The wise sage Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” After months of tunnel vision, during which I obsessively read about, talked about and thought about climbing Denali, the mountain made mincemeat out of me, with no apologies or explanations. But do I care or have any regrets? No! I have never considered myself a peak bagger, and making the summit has always seemed like icing on the cake. The time on Denali was incredibly rich in experience and sensory input that the only annoyance in not making it to the top is that I will probably have to try again sometime.
We were delayed in Talkeetna by a day due to weather, but were finally flown on the glacier that Friday late afternoon. We then rigged our sleds and packs with more gear than I thought imaginable, had dinner, drank copious amounts of water, slathered on sunscreen, roped up and set out at about 10PM. I was behind Jake our rock star of a lead guide, and he must have sensed I was a bundle of nerves because he said “Monica, all we’re doing today is going for a nice, leisurely walk.” He was correct. That first day was the heaviest load, but the mildest terrain, going downhill first then gradually heading up to 7800 ft. camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. There were many crevasses all around and below us, but the snow was firm and we had a pretty direct path. We rolled into camp around 5:30 AM, set up tents and went to sleep. Our next move was to 9700 camp. I tried to outwit my backpack and put more weight in my sled, which was a big mistake. I felt like I was pulling the entire world behind me, and struggled unnecessarily. After some redistribution, I had a much better time.
Things went south for me after our carry from 11000 to 14000. It was very hot, as it had been on most of our days, and we were sweating profusely. I felt good and strong, although the last push to the 14000 foot camp was endless, and it felt like we would never get there. My feet were feeling very sweaty and I could feel some hot spots under my heels, but as we were going down, those hot spots became searing. When I took my boots off, the left heel and arch of my foot were lacking a couple of layers of skin, with subsequent oozing. Getting around camp that evening was torture, and I cursed every time I had to pee. Even hopping in the vestibule to use my pee bottle was shockingly painful. The next day we moved to 14000 camp and I cowboyed up since that’s what I was there for. Again, I felt pretty strong and was able to overcome the feeling that I was stepping on nails with each step. However, in camp I couldn’t cope and again going to the bathroom was the most dreaded of chores. Despite the constant reminders from the guides to drink tons of water, I limited my intake as much as I could, because I couldn’t deal with the simple act of walking or standing to pee.
The next day we carried to 16,200ft. This is along the “headwall”, and the last 800 or so feet were steep enough to require fixed lines. I felt horrible. I had trouble catching my breath, felt off balance, felt my calves cramping, generally was quite miserable. Coming down chafed my left foot even more, and I started feeling the same on my right. The next day was a rest day when we should have been acclimating and regaining strength for our move to 17000. Since we weren’t exerting ourselves, I conserved my water to avoid walking to the pee area, and got myself in a major hole. I also started Diamox, thinking my issues were altitude related. Unfortunately, Diamox is a diuretic, and I didn’t’ drink nearly enough to compensate. During the move, I felt much worse than the two days before. I felt terribly off balance, couldn’t catch my breath, was cramping, and kept closing my eyes like I was about to fall asleep. At one point I asked Andy, one of our other rock star guides, if I could just lie down and take a quick nap. Needless to say, that was the end of the line for me. At that point I was not disappointed. I felt terrible and was questioning if I had cerebral edema. I assured myself that if I was even thinking that, I didn’t. I air-kissed my teammates goodbye and watched them head up while Elias, our third rock star, and I descended to the medic tent at 14000.
The doctor at 14000 was kind of like a high altitude Dr. House, and he came up with the thoroughly unglamorous diagnosis of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Once he said it, I realized of course that’s what had happened. Reviewing my water intake over the past several days, it wasn’t sufficient for a day at the office at sea level. I spent the next two days drinking water and Gatorade and anxiously waiting for my teammates to do their thing and safely descend. By the time they came down I felt better but certainly not normal. The descent was probably the most harrowing of all the days. It had been quite warm and despite traveling at the coldest time of day, the snow bridges on the lower glacier were really weak and everyone on our team punched through crevasses. Our guides got us out flawlessly though, and I had complete trust in them. The move up heartbreak hill actually drove me to giggles. It was the final push before getting to base camp, and after all that downhill, uphill with our heavy sleds made us feel like true beasts of burden.
At one point while I was rehydrating at 14000, I began anticipating my friends and families questions, namely was I terribly upset that I didn’t summit. I wholeheartedly have to say no. Although I would have liked to see the Buttress and the view from the top, I felt so privileged to have been on Denali at all in such an intimate way. The beauty of Denali and the surrounding peaks is so shockingly splendid that it dropped me to my knees at times. It was truly the closest to a spiritual encounter that I will ever have. I also felt like every moment was filled with a new experience, ranging from dealing with snow inside the tent from condensed, frozen breath to managing those sleds. Thus, even though when I got home my feet were still in terrible shape and I was exhausted, I felt refreshed and renewed.
For obvious reasons, my biggest piece of advice for future Denali climbers is to drink more water than you can possibly fathom. Also, if you are a contact lens wearer and have ever considered lasix, get it done before the climb. Dealing with Contacts was a major hassle. Finally, sleep with the food you’re going to eat the next day. Nothing is worse than biting into a frozen cliff bar. My sleeping bag housed socks, boot liners, contact lenses and solution, iPod, batteries, the two layers I would wear over my base layer, climbing pants, water, pee bottle (frozen pee bottle is no good), gloves, and the food I’d eat the next day.
As for my future climbing, I desperately need more practice with self care at high altitude, and need to find some less hostile mountains to work on it. I’m a bit afraid since I couldn’t have anticipated those blisters for anything. Same boots as previous climbs, same socks. I have no idea what happened. Ultimately though, I think I could have overcome the pain during climbing, if I were able to manage the water flow. It’s the dehydration that finally got the best of me, not the blisters. Denali isn’t going anywhere, and I’m pretty sure I’ll try again within the next five years. At that point if I again don’t make it to the top, I’m still sure I will have an amazing time and again be foolishly happy that I even stepped foot on it.