So here’s the scoop. Justin did not summit, choosing to turn around about 400 feet from the top. But that is okay by him and me (of course!). It’s really a summit in my mind being so darn close, but whatevs. And, so freakin admirable that he survived 23 days (pretty much a record for the longest time on the mountain for his guide) on a mountain with the most dramatic swings in weather, the highest ever 80 MPH winds recorded at Camp 3 (14,200 feet) and 3 significant winter storms. Stud.
He literally watched his teammates walk up to the top. He plans on writing a detailed report on the expedition, one that he calls the “most beautiful and most terrifying” experience of his life, but that will take some time.
After 23 days, his entire team is safely OFF the mountain now and Justin and I have reunited here in Alaska. He is recovering now from some small ailments, pains and pure exhaustion.
In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a quick recap of the last 4 days.
Day 19 – Monday, May 30
Hallelujah! After 11 days stuck at Camp 3 (14,200 feet), there was a reprieve from the nasty winds, and the team was able to make the climb to their highest camp (17,200 feet). The team ascended the West Buttress again on the fixed ropes, which is an 800-foot section at a 60-degree angel. They picked up some supplies they cached days earlier and ended their day 6.5 hours later at High Camp. Once again, cutting walls and fortifying camp was a heck of a task.
Day 20 – Tuesday, May 31
Combined with the fact the winds were cranking at High Camp (17,200 feet) and above, as well as the fact that team was wiped from their camp-building efforts the night before, a rest day was in order. For Justin, this was a bad day. He didn’t sleep well in the cramped tent (they use smaller tents to save weight higher up) and the waiting game was really wearing him down mentally.
Day 21 – Wednesday, June 1
Summit day. Everyone was very nervous. They woke early and started the 12-hour accent/descent to attempt the summit. Justin again did not sleep hardly and felt his head was not in the game, but went with the intention of trying. The team headed up the “Autobahn” (a famed hill on Denali) with assistance from running belays. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the climb where accidents do occur, but their team was very safe. The weather was good with light winds and a bit overcast. Perfect day for climbing. The team made good timing and crested the football field to make their way up Pig Hill, the last 500 feet of the climb. At this time, Justin was really not feeling mentally or physically in the best shape with a little bit of acute mountain sickness. After some tough thinking, he opted not to summit. He did not want to jeopardize his health or the movement of the team. People think the summit is the end of the work, but getting back down is half the battle. So, at about 19,700 feet, Justin ended his expedition (reminder, Denali is 20,310 feet). He and one guide sat down and watched the team summit. An hour later, they came back down to where Justin was and all returned safely down to 17,200ft camp with his team who did summit. Congrats to all 5 of his teammates who summited!
Day 22 – Thursday, June 2
The team moved slowly from High Camp (17,200 feet) down to to Camp 2 (11,000 feet). It was a brutal day with brutal weather. The team left early morning to walk the West Buttress. The evening before brought some snow that did cover the rocks, so they had to be cautious about every step. It was cold, foggy and snowing as they crossed the Buttress. They descended from the fixed lines to Camp 3 (14,200 feet). It was cold and with the fresh snow, footing was key to their success. They picked up a large cache, took a break and then packed their bags to make the trip down the steep hills to Camp 2 (11,000 feet). This was tough as their packs were the heaviest yet with almost all their load, group gear and garbage. They arrived at 7pm and decided that would be enough for the night. The snow fell heavily as the set up their tents they hoped for the last time.
Day 23 – Friday, June 3
The team woke at 4am to break camp and make their way to the airstrip on Kahiltna Glacier. With whiteout conditions, the team struggled down the hill, making their own trail and following a GPS to go in the right direction. It was slow-moving because they all had heavy packs and were pulling their sleds. It was like walking inside a ping pong ball all day and as they closer to the air strip, they knew there was no planes were flying in the near future. They arrived at basecamp at 2pm and set up tents during a beautiful white-out snow storm to prepare for some sleep. Then, all of the sudden at 7pm, the basecamp manager yelled that three planes were going to try to come in and if they got out stuff together in 30 minutes we could leave. They moved like jackrabbits and got all their tents down and gear organized and waited like kids at Christmas for the chariot to arrive. Then, they heard the sweet roar of the engines and piled onto the planes back to civilization.