For those of you who didn’t have a chance to follow the Cure JM Team Hope blog page of our climb of Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, the short of it is that I got sick (a cold) that wound up killing my chances for a summit, but we were lucky in that Ron and Oleg were able to summit, and all 4 of us came back with all of our somewhat lighter body parts, intact. I lost at least 10 pounds, a good chunk of it, muscle, based on how sore I was after doing one of my standard runs after returning home!
What follows is the much more detail about the climb.
I’d like to juxtapose our first and last team pictures of the climb:
The first picture has us and ALL of our gear in front of us – we were standing behind our backpacks, which were in back of our sled bags, which were behind our boots. On the right of that picture, there is a plastic bag with our closed cell foam sleeping pads (have to have at *least* one of these – each of us also had an insulated air mattress, as well), and the Clean Mountain Can, used for human waste on the mountain. We’d been asked to put aside these light, bulky and fluffy stuff, for easier packing of the plane. Most of our sled bags were near the 80 pound limit, and our packs all about 45 pounds, so that we were near the “free” 125 pounds per person limit that the air taxis all imposed. Roughly 120 pounds of all of that (about 30 pounds each) was food! We would pick up our 5 gallons of white gas (fuel for our stoves) when we got onto the mountain.
The 2nd picture has us with all of our gear packed up into the van behind us, with Gary, the owner of the Go Purple Shuttle service that we were using, who was also our driver. Our faces are probably all a little thinner, although that’s sort of hard to tell because we’re so tiny in the pictures. You probably CAN tell that Oleg and Ron have nice furry faces – we flew onto the mountain on May 7th, and flew off on May 29th, so they had a full 3 weeks for the growth! And, yes, we did not take a shower the entire time we were on the mountain. I was sort of surprised that people weren’t avoiding us, but apparently the layers of clothing helped. . .
Again, we were using the climb to raise awareness of juvenile myositis (JM), and raise funds for research to cure this potentially life-threatening disease that attacks little children. All donations go directly, and in full, to Cure JM, an organization set up to fund research to cure JM. So, we put up the banner as often as possible, which also helped to distinguish our Trango 3.1 Mountain Hardware tent from the gazillion other such tents on the mountain. Oleg and Candi’s Black Diamond 4-person Bomb Shelter helped to distinguish us, as well, as there were very few of those on the mountain.
ImmensityAs many pictures as I’ve seen of other people’s trips to Denali, I was totally unprepared for the reality of the vastness of the area. Denali is but one mountain in a sea of mountains that stretch out for hundreds of miles, and that sea of mountains is but one range of many in Alaska. By the nature of a picture, everything is reduced to something that fits on a card/laptop screen/even a projector screen – miles are condensed into a little space. As we were flying in for a landing, I started to sense how immense everything was compared to what I had fixed in my head from looking at pictures. The length of the glacial runway was my first clue. And, after landing, and getting out and looking around, I was drenched in a feeling of being a minute person in this huge immenseness. One of the partners of a guy we came to call “Spokane Dan,” actually left after the first day because he couldn’t handle, mentally, the immenseness of the area!
In spite of that, I’ll try to give you an idea of the immenseness within the confines of a tiny picture:Denali is that white shrouded mountain in the middle in the distance. How distant? Well, to reach the top, which is currently 13,120ft (4000m) above us (that’s well over 2 miles higher than where this picture was taken), we’ll have to cover 15 miles (24km), although, as the crow flies, we’re probably looking at something that is about 9 miles (~15km) distant. There is nothing in the picture (or in real life) that allows one’s brain to understand the scale. There are no trees, no roads winding off into the distance. Even though I know, intellectually, how far it is, it’s only when I start to walk, and see other climbers in the distance, and nothing in the far distance (even when I know that there are people, there), that my brain starts to get a sense of just how big this is.
Check this out:See those dots about half way to that mountain? Those are people. See the base of that mountain? That is about two miles (3km) away!!! And that mountain is about 2000ft (600m) higher than we are.
This is a big place, and these are big mountains, especially Denali (and I just read that it’s the highest, from the surrounding tundra and river valleys, than any mountain in the world!). . .
I’ve experienced the generosity of climbers in the mountains, many times, but I was struck by, well, the immensity of the generosity on Denali. I think, in part, that it’s because everyone realizes that this is a serious venture. The environment is hostile. So perhaps people counter the hostile environment with generosity towards each other.
One morning, Ron noted a temperature of 10F (-12C) inside the tent – the temperature outside was likely around -10F (-23C). If you include a wind chill factor, it felt much colder. Up high, we were hearing that the temperature was around -20F (-29C), without including wind chill.
There are no plants, nor animals (except for the rare bird, now and then) to eat, nor water to drink. All you have around you is snow and ice, and so you *have* to have fuel and a stove to melt snow for water. You have to drink 3 to 5 quarts or liters per day. You lose water while exhaling in the high, dry air, and you have to replace it so that you don’t become dehydrated, which could lead to suffering Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), or succumbing to frostbite.
Storms happen, and when they do, they may dump multiple feet of snow, or have high winds, so you have to make sure that you build protection for your tent – high walls with lots of space around them and your tent. And, typically, you have to build your walls after a day of climbing with 45-55 pounds on your back, and 65 pounds or more in your sled. It’s hard work.
Here’s a picture of our Kahiltna Pass camp that we spent at least 4 hours building:
(Photo taken by Ron Jenkins)
I’m standing next to our tent, and the yellow and grey tent on the other side of the snow wall is Candi and Oleg’s tent. Beyond that, on the right, are the NPS (National Park Service) tents. It’s hard to see that the wall behind me is about as tall as I am, but you might be able to tell because my snow shoes are sticking out of it, right above my shovel handle on the left side of the picture. Ron and I hadn’t yet moved out all of the snow that had gotten dumped next to the tent.
Back to discussing the hostile environment, crevasses are underfoot, everywhere, but you might not know where, so you have to probe all of the campsites before taking yourself off of the rope. And then you have to remember (by putting wands on the periphery) to stay within the confines of that area that you just probed. Fortunately for us, any snow bridges we may have camped or walked on were thick and stayed intact (the low temperatures helped that!), and none of our group ever punched through into a crevasse.
So the first thing that I noticed in the generosity department was that the National Park Service (NPS) guys paid attention to the climbers around them and at camp. They seemed to have the “public face” person who would go out each day and talk to all of the different teams and ask everyone what their plan for the day was. Rest day? Cache day? Move up day? We met Joe at the very first camp. He told us that his team of 5 was also camping that first night. I don’t remember, now, where they were the first day we moved up to Ski Hill Camp at 7800ft (2375m), but they were already in their fortified camp at Kahiltna Pass at 9700ft (2950m) when we arrived. They greeted us and told us that they were at our service. I decided to test that out soon thereafter when I couldn’t extend my shovel. It turned out that the shovel handle was frozen, and since they had a stove already lit and melting snow, one fellow used that to heat my shovel handle until he could extend it. Thank you!
We made our camp next to an established one (“home” of the Finns, whom we’d later meet), and another camp that Solo Jim, whom we’d met the previous night, was creating. The wind was blowing, and snow was coming down, so we knew that we had to create a very good camp, here. We sawed out blocks in the snow, and built a wall, and shoveled out our camp to create a flat area for the tents.
A storm raged the next 2 days, so we didn’t go anywhere. The NPS guys came by each day, visiting each camp, and making sure that everyone was ok, and the tents were ok. Ron and I hadn’t paid that much attention to our new tent and all of its features, and we’d not tied down the one side because it made access from the tent to our pee/bathroom area inconvenient. I was sick with a cold and trying to sleep, and Ron was busy doing something when the NPS folks came by and noticed that our tent was flapping around more than it needed to be. They asked us if we minded if they fixed it for us! Of course we didn’t mind!
One time when I emerged from the tent, the Finns, next to us, were busy redoing their camp – the snow had pummeled their tent more than it should have, so they moved a wall, and in doing so, they filled in one of our walls where we’d previously had access to the other side. We discussed this, and moved on to other topics, like the bigger purpose of our climb – fundraising for Cure JM. It reminded me that, due to the storm, I’d yet to get a picture of our camp with the banner, and I mentioned this to them. One of them told me that he would be happy to help and take a picture for me. Oh! How sweet! He then told me that he is a professional photographer! Even better!!! I ran inside the tent and got the banner, and he ran into his tent and came out with a beautiful and very large camera! The wind was blowing and it was snowing, but he didn’t mind. He took some pictures. We exchanged contact information so that we could get the pictures after the climbs were over. We all talked some more, and eventually went back to the warmth of the tents.
Finally, we woke up to silence. After 3 days of constant wind, the lack of the wind was “loud”! I guess that one would say that it was quite, quite noticeable – we could *hear* the silence. The Finns were up and ready to go, early. I thought that they were exceedingly cute in their outfits – they were exactly the same. It turned out that sponsors had given them those outfits, the tents, and many other things. We were happy that they were heading out, first, because that meant that *they* would be breaking trail, not us. It’s sort of funny – the mountain is so big, so vast. One could create many trails. But breaking trail is hard, so once someone does it, everyone uses that same trail, and only after a snow does someone bother to break trail, again. The NPS guys followed, as did another team or two that had come in one of the previous days during the snow storm. We all moved up to Motorcycle Hill at 11,000ft (3350m).
We set up our tents on either side of Solo Jim at this new campsite, and noted that we were once again near the NPS team. A guided Alaska Mountaineering School team, led by a guide named Tom, camped behind us. I think that it was on our second day at this camp that Tom told us that several of his clients had decided to return home, so he was left with a lot of extra food. He started telling me about all of his delicacies, and his clients, 4 German guys, likewise started telling me how I couldn’t possibly survive without this tea or that dinner. They’d brought up very heavy things like some boil-in-the-bag Tasty Bites Indian food, and a variety of chocolate bars. They wanted me to tell Solo Jim and the rest of my team. I did, but our team already had a lot of food weight. I decided that I would try the Tasty Bites for some variety of my dinner, and Candi went for the chai tea (with powdered milk!), and the rest of our team plus solo Jim grabbed some bagels. Cream cheese was also available! Solo Jim realized that he had a lot of a certain type of food, but he was missing candy type snacks, so he went and stocked up on those. He looked like a drug dealer when he came back and opened his jacket to show us his loot! Later, Tom and team begged us to finish their soup, which Oleg and Ron happily did. It had dairy in it, so I didn’t partake, and Candi couldn’t be sure that it didn’t have wheat in it, so she had to give it a miss, although it was a favorite soup of hers – broccoli and cheese.
Meanwhile, my cold raged, and I coughed and coughed and coughed. Candi had brought 10 cough drops, which she was going to need as she got higher, and none of the rest of us had even thought to bring any. She frugally doled out 2 for me, 1 of which I used. Solo Jim heard me coughing, and asked if I had any cough drops. I told him our situation. He then produced a whole ziplock bag of cough drops and gave it to me, telling me that he had 2 more, just like it, so that I could use them all!!! Ron, who’d also developed a cough (sorry, Ron!) was also thankful. In the tent, we put the bag within easy access of the two of us so that either of us could fetch one when needed. It seems that Solo Jim’s previous trip caught him without cough drops and with a cold, so he didn’t want to repeat the experience. Lucky us!
I went over to visit the Finns to find out what they’d been doing. They’d done a cache one day, so I asked them how long it took them. Well, they’d stopped to help someone on the way up who was having trouble with I can’t remember what, and on the way down, they’d stopped to help some other climbers who were having troubles with their sleds, so they couldn’t really tell how long it took them, since they kept stopping to help people. I got a rough idea, anyway. The next day, I stopped by, and saw that 2 of them were busy shoveling nearby. I asked what they were doing? Creating a bigger fortress? Nyah – a couple of climbers had come up and were exhausted, and at least one seemed to be suffering from AMS, so they were creating their camp for them!!! Eegads! Silently, I wondered if I would be so generous. . .
I think that it may have been at this camp that we started to hear that 2 people had reached the summit, but at the cost of some frostbite.
Eventually, we moved up to Basin camp, at 14,200ft (4330m), and as we crested the hill into camp, I could see the first campsite, and I saw the banner waving that told me that the campsite belonged to the Finns. I was so happy, I yelled out either “My Favorite Finns” or “The Finns!” This was enough to get their attention, and Illka, the photographer, ran to get his camera, and Tatu, some food, and then, as we came into camp, Illka took a photograph of each of us as we crested the hill into camp, and then Tatu offered us banana chips. It was *such* a nice welcome – we were absolutely knackered! It lifted our spirits! In addition, Markus had carved out a huge smiley face out of the snow, which couldn’t help but put a smile on my face. I think that that smiley-face was probably one of the most photographed non-mountain thing – I saw so many people taking pictures of it. Alas, I don’t have *any* pictures of it. . . We had intended to get one, but somehow, it just never happened.
Ron, who was leading our rope team that day, looked for a place to put our camp here at 14,200ft, and settled on a place that was right near Tom and his team. Tom and his team came out and welcomed us. Tom showed us their snow block quarry and offered us the use of it, and let us use his sleds, for ferrying the blocks, and his spade shovel, which made removing the blocks a cinch. And then, he offered us the use of his stove, fuel, and pots to make water (and started some for us!), and the use of their kitchen area that had a tent over it, so it was nice and warm. Wow! So nice! It made our first night there a heck of lot easier.
IntrigueOn the way up to this camp, sometimes when we saw someone coming down, if it appeared that they were heading out (sometimes people would be coming down from an acclimatizing hike, or stashing a cache), we’d ask them if they had been successful or not. Everyone said that they’d not been, but everyone had heard about the 2 climbers who had made the summit, and we started hearing different twists on the story. In some of the stories, at least one of the guys was sure to lose his toes, if not his whole foot, if not both feet, and in others, the frostbite was minor. We started to hear other things about these two – it seems that people started to doubt whether they had, indeed, reached the summit! Some people had seen them climbing. The two climbers apparently said that they had reached the summit in 5 hours from the high camp, but those who saw them climbing said that there was no way that they could have done it in 5 hours (the typical summit time is 8 to 16 hours!) at the speed that they were going. And it seems that they didn’t have pictures of being on the summit. So did they or didn’t they reach the summit? Would they be stripped of their summit claim? It started to sound like high crimes and suspicious dealings. I never followed up, and I’m not sure that there is a way to, barring calling the park service employees and getting the scoop from them. When they put out the end of year report, they might include the conclusion of this suspense!
TriumphThe day after arriving in Basin Camp, we had to move our campsite – after digging down just a few inches, we’d run into ice. Thick ice that was many feet thick. We weren’t going to chop through it. Our tent stakes were mostly good for snow, and snow is more comfortable than ice, but the first night, we’d made this discovery too late, and didn’t want to move the camp, so just decided that we’d risk camping out without adequate storm protection, and move the camp the following day.
The next day, I was feeling pretty worn out, so the others looked around for a suitable place, and then worked to move the camp. And then, pretty late in the day – I think that it was around 4pm – we geared up to go and get our cache at 13,600ft (4145m). It seemed closer than I remembered, and even the return, going back uphill, didn’t seem as arduous as the previous day, but also not a walk in the park.
This might be a good time to show a picture of me all geared up:
(Photo taken by Ron Jenkins)
Unfortunately, you can’t see the sled, behind me. This was from lower down on the mountain, since we cached our snowshoes at Motorcycle Hill camp at 11,000ft, and therefore didn’t use them going any higher. We didn’t take the sleds any higher than the 14,200ft (4330m) Basin Camp.
It was on our second day at Basin camp, after we’d retrieved our cache, that I finally decided that perhaps the cold that I’d been sporting all of this time was really an upper respiratory bacterial infection, and that I should take the round of antibiotics that I’d had prescribed for this exact eventuality.
The following day, we all geared up to deposit a cache of food, fuel, and, unfortunately, our second rope up at 16,300ft (4970m).
We were headed to the top of the headwall (lowest part of the top of the ridge in the following picture), and then another 100ft (30m) up the ridge to the right for the cache spot:Let’s talk about immensity one more time – the top of that headwall is 2000ft (610m) higher than where this picture was taken (in Basin Camp). I chose this picture, because I think that you can make out the trail that everyone is using to the top of the headwall, and there is one person on the fixed rope lines near the top of the headwall, and some people on the lower part of the trail. We made it, successfully.
Here is a picture taken as we were going up the headwall, with Candi and the 14,200ft Basin camp below her:And one of Ron as he was going up the fixed lines at the top of the headwall:
The next day, we cached what we didn’t need for the summit bid (more fuel and food), and packed up everything else to move to high camp. Ron stopped us soon after leaving camp, and said that this wasn’t going to work. What wasn’t going to work? “You,” he said. He told me that I was going way too slow, and that we hadn’t even gotten to the hill. I didn’t know what he was talking about, although when he mentioned that we hadn’t even gotten to the hill, I was thinking that he had a point, there. I was thinking that I should be mad at him, because by pretty much saying that I couldn’t go up, he was taking away my chance at a summit, but I couldn’t get mad at him – no summit is worth ruining a friendship. I just turned around to go back, and he followed, so that he could give me a stove and the fuel bottle (I already had the tent). After he went back to the others, I realized that I had the bags for the Clean Mountain Can (poop can), and so tried to catch up to them to give those to Oleg, who was at the end of the rope. When I returned I started to erect the tent, and discovered that everything was very difficult. After every stake that I put in, I would have to take several minutes to recover – do lots of breathing. Then, I would move to the next stake, and have to recover, again. I started to get the picture that there really was something wrong. After a bit, I went over to one of the Alaska Mountain School guides and started whining about my predicament. He told me that whenever they have someone get a cold, they immediately start them on antibiotics, just in case that clears up the situation, and they keep them at a lower elevation, because then there is a chance for them to recover. He was saying that if he got just a small cut on his finger that would be healed in a couple days down low, it would take at least a week to heal up here. He mentioned that it was a good thing that I was staying at Basin Camp, because even though it was too high to recover at this altitude, that with my problem, I could easily get HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) if I’d moved up to the high camp. I became thankful that Ron said something. I still think that it was odd that I couldn’t notice, but I definitely didn’t fully notice the deterioration in my abilities. I’m thinking that when everything is hard to begin with, it’s hard to tell that it’s even harder than it should be. . .
Later, the whole team showed up – they weren’t comfortable with when they calculated that they would reach high camp, so they returned to try again, the next day. The next day, all three set out, again, but by then, Candi had gotten worn out, so she returned, and Ron and Oleg continued to high camp. While I continued to rest, Candi took the opportunity to visit other folks in camp. One person she visited with could hear me coughing, and insisted that I had HAPE, and offered us drugs to take care of it. We already had the proper drugs to treat the condition, but I was sure that I didn’t have HAPE. Since I was pretty sure that the NPS had a doctor at this camp, I offered to go there, and double-check that I didn’t have HAPE, and that I could likely safely stay at 14,200ft, rather than having to go down. I had an oximeter, which I’d been using, and saw that my oxygen saturation was now in the 60’s (we like it to be in the 80’s, at this altitude, if not higher – I’m usually at 98 or 99% oxygen saturation when at sea level). So, off to the doctor we went. The doctor listened to my lungs and said – nope, no sign of HAPE, but she did hear what sounded like the possible start of bronchitis. She didn’t like the low oxygen saturation, but she didn’t think that there was a problem if I stayed at this elevation, as long as I kept a watch on how I was doing. She advised me NOT to take any drugs to treat HAPE at this point, since she said that that would lower my heart rate, which would be bad with my low oxygen saturation, and that then I *would* have some serious problems.
The next day, I rested. Candi thought that she might try to go up and get our cached rope, and Oleg and Ron took off for the summit from their high camp. The Finns came by as they started their way up a different route to the summit – the Orient Express – so I wished them all good luck. I went over to the NPS camp, and tried to follow Candi and the Finns’ ascents, but the headwall was shrouded in fog, so I couldn’t find Candi. I decided to take one last look at the Orient Express route, and was amazed that I happened to see one of the Finns. I thought that it was odd that he seemed to be pointing downhill, but going sideways, up. The clouds moved in, and I could no longer see anything on either the Orient Express, or the headwall on the West Buttress (the standard) route. Later, it turned out that because there was such low visibility, Candi just hung out on the mountain before returning. And, higher up, the winds were strong, so Ron and Oleg returned to high camp, having made it to Denali Pass.
The following day, Ron and Oleg tried, again, for the summit, and this time, they made it!!!!! Yay!!! Even if I couldn’t make it, I was happy that someone in our team could. Not only that, when Oleg called down (we used radios to communicate with each other) to tell us of their success, he suggested that Candi, if she was feeling up to it, go up the next day – meet Ron and Oleg at the top of the headwall – Ron would continue on down, and Candi would move up, with Oleg, to high camp, take a rest day, and then attempt the summit the next day! I was happy for Candi that she would get this opportunity. While I was feeling better, I knew that I wasn’t better enough to go up.
Here is a summit photo of Ron and Oleg:
(Photo courtesy of Ron Jenkins)
On the day that Ron and Oleg were summitting, I finally felt better, so Candi went over to the Finns to borrow a rope (since our 2nd rope was cached above), so that Solo Jim, Candi, and I could take all of our accumulated bags of poop over to a crevasse. When Candi returned with the rope, she told me that the Finn she’d borrowed the rope from was looking really worried. So, on our way over to the crevasse, I yelled to him that I would stop by on our return trip. He acknowledged what I said with a wave, and hung his head down. Wow – he really did seem quite depressed.
Candi, Solo Jim, and I made it over to the crevasse with me leading the way, since my abilities were the limiting factor. We’re supposed to throw the poop contained in biodegradable bags, into what should be the abyss of a crevasse. Instead, just like the previous two crevasses that I’d thrown poop into, this one had a snow ledge, and the poop all landed on that. I hoped that the snow ledges would eventually melt out, and then the poop would all go deep into the crevasses, as intended. . .
As promised, on our return, we stopped by the Finns’ camp to visit as well as to return the rope. By this time, there were two – Markus as well as Juuso. Before, Juuso was just plain worried, but, now, there was a real reason to be worried – Illka had fallen, and had slid into a crevasse. Markus, a snowboarder and a search and rescue person while in Finland, had had to make a split second decision whether to attempt to go to Illka and help out, or go down and get more help, leaving Tatu up there. Markus knew that no matter what, they would need more assistance than the two of them who were with Illka, so he elected to go down and inform the NPS. The NPS took over and so Markus joined Juuso at camp. Markus and Illka had been successful in reaching the summit, and, like most accidents on mountains, Illka’s fall had happened on the return trip. We didn’t know Illka’s status, so Candi and I stayed with the Finns to talk, while Solo Jim returned to his camp.
After a while, I saw Joe, of NPS, headed our way – I was struck with a sense of foreboding, and just looked his way and said “uh-oh”. Everyone looked up at Joe’s arrival. He immediately went over to Markus and Juuso and apologized and told them that Illka was dead. He let this sink in for a while, and then told them that a team from Kenya had been nearby, so they rappelled into the crevasse and it was they who had given this result. The NPS weren’t sure if they’d be able to recover the body, but if so, it would be flown to Talkeetna where they would await instructions from the family. We were then all told not to say anything to anyone about this, while they notified the proper authorities in Finland so that the family could be notified, first. He made sure that Candi and I understood that we were included in this message. We nodded. He told us that Tatu, the 4th Finn was instructed by the NPS to rope up with the Kenyan’s and walk down. Tatu later told me that he’d wanted to ski down in Illka’s honor, so was frustrated by this instruction, but he abided by it, nonetheless.
Joe recognized me, since we’d chatted many times on the way up the mountain, and he was aware of my doctor visit. He, too, had been ill, although fortunately not as affected by his illness as I was by mine. He asked me how I was doing, and I reported my success in going to the crevasse. He informed me that they’d staked out a different crevasse for poop disposal – one that truly was deep, with no shelf. . . He then told everyone that he needed to return to finish up with the logistics of this incident, and took off. Candi and I and the Finns were left to discuss the horrible news. Markus told us that he wanted a cigarette. He repeated the request several times. So few (thankfully!) people on the mountain smoke, that it seemed an impossible request. Candi and I eventually left to make dinner, but promised to return, later.
I felt obliged to help with the one request that any of them had ever made. I had Candi ask one group if they had any cigarettes, and then I went to ask another group – I’d remembered that someone who was asian had been smoking, and so I wanted to find that person, and bum a cigarette off him to give to Markus. The group I asked was a Korean group, and they had a couple of smokers. I told them that a friend had received some bad news and was in need of a cigarette (remembering Joe’s warning not to spread the news, prematurely), and they were extremely generous, handing me a pack of about 5 cigarettes. I told them only 1 was necessary, but they insisted, and then they said that cookies (sweet things!) would be nice in return!! I didn’t have any cookies, but Candi did, so she gave me some to give to them, and I added in some candy that I had. The Koreans were very happy with the trade. After Candi made some tea (and I, my hot cocoa), we returned to the Finns with the cigarettes. Markus had already found another smoker, earlier, and so had had his fix, but he was happy to get more cigarettes. And Candi shared her tea, which turned out to be of a flavor that was traditional in Finland, so was very appropriate. Tatu had returned, so we all sat around and talked about Illka, and what would happen next.
A helicopter appeared, went over to the crevasse, and then landed over at the NPS camp. It then went back to the crevasse, this time picking up Illka, and taking him off toward Talkeetna. When the Finns saw that the helicopter must have Illka, they stood, and Candi and I with them. They yelled out some tribute or other (in Finnish). I wanted to yell out that at least he would live on through his pictures. I didn’t, but I shared that thought with the others a little later. And that’s when I found out that likely, there would be no pictures. His camera was lost. They thought that he’d been taking a photo when he fell, and they thought that they’d seen the camera in amongst the rocks, but they couldn’t know for sure. The NPS thought that it might be a worthy mission to look for the camera, precisely because Illka was suspected of taking a picture when he fell, but I have no idea if they followed through with that. The Finns promised that they’d send pictures if the camera were found and returned. This was such a super sad day. By then, we knew that Ron and Oleg had succeeded, and we were happy about that, but this news was so present and so oppressive, and we could only discuss it amongst the five of us.
Ron and Oleg did hear about it – it’s hard for a camp full of people to not notice a helicopter plucking someone out of a crevasse.
This had been the second death in the season, and by far the one that affected us the most. The other was of a German climber who’d attempted to retrieve his sliding backpack, but instead, slid, himself, down the backside of the headwall. That death was quite sobering, as it happened just before we crested the headwall, and while we were on top of the headwall, the body was being recovered. It made us especially vigilant anytime any of us were up there – making sure that we were safely tied in to an anchor, even though the area looked relatively flat and safe.
We stayed an additional 4 days or so – the day following Illka’s death, Ron came down with a super heavy pack and Candi went up. The following day, everyone rested. And then the next day, Candi and Oleg wound up coming down, while Ron and I went to the “Edge of the World” as a certain area outside of camp is called – because there are places where there is an edge, and it appears that you’re looking over nothingness. I sprinkled some of Monty’s ashes, here, because I knew that he had enjoyed this spot. I kept the rest for a return trip to Denali, where I hope to spread them on the summit, as I’d hoped to do, this time.
We flew onto the glacier on May 7th, and we flew off on May 29th – 22 days and 21 nights. So much had transpired – and as much as I’ve told here, there is still so much to tell. Luke and Margo and their kids, whom I visited in Anchorage on the way home, got to hear an earful!!!
And, in spite of all of our efforts at being trained and prepared – gathering as a group to talk to a high altitude-knowledgeable doctor, getting the proper prescriptions – it was a simple cold, that, unchecked, caused me not to be able to summit. One just can’t treat stuff the same at altitude as at sea level, as I’ve learned, once again. . .
As I remember Illka, I also remember another cousin of mine who recently passed away in a different accident, at home. I hope that you all remain safe and healthy,
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