Naked: Triptych

Recognizing the grace of vulnerability on the Denali mountain.


| Summer 2016



Denali Mountain

On the ridge, our halting steps make for a maddeningly slow pace. Each step requires specific placement among the rock and ice on the narrow path, but we are missing the momentum of movement. The white-blue glacier stretches out on both sides several thousand feet below. Behind us, Mt. Foraker rises to the level of our next camp against an ice blue sky.

Photo by US Army Alaska/www.flickr.com/photos/usARAk/

I.

Before I climbed the highest mountain in North America, I’d never followed such a specific protocol regarding my feet. I wear a thin white sock closest to my skin and over that a plastic “vapor barrier” sock. On top of the vapor barrier sock is one and sometimes two pairs of wool socks, inside of heavy, hard-plastic boots with a thick synthetic liner. Above 14,000 feet, I pull on another layer of neoprene overboots.

These boots will carry me up 26 miles of glacier to the summit of Denali, if I’m lucky, though the reality is that they won’t carry me anywhere. I have to move them, attached to snowshoes from 7,500 feet to 11,000 feet, attached to the metal daggers called crampons above 11,000 to 20,320 feet, covered in overboots above 14,000 feet. I need to move them, place them, swing them out and away from my opposite leg on each step forward, so that the crampon blades don’t tear the Gore-Tex pants I’m wearing and leave me exposed. At night, which is never dark on this mountain in interior Alaska in the middle of June, I will take them off so that my feet don’t freeze. Each night, I climb into my sleeping bag with my boot liners and bottles full of water tediously filled by melting snow, the heat of my body keeping everything from freezing.

I am 19 years old, the youngest member of our six-person team by 15 years and the only woman. I am determined to succeed, to pull my own weight, to push to the summit.

Our clothing worn and carried protects us from the brutality of the elements at altitude. I wear a layer of lightweight polypropylene, a layer of fleece, a layer of Gore-Tex. In my pack is a huge down parka, large thick mittens, an extra hat.

The day we do the single carry, when the slopes are too steep to pull the sleds, my backpack is so heavy my guide has to put it on my back. I crouch down as he heaves it over my shoulders, and I buckle the waist belt while leaning over to ensure that it is secured before I stand. It rests fully on my hipbones over the harness I wear that connects me by rope to the other three members of my team, and the weight and friction as I move up the glacier rubs the skin off the protruding part of the hipbone. I’d cut precious inches off my foam sleeping pad and duct taped it to the waist strap of my pack for extra padding, which seemed only to spread the area of friction. In my pack is my share of food and fuel for our expedition, planned for two weeks, and clothing carried in anticipation of the conditions. Our team follows procedures designed to minimize vulnerability. Traveling across the glacier or even going to the bathroom, we tether ourselves to the rope and each other. This reduces our chances of tumbling into an unseen crevasse or losing our footing on the icy terrain and falling. Each of us holds an ice axe in the uphill hand, ready to self-arrest if someone falls.

We had started climbing the west buttress route of Denali at the Kahiltna Base Camp, tucked on a tributary glacier feeding into the vast Kahiltna Glacier. Our team started with six, but by 14,000 feet we had lost two, one to being overwhelmed, the other to acute mountain sickness. The assistant guide shuttled those climbers down the mountain, leaving us three. Our head guide, John, guides me and the remaining client, Keith, with calm and good humor, his short and stocky body accustomed to the climb, the cold, and the inadequacies of clients. We acclimatize for three days at 14,000 feet in beautiful weather warm enough to sit outside of the tent and write postcards in a T-shirt.