Sharp End of the Dream
It is 3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 17, 1967. In Camp VII at 17,900 feet, six members of the Joseph Wilcox Mount McKinley Expedition are making final preparations for their attempt on the mountain's summit2,420 vertical feet higher and two miles distant. They are expedition deputy leader Jerry Clark and climbers Hank Janes, Dennis Luchterhand, Mark McLaughlin, John Russell, and Walt Taylor. A seventh man, Steve Taylor (unrelated to Walt), is suffering from altitude and will stay in his tent while the others climb.
They all have endured the agonies of hell for this one shot at McKinley's summit, but they take plenty of time to make sure that Steve has everything he will need while they're gone. Many climbers would be shattered by failing to reach the top after having invested so much money, time, and pain to reach that one small white spot, no bigger than a tabletop, at 20,320 feet. But Steve is a gentle, playful twenty-two year old, and a devout Mormon, and that helps him accept fate with grace unusual in one so young.
Their bodies, journals, and cameras are still somewhere on McKinley, but before the expedition they wrote autobiographies and many letters. After it people who knew them well wrote many things about them, and the expedition's five other men remember them well. In addition, all expeditions making ready for their summit bids go through similar rituals, so I can see them piling more snow around Steve's orange tent, giving him an extra sleeping pad, chocolate, Logan bread. Tall Mark McLaughlin, team jester, may toss in an extra roll of toilet paperbecause you're so full of it! Hank Janes, the small, quiet teacher who has turned out to be utterly capable up here, might melt extra snow for Steve's water.
Their leader, now that Joe Wilcox and four others have descended to a lower camp, is freckle-faced Jerry Clark, thirty-one, a good man to be with on a bad mountain: affable, unflappable, quick to smile and slow to snap. It's rare to find him not grinning about something, but just now it bothers him that National Park Service rangers down below have provided no weather forecast. He has spent years in high mountains as far away as Antarctica and can read signs such as backing wind and puffy altocumulus clouds clustering up like fat boys at a dance, and, especially, thin, high cirrus clouds that look like white scratches in the polished blue sky. The signs he can't see are the ones that concern him.
It's not idle worry, because McKinley is like no other place on Earth, and Jerry knows it. The highest point in North America, McKinley is 2,400 miles and 35 degrees of latitude farther north than Everest, which one expert calls "tropical" by comparison. Earth's atmosphere is thickest near the equator and grows thinner nearing the poles; McKinley's proximity to the North Pole makes its 20,320-foot altitude equal to 23,000 feet or more in the Himalaya. Finally, this mountain is not far from the Bering Sea, which sends monstrous storms whirling east with frightening regularity. McKinley, due east, is like a rock sticking up into a river's violent whitewater.
Jerry understands all this. He knows, too, that McKinley is one of those mountains big enough to brew up its own bad weather, which can go from blue sky to wild blizzard in an hour or less, bringing storms such as the white squalls that kill big ships on the open ocean.
By now the men have had three hours of clear sky, stable temperatures, and light winds, and Jerry knows that on a mountain like this there are no guaranteeshopes, probabilities, possibilities, but never guarantees. So at some point, after all the signs are read and permutations calculated, you have to commit and go. It's like the V1 takeoff "point of no return" for aircraftonce you reach that speed, stopping is no longer an option. You just have to aim for the sky and have faith.
Jerry takes one final look at the men in their puffy parkas the colors of autumn leaves. Making up the first rope are handsome, indefatigable Walt Taylor, strongman John Russell, and fireplug Hank Janes. Jerry Clark, lanky Dennis Luchterhand, and good-humored, steady Mark McLaughlin are the second rope. At about half past three, Jerry shouts something like,
Hey, you mothahswe gung ho and good to go?
They shout back, but one man at least is not feeling so gung ho. Two days before, John Russell, the expedition's Incredible Hulk, gave out suddenly, astonishing himself as much as his rope mates, on the grueling carry from Camp VI, at 15,000 feet, to Camp VII, at 17,900 feet. The next day was a storm day, which allowed him some rest. He feels better today than when he crept into camp so sick he could barely see after that horrible haul. But he does not feel good, and it is the first time in his life that John's iron-muscled body has betrayed him.
One of the hard lessons they've all learned during this, their first excursion above 14,000 feet, is that altitude sucks. Literally. It sucks energy from muscles and thoughts from brains and joy clean out of dreams. If you're a woman with children, imagine your worst hangover on top of first-trimester morning sickness combined with the flu. If you're a male, combine the hangover and flu with running sprints.
Altitude is not only debilitatingit's fickle beyond imagining. Every human reacts differently, so the hundreds of training miles you ran, those endless sickening wind sprints, the fast hikes under hundred-pound packs may count for absolutely nothing up high. During the first ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913, the party leader, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, suffered cruelly from altitude and saw how differently others on his team responded: "Karstens, who smoked continually, and Walter, who had never smoked in his life, had the best wind of the party." Up here all suffer, a few thrive, and some just sit down and die, as did a climber on June 29, 2006, while descending the Headwall of the West Buttress route at about 15,500 feet. At 5:30 p.m., the man simply sat down and never stood up again, despite teammates' frantic CPR and rescue efforts.
Thus stocky Walt Taylor, the twenty-four-year-old wunderkind enrolled in an elite MD/MA program, has never been above 14,000 feet but is the strongest of them all up here. Face painted clownlike with white zinc oxide, head crowned with his orange wool fez, he has the lead spot on the first rope. That's like being an infantry squad's point man, working harder, taking the big risks: first to fall in a crevasse, first to be eaten by an avalanche, first to crack a cornice and take a 7,000-foot plunge.
Walt is perfect for point workmuscular and tough and with the genetic blessing of acclimatizing well. He's also funny, in a wry Indiana way, and humor is a huge help on an expedition, especially in somebody leading the pack. In the autobiography he wrote as part of his climbing permit application, Walt stated: "I was born in Indiana, went to high school in Indiana, attended college in Indiana, have a burial plot reserved in Indiana, but I plan to die elsewhere." About a month before the expedition, he also wrote this in a letter to his good friend Jerry: "Perhaps our party is a lot weaker than I've guessed."
Back in camp, Steve Taylor stands alone watching his friends climb the easy slope to Denali Pass. Steve started this expedition at 150 pounds. By this, the twenty-ninth day, he's lost more than fifteen pounds, so his red parka and pants are hanging on his bony, six-feet-two frame. His scraggly beard and weather-battered face make him look ten years older.
Jerry Clark is not the kind of mannone of them arewho will abandon a sick companion high up, summit or no summit, if he thinks doing so will endanger him. But Steve is eating and drinking, urinating and defecating, making sense when he talks, and staying upright when he walks. His lungs are clear, and his brain, though fogged like all the others', is still ticking over. He has enough food and fuel to sustain him here for days, and the weather looks stable. So he urged the others on, knowing how much they have sacrificed for this, and he is genuinely happy as he watches them climb right to left across the silver arc of Denali Pass, heading toward the black rocks at its southern end, their silhouettes, a half mile distant, etched into the cobalt sky as they climb to the sharp end of their dream.