A Peninsula adventurer remembers knife-edge ridgelines and dying solo climbers on Denali.
Thursday, August 22, 2002
Photo by Kendall Ermshar
Photo: Peak Experience- Kurt Jensen on the summit of Denali, the 20,000-foot peak that crowns the North American continent.
''At first you don''t want to travel at night," Kurt Jensen says, referring to the two and a half weeks he re-cently spent climbing Alaska''s Mt. McKin- ley, the highest peak in North America.
But in summer, the sun never sets.
The 24 hours of daylight means that travel should occur when the conditions are most favorable. For trekking across a 60-mile glacier at lower elevations, it''s better to travel at night, when the glaciers are more solid and less likely to plunge you into a gaping crevasse.
When ascending, the goal is to travel at the warmest point in the day. The cold-sometimes -100 degrees F in the winter, but usually warmer than -10 degrees F in the summer-means everything, including a climber''s beard, is going to stay frozen.
Even air travel to base camp for 20,320-foot Denali, as it''s usually called, is adapted for ice. On June 15, Jensen, a Marina-based adventure photographer and cardiac nurse at CHOMP, skidded across Kahittna Glacier on a small plane with skis. He found himself on a glacier dotted with tents-or "Kahittna International Airport," so named for the multicultural mix of climbers from around the world.
"There''s climbers from Russia, Iran, Japan, Scotland mingling there," says Jensen. "It''s a pretty popular destination because the terrain isn''t super technical."
As the highest peak on its continent, Denali is known for being one of the world''s "Seven Summits," and for being easier to ascend than other giant mountains. But it''s still dangerous.
"Parts of the ice travel at different speeds and break apart," Jensen explains. "A 61-year-old man traveling solo fell in a huge gorge and died a few days after we passed him."
Jensen says park rangers advised the man not to travel alone. Heeding that advice, Jensen and his buddies stayed roped together and traveled on special climbing skis across the glacier, towing heavy sleds filled with gear and breathing less and less oxygen. It wasn''t always a graceful ascent.
"I thought I was a good skier," says Jensen, "until I had to ski at the same pace as two other people wearing heavy packs and dragging our sleds."
In unforgiving conditions-wind, snow and sometimes freezing rain-Jensen and his two fellow climbers from California ensconced themselves in enormous puffy hooded parkas and face masks and at times huddled from the wind for hours inside their tent, waiting for the right conditions for climbing.
"You spend a lot of time talking about your life, your goals, your family, and your relationships," says Jensen. "After a while you get sick of talking and write in your journal, read and play cards."
At 11,000 feet, the skis came off and the team attached spiky metal crampons to the bottom of their boots. By high camp at 17,200 feet, the thin air and altitude were seriously compromising the group''s ability to take in oxygen.
"You take a few steps and stop," recalls Jensen. "Your mind plays tricks on you-you look at a hill and think, ''That''s not so big. I''ll be up in about 15 minutes.'' Then an hour later you''re only halfway up."
On the 12-hour summit day, after hours of stumbling out of breath and tripping over the slack in the line tied between them, the group made the decision to untie themselves and stow the rope after crossing Denali Pass, about 2,000 feet below the summit.
During the next four hours, the group moved slowly forward without the rope until reaching the last 200 feet before the summit.
"There was a knife-edge crossing," says Jensen, "with a 9,000-feet drop on one side and 1,000 feet on the other."
The rope, hours away, was obviously necessary. Paul Vance, the most experienced climber of the group, ventured out first.
"He called to us that it was very exposed," says Jensen. "But we knew we would be really disappointed to turn back at that point."
They made the decision to continue on without the rope. Jensen slowly pulled himself across on his butt.
"At the center of the ridge line I sat down and straddled it, digging my crampons onto each side, and shimmied along with my ice axe dug in front of me," he says.
Then he looked down.
"I went, ''Uhhhhhhh,''" he groans. "There was a very steep snow chute and it was pretty unlikely if I fell that I''d be able to stop."
It was an unnecessary risk that Jensen would not take again.
"I don''t like the real danger part of it," Jensen claims. "I try to minimize that. Of course a little exposure and excitement is great, but I don''t want to come close to actually dying."
Above the birds and at airplane height, Jensen and his friends saw baby blue skies and white-capped jagged mountains for hundreds of miles.
"There''s something amazing and special about that moment," Jensen says. "It''s not that you conquered the mountain, but that all the factors went right this time."
After about half an hour of checking out the view, it was time to head down for a week of kayaking in Prince William Sound between glaciers and icebergs.
Jensen, who is working on a Monterey Peninsula adventure guide, knows that exploring the Alaska wilderness isn''t realistic for many people, but wants to encourage people to take mini-trips from home.
"You don''t have to go to Alaska to find an adventure," he says. "You can go half a mile down the road. Many people who live here don''t even know what''s in their own backyard."
Jensen will present a slide show of his trip at Sanctuary Rock Gym in Sand City on Saturday, Aug. 24. Potluck BBQ at 6:30pm, presentation at 8:30pm. Call 899-2595 for information.