On the 4th of July during my 7 summits solo, I’d just completed my ascent of the Messner Couloir, and was having what I felt was a well-deserved rest day in the 14.2 Camp. When I handed over the video camera so my photographer could review the shots I’d taken from the summit ridge on Denali…
‘Hey, this looks incredible, is this really what it looks like?’ Joe was playing back the video footage from the summit ridge. I’d walked along the knife-edged ridge with the camera held at waist height in one hand and my ice axe gripped firmly in the other.
Just looking through the small viewfinder on the video inspired vertigo, the skinny trail of ice set along the classic knife-edge ridge. ‘I’d really like to climb Denali you know Robert, I think it is the most important of the peaks to me.’ I lay half asleep. It was the 4th of July, America and coincidentally, Joe’s, birthday. Having climbed Denali the day before, another ascent held little interest, but Joe wanted to go to the top. ‘And we could use more footage for NBC, Robert,’ added Joe.
That was true and as NBC had footed our bill to climb the peak, with a little prodding directly from Tom Brokaw to help us out. As much as my footage looked spectacular, I knew it was nowhere near what Joe would shoot and we really needed some good shots to take back for an NBC News special on ‘The deadliest season in Denali’s history.’ That history was in place before we even got to the mountain, now we were just doing all we could to not be part of it.
At 7 a.m. the following morning, Joe started plying me with coffee, a turbocharged blend that three cups and an overflowing bowl of porridge later sent us on the trail upwards. Having just descended the West Buttress two days previous, I had the route well rehearsed. Plans had been carefully laid. Not wanting to camp, we’d have to ascend and return in a day. I’d carry the pack, food, warm clothing, stove and video; Joe would be limited to one camera only, a sacrifice rare in the extreme. Having studied under Ansel Adams, Joe’s idea of going light was taking the 5 x 7 viewfinder camera, instead of the 8 x 10 (which came in at around 20 kg) so a single, all-be-it a full blown Nikon, was limiting.
Four hours out of 14.2 Camp we reached the 17.2 high camp, cached the stove and headed for the top. Ten hours later we came out on the summit ridge and Joe had his real-life view of the top of North America. But the hour was late and cold, ice-laden winds had replaced the semi-tropical temperatures I’d enjoyed two days previously.
After 15 minutes on top we descended back into the gloom, pausing just long enough for me to capture the image of darkness descending on the east of the summit ridge and the sun shining with its last rays onto the western side of the ridge, with Joe suspended in between. The climb had been worthwhile for that view of the world alone, not to mention helping give Joe a belated birthday present of the top of North America.
We were back in the tent 6 hours later, and the next day we really got a rest day – at least until noon, when the ice creaking and the crevasses expanding around us, we had a late lunch and slid off down the hill, around a curiously quiet and deserted windy corner, down Motorcycle hill and out onto the glacier below.
Exerted with edits from a chapter in my book: To Everest via Antarctica