Over chicken sandwiches at a charming Santa Fe bakery, my friend Keith shares with me his compelling three week experience to summit the highest mountain in America, Mt. Denali.
Denali (about 100 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska) is one of the seven summits. The highest peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,000 feet above sea level. Only about half of the people who attempt to reach the top make it, as the upper half of Denali is permanently covered with snow and huge glaciers. It is the mountain’s extreme cold, with wind chill to minus 118 F, that can freeze a human in an instant. Frost-bite is why so many people are rescued.
As Keith shares his story, I took the journey along with him in my mind…
Cold and silent, Keith steps out of the small plane that lands on skis instead of wheels. As he stands on the vast glacier and watches the small plane ski off; an eery feeling of being very alone takes over.
The rope in Keith’s hand becomes the link to eight complete strangers from opposite ends of the globe; China, South America, Middle East, America, and Europe. During this expedition, the cable (to avoid the risk of falling into a crevasse) does more than tether this international group safely together; it soon becomes a connection as intimate as a dearest family member.
Keith says, “The job is simply to stay warm and stay strong and make steady progress forward. It is all about a team effort to make it to the summit.”
A normal day consists of climbing for about eight hours with a sixty-five pound pack strapped to Keith’s back, while dragging a heavily-laden fifty pound supply sled. His human body magically adapts like an amphibian’s aquatic gill as his breath expands and contracts into a terrestrial lung-breather.
As the terrain becomes steeper, their sleds are abandoned. The burden of the backpack starts to feel heavier with the elevation change. Frigid temperatures, less and less thin air to breath, and physical exhaustion are all profoundly overcome by humbling, expansive views of mountain majesty.
Evening never turns into night in Alaska’s summer months. The sun shines strong and some evening hikes go on until 11 p.m. This routine lasts 15 days.
On Monday, June 4, 2018, the weather looks promising and the team is ready to summit. They leave the 17,000 elevation camp with clear skies but a bitter air temperature of -25 degrees F. Through the day’s climb, the wind picks up steadily and the team reaches Archdeacons Tower at 19,500 feet. Almost there.
With a swift wave of Mother Nature’s hand, Denali’s summit becomes engulfed by a lenticular wind cloud. This cloud resembles a UFO in its lens shaped formation. Heartbroken, the team must descend back to base camp.
With a heavy heart, Keith and the team discuss the upcoming day’s ominous forecast. A low pressure system is moving in. Months of preparation, early morning workouts, and long mountain weekend training, all for some luck that just ran out.
The chance of reaching the summit taken away. Why do things happen the way they do?
Falling asleep in disappointment, the team awakens to an unexpected surprise of a glorious morning. Somehow, the forecast proves wrong and the weather shifts. Clear and calm. Exhausted from the previous day’s climb, it takes sheer will and determination for the team to try again. They have a second chance.
That day, against the odds, the weather holds. Eight hours later Keith and team stand on the summit.
How can a euphoric feeling be expressed in words? It is like trying to translate an experience to another, who has no context to understand.
“To try and put the feeling of reaching the summit into words– it is like the feeling of a childhood dream that finally comes true. When I am up on the mountain, time seems to stop. My focus is consumed by the task at hand. To be in this place, it is so fundamental and so beautiful. I come back to the simplicity of life. In this place I have one task, to climb the mountain and be connected with the power and beauty of nature. Perhaps I am given a glimpse, an opportunity to connect to something much greater than I can put into words.”
As we finish up the last bites of our sandwich and last sips of tea, I imagine how his sandwich must taste now in comparison to eating goop from a tube on his mountaineering expedition.
Keith said, “I didn’t miss the food while on the mountain. It didn’t seem to matter. “
Keith is a seasoned mountaineer and I observe how each climb brings him face-to-face with a deeper truth. The simplicity and challenge of Keith’s days on Denali shifts his perspective of safety and comfort, ultimately re-aquainting Keith to his true nature – his personal truewellbeing.