Climbing Denali in the tracks of Belmore Browne

Around AlaskaMay 12, 2012 

This winter on the lagoon ice behind Kotzebue and in the hills and mountains, local residents may have witnessed a bizarre sight: a white guy on snowshoes, dressed in bright orange bibs and a blue Gore-Tex jacket, carrying a heavy pack and dragging a log lashed in an orange plastic kiddie sled.

That was me. Training to climb Denali.

Leaving town every day I tried to keep my face covered -- it was often windy and 25 below, but mostly I kept covered because the whole thing was so embarrassing. Some afternoons my daughter snowshoed with me, or her teacher, Miss Jurs, for company. The rest of the time I hoofed alone.

My dad and his friends climbed Mount McKinley before I was born, but I'd never thought much about it. My parents always were into food -- hunting, gathering, fishing, camping -- not climbing. I remember my brother and me playing with my dad's dark green goggles in the back of our sod igloo, and that funny flap of leather that hung between the eyecups to protect your nose. I remember in 1969 when I was 4, him showing us how to cut blocks and make a snow igloo for shelter like he had on the mountain. My brother and I had to chink the cracks -- carefully so the wind didn't cut in. We spent the next decade devoted to digging snow caves, igloos, tunnels. I still have his Army snow saw from that trip.

It was this January that things got out of sync. My friend Mike loaned me a book by Belmore Browne titled "The Conquest of Mount McKinley." It's a great story, about a small, incredibly tough and determined explorer who first came north in 1906 to try an approach to the mountain. Dr. Frederick Cook was on the expedition and went off with one other guy and claimed to summit the mountain, then to reach the North Pole too. Both claims were later proven false.

Belmore Browne returned again in 1910 to battle his way up the glaciers from the south. In those times Tyonek was the center of things. Anchorage wasn't even a tarp in the willows. Belmore returned a third time in 1912, to Seward, where in winter he started overland with dogs -- through wilderness that is now named Girdwood, Eagle River, Palmer, Wasilla. He worked for six months, made it through the Alaska Range, up the mountain, only to be turned back by a blizzard, 300 vertical feet from the summit.

It's a great tale, a largely forgotten one. Belmore, in his book, captured the flavor of the people and dogs and times. People were tough back then and, reading, it was hard not to be impressed. Possibly we should have left it at that.

Regardless, 100 winters later, Mike and I decided Belmore was so cool and such an unsung hero that we should snowshoe to Denali and climb his route -- in his honor.

It was fun to talk about, but pretty quick I started telling him to ditch me and take someone who knew which end of an ice ax to put where. He wouldn't hear of it.

I let slip the plan to a friend here in town, Andrew Greene, a hunter and trapper.

"What you guys been smoking?" he asked. "There's no animals up there. You're going to go all that way for nothing? You'll miss spring hunting." He had some other wise words too, about stupid things white men do for no reason. I smiled, shrugged, agreed with him.

Our trip was to be on wooden snowshoes, wearing wool pants, eating pemmican for food -- old school stuff. I started drying caribou meat, and found a guy in Minnesota to lace me snowshoes. Mike found a Talkeetna homeboy, a world class skier, to join us.

Unfortunately, this stranger, Matt Kasu, was rumored to be incredibly tough, had tried out for the Olympics or such, worked at 8,000-10,000 feet in Jackson Hole, skied down mountain couloirs for entertainment and apparently intended to use super light 25-inch MSR snowshoes.

Wool and wood promptly were out -- I'd have to keep up on the climb, and synthetics were lighter. Andrew, helpful as always, saw this as my first good idea.

"Before you leave don't forget to pencil me into your will," he said, his big hands fondling my beautiful new wooden snowshoes. "I'll call your wife every day to see if these are mine yet."

I waded into the Internet, researching a morass of internal frame backpacks, plastic boots, polypropy lene long johns, ice axes, crampons, altitude drugs and even a National Park Service $350 special use fee to climb.

With Kotzebue at six feet above sea level, and no mountaineers here, I was pinned to the Internet for advice. That about killed me. Luckily my wife stepped in; she tracked down more info on what I needed than every other climber that I talked to combined.

I talked Patagonia into sponsoring us with clothing -- brilliant orange, blue and green colors that aren't my norm, but turned out to be amazingly light, warm, tough gear. And some of their undershirts do have wool in there somewhere, right?

Matt arranged for Black Diamond and MSR to provide us deals on mountaineering equipment. Mike reserved a flight to Kantishna where we'd start snowshoeing toward Denali. Slowly, this crazy thing was coming together.

It wasn't until the ski plane had flown away, until we had snowshoed for four days with packs and sleds -- the 30 miles in to the mountain from Kantisha, down Wonder Lake, across the McKinley River, over the hills to Cache Creek, up McGongal Pass -- and were finally on the white landscape of the Muldrow Glacier, that the numbers clicked in my mind.

It was 100 years nearly to the day since Belmore had set foot on the Muldrow. And what I hadn't even remembered -- it was exactly 50 years since my dad came up this ice. It felt strange to think of years that way. Like big chunks of time, and me here snowshoeing through a silent white world, surrounded by massive, ancient, heaped and hanging ice.

I thought of some of my dad's recent words about his 1962 trip: how he'd come straight from over-wintering at Cape Thompson in a sod igloo, how he loved the meals of pemmican and logan bread, and no, he didn't remember the storms being cold, but of course he brought mukluks and caribou hides to sleep on.

I was glad I'd brought my caribou hide. It felt warmer and more like home than all the polypro and Gore-Tex combined. I wished I had the sealskin mukluks Andrew had offered.

Day after day the weather was blue. Carrying heavy packs and dragging sleds up the glacier and across crevasses was intense but felt good to me. Some other things were not exactly the way my dad's trip went, or Belmore's, I'm sure, but for a couple weeks straight we hauled loads, and moved forward.

Camped on Karsten's Ridge, the altitude bothered my breathing rhythm and I hardly slept. In the morning we tried to proceed up to Browne's Tower but conditions were icy and I felt poorly after not sleeping. Mike decided we needed to turn back.

Breakup had started down on the tundra while we were up there above the clouds. It was a tough four-day slog in whiteout and heavy snow back to Kantishna. At times, weighted down by a pack and dragging sled, I felt like one of my old dogs. Clawing my way up the draws, snow and alders, and getting banged in the calves going down the ravines, I pictured my old wheel dog, Bonehead, and how hard he used to work, and how he'd lunge to avoid the sled running over his hind legs. I know I was nice to my sled dogs, but suddenly I wished I'd been nicer.

Now I'm back in Kotzebue, packing to head upriver. Bears are out, and caribou, and across in the hills yesterday musk ox were having babies. I'm excited to head home to the Kobuk, but it's weird, somehow part of me feels like I'm still on that mountain.

Today an email came from an old friend, Woody Morton Wood, who did the first accent of the South Buttress and first traverse of Denali in 1954.

"I remember getting altitude sickness at Browne's Tower at the foot of Harper Glacier on a trip in 1947," he wrote. "Couldn't keep my balance and stand upright -- just like being drunk. We could have waited a day, and I would have probably been OK again; but we didn't know that at the time, so we came down."

I guess I need to ask him some more questions. Like. when will I feel like I'm back down from the mountain?


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service