Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Denali: A walk in the sky

It is almost nine and the sun is high in the sky by the time I finally extricate myself from my sleeping bag. I eat a leisurely breakfast and leave the 14k camp at ten thirty. Unlike in most mountain ranges, predawn starts are not needed in Alaska in June. Daylight is not a consideration, only temperature is. This can mean climbing at night low down to take advantage of the cold, and the other way around high up. My pack is pleasantly light: two litres of drink, some bars, a parka, a spare pair of gloves, and a camera. Sweat fogs up my sunglasses and drips from the tip of my nose as I push myself up a sunlit snow slope toward the Headwall. It is a relief to have to slow down on the forty-five-degree snow and ice, all the while scrupulously avoiding touching the fixed lines. As a sport climber I have a horror of pulling on gear. At the ridge I turn right and follow the crest to the 17k camp. I thoroughly enjoy this section of the route: travel is easy on the styrofoam snow, the angle is not so steep that I am pushing my anaerobic threshold, and the views in all directions are spectacular.

A lineup on the fixed lines with the 14k camp below.

Looking up the ridge toward the 17k camp.

17k: the halfway point. I sit down in the lee of a wall of snow blocks and rest for twenty minutes. I eat some energy bars, finish the first of my two litres, and put on more clothes for the windswept Autobahn. Actually it does not look too bad today. It was far more windy a few days ago on an acclimatization hike to Denali Pass, when swirling snow devils would try to throw me off balance. I am happy to see the acclimatization working its magic, with my altimeter watch telling me that my rate of ascent has not decreased with altitude. I pass a few roped parties, taking care to walk on the uphill side and not get flossed off the mountainside. At one point I hear a distant rumble and put it down to a collapsing serac. But after another, closer rumble I look around and notice a huge thundercloud building over the tundra to the north. At Denali Pass I sit down to watch it, and to make up my mind about whether to head up or down. In the end I decide that with the wind blowing from the east, the cumulonimbus is not coming my way, and I start hiking uphill again. I am breathing hard, enjoying the physical effort and rapid upward progress. I pass a couple of people on the Football Field. One of them especially looks to be hurting: he collapses over his trekking poles every few steps, while his companion patiently waits for him. I admire their toughness.

Looking up the Autobahn toward Denali Pass.

Denali Pass.

A nuclear explosion or merely a thunderstorm?

Two lonely figures emerge onto the Football Field.

Pig Hill goes by quickly, and I gain the final section of corniced ridge rising gently to the summit. It is not far now. And a good thing too, as there are some awfully gray clouds boiling up out of the valleys to the east. Few things scare me more than bad weather high in the mountains, and I have no desire to be on the featureless summit plateau if and when something nasty blows in. For all that, the last bit to the top is a joy: not difficult but spectacularly exposed, with the drop to the south especially exhilarating. I share the summit with Dane from Colorado, who like me preferred to hike up from 14k rather than to carry loads and camp uncomfortably at 17k. It is good to be up here on a warm afternoon, and not in the middle of a bitterly cold night like last time. I snap photos in all directions, narrate some video over my ragged breath, then turn around and head down. In the meantime an opaque veil of cloud has covered the sky, and while the weather is not truly bad, the flat light causes me to trip repeatedly. I slow down while descending the Autobahn, not wishing to have to test my rusty self-arrest skills. It is a relief to reach the ridge below 17k, where rock outcrops give some depth to the monochromatic landscape. I hand-over-hand down the fixed lines (my ethics do not quite stretch to eschewing them entirely) and plunge into dense fog. As if time mattered in the slightest, I nearly run down snow made heavy by the afternoon heat, and walk into camp less than eight hours after leaving it. For today it is enough. Tomorrow will be a different story.

The summit ridge.

Looking down the final stretch of ridge with Foraker in the distance.

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