Greetings from Waltham, Mass. (and Thornton, N.H.). I have been back from Denali for about 24 hours now and am still recovering from the laryngitis that I had before beginning our Alaskan adventure on May 29th. My decision to turn around at 9600 feet to accompany Peter Anderson off the mountain when he came down with severe sinus congestion was not an easy one. I was still breathing fine through my nose, which is important at higher altitudes, especially when trying to sleep in small and sometimes claustrophobic mountain tents. But, I was getting more and more concerned each day on the mountain as my voice was not improving, which I need for my profession as a college teacher. I do not think that Peter’s head cold was at all related to my own, as the infectious stage of my head cold was probably about a month ago. My month-long head cold did cut into my final training sessions before beginning our climb, which I really felt on the first two days of slogging up about eight miles and about 3000 vertical feet on the Kahiltna Glacier (base camp was 7200 ft, but we dropped down Heartbreak Hill about 500 ft before climbing to our camps at 7600 and 9600 ft). When GO (Garret Oswald) decided to bail out also, that left two tents for the remaining three in our party, so Frodo, Ben Baranko, and John Christiana will not be as cramped in their sleeping quarters as they move higher up the mountain.
This evening, I spoke with Frodo’s spouse, Sheila, who had just received a short sat phone message from Frodo. Before their phone connection cut out, Sheila heard Frodo say that they were camped at 14,200 ft, trying to avoid the sunshine. Intense sunshine can be just as debilitating on a glaciated mountain as altitude or storms. The 14,200 ft camp is the largest on the mountain other than Kahiltna base camp, and includes park climbing rangers and medical students with lots of emergency equipment. From this camp, Frodo and probably a couple hundred other climbers will take the time to acclimatize by making forays up to 16,200 and perhaps 17,200 ft, before either moving their camp up to one of those levels or perhaps making an attempt for the summit from 14,200 ft. The weather forecast that I heard for south-central Alaska when I left Anchorage on Sunday was for a week or more of stable conditions, without any major low pressure systems moving inland. Such a forecast is great news for anyone at 14,200 ft at the moment, as we met dozens of climbers coming down who did not get the weather they needed to summit during the end of May and the first few days of June. But, our goal, as with most mountaineers, was to be safe and come back with all of our fingers and toes. So, I trust that Frodo, Ben, and John will wait for the necessary weather conditions (i.e., clear skies and low winds) before they attempt to summit.
Peter, who summited McKinley in 1997, told me on the way down that this would be his last trip to the mountain (being a 50 state high pointer already, he had been attempting to get to the top of each state high point a second time, and each of the lower 48 in winter). Our expedition was GO’s third attempt at the West Buttress (WB) Route, but I am not sure what his future plans are. For myself, I plan to go back to the WB (also known as the Washburn Route), because it is just as beautiful as it is entirely different from the Ruth Gorge, from where I tried to climb McKinley’s South Buttress in 1985. Over the past couple of decades, the Park Service with the help of climbers has accomplished an incredible feat in cleaning up the WB Route that is populated by over 1200 climbers every year (i.e., all human waste is now either packed off the upper mountain in small special canisters [CMC’s, or Clean Mountain Cans], or flung within plastic bags into open crevasses on the lower Kahiltna). Back in 1985, our entire team of five turned around on the South Buttress because we lacked the chemistry to continue the effort on a difficult route. This year, two of us turned around on the WB for medical reasons. But, as a long-suffering Red Sox fan, maybe 2005 or 2006 will The Year for me to summit McKinley. As you know, Frodo is a Yankees fan, and 2004 is his year to summit McKinley, even if the Yankees fold once again in the post season. Frodo is accompanied by two strong climbing partners, one who has superb technical climbing skills (Ben) and the other who has been to the top of two continental summits (Kilimanjaro and Elbrus for John). Good luck to all three, and of course, I am sorry that I am still not on the mountain with them.