was fairly soft. Not icy. So if you fell, self-arresting would be simple. Most people just walked across this section of the ridge like it was a sidewalk. But one of the Canadians was really frightened. As he went over a hump and out of site from us, he fell. It took twenty minutes or so for them to collect themselves and get off the ridge. Another team that was descending said they felt sorry for us getting held up like that. So we were delayed. Our other rope team had grown tired and cold waiting for us and started their descent. We met them about a hundred yards from the summit. I had wanted the whole team on the summit at once, but it was not to be.

Kyle on the summit

Dove on the summit

Ryan, David, and I arrived at the summit about 5:30 PM. Ryan was smiling. I was relieved. David fell to his knees and wept. His childhood dream had come true. Later he told me that he had not felt alone on the summit. I think Kuku was there with him, thrilled with the generation-spanning family achievement. We hugged each other, then got busy taking pictures. We mostly wanted to get out of there. We were tired and a long way from camp. After we got back and had time to reflect, we realized that we were a little goofy up there. I had tried to take pictures, but my camera was frozen. Davidís didnít work, either. So Ryan ended up taking the summit shots. But after that, I tried my camera again and it worked. Yet I only took one picture of the prayer flags on the summit, with no people in it. Why didnít I take more pictures with my camera? Before the trip I had a vision of a summit photo with all of us raising our axes in a group ice ax salute. I had also thought about doing a headstand and giving the picture to Sujita, my yoga teacher. All of that had just sort of evaporated from my mind. I donít think my brain was hitting on all cylinders up there at 20,320 feet.

Punches on the summit

The second rope team ascending the summit ridge in traffic

Kyle descending the summit ridge

Ryan on the summit

David on the summit

Simonsen on the summit

The OSU Mountain Club flag on the summit

The highest point in North America

View from the summit towards Foraker - base camp is visible on the far left side of the picture

Summit view to the east

Yet I had enough sense to notice that I wasnít as thrilled as I would have been in the past. My usual high from summitting was lacking. Later David mentioned that he was surprised. He expected me to have some kind of ceremony on the summit. It hadnít even occurred to me. It seemed to me that my ego just wasnít involved in this, and it seemed strange. Yet it also seemed right. I was confused, but not disappointed. I realized that in the past I used climbing to define myself. It was an important part of my self-identity. Thatís not all that healthy, and also a trap. If youíre not a good climber, youíre not a worthy person. So I had kept on pushing myself to bigger, better, faster, harder - trying to outrun my low self-esteem. But now it just wasnít in me to keep pushing. I had changed. I noticed that I wasnít saying to myself, look at what I did. Itís bigger and better than anything Iíve done before. Iím getting older and better! Iím beating the odds! I didnít feel that, although I remembered feeling like that in the past on other mountains. I was just on the summit. I liked it. But I didnít need it. I had proved nothing by getting here. It didnít make me a better person, it didnít fulfill my mission in life. It was a grand experience, but it was still just an experience. I had many of those, and would have more. Denali was just something I had decided to do.

I could see the writing on the wall: My Peter Pan days were numbered.

Our summit stay was five, maybe ten minutes, then we headed back down. As I walked down the summit ridge, I passed by two Canadians (you could tell them because they all had on the same red gore-tex parka). They were sitting in the snow and one was saying something like, "Well, some of these people are just inexperienced. They probably donít belong here."

Playing football on the Football Field

We stopped at the football field and played catch with the nerf ball for a few seconds, then headed on down. Downhill is so much easier! Uphill and downhill is like night and day. In addition, I think summitting makes you feel lighter. The stress of, "Will I summit?" has been relieved. When we got to Denali Pass we came across Punches and a couple of guys we didnít know. One of them had symptoms of HAPE and Punches was assisting them. He was the perfect person for it. The affected guy said it felt like he was drunk. I think he was having trouble walking a straight line, things like that. We offered to help, but Punches said everything was under control, so we headed down the Pass and back to camp. I went slowly and carefully. Now was not the time to fall and get hurt.

Back in camp everyone was happy and excited. Congratulations were given all around. We learned later that the weather started deteriorating and people started turning around instead of summitting about six hours after we summitted. It turned out the weather was bad for the next 20 days. We had just slipped in the window. I was convinced that we had had help from "the other side."

David and I had planned a big celebration meal, but everyone except David (who ate two dinners) and Kyle were too tired to eat much. I had a bowl of soup, some water and dove into my beloved sleeping bag. I was dog tired, but didnít sleep much. One of the symptoms of acclimatization is you pee a lot. I was doing that. I filled my quart pee bottle before the night was over and had to go outside to pee. Thatís a complicated operation. Wriggle out of the nice warm bag, pull on booties and down parka, hat and gloves, while sitting in the tent, and then out you go. Two minutes to do your duty, then reverse the whole process to get back in again. So at 4:30 AM I was outside at the designated pee hole in the snow, marveling at the sky. It was pink, rosy, and full of clouds. Some of them looked stormy. They were being blown and twisted by the wind. It was beautiful. And I was happy. Not only was I awed by the beauty, in a few hours I would be headed home!