Mount Denali
by Laura Evans
(new 7/3/99)

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Laura Evans has dedicated her life to helping others appreciate life more fully. She regularly co-leads adventures through The Expedition Inspiration Fund for Breast Cancer Research, which she founded. For more information contact her at: 208-726-6456 or e-mail: ei@expeditioninspiration.org or view her web site at www.expeditioninspiration.org

I lay sprawled on my pack, feet spread, the heels of my crampons knifed into the snow. I rested my head in the nest of my hands and looked up through dark lenses at an ocean of white. No sun, no clouds, no delineation between sky and earth, which in this case was a constantly shifting glacier. We had been here for an hour with no change in the weather. One minute we were walking cautiously skirting the deep scars in the snow that could swallow any of us up in a heartbeat, then the next minute, total white. The clouds had dropped like a heavy curtain, a common phenomenon on Denali. One minute, I could see Fred at the head of the team, beyond Stan and 80 feet of rope. The next, only a shadow of blue from Stan’s Jacket and the twisted line of rope that snaked down the mountain between us. Suddenly the rope lay dormant, stopped in its track as if an unexpected enemy had frozen it there. 

Except for the ten of us, there was no one else on the mountain. It was late in the season for climbing. The solid glacier that we had easily trooped across more than three weeks earlier was now broken in a maze of crevasses. A fine web of hairline fractures spread from one side of the ice field to the other and spoke of more ominous fissures below. Through the haze of the clouds, Heartbreak Hill, the last hump to base camp, beckoned with the assurance of safety and soon, a hot shower, hot meal and soft bed. I knew what a welcome sight it would be for all of us. The tension of this last day, combined with the accumulated stress and fatigue of 22 days of hard climbing, had shown in the sluggish gait and weary faces of my team members. But we were close, so very close now, maybe only a few more hours, if we were lucky.

 I considered myself lucky. Seven years ago I had dreamed of climbing Denali, over and over, as I lay close to death in a hospital room fighting stage 3 breast cancer. And now, I had done it. I struggled back from a bone marrow transplant to stand on the summit of Alaska’s crown jewel. But after all I had been through, would I live to share that triumph with friends and family? There were moments when I wasn’t so sure, when I had resigned myself to the possible reality that this would be my last climb, that I might not make it off this mountain alive. As the last person on the last rope, I felt that I was the most vulnerable, a half step in the wrong direction, a few inches off our tenuous trail and boom, gone into the bowel of this unforgiving river of ice. A shiver ran up my spine, and fear crept into my being. I understood clearly how precarious a position we were in. And the thought, that I might not make it home, lodged itself uncomfortably in a peripheral corner of my brain, a thought I had never had before on any of the numerous climbs I had undertaken.

 Three days earlier our lead guide, one of the most experienced climbers on Denali, disappeared into a hole. I didn’t even know it happened until I found myself being dragged, breathless, by my team mate across the snow, our guide racing to the rescue. Instead of looking ahead, I had been trying to extricate myself from a hole that had enveloped the lower half of my body. I had felt the rope connected to my harness tighten, then jerk, plucking me out of the hole. I ran to keep up, feeling the rope taught between Stan and me, wondering why in the hell we were moving so fast. It was then that I saw three teammates prone on the snow, butts in the air, in traditional arrest position. On closer inspection, I realized with a shudder of apprehension, that there was no Dave. Within 15 minutes of Dave’s fall, Fred quickly and efficiently hauled him out. On his face was a big smile and he gave us all a victory salute. But Dave later confessed, that on all his climbs, too numerous to count, this was only the second time he had fallen into a crevasse and the first time on Denali.

 I dropped, misjudging a step, then I too would be gone, a scream lodged in my throat, caught there because of the sudden descent. And I would be the one dangling or wedged between the glacial walls, staring at ice, reviewing my life. The climber ahead of me would feel a tug , but not in time not before my 60 pound pack and the 40 pound sled behind me, filled with stoves and garbage, extra clothing, would come tumbling down on of me, wedging me deeper into the abyss, diminishing my chances for survival.

 Denali is a devil, taunting climbers with beautiful, cloudless weather, inviting them up into the folds of her multi-ridged flanks only to rescind the welcome days later with a torrent of snow and a shroud of white and hidden cracks that have foreshortened many a life. I knew the risks and as mortality crept, once again, into my consciousness, I resolved to access whatever inner strength it took to bring me home safely. I had looked into the jaws of death before, and I was determined that I wouldn’t go there without a fight. The clouds would lift and somehow, we would find our way through the dangerous maze that  spread before us. I was lucky, very lucky, to be alive—a gift I intended to keep a while longer.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.
www.jps.net/prichins/backcountry_resource_center.htm

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