Dawn arrives: a perverse, grey tingle. Dog tracks mix with blood in the snow. A distinct smell of fire. We must be back in Alaska.
Waiting is a game I’ve become good at in Talkeetna. From here all the planes fly, usually to Denali. We’re going somewhere new though. A map, a compass, pounds of climbing gear, a vague idea of a new route.
Mount Deborah has not been climbed often. The last significant route was completed in 1981; before Elliot Gaddy and I were born. Bayard Russell was a toddler. Now, we all live in Northern New Hampshire, and for a year we’ve had this crazy idea: to climb a new route, traverse a mile and a half of deadly ridgeline, and descend the opposite side. It will be the most difficult climb any of us have ever done.
Paul loads the plane on the third day of waiting, and we float over caribou tracks ending in tiny dots. There are other brushstrokes of wildlife across the tundra but as the plane banks towards the Deborah we are utterly alone.
“That’s the way to ski out if I can’t pick you up and you get stuck,” says Paul as he starts levering down the skis on the single-engine Beaver. “It’s forty miles to the road. Someone might be snowmobiling it.”
It is cold. The face broods above us, a shriek of granite wrenched out of the earth. It is surrounded by feet of snow. We start skiing, and watching. We prod the glacier, nervous at first. These things can’t be rushed. Elliot falls 15 feet into a crevasse with his skis on.
The first three days it is just warm enough to ski in our indie hoodies, and then the temperature drops, -20’s, -30’s, -40’s. What is happening in the outside world? We dig into the snow, hunker down, wait. A storm pins us for five whole days. Snow collects on our tents. Our backs ache from living in our sleeping bags, we feel strength leaving our bodies. On the sixth day the clouds slip away. We sprint up to our camp below the face. The cold is intense. We wonder what it will be like to climb. We may lose fingers and toes. I try not to play games with myself at four in the morning.
Small steps. Get out of the sleeping bag. Get your boots on. Drink, drink drink. Get ready to climb.
For every five minutes of skinning with our climbing packs on, we take five to do jumping jacks. We are wearing all our clothes. Bayard turns around, gives us his rope, and says he’s going to get warm. Elliot is shrouded by layers. He wants to keep going. We keep skiing. C’mon Deborah! Let us climb!
I cannot feel my feet. My hands are starting to go. This is getting dangerous…
“I’m calling it.”
“This is suicide.”
We turn around and realize there is no reason to continue living in this frozen world. The plane lands that day; we limp back to Talkeetna. Sometimes, surviving is enough. Back in New England, we climb in t-shirts. It is spring, but despite myself, I cannot help thinking about Mount Deborah. I know we’ll be back.
Words & Photos by: Michael Wejchert
Follow Michael’s adventures here: http://www.farnorthclimbing.blogspot.com/