Climbing Denali / Mt. McKinley la Summit and Death March
“Monday 22 June SUMMITED!!!! Day ‘who knows and counts anymore’ on the mountain We moved to High Camp 17,200’ yesterday.. as I suspected the fixed lines were my favourite parts and boy we had two long sections of them. The move goes like this; attach your heather with an unlocking carabiner to the fixed line and click your ascender behind. Now all you have to do is move up slowly; placing your feet slightly outwards and with every other step push the ascender further up on the fixed rope. When you get to the picket (where a new fixed line is installed) stop climbing and shout ‘aaaanchoooooooor’ (=anchor) or ‘staaaaapp’ (=stop) so all your team members can hear you’re about to get off the fixed line you were climbing on. You unclick your unclocking carabiner first, place it on the next rope, unclick the ascender and secure it on the rope then shout ‘cliiiiiiiiiiiiiiimb’ or ‘gooooooo’ signalling you’re ready to continue to climb. It’s quite vital so your team mates are aware (as they also have to stop every time someone has to anchor) I found that not everyone on my team did this so you had to watch the person in front (on a 45 degree slope with a tall and heavy backpack plus helmet& sun cap blocking your vision it is not easy) and if the team rope suddenly pulls you back, it means the person behind forgot to shout and about to anchor. “
(that tiny snowy bit, right from the middle is 17,200′ camp from the distance)
(not the best place to get your GoPro out but couldn’t resist)
(after the first long fixedline section things got even more fun!)
(second fixed line section)
We arrived at 17,200 feet pretty broken. I remember sitting down on my backback waiting for our guides to find us a safe spot to build camp. Some teams move into other teams (who already left of course) camp sites, not us. New campsite at every Camp meant grabbing the shovels, stomping the snow, more digging, setting up tents and the midi, building ice walls. No rest for the wicked! Same happened this time.
So there I was sat on my backpack, huge smile on my face for making it to the highest camp on the mountain but I was seriously low on energy. Waiting for our guides to come back, next minute I realised I was half asleep sliding off the sled. Looked up and around, my teammates were already marking our campsite so I got up, pulled my belongings to their and started with the stomping. Due to the lower oxygen level, at the camp everything felt harder and took longer. If one person doesn’t contribute (or not as much as others) to establishing camp, it takes
even longer. It wasn’t my place to tell anyone off for being lazy, as our guides said at the beginning, everyone will have bad days..
By the time tents were up, soup was almost ready and to my complete surprise, I was hungry! This is unusual for me in high altitude but I thought better eat more than nothing. After dinner we were told that there was a chance we would head to the summit the following day but we’ll see in the morning. I didn’t like that. Being quite anal when it comes to organising and planning, I like to know what to prepare for. Needless to say I didn’t sleep that night. We were woken at 6.15am and heard our guides telling the other tent to get ready, we were going for the summit!
My body just wanted to stay in the tent, sleep and sleep. I didn’t want to be the last to get ready so got out of bed, shoved down some breakfast, had my waterbottles filled up (one with water, the other with my favourite tea – strawberry & vanilla) and got myself ready. Like every morning, you had to guess what the weather was going to be like so I had longjohns + soft shell climbing pants and wore a long sleeve merino wool
baselayer with a fleece top and a thin jacket. We all had to pack survival kits (thermos, sleeping bag, sleeping mat) and our warmest down pants, down jacket and expedition mitts. Rolled out of camp around 9.30am, the last but one team.
I am not fan of long boring hills but this is what was awaiting, it’s called the Autobahn. I knew there will be fixed lines near the top (only for
protection so clip in and out this time, didn’t use the ascender) but it was going to be hard work.
(the route out of 17,200′ camp went all the way to the top rocks)
Once negotiated this lengthy section we had a quick break, the guides checked if everyone was doing well, forced some munchies and water down and carried on. The next thing I remember is when we got to The Football Field. One giant hill to climb but we could see the summit ridge from here!
(it’s called the…… ‘Big Hill’ of course!)
We regrouped here, last break before the summit – we were told. I felt great, probably thanks to vanilla GU I wolfed down earlier, as a non coffee drinker it did give me the boost I needed!
We took off and soon met the other teams who were heading off the summit. I said my congrats to them but secretly wishing it was us. About 3/4 up ‘Big Hill’ our guide turned around and said: “Guys, there are clouds and possibly storm coming in, if we don’t make it to the top in 20minutes we’ll have to turn around.” A serious kick up the arse, exactly what we needed, we changed into higher gear and literally flew up. NO WAY I would turn around near the summit! We made it to the top at 6pm, sky still blue and everyone in great spirit.
There’s something euphoric, emotional and satisfying being on the summit. You simply forget about all your pain, the knots in your back&shoulder from the heavy pack, the unwashed hair, the blister feet and soon on. The feeling is pure and indescribable.
(for HUNGARY & GREAT BRITAIN)
(for my sponsors and family who supported me every step of the way)
(carrying some special and personal items to the top)
(my backpack carried more than it was designed for, never let me down)
(in North America, you can’t get any higher!)
(view from the summit, looking back the summit ridge)
We got back to High Camp after 11pm. I am exhausted! Just had some dinner and sleeping bag calling!
The following pictures were taken from the summit descent back to High Camp.
“Tuesday 23 & Wednesday 24 June ‘March of the climbers’
For once during the expedition, we were treated to a well deserved lie-in and was woken up by our guides around 9am, time to get up. At that point we thought we would take the descend in 2 sections; head down to 11’000 camp from High Camp, sleep for a while then carry on to Base Camp where a plane was supposedly coming in just for us. It didn’t quite happen that way.
We had a small break at 14,200′ camp where we dug out the rest of the group and personal gear we left there, had some dinner and carried on. When we left visibility was bad but when we got around Windy Corner I could hardly see the person in front of me. We kept going until a deep and throbbing sound when we all stopped to turn. Our guides were shouting keep going from the back, it was no place to wait and see what the sound was but we all knew, an avalanche or rock fall. We skipped the break at the Polo Field and arrived back at the top of Motorcyle Hill where we stopped briefly. Going down this hill I noticed how much the snow conditions and terrain have changed since we were last there;
crevasses got even larger and snow became mushy. Difficult going down in crampons and still carrying a heavy bag.
Upon arrival at 11,000ft we grabbed everything we buried there a week before, loaded our sleds, packed away the crampons and hello snowshoes again!
All I remember from here on is that I was thinking.. someone is going to break an ankle. The end, it was the teeth on my right snowshoe, just disappeared and due to lack of grip and nearly flew. One of our guides very kindly gave me his but at that point I couldn’t care and would have walked (run) in my boots. After skiing down Ski Hill, to 7,800ft Camp 1, we pulled over to have a break. Everyone was sat on their sleds munching on leftover lunch. Looked at my watch, 3am. We had been walking since 11am the day before and it looked like we weren’t going to stop for long!
This was the point when I though finding my shuffle and playing some songs would probably get me through the next 4-5 hours to Base Camp. It was still in my sports bra where I left it on the summit day (we were not allowed to listen to music on the way up from this point so I kept it there the whole time to save battery life for the rainy days..)
(stunning views and light around 5am that morning)
(snowshoes..love & hate relationship)
The last hill to climb before
arriving at Base Camp is called Heartbreak Hill, for a good reason. By the time
we got to the bottom of it I had an out of body experience, fatigue kicked in
but I still stayed strong. No point moaning now about the pace or why we didn’t
stop to sleep way earlier. Just head down and bring home the bacon.
The first sight of Base Camp was the icing on the cake. We had an incredible
trip, no weather days, perfect summit, healthy team, exciting descent and now
back at Base Camp. There were 2 or 3 teams there waiting for their flights
already so we got in the queue. About 3 more hours waiting (too excited to
sleep!) when a BC staff came up to our guides to let us know we were the next
to fly out.
© copyright 2021 by Alexandra Nemeth