Thursday, January 4, 2007

Part 2 of Denali Series

Image to the right is Jeff hanging 100 ft under the "Denali Lama", the most badass Search and Rescue helicopter in the world.

My story continued...

Now Chris and I were back on the hill. 10 days into this second expedition and we were already at the mountain’s symbolic half way point at 14,000 ft. This camp was somewhat of a high altitude climber’s outpost. A massive flat section of glacial ice covered with snow, perhaps the size of 3 football fields laid side by side, provided a comfortable and relatively safe area for climbers to acclimate, rest and mingle. This was also the home of the National Park Service (NPS) High Altitude Research Station, which was by all accounts, the staging ground for all of the search and rescue maneuvers that took place on the upper half of the mountain.

Denali was at times a mean and unrelenting mountain. Often times lulling foreigners and Americans alike into a sense of comfort and ease, just in time to spank them with the sharp alpine tongue that is the Alaska Range.

Just the week before, as we were settling into one of our first camps and enjoying another of the mountain’s sweet displays of vibrant orange alpenglow, the Park Service helicopter, the Denali Lama, had flown several hundred feet over our heads with the hydraulic “grabber” swinging on a 100 ft rope below the copter. In the grasp of the claw was the unmistakable form of a human body. The grabber had picked him up by the back of his red gortex suite, face down, spread eagle, frozen in the position that his fall had left him in.

We had all been made aware of the death of a climber before we flew over to start the trip and the subsequent body recovery missions that the helicopter had been attempting. Finally the fallen climber had been recovered and was, at that moment, dangling in the grasp of the grabber, plum down from the whirlybird, right over our heads. Our new clients were standing in stunned silence as this macabre scene flew over our heads. The likeness of a doomed Superman was obvious but not spoken. The energy in the otherwise jovial cook tent was radically different that night over supper, all of us contemplating our own fragile nature.

Now at the mid mountain camp we would relax for a couple of days, let the muscles recover, then make our push up on the higher flanks of the mountain in hopes of standing on top within a weeks time.

I went big on cooking supper that night. The additional Tuna chunks into the mac and cheese was a reward for our clients who were proving to be quite strong.

Chris and I, over years spent together in the mountains, had developed our cooking strategies as they related to one another’s least favorite time of the day. I preferred the languid affair of cooking the evening meal following a hard day of climbing. After a long day, Chris would rather change into dry clothes and snuggle his bald pate down into the confines of his sleeping bag. Although I was often tired, to keep rolling through the chores was far more desirable than that of rising early. The bane of my existence. The weed in my garden. The fly in my ramen soup. Rising early to fire up the stoves required one to exit the warm confines of the wonderful womb of the down sleeping bag. I considered this a terrible prospect. For some reason, unfamiliar to me, Chris was one that somehow didn’t mind rising early to depart from the bag and fire up the stoves for the morning’s chunky coffee and even chunkier “goatmeal” as we referred to the daily dose of oatmeal. All of this activity was done as I was milking the last few minutes of comfort out of my sleeping bag. Our schedule tended to work out quite symbiotically.

Continued tomorrow...