TALKEETNA — Two weeks passed in a blur of snow, insomnia and oxygen deprivation on ice-bound Denali. Eventually, the monotony of movement numbed all thought; our bodies shrank into nothing but focused breathing, our minds into tight fists.
My Swiss-born climbing buddy, Laurent Dick, and I lived like ticks in dog fur, entrenched in the mountain's flanks and its glaciers' skin, not for nourishment but protection. At 16,200 feet, Laurent showed signs of altitude sickness, and we had to descend again.
We sat two days, stormbound in our tent, which whopped like a helicopter, so loud there were times we couldn't talk. Running out of reading material, we studied the prescription drug pamphlets in our first-aid kit.
I suffered an abscessed tooth, flushed to the gills with painkillers and antibiotics from the rangers' med tent. Luckily, the doc on duty at the 14,200-foot camp had served as a dentist on Himalayan expeditions. We finally summited, owing our success to stubbornness, extra fuel and food rather than good sense. This was in 1995, when less than half of 1,200 climbers who tried to summit succeeded. Last year, 60 percent of a similar crowd stood at the top, grateful perhaps for more clement weather.
Finally, a hint of sun
Back on Kahiltna Glacier where we'd started, waiting for our plane ride to Talkeetna, foul weather was upon us once again. Steeped in fog thick enough to spoon, the Denali base camp brought to mind an underworld populated by shadows. Half-buried tents clustered together as if seeking company and the maze of trails and embankments looked unfamiliar in the white expanse. Fluff fell from the bellies of clouds.
Rope teams were abandoning the mountain, eager to head out for the solstice bash at Talkeetna's historic Fairview Inn. But in this weather, not even Alaska bush pilots dared to fly. Glued to camp manager Annie Duquette's radio, we waited for updates. We visited, we bragged, we compared gear, exchanged addresses and dug up and shared supplies the marauding ravens had overlooked.
Halfway through the morning, a pale sun elbowed its way in, and baby-blue gaps showed in the scrim. Almost immediately, planes started buzzing in. The ensuing commotion probably resembled the rush to lifeboats aboard the Titanic. Climbers scurried about, shuttling gear to the runway, even though 3 feet of fresh snow cushioned the ground where a runway used to be. More seasoned mountaineers assisted the pilots by stomping out a landing strip with snowshoes and skis in a klutzy square dance.
Some planes briefly touched down in mock landings to compress the snow. One unfortunate soul veered into drifts, where his Cessna bogged down. Another flipped, but the pilot was lucky enough to crawl from the wreck unharmed. (With the help of a steel cable, a chopper later airlifted the mess back to town.) A few of us pushed stuck planes by their wing struts, blasted with whiteout from the engines, needled by propeller-whipped snow.
After repeated sorties to the glacier and shuttles to town, our bird dropped from the sky once again. We boarded in a hurry. A last peek through the Cessna's scratched Plexiglas panes showed the focus of our desire falling away. From up high, base camp looked abstract and lifeless, a diorama already fading into a memory.
At the Talkeetna airfield, Laurent and I gulped down balmy air, staring in disbelief at a world that wallowed in tender greens around the parked Cessna.
Big crowd at the Fairview
After stuffing our faces with real food — pizza and salad at the McKinley Deli — we ambled to the bunkhouse for a shower. A glance at the scratched-metal mirror convinced me that I'd lost 10 years and about 20 pounds on the mountain. We relished water hot enough to raise welts before charging the historic Fairview Inn like polar explorers would have a mirage. But wonder of wonders, this haven did not dissolve. I opened a hefty door to find the place packed, though it was only 4 in the afternoon. For a minute, I just stood immersed in cigarette smoke and warm humanity, flabbergasted by the den atmosphere.
The current of voices, the clinking of bottles and glasses overlaid with women's laughter, the bellowing of climbers glad to be alive, belied the mountain's composure. Climbers outnumbered the locals, both working hard on hydration. You could tell who was outbound from who'd just returned. The latter looked burnt, raw, reduced. I tried to read failure or success in the lined faces. Regardless of outcome, Denali had honed edges in everyone, edges that cut into new and lasting truths.
The rounds kept coming, and I didn't know who was buying. By the time dusk — or what passes for it on summer solstice in these latitudes — dimmed the windows, our waitresses had kicked off their shoes and no longer ran tabs.
As the home planet wobbled precariously on its axis, spinning, and racing back toward winter, I became nauseous. Before I left I caught sight of Laurent atop the bar. Weaving like a bamboo wand in a gale, he was planting a miniature Swiss flag on the summit of an oil painting of Denali, and having a tough time with it. But 'til dawn at least, for him and others there, wild abandon would cloak the hardships endured on that mountain.