Thursday, June 30, 2005

Near Death-Part IV

We had spent almost three weeks climbing Mt. McKinley and were at a fork in the mountain, so to speak.

About half of our party decided to stay at the Camp at 14,000 feet, and the other half, including me, decided to make a run for the summit. We would need to camp at about 16,000 feet for one night, and then move up to a camp somewhere around 17,500. The next day, I spent my 28th birthday on a narrow cut of the mountain, above the clouds, enjoying the pleasant feel of the sun, resting up for a swipe at the summit, and feeling like I had the world by the balls.

The next evening, we almost died in a snowstorm just below the summit of Denali. The storm hit without much notice, and we barely had time to get our tents pitched. At one point, the wind blew so hard that it literally picked me up off the ground such that my body was parallel to the ground, and, for an instant, I did the mountaineering equivalent of levitation.

We finally got our tent up, climbed inside, and tried to ride out the storm. Already exhausted by having spent three weeks on the mountain, sunburned from the altitude and exposure, and now shoehorned into a tent, we braced ourselves for each new breath of the storm. After a time, the storm became rhythmic, with winds bearing down on us, pounding the tent, and then letting up, pounding the tent and then letting up, etc. Each time the winds pounded the tent, we would put arms up to guard against the force of the wind, hoping the seams of the tent would hold, and knowing that, if the seams snapped, we would be caught inside with no protection from the storm, 3,000 feet above the nearest medical assistance.

After a couple of hours of this we were emotionally spent, arm-weary, and just plain out of gas. I remember thinking that if I survived this ordeal, I would never step foot on a mountain again. I remember thinking how I really didn't have the world by the balls anymore. I remember thinking how stupid it was to have put myself in this position. I remember thinking what a foolish death this was going to be, and I remember giving in to exhaustion, because I just couldn't hang on any longer.

We awoke a few hours later to learn that the storm had passed, our tent had held, and we were still alive and kicking.

We then proceeded to get the hell off that mountain. And that is when some of the real fun began.