The single engine aircraft touched down softly on the Kahiltna glacier on what appeared to be a perfect day on Mount McKinley. At 7,000 feet, base camp was surprisingly warm and inviting.
Three climbing guides, seven clients and three weeks of food, provisions and climbing gear were heaved into one giant pile in the snow. The pilot made his way to the propeller of his plane where started the engine by hand. With the engine purring, he climbed into the cockpit and slid the plane down the glacier. The red and blue air taxi disappeared into an indescribably beautiful scene. Our team now stood alone in complete silence triangulated between Mount Hunter, Mount Foraker and Mount McKinley. Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, looked simply unclimbable.
This is the continuation of Miami to McKinley, a travel story provided to Ford Social by Eric West and Eveline Wessels about their adventure across the U.S. and to the top of Mount McKinley.
With no animals, porters or climbing Sherpa that mountaineers commonly use to help haul gear in the Himalaya, each member of the expedition would carry an 80-liter backpack and haul a sled which would move the giant loads up the mountain for the next two weeks. Lighter members of the team, including Eveline and a 52 year-old Japanese woman, would be hauling a load equivalent to their own body weight as we moved away from base camp. Climbing would only happen at night on the lower mountain as the glaciers, snow bridges and crevasses were simply too unstable during the warmth of the day. Debilitating foot blisters for both Eveline and me would make each step extremely uncomfortable.
Mount McKinley is broken up into several camps which are given names relative to their elevation. With the exception of base camp, each camp has been assigned a number: 78 camp is located at 7,800 feet and 11 camp is located at 11,000 feet. From there climbers move to 14 camp at 14,000 feet, which serves as an advanced based camp. Above 14 camp the upper mountain begins as climbers encounter the first set of fixed ropes up the intimidating “head wall”. This wall of crevassed blue ice from 14,500 feet to 16,200 feet proved to be a huge challenge for me both mentally and physically. Eveline reminded me it was simply another variation of what we experienced in the Khumbu icefall on Mount Everest. 17 camp serves as the “high camp” and a platform to make a bid for the summit at just over 20,000 feet.
Mount McKinley’s reputation for heavy snow fall, strong winds and cold temperatures are just some of the reasons why Mount McKinley is a world-class climb. A severe storm pinned us in our tents for six days at 11 camp. Morale was kept high, though, with a bocce ball tournament on a 15-foot bocce pitch carved out of the ice. When the wind gusts subsided, most of us bundled up for one more game.
Another storm at 17 camp, which dumped four feet of snow in one evening, prevented anyone on the mountain from moving above 17 camp until the avalanche danger had been mitigated. This avalanche danger also applied to moving down the mountain, leaving our team at 17 camp trapped and exposed. With time running out on the climbing season and food in short supply, the decision was made to wait for safe passage down the mountain and abort any summit attempts. Three weeks in difficult survival situations, thin air, personal injuries, no showers and no clean clothes had left our team somewhat defeated. Yet a real sense of accomplishment hovered above us all upon returning to base camp. A group of strangers just three weeks prior were now a team. And this team had accomplished so much.
If climbing expeditions on Mount McKinley were deemed successful only if expedition members reached the summit, more than half of all expeditions on the mountain would end in failure. Summits are important to different climbers for different reasons. But for Eveline and me, continuing to exercising our adventurous spirit and to inspire others to do the same has essentially been our summit for any expedition we have exposed ourselves to.
We invite you to follow us for phase three of our Miami to McKinley campaign; the 6,000 mile journey back to Miami in our Ford Explorer. Remember that your dreams are important, your dreams deserve your time, nothing takes the place of your presence and Showing Up works!
About Eric West and Eveline Wessels
Eric West and Eveline Wessels are adventurists. From ocean crossings to climbing the highest mountains in the world, Eric and Eveline inspire audiences with their Keynote Performances around the world that encourage others to believe in their dreams and take action by Showing Up. Learn more at ShowingUpAgain.com.