Gary Rennie of Rennie and Associates, is a long time friend of the team and has been a key sponsor of the CashCall Mortgage Cycling Team since its beginning. This past spring, he traveled to Alaska for an amazing adventure, to climb Mount McKinley. Here is his recount of the amazing experience. Thank you Gary for all your support of the team and for sharing your adventure with us!
My McKinley Adventure – A Category 2.8
When you are on North America’s highest mountain for 23 days, you find a lot of time to solve the world’s problems, list things you would bring to a desert island, and put all things into obscure categories. For example, while we were on the mountain my climbing team and I decided that all adventures generally fall into one of three categories:
1. A “one” is an adventure where you acknowledge very shortly after finishing (hours), with everyone involved, that you enjoyed it and would do it again.
2. A “two” requires several weeks, or perhaps months, to acknowledge that you had some fun, and furthermore that you might consider doing something similar in the next decade.
3. A “three,” however, is an experience that leaves participants wondering if they will ever acknowledge any parts that were enjoyable. Generally, one would never consider trying such a foolish endeavor again.
One month after returning from summiting Mt. McKinley, I’m at a 2.8. Every day that goes by the figure drops by a bit, but I don’t think it will ever, ever, drop below a solid 2.
Climbing Denali was quite easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Not so physically, for which I was quite prepared having followed a rigorous workout regimen for a year beforehand, but rather the combined effects of physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, cold, altitude, and isolation. I don’t know how one prepares for this brutal combination. However, I do believe that the uncertainty surrounding how one will cope with these multiple stressors is an important component of the attraction to the sport of climbing itself.
Mt. McKinley, or Denali as it was named before contemporary exploration of Alaska’s interior, is located about 3 hours drive northeast from Anchorage, Alaska. At 20,320’ above sea level, it is North America’s highest point. It was first summited in 1913. In the 99 years since, less than 20,000 people have summited McKinley. Unfortunately, more than 100 have died trying. Four died while I was on the mountain, another the week before. Roughly 1,000 climbers attempt the mountain each year. The success rate averages 40%.
Glaciers cover McKinley year-round. The glaciers are constantly sliding down the mountain, causing large crevasses to form as ice slides over rock far below. The crevasses are often tens of feet wide and hundreds of feet deep. They are one of the primary risks climbers face as they slowly work their way up the glaciers to the summit.
Weather is another primary risk. McKinley’s weather is notoriously brutal, with summit temperatures routinely reaching -60o F. The climbing season is short, typically mid-May through mid-July.
Several professional guide services can be hired to lead climbers and reduce the risks involved. I used Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) for this climb. I had used RMI on two earlier climbs of Mt. Rainier.
They are one of the best guide services in the business. My team consisted of three guides and nine clients: three women (one a guide) and nine men, two “mid-life crisis” guys in their 40s, one age 70, four in their 20’s and 30′s, and an 18-year-old woman—more on her later.
After meeting the team on May 22 at the airport in Anchorage and driving to a small town called Talkeetna, we spent the next day preparing our equipment for the trip. All equipment was spread across an aircraft hangar floor. The guides carefully inspected each item. Unnecessary items were left behind. One client’s backpack was deemed too small, another’s pants too thin, and a last-minute trip to a local expedition outfitter ensued.
After 8 hours of unpacking, repacking, and carefully weighing our equipment, we retreated to one of the local watering holes in Talkeetna for the last burger and “liquid refreshment” we would have for weeks.
The next day, May 24, the weather looked very good for flying. At 9:00 am we boarded a bush plane (single-engine propeller) mounted with skis for glacier landings. Enough gear and food to survive for a month is also loaded onto the plane, typically about 100 lbs per person. We flew about 120 miles across the Alaskan tundra and foothills until landing on the lower Kahiltna Glacier at about 7,000’.
From the minute I stepped off the plane onto the glacier, I realized I was in an extreme environment. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but maybe something close to going into space, or onto the moon, unforgiving, and really no place to hide. You have a bad day here, you have a real bad day. The weather was very good and our progression up the mountain was rapid, but still physically exhausting. Each climber carried a backpack and pulled a sled loaded with another 40 pounds of gear.
We were always roped together into teams of three or four to reduce the risk of a crevasse fall. We were following a very well used route called West Buttress. Teams following this route stop at several intermediate camps on their way to the summit. The camps are essential for refueling, recovery, and to permit a climber’s body to adapt to the higher elevation by producing more red blood cells. With proper acclimatization, supplemental oxygen is not required on McKinley.
For the first 9 days or so we progressed through camps at 9000’, 11,000’, and 14,000’. We did not have a single weather-related delay. Atypical. Most teams are delayed by days or weeks at lower elevations.
Setting up camp at each elevation was an arduous task. Tents were pitched, then surrounded by snow-block walls to block the wind. A kitchen area, essentially a pit with a snow shelf for sitting and cooking,
was dug out and covered with a circular tarp to provide respite from the weather while eating. Eight gas stoves were fired for melting snow used for cooking and drinking water. We became quite good at the routine.
Despite the favorable weather, we lost the oldest team member at 11,000’ camp. At 14,000’ camp, where we spent 4 days, we lost another three clients. For various reasons, they decided to go down, “checked out” was the term typically used. However, leaving was not a simple walk down the mountain. Departures required careful orchestration with another guided team who happened to be descending. No one was allowed to descend alone.
The climb from 14,000’ camp to 17,000’ camp on day 9 included a set of “fixed-ropes” that are permanently anchored into a very steep slope. Climbers attach themselves to these ropes and use a device called an ascender to pull themselves up to a ridge on the West Buttress. From the top of the ropes, we ascended the ridgeline up to 17,000’ camp.
Having reached 17,000’ camp from which summit attempts are launched quite early in our schedule, the remaining 8 team members were ready to hit the summit in short order. McKinley had a different plan for us. From our perch at 17,000’, we could easily observe the weather higher up on the mountain. For 11 days, we watched from inside our tents. Agony. In between, we dug out our tents to prevent suffocation as the snow covered our roofs. We ate two meals a day, and those were “moderate” as we only brought enough for 6 days at the longest. We listened to our iPods, in between recharging them using solar panels. We read books. I finished three and was working on my fourth. I was literally reading pages that one the other “inmates” read and ripped out the night before. We played go fish and several varieties of poker. Bottles were used for frequent bathroom needs to avoid leaving our tents and did “#2,” winds howling, in a canister provided by the National Park Service.
To supplement our food and fuel supplies, we raided a cache of food and fuel buried and left behind by previous RMI teams that had summited more quickly than expected. The guide services manage weather risk by building in redundancies like this.
Unfortunately, my tent mate Roberto, a funny and charismatic Italian fellow, departed from 17,000’ camp on day 4. It was so tough to watch him walk down the mountain. I considered going with him. The guides convinced me to stay. I cursed them for the next 7 days and nights. Now they are my heroes.
Besides the three guides, we were now down to two strong guys from San Diego, the 18 year old woman, and myself. Back to the 18-year-old woman, Kristen. She moved in with me at that point. For safety, no one was permitted to sleep alone, and Kristen was happy to leave a crowded 3-man tent. Kristen is now the youngest woman to climb the highest peaks in all 50 US states. Google her. She’s just great. She also brought a lot of snack food which she was eager to share so that she didn’t have to carry it back down the mountain, fortunately for me!
On day 12 at 17,000’ camp, we went out behind the guides on what was supposed to be an exploratory hike to check avalanche conditions; it had snowed 3 feet or so the night before. Conditions were good, and the weather looked promising, so we decided to go for the summit. A late start led to reaching the summit at 9:00 PM on June 13 (remember, 24 hours of daylight in Alaska!), 9 hours after we started.
However, 500 feet from the summit the weather turned. By the time we hit the summit winds were 25 mph and the snow was blowing. The temperature dropped to -30o F. We departed quickly, but the weather intensified. The weather became so fierce that we were literally looking for small “wands” that we had placed every 100 feet or so on the way up. Lifesavers. Goggles fogged, glasses froze, and we had to remove them to see. We all got frostbite. Everyone got it on the face, but most also had it on their fingers & toes. The lead guide and I got away relatively unscathed. The rest suffered. I ate and slept a lot for about a week before I started to feel “normal” again. My frostbite healed quickly. Soreness in my knees and feet faded, fortunately.
We made it back to 17,000’ camp 5 hours after summiting. We crawled into our sleeping bags completely exhausted. I can’t remember if I took my boots off. We ate a little food and fell asleep. We left 17,000’ camp the next morning, still tired from the summit. Unbeknownst to us, everyone else on the mountain was aware of our successful summit. No one, including another 4 guided groups that came and went (back down) managed to summit in the almost two weeks we sat at 17,000’ camp.
Apparently, no one stays at 17,000’ as long as we did. Everyone wanted to shake our hands. It was so cool! Funny thing about climbing is it takes 2 1/2 weeks to get up a mountain, and only 2 days to get down. Sadly, on the way down we passed an avalanche area where 4 climbers died while we were at 17,000’. We had taken the same route they were on two weeks before.
We got back down to base camp 23 days after we started, totally exhausted.
Fortunately, weather permitted our pilot to land that afternoon and we were back in Talkeetna on June 15. We packed up our gear in the same aircraft hangar. I helped those with frostbite with this task as their fingers were very blistered. Then we showered. Oh yeah, you know how shampoo instructions say “lather, rinse, repeat?” Now I understand “repeat.” We each weighed ourselves. I lost 15 pounds during the trip. Another member lost 20. Later that evening, we drank and ate, in that order, repeatedly, making excellent progress in recovering lost weight!
We left for Anchorage the next morning. Except for me, everyone visited with a frostbite specialist in Anchorage. Not surprisingly, they are difficult to find in the “lower 48.” Prognosis for most was good, however it is likely at least one team member will lose the tips of a few fingers.
Fortunately, a flight was available and I was shortly on my way back to Orange County. When I arrived at the airport, my wife Angela and son Ian were waiting with a big sign that read “Congratulations.” It was so great to see them again. They even made a cake in the shape of Mt. McKinley, which I promptly ate!
In the time since I’ve been back I’ve read several descriptions of McKinley’s West Buttress route that characterize the climb as “moderate”, or “intermediate”. I laugh. Assuming one is prepared physically, McKinley’s difficulty depends largely on the weather, and that is more a factor of luck than planning. We were lucky to summit. We also got a lesson in how treacherous and fickle mountain weather can be.
Gary B. Rennie CFP®, AWMA®
July 26, 2012
Rennie & Associates