Climbing “the tall one”

Climbing “the tall one”

The small plane circled the snow-covered summit of the Alaska Range. The plane soon descended and landed on a flat section of the glacier 7200 feet above sea level. Throughout the spring of 1992, a steady stream of aircraft had been arriving. They were crammed with climbers from around the world. All had come to scale the awesome Mount McKinley, known to mountaineers by its Indian name of Denali, “the tall one”.

As the bright red plane came to a bumpy stop, Tim Warner climbed out. He waved to Chris Combs and Rick Keller. At three men planned to make their first ascent of a ridge on the mountain. It was Tim’s idea. However, as they trudged towards the campsite with their gear, Tim announced, “I’m afraid I have got bad news. I took a look at the ridge from the plane. We’ll have to ascend steep sections of rock. The likelihood of falling off is high! We’ll also have to negotiate a path around a series of ice pillar which look like they may collapse anytime. I think we should take another route.”

Chris and Rick also had a chance to look over the proposed route and they agreed. Being experienced mountaineers, none wanted to take any foolish chances in these mountains. Already it had been the most deadly climbing season in memory in the Alaska Range. Persistent bad weather and multiple accidents had resulted in an all-time high of eleven fatalities on Mount McKinley. It was a grim reminder of the severe demands mountains make on climbers and the ultimate price they pay.

Fortunately, the surrounding peaks offered over a hundred alternatives. That evening, the three climbers sat around their tents enjoying the area’s beauty and discussed their options. They were part of a small village of tents surrounded by majestic peaks. Lording over them was the imposing Denali, rising more than two miles above the surrounding wilderness of rock and ice. It was a beautiful sight in the lingering dusk.

Ever since Chris was a little boy, he had remembered his mother’s advice to always have a plan. Almost instinctively, he opened his copy of the climbing guide for the area. As he glanced through it, his eye felt on one entry. “Look at this. What about Mount Foraker?” he asked. “Somebody created a new route through it South-east ridge about ten years ago.” “Yes,” said Tim, “I heard about that. It is a long one, probably six days in decent weather. That might be the way.”

“Where is it?” Rick asked. Chris raised his arm and pointed. “There,” he said. Raising directly across the glacier from their camp was Foraker, the sixth highest peak in North America. Chris pulled out a pair of binoculars and the three climbing partners took turns examining the mountain in the fading light. The route was known as “Pink Panther” because the group that made the original climb had carried a stuffed panther for good luck.

It looked to be the right challenge. Although the route required a mile of near vertical climbing, almost the entire massive east face of the mountain was exposed to potential avalanches from hanging glaciers, except for that route. Their decision made, the climbers spent the next day sorting their gear, packing food and preparing for the week long climb ahead of them. By six o’clock that evening, they were ready.