Ascending to the Summit of Mount McKinley

John Harknett, a 67-year-old retired businessman from Bay Village, has been climbing mountains for the past 20 years. In 1995, he traveled to Alaska with his son to ascend the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, also known as Denali.
There is a cemetery next to the Kahiltna airport filled with climbers who have died on the mountain. By the time of my visit, 48 people had been buried there.

It’s easy to get a false sense of security climbing because you see other people at lower elevations. But once you’re above 14,000 feet, no one can really help you if you get in trouble. Helicopters can’t even get in.

Our first camp was at 9,000 feet, and we used sleds to haul our supplies. Each of us had 130 pounds of fuel, food and gear. The weather was very calm at first. But 48 hours later, when we reached 11,200 feet, a blizzard hammered us for three days.

There were three climbers from Seattle who were pinned down in the same area as us. They moved on after two days and were killed in a slab avalanche. That’s when a slab of ice over a crevasse caves in. It sounds like thunder. We were there when the helicopters flew in to retrieve the climbers’ bodies.

The mountain gets about 40 feet of snow during the winter, and it fills in these crevasses before it suddenly melts. My group was roped together 30 meters apart from one another in the event a team member fell through one of these snow bridges into a crevasse. My son punched through one. I remember him yelling, “falling.”

When that happens, you dive to the ground and dig your ice axe into the glacier and the crampons on your boots into the ice. You’re prone and roped together, and you end up stopping your fellow climber’s fall. My son only fell waist deep. He was able to lift himself over the lip of the hole and get out.

After our group reached 14,200 feet, we were pinned down for another two days. There was 3 feet of new snow, and it took a lot out of us just to move. We eventually made it up a slope to 17,200 feet before we were pinned down again — this time for 36 hours.

During these blizzards, you spend a lot of time in your tent. You exhale a lot of moisture and in the morning the tent has all these little icicles hanging in it. If you hit the side of the tent, it all just rains down on you. You also have to constantly shovel snow off the tent so it doesn’t collapse. It all requires an extreme acceptance of all that’s going on around you. That’s the only way you can do it.

We had 18 days worth of food and were on the mountain for 23 days, so we had to start rationing our supplies. We had string cheese, oatmeal and dried food that you reconstituted in water. We also had some precooked bacon, cocoa, coffee, Gatorade-type powder and little squeeze packets of carbohydrates. I lost 25 pounds during the climb. I put on my jeans at the end, and they were falling down.

There came a point during our climb when our guide told us if the weather didn’t improve, we’d have to make our way down and forgo visiting the summit. I was already thinking, If we don’t have a shot, am I coming back next year? I probably would have.

Fortunately, the weather broke the next morning, but it was still bitter cold — minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It took us about 8 1/2 hours to reach the top of the mountain.

The view from the summit is spectacular. There is no place higher in North America. Everything is below you. Standing there, you can see the curvature of the Earth. It’s a spiritual experience. There’s a feeling of tremendous humility, yet there’s a feeling of powerfulness in terms of what you’ve accomplished.

My son, our guide and I were the first to get there. The guide recited a poem when we arrived. The last line was, “For once I stood/In the white windy presence of eternity.”

— as told to Ryan Dezember

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