A wisp of clouds, and a bit of blue – our last morning at Basecamp (photo copyright: Meredith Trainor)
It has been four days now since the Girls and I landed back in the midst of a beautiful early Seattle summer, and four amusing, full, and thoughtful days, at that. We returned to the land of the internet full of promises to pass along stories and photos, and share bits of wisdom and insight, but to tell the truth, it has been daunting. How do I sum up a twenty-six day experience like a Denali climb in a way that I will be satisfied with, or that you will? How I can I capture all of it – from the snot frozen across my ski goggles to the kinship of people in 14,000’ Camp, to my completely obsessive new affection for Gold Bond foot powder – in any one descriptor? Good and bad, great and amazing, strenuous and satisfying were all a part of the experience, but none of them really adequately summarized what it was to me to climb Denali.
For that matter, I’m not sure even I know what it meant to me, just yet. We did this big thing – a big achievement, to be sure, but one that hundreds of people around us on the mountain were also doing last month – was it really that big of a deal? Didn’t we just climb a mountain, just like we have each done hundreds of times before? And if I allow myself to think about the climb as just that – “just” climbing a mountain – does that mean it doesn’t mean as much to me as it should? What, really, is significant about climbing Denali, as opposed to any other mountain? Is it the journey (which was substantial) or is it the summit (which I regret to admit not thinking all that deeply about, at the time)?
There are no answers to these questions, and I’m not really looking for them, if I’m honest. I’m mulling them over daily, sleeping on them, and dreaming about them, but really, at this point I’m processing. Sorting out what I thought about the experience, what its worth to me was as a climber, and what it is worth to me all over again, as a person.
We flew off the glacier last Saturday morning, less than a week ago today. We were on the fourth plane of many to fly out that day, after at least dozens if not hundreds of climbers became stuck at the lower, safer camps on the mountain, in the kind of snowstorm that we would call a ‘blizzard’ anywhere else in the lower 48. We ourselves waited for several days at the 7,800’ camp, a mere 5.5 miles from the landing strip and the Basecamp at 7,200’, gradually becoming stir crazy and cabin fevered while sleeping through days we had once thought we’d spend in Talkeetna or Anchorage, poking around and giving the other Girls their first exposure to Alaska, and in my case, seeing dear old friends. Instead we waited until the weather cleared for a bit on Friday, June 5th and hustled down the glacier flanked by several other groups, before putting our name on the all-important fly out list with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), and setting up our tents and sleep systems for the night, one last time.
On Saturday we woke early to pack up, and ensure that we’d be ready to roll in case some other group wasn’t, and we could snag their plane seats, or at least be totally ready to go when our assigned turn came. We knew that the window for getting small planes into the valley and onto the glacier was going to be small – the weather was still all stirred up – so we made sure to be all packed up inside our tent, and immediately began packing the tents themselves once the Talkeetna Air Taxi pilots began bouncing their way up the glaciated glacier “runway.”
I and we will write more about this day and all the other days in the near future, but this is the story of how our trip ended and how we returned.
Once the first Talkeetna Air Taxi plane (an Otter, for the aviator types) bounced to a stop on the glacier, Lisa, the TAT dispatcher who lives on the glacier for the summer, rallied all those still waiting for their flights and not scheduled to be on the first few, and several dozen of the Basecamp community donned their snowshoes and walked the section of the glacier that makes up the runway, flattening it out by virtue of their steps as they went, trudging along, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. It was an amazing sight to behold (one of the other Girls might have a picture!) – this legion of climbers from around the world, some speaking English, some not so much, walking in a tight, straight line, like police searching for a body in a field, slowly tramping down the runway so that the plane would be able to take off. Teamwork, in every sense of the word.
Once the first plane cruised down the runway and took off, it was game on, for our airline. TAT had some kind of special infrared technology that had been installed in their planes, which allowed them to fly into the clouds and amid the mountain peaks and narrow valleys, even though the pilots might not be able to actually see anything through the windows, and it was part of why they were able to fly that day. There are several other small airlines in Talkeetna that do glacier flights, but they remained grounded because in the absence of that technology, their pilots would not be able to distinguish the subtleties of flying between peaks versus into them.
By the time the third and fourth planes landed, Lisa really had the camp moving, and she was calling out group names (our group name was officially the Denali Girls) left and right, and trying to make herself understandable to speakers of several different languages, many of whom spoke extremely subpar English – making it awfully difficult to discern what flight your team might be on!
We boarded what the pilot later described as one of the newest Otters in the fleet, and were flown off the glacier by what we believe was the owner of TAT, a man named Paul. Paul was everything you want to believe or imagine about a bush pilot – laconic, with a bit of a southern drawl to him, laid back, wearing a beat up old hat and, later, a feather boa we had impulsively brought along to stash at Basecamp, and that Jenn had pulled out of her bag in her early morning enthusiasm to be heading home.
We loaded our plane quickly and efficiently (we had a plane to catch! It was 11:30am on Saturday and we had a 5pm flight booked to Seattle, three hours south of Talkeetna, where we’d be dropped off by this first flight), and were off. And what a flight it was.
The weather being so poor along the normal route meant that the pilots were coming from the north, instead of the south, climbing extremely high (as high as 14,000 feet, so basically to the elevation of the ‘Advanced Basecamp’ we were stuck at for eight days in the middle of our climb), and then dropping in, which is about as abrupt as it sounds – circling tightly as they quickly lost elevation, so as to get down to the glacier in the little pocket of decent weather right above the camp.
This meant that on the way out, Paul and the other pilots flew down the glaciated runway, then banked sharply and climbed abruptly –up, and up, and up! – until he was flying into clouds so dense that you really didn’t know whether there might be a mountain inside them. I generally relish small planes and have been on my fair share of small plane flights into wild places (between my extracurricular activities, and my job), so am not afraid of them, but this flying between huge gray craggy massifs in the whiteout conditions of a cloud, playing peak-a-boo with the mountains (now you see ‘em – now you don’t!) was something else. I felt one, brief moment of terror as we cut a steep turn at the end of the aerial chute that Paul was carving with his plane, and we flew rapidly toward the steel grey of a big peak right in front of us, a cloud rapidly moving in to obscure it, and we turned. “How does he know he definitely has enough space to turn?” I thought to myself, before settling in to the inevitability that in this case, and for these moments, my fate was decisively and unavoidably in Paul’s hands until he decided otherwise, and set the plane down.
The flight out was beautiful. Once we gained the needed elevation, we carved around back over the basecamp and towards the usual climber’s route, and Leigh Ann wordlessly pointed out to me that looking below, you could see the long, slender track cut by legions of climbers into the snow, the track that led from Basecamp, towards Camp I at 7,800’, and to the experience of climbing Denali, beyond.
When one thinks of a flight like this one pictures the mountains. The grey and the black, the cool blue of the ice on the glacier, the blinding white of the snow, everywhere, on everything, and the white of the clouds, puffs and wisps obscuring those few other colors that have dominated one’s entire life the last twenty-four or so days.
But what was so – enrapturing, is really the word – on that flight off the mountain, was the green. A mossy, emerald green. A startling green – the green of life and vigor, of things that grow and can be eaten, and in turn nourish other things that grow and can be eaten. The green of alive. That green rushed up to greet us – there was literally a line (a squiggly line, following the terrain) where we crossed over from white, black and grey, and into green, with cascading blue rivers, and it was such a rush. It was like returning to life, and the world of things living. It was so green.
I’ve read accounts of frequent high altitude climbers where they, in their darker moments, reflect on what it is inside of them that pulls them to the places where things do not grow, and muse on spending time in a place that can’t sustain life, but I didn’t understand it until I saw the green. I didn’t know what I was missing, or that I was missing it, until we were over it, and then I wanted to cry. The world is so beautiful. There is so much life here. We should never allow ourselves not to see that.
The rest of our return to civilization was a rush of activity – it felt, for the rest of that day, like we were living, hovering, in a blurry still image – everything in motion, and it was hard to see any one thing. We landed, I took on the work of getting us to our flights (and then getting our flights changed, once we knew we wouldn’t make them), and we struggled to make decisions. Should we eat first? Were we hungry? Should we repack gear? What time is the shuttle coming? Fuck it, let’s go eat.
We headed back to Mountain High Pizza Pie, where we had eaten twice when Leigh Ann was sick, and ordered beers, and pizza. I was dazzled – there were so many people in Talkeetna now. The tiny town buzzed with tourists, and there were motorcycles and people smells (so many people smells!) and blithely ignorant old people who asked us how the pizza was, not knowing what we’d just done, where we’d just been, that we’d just come down a mountain as slightly different, wiser people than those who had eaten the same pizza and left town a month before. “Was the pizza good?” they asked. “This is the best food in town,” we told them, self-consciously wondering if they could smell us. “We’ve eaten at every business here.”
Halfway through my beer, that first beer that Jenn had so anticipated, I realized I didn’t want it. For the one thing, I was skinny – crazy skinny, judging by how hard I had to haul on my belt to get it to interact with my hips, to keep my pants up, so it was going to make me very, very drunk, at 11am, and potentially very, very sorry later. And for another, we were sitting across from Talkeetna Roadhouse (my favorite business in Talkeetna) and we’d just entered the window of time in which they open their showers to climbers, for $5 a shower, if you use their towel. “I’m going to take a shower!” I suddenly announced, standing up, grabbing my shoes, and making the fastest exit from a social space of my life. “Someone else can finish my beer.”
That shower was as surreal as the flight, and as being in Talkeetna. I stripped off my clothes, the clothes that I had worn for a majority of, if not every single day we were on the mountain, and old, urban, retentively thoughtful me surfaced for a moment, and wondered where to put them while I showered. There was no bench in the bathroom, no rack, and the floor was decidedly dirty. I looked at the pile of clothes again, saw the dry skin I’d shed all over them, the greasy hair snaking its way through the matted fleece of my hat, and the dirty underwear, and laughed, hard. I dumped them on the floor. The dirtiest part of the floor, on purpose, gleefully. I wasn’t going to have to put those back on! I thought with joy, and then turned on the hot water.
The shower, I’m delighted to say, had hot water for days. I washed my hair, and watched long strands that had spent weeks in the tangled mat of grease under my cap run off and away and into the drain, and then washed it again, for good measure, and to feel the soap on my scalp. And again. I covered every part of my body with soap, and then I re-soaped my impressively hairy underarms and poor, workhorse feet, mentally thanking them for carrying me so far. I ran the hot water down my face, and relished it, eyes closed, and then marveled at the incredible growth of hair all over my body. I hadn’t had leg hair that long since a few treasured rebellious months during college, and I giddily contemplated keeping it, and wondered what the world (and my boyfriend) would think of me if I did.
After my shower I headed out to the lobby to await the other girls, as one by one we emerged again, ensconced in the clothes (and in Jenn’s case, even the mascara!) that we think of as what we wear when we are dressed as ourselves. We headed to the TAT Bunkhouse where we had dumped our stuff (TAT is lovely, and I would fly with them in a heartbeat, but their dirty “bunkhouse” leaves *a lot* to be desired), and began throwing wet food out, repacking and weighing our bags, and prepping for the van ride to Anchorage, and our flight home the following morning, surrounded by the signposts of early summer – bright green on the trees, insects in the air, everything alive, buzzing, moving, growing.
Later that afternoon a van picked us up for the ride to Anchorage, as arranged, stopping at a gas station where we each took the opportunity to load up on sweets and other things we don’t normally eat, for the three hour drive to Anchorage, where we would stay with two thoughtful and generous friends of mine for the night, before a 4am trip to the airport, and a 6am flight home, the next day. We were finally headed home.
It has been another week now since I first drafted this post, and I am happy to report that I feel much more situated, content, and grateful for the experience of the climb, now that I have had more time to process it. The first week back was a hard one – I foolishly went straight back to work (24 hours after landing in Seattle I was in my office), and the high of the climb, and of returning, diminished proportionally. I spent evenings that week hanging out at home, relishing the couch, the personal space around me, hot showers, a soft bed, and the presence of my boyfriend. Those nights were incredible – hot summery nights, like Seattle in August – and I spent time eating strawberries from our garden right off the plants, mulling the experience, and contemplating what it all meant, including drafting the blogpost, above.
At the end of the week Ed thoughtfully threw us a welcome home party, and we Denali Girls had the opportunity to reconvene, briefly compare notes, and visit with our friends, so many of whom supported us along the way to Denali. It was a joy to see everybody, if slightly and pleasantly overwhelming, because I wanted to talk to everyone in-depth, and I couldn’t summarize the experience at all, and I didn’t really know where, yet, to begin in doing that.
Since then I’ve dug into gratitude for the experience – I’m grateful that I could go, I’m grateful that my work was supportive, I’m grateful to have a job to return to, I’m grateful that my parents are resilient in the face of all my adventures, and I’m grateful that my loved ones are and were supportive – and managed what I think, in hindsight, was almost a sense of bereavement, those first days back. Having spent the last few months seeing non-Denali Girls friends less, and working out incessantly, there was at first the question to be dealt with – what was it I used to do with this time, before I set out to climb Denali? What do I miss that I haven’t been doing? What should I do now?
I hope to write more about some of those thoughts and feelings (and ideas! And my developing opinion of popular climbs and big mountain climbs and the Seven Summits!) at some point, but I’ll leave it here, for now.
My conclusion on Denali at present is this: I’m so grateful we got to go, and I’m just as grateful that we came down the mountain the way we went up: all together, with an almost untouched First Aid kit, because it wasn’t ever needed, and back to the people, and place, I love the best.