Mount McKinley, Alaska, 6195 m – May/June 2002
Mount McKinley is described in publications as the toughest and coldest mountain in the world. It is the highest mountain in North America, just 250 km approximately south of the Polar circle and as a result 3500 km further north than Everest. It is notorious for its low temperatures (minus 40 degrees Celsius are no exception) and its unexpected and violent storms with wind speeds of over 150 mph. The mountain is not only tough on account of its height and the climatic conditions, but also because – unlike in the Andes or Himalayas – one is one’s own sherpa. One has to carry every ounce of baggage oneself.
Initially we were lucky with the weather, because we had arrived at the tail end of a six-week Alaska high pressure front. Up to May 25 the weather was good and stable. On this day, we arrived at 4,300 m, the so-called Medical Camp. Good weather was still forecast for the following day, but the forecast was poor for the time thereafter. Now a tactical decision was necessary. We admittedly had two successive ascents of 970 m each under our belts and would have needed at least a one-day break and further acclimatization. Nevertheless, we decided to exploit the good weather and attempt with minimal equipment to reach the 6,195 m peak on May 26 in a marathon stage of 1900 m. This might succeed… If not, we would regard the attempt as an acclimatization day and then reassess the situation.
Two of us, Toni Trummer and my son, reached the peak in a 14-hour ascent. I was rather too slow. Instead of two breaths per step I needed three; and instead of after 15 I had to rest after 10 or 12 steps. After 12 hours ascent Hermann Comploy and I had reached a height of 5,990 m. In the meantime the weather had deteriorated markedly – much quicker than forecast. We decided to turn around – 200 m below the peak… We did not want to take the risk of getting into one of the notorious storms at this height; I had had to promise too many people before my departure not to try to force anything. In addition, we had the entire descent to 4,300 m still in front of us, since in order to save energy we had ascended with the lightest possible baggage, without tents and provisions.
The decision just below the peak was hard, but proved to be correct. We had scarcely spent half-an-hour on our descent before we were in the midst of a whiteout and storm. After nine hours’ descent we got back to our tents at Medical Camp after a total of 21 hours following our departure. It had snowed even more below than higher up and we had to move through 40 cm deep new snow at the end. A tent, even if everything is wet, cold and covered in snow, can be better than a luxury hotel…
The weather was no longer good enough in the following days to make a renewed attempt to reach the peak. On May 29 we finally descended to the base camp at 2,200 m in a snow storm. A fantastic mountain; an unforgettable experience; a great peak success for two of us; for the other two a difficult, but correct decision shortly before the goal; an accident-free return without altitude sickness and frostbite, for which the mountain is feared.
It does not always end well; another mountaineer, climbing alone, overtook us at about 5,700 m ascending – very slowly; hours later he met our colleagues in the first rope team, who were already descending from the peak. They advised him to turn back; he continued to climb. He was found by luck 24-hours later unconscious and almost frozen and rescued at the last minute. As we learnt in the following days, he only just survived – with severe frostbite…