Kyle Pratt from Kinney Heights, Climbing New Heights

Alaska’s Mount McKinley stands at 20,320 feet, making it far and away the highest mountain in North America. To climbers and locals, however, it is better known by its Athabaskan name, Denali. Like many American and international mountaineers, the challenge Denali offered piqued my imagination.

Despite being shorter than other Himalayan peaks, Denali is located farther north, and the mountain presents comparable if not more unforgiving cold and weather than peaks in Asia. So in the spring of last year, I recruited two friends and climbing partners to make a summer attempt on Denali.

In June, we arrived in Anchorage, AK and took a two hour train ride inland and north to Talkeetna, a small town in the Alaskan lowlands that is the universal fly-out point into the Alaska Range. From the airstrip in Talkeetna, a ski-equipped plane took my team and our equipment and dropped us off at an elevation of 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna glacier. As we approached, our first view of Denali’s hulking south face both amazed and petrified us all. We were eye to eye with the largest mass of rock and ice in the world, and at that moment we felt delusional in our desire to summit.

The cure to this fear turned out to be thinking in small steps, often quite literally. Moving from Base Camp to an intermediary camp at 8,000 feet, we found looking up at high camp irresistible, but demoralizing. Looking 14,000 feet up at the summit reminded me of the pain that it would take to get there, and it seemed overwhelming. Instead, my partners and I made sure to keep focused on each moment, in making each day and each step our collective masterpiece. Resisting the urge to look towards the summit, we found ourselves in the main camp at 14,000 feet in only a week. From here, we only needed a few days of good weather to reach the top.

Perhaps our most difficult day involved the move from our comfortable, even plush camp at 14,000 feet towards the high plateau at 17,000 feet that served as the final stop before a summit attempt. This day, essentially divided into two segments. First came fixed lines – a set of pre-placed ropes that we could clip into in order to climb up a thousand feet of steep ice. The famous “16 Ridge” was next. Many Denali veterans say that climbing 16 Ridge is the most breathtaking and unsettling leg of the climb, owing both traits to the 3000-foot drops on either side of the ridge. As we began up the ridge, however, a small storm developed, whiteout fog swallowing both the ridge and us. Even worse than the weather was that Jacob, my teammate, was getting high-altitude sickness. We were all scared to see the warning signs – shaky hands, struggling for breath – begin to settle in. In the worst conditions, with high camp seeming perpetually far-off, I walked up to Jacob and promised that we would reach high camp, that when we got there we would keep him safe. That small gesture of assurance made all the difference, and as the bright orange tents of high camp were just visible on the other side of the ridge, the whiteout cleared, and we were in bright sunlight looking down into a sea of clouds.

A few days later, we were dividing our rope and tightening our harnesses to try for the summit. As I write now, I can’t remember or hope to describe the sensation of pain and fear that set into my body above 18,000 feet. All I can recall is the hopelessness of feeling my body slow down and still understanding that the summit ridge was, for all intents and purposes, light-years away. Our group split up briefly and regrouped at our most worried moment. Sitting together on a rock pile at 19,000 feet we confided our fears to one another but were able to push ourselves through those final, painful hours. Fatigue and an intense pressure to stop, to head down set in, but we were able to use our team’s greatest potential for support and unity, to continue. Because of this, the three of us summited together and remain great friends.

L- R    Jacob Iverson, Kyle Pratt, Jackson Armstrong

 

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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