This past spring, home was a little orange tent, pitched up on glaciers surrounded by snow, ice, and thousands-metre-high granite mountains. A landscape carved out by glaciers, painted the most beautiful snow whites, ice blues, and black granite. The most hostile and lifeless place I have experienced. There is not one living thing. Silence consumes all. It feels as if you are at the end of the world, unsure if you are amongst the living – my heartbeat is pounding in my ears, reminding me that I am still alive. Denali, what a fucking seductive dangerous beauty you are.
My gaze wanders back to where I am right now. Big warm gloves encase my hands. I’m holding on tightly to my ice axes, my weight balanced on the front points of my crampons. Four points of contact hold me close to the ice. My calves are afire. The pack weighs heavily on hips and shoulders. A whirlwind of fragmented thoughts blasts through my mind. The Japanese Couloir marks the start of 8,000ft of climbing ahead of us, although the difficulty of the ascent doesn’t lie in its technical aspects – it’s all about the altitude, the arctic cold, and the ever-changing weather. The end of the couloir is the point of no return. Afterwards, escaping the route means climbing it to its very end. I am struggling. Mentally and physically. The pressure is almost unbearable. Can I trust my judgement of self-appraisal or am I simply shit scared? Has all the training, reading, and preparation been enough? One lapse in judgement could result in death not only for me, but for my climbing partner.
The rope tightens again. We climb simultaneously. It is a climbing method to save time on fairly mellow terrain. Ice axes and crampons alternately driven into the ice, a few ice screws in between us - more for peace of mind than safety. Evidence of the deep trust we have in each other’s abilities. A well-rehearsed, rhythmic sequence. Tom, my climbing partner, senses my struggle. Nervously he smiles at me. He wants to climb the Cassin Ridge badly. His past two expeditions with different climbers weren’t crowned by success. Letting him down would break my heart, but the stakes are high, very high. And he knows it better than I do. Together, we decide to continue climbing a little longer. As we reach the first mixed section, all of a sudden the rhythm feels easy. The whirlwind of doubt stops. My body and mind are in tune. Finally! I look up, Tom sees my big grin. It’s go time!
We are high up north in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun doesn’t really set; it circles the sky, hiding every now and then behind a peak. The nights are bright and bitterly cold. After long hours of climbing we dig out a little ledge on the hanging glacier, our first bivouac on the Cassin Ridge. The next morning, as the sun hits the tent and warms it to a bearable temperature I can hear our friends starting to move. Our newly found friends decided on giving the Cassin Ridge a try as well. My hand follows the zipper round and I poke out my head. Michele greats me with the warmest ‘Buongiorno!’. My eyes wander from one sun-showered, glaciated peak to the next, past icefalls, down to crevasses more than 1,000m beneath us, all the way to the point where we slept at the foot of the Cassin Ridge the day before. I hold my crusted face into the warming sun’s rays. As I squint one eye and glance over to Michele, he looks into the distance, deep in thought. ‘You know, Vreni, Alaska is for dreamers.’
Every day on the Cassin we climb through steep rocks and ice. Every day we get a little higher. It amazes me how far you can get when you place one foot in front of the other. We do have our struggles. Above 5,000m, only a little over 1,000m to go, my stomach has been twitchy. The wind is consistently increasing. On an exposed ridgeline I become the toy of the wind gusts. Tom sees me struggling, but there is nothing he can do; it is far too windy and cold to sit down and have a drink. Every step hurts, my breathing is heavy, and the wind tortures me with ice needles, trying to rip off layers of clothing. There isn’t a lot left in me. The past three days and nights have taken their toll. My body is fighting a battle against the elements – against myself. One more step, just one more. It is so hard. If I could just rest… rest for a little bit. I pull my hood even deeper over my face.
I could close my eyes. Pretend that I am not uncontrollably shivering. Pretend that my face doesn’t have frostbites. Pretend that I am home. It is a dark, very dark place, and yet so warm and comforting. A place of contentment and acceptance.
Angst shoots through every fibre of my being. It reignites my mind, my body. One step follows the other. Leaning heavily into the wind. It’s getting serious. There are stories of climbers that have been blown off this mountain never to be seen again. At the lee side of a steep ridge we find shelter. Painstakingly slow, we chop out a ledge with the ice axes, just wide enough for the small orange tent. We are exhausted. The gas only lasts long enough to cook one small dinner before it freezes. We slide in and out of sleep, shivering uncontrollably, only recognising each moment. It is too painful otherwise. Now is all there is. This very moment.
The walls of the tent stop shaking. The wind dies down. Warming sun rays creep in. Finally, the agonisingly anticipated day starts. A layer of frost and ice covers everything inside the tent. We dive out of our sleeping bags, broken and hurt. The endeavour of the past days is carved into our faces. Packing up is a painful task when your body is too cold to move. We look up towards Kahiltna Horn and the peak of Denali. The rock rises into clouds and a curtain of slight snow fall. Deluding an endless climb. Only 2,300ft of climbing are left. One step at a time. Thirty steps in a row. Take breather. Start again. Repeat. Tears are running down my face and freeze straight away. This little white hill, I am standing on, named Kahiltna Horn marks the end of the Cassin Ridge. The end of our climb. A climb paired with overwhelming feelings that I still struggle to put into words.
I drop my backpack. Lean over in disbelief. Resting my hands on my knees. We freaking made it! I hug a happy and smiling Tom.
A wide ridge line leads the last remaining metres to the peak of Denali. ‘Your lips are dark purple,’ Tom says. So are his. A sign of lack of oxygen. After years of dreaming, careful planning and saving money, endless hours spent training, I put one foot in front of the other for the very last time and step onto the summit of Denali at 6,194m. The highest point of North America. And I feel… nothing. I could not care less. It must be the exhaustion.
With every big climb, I learn a bigger lesson. Every so often it can take a little while to unfold. For weeks on end I was unsettled. Driven by the mental turmoil that I couldn’t put into words. When asked a question about the expedition I went blank, not sure what to answer. I was only able to tell fragments, little anecdotes. Struggling to tell a cohesive story. There was a link missing. It almost felt as if I were telling the story of someone else.
Everything fell into place when I learned of a dear friend’s illness. Talking to her triggered the memory of the dark place that I had brushed against, a place that had been locked away and buried deep. On that climb I truly understood the meaning of giving up. The truth of letting go. By no mean it is as scary as I thought it would be. It is the opposite. It is warm, dark and deep. Filled with contentment and peace.
Alaska is on my mind daily. I think of the landscape that has been carved out by glaciers. I think of the colours of snow whites, ice blues, and black granite. I remember the moments when life was the pounding heartbeat in my ears, surrounded by silence. Remember all those moments on the Cassin Ridge. I said I would never go back. But Alaska is for dreamers.