We awoke to the sound of frenzied movement and dozens of excited voices chattering in several different languages. It could only mean one thing… the weather had cleared and our departure from this goddamn glacier was nigh.
The four of us had been lying in our tent at Kahiltna International Airport (KIA) for so long that I’m pretty certain we’d all developed bedsores. After I dropped my Kindle into a pot of water on the first day, there was little to do except stare at the crosshatch pattern of ripstop fabric on the tent roof. The inclement weather that kept us tent bound had come courtesy of a large, persistent low pressure system that had developed some days ago. It had forced us to abandon our summit attempt on Denali and embark on a 16 hour descent from High Camp at 5,200m to Basecamp at 2,200m, stopping for various caches along the way. It was our hope that in descending through the night in a single push, we’d beat the incoming storm and jump on the last available flight before the clouds rolled in. It was not to be.
We liberally awarded ourselves with congratulations on arriving at basecamp after our descent, a scene very much like something from the days of British India (“I say! Jolly good effort, chaps. Pip pip!). However, our mirth soon turned to disbelief as we were told that the planes were not flying. We glanced upward at the blameless blue sky and queried the rationale for such grim tidings. It seemed that, despite the pleasant conditions on the Kahiltna, the airport at Talkeetna was socked in with rain and low cloud. The planes which we were waiting on have certain restrictions on conditions in which they may fly as they lack sophisticated instrumentation. Essentially, unless they can see the ground, they can’t fly. The upshot was that we were stuck until the weather cleared both in town and on the glacier. We dozed fitfully next to the runway for the remainder of the day as the possibility of escape faded by the hour. Finally, at some time in the afternoon the day was declared a wash and we trudged up the hill to claim a campsite, reluctantly accepting our fate.
The next few days were characterised by the kind of crushing tedium that is felt all too keenly by folk of my generation. You could call it a general character flaw, our inability to deal with a lack of stimulus. In days of yore, I’m sure that hardy mountain folk used to sit in tents or cabins for weeks on end with nothing to entertain them but witty discourse and the sound of their hair growing. We, on the other hand, have been so consistently saturated with on-demand entertainment for the entirety of our lives that the reality of three days in a tent seems like a savage purgatorial nightmare. Eventually, we discovered that our walky-talky could pick up FM radio, and that assuaged the boredom to some extent.
Our rapid descent was not for nothing, however. It had placed us in prime position in the queue to leave, our seat on the planes being allocated right after a couple of guided groups who pay a premium for such allowances. This actually turned out to be a major coup, we realised as basecamp began to fill with a multitude of groups, all of whom we’d beaten to the punch. All told, there were over 80 desperate climbers awaiting their flight off the glacier, many of whom would (and subsequently did) throw each other under the proverbial bus to ensure a ride. A few times, the basecamp manager rallied the troops in order to stomp out the runway, a task which I think had more of a symbolic impact than a practical one. In any case, it managed to stave off mutiny for the entirety of our stay at KIA.
This manic horde was the very same which woke us that fateful morning as they rushed about to set their affairs in order. We did likewise, disassembling our camp with an unprecedented rate of speed. Our duffles, a far cry from the neatly organised and meticulously weighed baggage that we’d carried on the inbound journey, were stuffed with ruthless efficiency and zipped shut, regardless of their contents or weight distribution.
A mighty cheer rang through the crowd as the first plane flew over the glacier. It was a scouting mission by none other than our original pilot, the cereal eating veteran and owner of Talkeetna Air Taxis, Paul. Mindful of further incoming weather and seeing the runway to be currently serviceable, he landed and collected the first guided party. Two more planes were hot on his heels, picking up the majority of the remaining guided groups. We were to be on the next plane in, however a low mist was beginning to creep up glacier, shrouding the flanks of Mt Foraker. It was going to be tight.
Finally, our plane arrived. We were on the verge of hysteria as we began to drag our duffles to the runway, only to experience epic deflation as it was revealed that only two of our party would fit on the plane and another flight seemed unlikely. In light of the fact that I had a few days left to get out of the country, I boarded the plane with Alex who won a rock-off. It should have been a joyous moment, but I was wracked with guilt as I looked out the window to where Bill and Adam remained on the Kahiltna. The thought of them spending another indeterminate amount of time in the grips of apathy and monotony coloured the flight out with negative emotions. Despite this, it was a beautiful and adventurous flight with stunning views of the Ruth Gorge and some lively turbulence.
Once landed, we were given the good word. One last flight had made it to the glacier where it had picked our cronies up and was currently inbound. It was a tremendous relief and a fitting end to what had been an excellent expedition. Alex and I waited eagerly at the Twister Creek Brewery where, once the team was reunited, the four of us clinked our pint glasses together and consumed our first glorious beer in a few weeks. Though we hadn’t summited, we’d returned from Denali as a team, as friends, and with all our digits intact.
Life was good.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in July 2015