Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Denali dreams

It's funny what one's mind does when you read about things that are incredibly hard (sometimes impossible), but still sound fun. Ah, romanticizing. I wonder why we do it. It's like the opposite of a survival mechanism. It serves no obvious purpose yet we clearly need flights of fancy as we have been telling each other stories since the time when we figured out how to talk. (Ok, I don't know that, but neither does anyone else and it's something we all seem to mostly agree on.)

Denali (AKA Mt McKinley) is a gorgeous mountain that I have spent most of a week looking at while taking a class on the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park in Alaska. Here's a photo of it that I can proudly say that I took:

I've also written before (and many others have also) that it's one seriously bad ass mountain (I have at least two books about that very subject). It's 20,320 feet, but at its high latitude apparently the effective altitude is much higher and it's cold, cold, cold (there are a lot of references for this which I should probably put here when I dig them up). The wind can howl for days - if you like being stuck in a small very battered tent for days, you will be in heaven (not I). Some people (heresay) say that Everest is actually easier (probably because they have the invaluable Sherpas). I don't know about that, but let's just say it's not Disneyland.

I write all that to remind myself of the reality, and in a valiant effort to not feel whistful when I read that American Alpine Institute has just had their 4th summit this season:

Sigh. Now for more reality.
4 people have died on Denali this season and we're not talking amateur hour like you get on Mt. Whitney and Mt. Hood:

Mountaineering is a fabulous way to get yourself killed, but I now have a family (a wife and 2 dogs :) and even though I do carry life insurance which is designed to cover the mortgage and would make a decent apology: "Sorry I died, but how about a nice paid for house?" For some reason, I don't think I'd be very easily forgiven.

Going with an excellent guide service like AAI certainly makes a huge difference and one of the best ways to increase your odds of coming home safely, but that's no guarantee. It's also the hardest climb they do (this is from one of their employees). You have to be able to carry a 60 pound pack and tow a 100 pound sled using snow shoes, not skis.

And there's the altitude thing which is what really kills it for me. You can't train for altitude really. Sure you can be in really good shape so at least you're not distracted by that aspect, but altitude can take you down even so. The one good thing about big mountains that you don't get with the smaller mountains like Rainier, and Shasta is that they build in a lot of aclimatization time and you can get pinned down which forces you to spend time at that elevation (or go down). But then I'd just get lonely and miss my family. I swear I'm just so not cut out for this. Fortunately my other obsession is dog sports is highly social and I'm going to be starting to learn group road biking which should be fun.

But I still get whistful and I think that's just going to be the way it is. I'm sure I'll come up with some compromise solution, but for now the only thing I have planned is Mt. Whitney and even though that's pretty high, I'm pretty sure I can succeed at it since I've done most of the route (and know it very well - I could guide it easily), we are going up gradually, and I've since gotten really good at pressure breathing (put a ref in here), and it's a silly, well used trail (you're not route finding - which is sort of a bummer since that's the fun part), and I've been sick often enough to know that so far, what I get is Acute Mountain Sickness (not HACE or HAPE) and I can cope with that for a day.

But Denali. Sigh.


Elf said...

Nice photo.

See, this is why I like hiking rather than climbing. And DOWN rather than up is good, too! *MY* impossible dream? To do a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike--and back--the same week. Actually it's done, and probably several times a year by various people. Do people die from it? Probably not often. (Probably more dumb tourists at the rim.) But it's still 4000 feet down and then up over 24 miles, then back the same 24 miles and 4000 feet down then up. No snowshoes required. That's plenty challenging enough for me.

And I can do it in jeans and a t-shirt. ;-)

Ellen said...

And how are your knees? Mine are fine.

Can I ride a donkey down and then climb up?

Elf said...

Knees have issues, but if I can do the 2000 feet and 10 miles one way into Havasu in one morning (and a different morning back), well, jeez, the longer one would be a piece of cake.

Donkeys are cheating.

Ellen said...

How about rapelling?

Elf said...

Not cheating!

Ellen said...

Wait a minute, let me see if I've got this correct. You won't rock climb because you think it's risky, but you will rappel?

(Rappelling is a total blast btw.)

Elf said...

No, you asked whether YOU could ride a donkey down or rappel. I'm just evaluating whether the methodology is cheating or not.