Written by Chris Ferro
I never told Scott the wind story. I crawled back into the tent, shivering, and was so bundled up in my down parka that he couldn’t see the fear that must have been shooting out of my eyeballs.Back in my sleeping bag I mumbled something about how the snow-block walls that surrounded our tent were fine. I must have deflected his wonder at how long I’d been gone – if he had any. He had other things to worry about, like how much food or stove fuel we had left, or how long before the 110-mph winds would shred the tent.
Besides, time played tricks up here at 17,200 feet on Denali’s West Buttress. There wasn’t much to do except sleep, eat, maintain the walls, and hope for the storm to end. Three days of that made every minute and every second crawl by, and if I told him I had only been gone for a couple of minutes, how could he dispute it? Then again, maybe it was only a couple of minutes – even I wasn’t sure. It seemed like forever since I’d grabbed the shovel and crawled outside into the swirling whiteout.
The walls were our only protection, and we took turns every hour or two making sure they were still strong. We had tried to escape down to 14,300 feet in what seemed like a lull, but the retreat down the sharpest part of the ridge nearly ended us. We would find out later that a guide named Chris Hooyman died earlier that day trying the same thing – he was blown off the ridge, and recovered a week later 2,000 feet below. He was 21 years old.
We turned back at about the same point where he had fallen, and climbed back up hoping to retreat into the safety of the old walls we’d built. Unable to find them, we spent hours in the biting wind building a new fortress, working the walls like our lives depended on them.
When it was my turn, I hated the idea of going out there, but at the same time was terrified that the walls were about to crumble. They’d done that once before, and we woke up under a pile of blocks, convinced that the paper-thin nylon layers that kept us alive were about to give way. Sure, a few other people were camped within a few hundred yards, but would we even be able to find them? And if we did, would they be able to help?
These were my thoughts as I burrowed out for wall duty: save the walls, save the tent, save ourselves. At that moment, the protection that the walls provided was violently punctuated, because as soon as I stepped outside the six-foot-high circle, a gust picked me up and tossed me like a day-old newspaper.
I don’t know how far I went, but when I landed and skidded to a stop I was alone in the middle of a sea of whiteness. The plateau was big and flat enough that I wasn’t worried about falling off the mountain, but that was hardly any solace. What came to mind was Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” where the man’s enemy was only the brutal, penetrating cold.
This was supposed to be easy. We hadn’t even come to climb the West Buttress. We were young and cocky, and we wanted to avoid crowds. Instead we had come to connect the obscure West Rim with the even more obscure Hickox Variation. We did the lower West Buttress intending just to acclimatize, but the hard work of reaching 14,300 drained us. The thought of going back down to start over was painful. We decided to continue up the easy way, with the multitudes. At least, we thought, it practically guaranteed a summit.
The storm arrived a day early. The good weather that had been predicted, a day in which we hoped to run up to the top and back, never came. The winds picked up the night we got to 17,200 and kept gaining speed.
Alone, I squinted through my goggles, trying to separate white land from white sky. The storm was at its peak intensity.
It’s funny that screaming never even entered my head. The standard, almost primordial urge to call out for help was so pointless amid the jet-engine roar that, even at a subconscious level, I never thought of it as an option. There would be no rescue.
I had to crawl, but in what direction? The tent’s bright yellow fabric was hiding behind the walls we’d so laboriously built over it.
This was silly. This was no way to die. Like Leslie Nielsen’s character in The Naked Gun said, if you are going to get killed, you want it to be in some exciting way: “Your parachute not opening. Getting caught in the gears of a combine. Getting your nuts bitten off by a Laplander. That’s how I wanna go!” Something spectacular. They make movies about people who die in a blaze of glory, but nobody would watch a movie about a guy crawling around 50 yards from a tent he can’t find, slowly freezing to death.
My first idea was to start crawling in ever-widening concentric circles, which would work great if I could only ensure that the circles were ever widening. But if my circles turned out to be ovals, curly-q’s or squiggly lines, I’d be dead in a couple of hours. The better plan was straight lines and right turns. If I lay with one arm straight in front of me and one pointing to the side, I could approximate 90 degrees. And if I counted the advances of my hands and knees, I might be able to keep track of where I was and where I’d been.
I had a plan. Now I just needed a direction.
My only clue was that I thought I had been blown slightly downhill. I couldn’t be sure, but it was all I had. So which way was uphill? Total blackness would almost have been better than the roiling white chaos that surrounded me.
All I could do was pick a direction and start crawling. Ten crawls, left turn, 10 crawls, stop. A repeat would take me back, roughly, to where I started. That was the one place where I knew the tent wasn’t, so I turned right. Ten crawls, right again, 10 crawls, stop. I’m an electrician of sorts, and realized that I was crawling in a square wave, also called a modified sine wave. I decided I’d keep at it, track how many peaks and troughs I made, and make a methodical, crawling search of the plateau. There were several tent-sites, mostly unoccupied, and I was likely to run into one sooner or later. If it was empty, I could at least get inside and have a break from the wind.
The day before, I had looked at the little thermometer clipped to my pack. It had read minus 20 degrees F, and that was in the vestibule of our tent. I wondered what it was out here, in the wind. As time ticked by, I used the details of the task at hand – crawling and counting – to keep my thoughts from straying toward panic and to fight off the creeping despair.
My plan worked, eventually. After what seemed an eternity, with the wind steadily pounding the cold into me and sucking the hope out, I crawled headfirst into our walls, and burrowed back inside. Scott was so far into his bag that I don’t think he saw or heard me until I bumped into him.
“Everything cool?” was his muffled question.
I didn’t tell him what happened, trying to pretend it never did. Maybe I didn’t want to scare him, but I think I was more afraid of scaring myself. That’s how fast it can happen in the mountains, even on the “easy” West Buttress of Denali. It is all weather.
In another hour or two, it was Scott’s turn for wall duty. Scott was younger and stronger than I; a 21-year-old graduate of the Naval Academy, he swam 1,000 yards every morning.
I said something to him that young, invincible guys rarely say to each other: “Be careful.”
A climber for 19 years, Chris Ferro lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and climbs mostly on the East Coast.