In Alaska’s old mining town of Talkeetna, I had somehow found myself eating breakfast with some of the first climbers to independently summit Denali this year. When measured from base to summit, Denali is the tallest land-based mountain in the world and climbing it has already claimed several lives this year. In between sips of their coffee, they casually laughed when they spoke of each death-defying moment, “man on the last crevasse you almost slipped in and dragged us to Hell with you!”
With the frost still melting in their air, they were already tossing around names of the next mountain to climb. In America, the adventurous spirit is stunted by lack of vacation days, surmounting debt, and a work orientated culture. I began to wonder how they were all able to leave their jobs to go on so many month-long climbing expeditions. One told me, “It has nothing to do with what I do for work. It’s that I care about this more than anything else.” A feeling I knew all too well.
It was only the night before when they finished climbing the mountain previously known as Mt. McKinley and their small plane buzzed them back into Talkeetna. Their expedition became the talk of the hostel and when they arrived the logs of the cabin hammered with excitement.
When the beaten down men walked in the door, the owner asked, “How does it feel?!”
One replied, “Feels like I want a beer.”
The next morning the overly curious traveler in me woke them up with my usual thousand questions so they invited me to breakfast of non stop coffee, buttered sourdough bread, and reindeer sausage at The Roadhouse.
On the way there, I marveled at the strange place I was now in. Talkeetna is famed for being an old frontiersman town that’s preserved that early 20th century Alaskan look. It’s Main St. is filled with log cabin buildings, bearded men drinking themselves into a coma, and stoops adorned with graveyards of moose and caribou antlers. A walk through town makes you wonder if the harsh weather of Alaska’s interior had frozen time itself.
Like most quaint Alaskan villages, Talkeetna knew it was bizarre and the residents wore it like a crown. So much so that the mayor for the last twenty years has been a cat named Stubbs. I kid you not, an actual cat runs the town. However, this isn’t as crazy as the neighboring town of Wasilla, whose old mayor was the notorious ‘pit-bull’ named Sarah Palin.
More than anything Talkeetna is known as the base camp for climbers taking off to conquer or be conquered by the mountain that Natives Athabascans deemed “The Great One”. In the months of May through July, over a thousand climbers pack the tiny town and the dirt becomes moist from glasses clanking for victory or drinks poured for the souls that perished.
From the rocky banks of the rampant Talkeetna River, you can only see the 20,320 ft. mountain on an average of one in three days as it is so massive that it creates its own weather system, constantly surrounding it in a sea of clouds. When The Great One does poke its head above the Heavens, the alpinists grow white with fear or bow in respect like pitiful worshippers of a merciless god.
For no one knows the limitless power of a mountain except those who climb it.
After climbing Denali, it’s a ritual to eat at The Roadhouse, an old log cabin bakery built around 1917. Before we ordered, I shared with the climbers how I spent the day hiking upon Matanuska Glacier and they nodded with respect as they were interested in all things climbing. I then browsed The Roadhouse’s menu, but my curious eyes gazed upon them, skinny white Americans in their 30s. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not the type that you’d expect to defy the ability of man. But when travel turns your life into a non-stop series of strange encounters you learn that appearances are only meant to deceive.
Through a mist of coffee steam, Matt, the most talkative one, sighed a breath of relief as he began to share his experience. As he spoke, my mind drifted with the wind of his words and brought my mind onto the mountain itself.
When on an expedition up Denali, you and your team of three or four climbers get dropped off on Eldridge Glacier by an air taxi. They are a talented group of climbers, some of which may be strangers, but people who will trust their lives with you and yours with them. They may drive you insane as for the next two to four weeks you are tied to them, literally with a harness roped from waist to waist. That way, if you fall into one of the many crevasses, they will hopefully catch you. If not, the harness will not only make you share life, but death as well.
The route is probably the notorious “West Buttress”. First, you pack your sled with the heavy load of over a hundred pounds, which is enough food and gear for an entire month. Although the load gets lighter each day, the carrying of it all for step upon grudging step slowly wears on your body like an untreated infection. You curse each godforsaken item in your pack and want to throw it all off the cliff, but you continue onwards knowing that everything you carry is essential for your survival.
Before you can move forward, you pull out a hiking poll and stab through the ice six-to-eight feet down, making sure there are no crevasses. A crevasse is a deep open crack in a glacier, usually a hundred feet deep. It is one of the leading causes of fatalities on Denali and all along the mountain lay frozen corpses of those that fell to their end.
Then it is time to set up camp, where the fragile layers of only a sleeping bag and tent are all that can protect you from a wind chill that has reached -148 F. Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle and elevation, Denali has one of the world’s most extreme climates. According to the Talkeetna Ranger Station, they aren’t even able to fully analyze the mountain’s weather as its all-powerful winds always blow away the recording equipment. Freezing to death is one of the most common fatalities of mountaineering, but it is a gentle one as the arctic air closes your eyes and lulls you to sleep.
When you actually climb, you pack half of your load on a sled and head towards the next point in elevation. Then you leave your load up higher, head back down to the last camp, and then climb back up with the rest of your gear. Essentially you end up climbing the mountain twice. This is to properly acclimate yourself to the elevation and to therefor avoid altitude sickness, the most dreadful death of mountaineers.
There are three aspects of Altitude Sickness, which is caused by the lack of oxygen from high altitudes. One is of the brain, where it swells until you become dizzy, begin to vomit and diarrhea, before your organs finally shut down. The other is of the eyes, where the retina burns and causes snow blindness. But the final and most dangerous is when fluid builds up in your lungs until you drown.
What brings you to the summit through all these factors is the driving force, the “why” you are climbing the mountain. Some to go where few have gone before. Some in the memory of a loved one. Others for the love of the sport itself.
The “why” may not even hit you until the summit, where it all makes sense, even if just for a moment. The mighty Alaskan Range and rising sun fall below your feet. You’re at a height untouched by life, where even eagles dare not fly. However it is not the sight, but the feeling of a success that few men have ever known and could even understand. Feet dangling off the edge, heart racing from a constant taste of death, resulting in the greatest euphoria of life.
When Matt finished his story, he told of how he got the first stages of altitude sickness at the summit. Then he immediately began to spit out other mountains on his mind, “Mt. Foraker, Everest if it wasn’t so damn expensive… I finish a climb and then think of what’s next.”
At first, it baffled me to why anyone would take up the passion of mountaineering when it came with such risk and to wake up the next day thinking of nothing, but to do it all over again. Then I thought of my own experiences through travel, constantly putting my own life in the care of strangers or the road itself, only to head towards the next horizon.
We all walk towards the peak only to see another just ahead.
Article by Spencer R. Morrison
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. Article fact checked with the Talkeetna Ranger Station.