The idea of climbing Denali as a family had been mentioned a few times before, but that is all that ever came of it. Somehow last fall from the deep dark depths of post-surgery couch life, it entered my head and I never fully dismissed it. Passing my days in a pot brownie fueled haze with nine screws and a plate in my ankle, headed into the first season of my life that I wouldn’t be able to go snowboarding, I was the least prepared that I’d ever been to attempt climbing a 20,000ft. peak. When I got my cast off and was able to walk again, my future got much brighter and I started to think that just maybe it was realistic. At Christmas we talked more seriously about it and both my mother and brother were completely on board.
I was ironically laying on a beautiful Nicaraguan beach when I found out that we had bought our permits and were definitely going to Denali. I’d come to Central America to forget about snowboarding, but it was time start focusing. I began taking physical therapy more seriously and when I got home I joined the YMCA and started going to the gym every day. I had an amazing physical therapist who was really excited for me and went out of his way to help me be ready. My nervousness about whether or not my ankle was going to be able to handle it began to fade as I tested it out on Cascade volcano missions and it was fine. I was as prepared as I could possibly be, and with only a handful of days on my snowboard this year, I was infinitely excited to spend the next month or so in the mountains.
On Mother’s Day we loaded our gear into a ski plane and took off for the Kahiltna glacier. Each of us had around 120 pounds of gear split between our backpacks and the sleds we were pulling behind us as we left base camp for 7800 camp where we would spend our first night. I had bought my mom a Happy Mother’s Day balloon the day before which now was bobbing along above her as we skinned up the glacier. I felt like I was back at the beach- it was so hot out all of us were down to our lightest base layers. It’s mostly flat from base camp to 7800–we only gained about 700 feet of elevation over 5 miles, but still it was really slow going–our loads were obnoxiously heavy. We decided carrying all of our gear at once sucked too much, so the next day we hauled half of our stuff up to 11,000 camp and snowboarded back down.
We were definitely on a little different of a program than everyone else we encountered. For one, not very many other parties were on skis, and no one else had snowboards. We’d saunter out of our tents when the sun hit camp, about the time everyone else was walking out. After a casual breakfast we’d start skinning and usually catch up to a few of the other teams. The glacier was solid this early in the season so we decided not to rope up, but it’s a liability for guided parties and the clients and guides both looked at us enviously as we were able to enjoy our own individual pace on the way up and snowboard on the way down. My mom had attached her balloon to our tent now, and it sat waving like a flag in the wind, announcing “Yes, I am their mom!”
The route from 11,000 camp to 14,000 camp presented us with the first of many steep hills we’d encountered. We thought we would try to skin anyway, but were shut down within the first 20 minutes. So we put on crampons, added another 15 pounds to our gigantic backpacks, and walked all the way to our cache. Since it was too icy to skin, we decided leave our skis at the cache and walk back down to camp to forgo carrying the additional weight back up the next day. I despise walking down. I am not in the least bit interested in climbing up anything I can’t snowboard down, and I was not looking forward to a downhill slog. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip though. My mom, brother, and I were on a rope team with me in the front. Once we got around Windy Corner, a sketchy part that’s exposed to rockfall on the uphill side and huge crevasses on the downhill side, the wind stopped and the clouds lifted. I felt so free with nothing in my backpack going as fast as i could compared to the ridiculously slow walk up, being so weighted down. The glacier appeared to just drop off out into the tundra and boreal forests below. My brother described it perfectly when he likened the scenery to being in the last ice age. I could see nothing in front of me but beauty, and I had my family behind me.
The next day we packed up and made our way to 14 camp. I definitely started to feel the elevation. It’s the craziest feeling to take three steps and then have to stop and rest. I kept making deals with myself-“ok Maria, just make it up to the next wand and then you can take a break”. The last 700 feet up to camp was long and winding to avoid really large crevasses and took so much longer than I ever thought possible. I was exhausted but we still had to set up camp, and by the time I was done digging out our tent platform and securing everything for the night, I was dead. 14 camp was beautiful though. We were situated right below the summit; looking up it was hard to believe it was still 6,000 feet away which just speaks for how large of scale everything is up there.
I didn’t manage get out of my sleeping bag until 11 the next morning. We were building walls all around our camp to protect it from the wind, but I could only manage one or two shovel strokes at once before I was completely out of breath. I had no appetite and was starting to develop a pretty bad hack, which I had previously just written off as a side affect of the super dry air. I spent most of the day in my sleeping bag and that night my dry hack turned into a wet cough and in the morning I threw up. Throwing up is a major red flag with altitude sickness- I had to go down. I had a resting heart rate of 110 (It’s usually around 75). The plan was to go back down to 11 camp with my brother and hang out for a few days until I got better and could come back up.
Although I did feel better after descending 3,000 feet, after a day and a half my symptoms were not really going away and I still had a wet cough. It became evident that I just needed to get off the mountain. We snowboarded down to the airport at base camp in a complete whiteout with howling winds. Even though the glacier was really wide and flat, I got winded and had to stop every four or five turns to rest and catch my breath. I had kept a good attitude thus far, but once we arrived at base camp it hit me that I actually had to leave, barely 10 days into our trip. It was really sad for me to say goodbye to my brother and wish them good luck on the rest of their trip. Sometimes you win, sometimes the mountain wins, and there is nothing you can do but respect that.
It’s crushing to not succeed at something that I worked hard for, and I had never worked as hard for anything in my life. Climbing Denali with my family seemed so special, especially 7 months after season-ending surgery. I had completely made peace with not going snowboarding last winter, but having such a lofty goal really pushed me to get my ankle better. It’s ironic in the end that my ankle was just fine and pneumonia is what took me down. If I learned anything last winter it’s that shit happens and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. And you can’t have everything. So here I am, bowing out respectfully, moving on to summertime. I’ll be back for that mountain someday.