A Spenard Bar Owner Climbs Denali
The most exciting thing I ever did and the most fun I ever had was mountain climbing. A forty-six year old Spenard bar owner that had smoked for fifteen years and never climbed anything but a bar stool was not exactly a prime candidate for challenging some of the world’s most famous peaks, but in 1993, at age fifty, I had managed to summit the highest peak on six of the seven continents and that same season came within fifteen hundred feet of standing on top of the final one, Mt. Everest.
My climbing adventures began, as did many others in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the reading of The Seven Summits, a fascinating and compelling story about two wealthy, middle-aged American businessmen, Dick Bass and Frank Wells, who independently decided to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents, a feat never before accomplished. A mutual friend had introduced Bass and Wells, knowing they had the same lofty goal, and they made a pact to do it together. Apparently, the idea of climbing the “Seven Summits” came to Bass and Wells around the same time, but Bass is generally credited with its postulation.
On April 30, 1986, Dick Bass, the owner of Snowbird Ski Resort, became the first person in the history of mankind to make it to the top of all seven of the continents, and simultaneously, at fifty-three years of age, the oldest person at the time to summit Mt. Everest. Frank Wells made the summit of six of the seven continents; he did not go on the third and successful summit attempt of Mt. Everest because his wife said she would leave him if he did. Frank’s wife may have saved his life, because he was not the greatest climber in the world, but he managed to get himself killed in a heli-skiing accident a few years later anyway, at the height of his career as president of the Disney Company, the second-highest paid executive in America, right behind Michael Eisner.
What got my attention while reading the exploits of Bass and Wells was that they were both older than me at the time they began their quest, and neither with any serious climbing experience. I could see Denali from my living room window on a clear day and I knew people who had climbed it, but I had always thought it required special skills and years of experience, so I never seriously considered doing it myself. Now it was clear to me that if Bass and Wells could climb it, so could I, though regardless of what my family and friends might later surmise, I had absolutely no plans to climb all seven of the aforementioned peaks.
I was in good physical condition. I had quit smoking back in 1977, had run thirteen marathons and I felt the need to refocus my life again. So, I picked up the phone and called Mike Howerton, the head guide with Genet Expeditions, the best known local Denali guiding firm begun by Ray Genet, who had recently died guiding on Everest. Mike and I discussed Denali and I admitted to him that I had a problem I needed to discuss with him if he promised not to laugh, and of course he did laugh when I told him I was afraid of heights.
When he recovered his composure he said he would take me ice climbing a few times, get me familiar with the equipment, and when he got through with me I would think Denali Pass–the focus of a lot of my fears at the time because the location frequently accompanied the names of dead climbers–was a cakewalk. Mike, good to his word, generously spent a number of his weekend days during the winter of 1989 teaching me the basics of ice climbing with ice axe and crampons, and how not to step on the rope or puncture my lower legs with all those sharp, metal pointy-things.
When I announced my intention to climb Denali to my Anchorage friends they said I was crazy. They said I would kill myself. Deaths on Denali and perilous rescues were frequent stories in the local media. The first time I climbed Flattop, the most climbed mountain in Alaska, right in our back yard, I had to ask people at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking not only how to climb up the mountain, but how to drive to its base, and by the time I got back to my truck after my first climb I thought my friends might have been right.
When I unveiled my plans to my wife, Shelli, from whom I was separated at the time, but with whom I was going to counseling, she told me I was trying to avoid my problems. I replied that she could go to therapy and read self-awareness book after book, and I had done that, but I needed to do something different, something tangible–something big.
Training for Denali I did a lot of running on the bike trails and I climbed Flattop so many times I could have done it with my eyes closed. I would fill a big pack with snow at the base and then dump it out on the summit, which is a 1,280 foot elevation gain from the Glen Alps trailhead. Flattop is a perfect mountain to train on because it is so close to Anchorage and in the winter the weather, the snow and ice conditions, and the steepness near the top are all very authentic. One day I climbed Flattop, came home, changed clothes and ran twenty miles.
Denali expedition time finally arrived in May, 1989 and I found myself at the Talkeetna airport waiting to be flown in to Base Camp. Reality hit hard when a Lama helicopter returned from the mountain with two injured climbers. They had been blown off the mountain at 16,400 feet and fallen a thousand feet in their tent and sleeping bags. They looked terrible, both with frostbitten hands, faces and feet, and complaining to the two doctors present of various aches and pains. Both were noticeably relieved when told their hands and feet would be okay, but one of the doctors cautioned them sternly not do anything with them: “No walking. Don’t open any doors—nothing! Any injury right now will be serious indeed!” he said.
Afterwards, we found ourselves paying keen attention to our guides, Gordy Kito and John Evans, as they instructed us in crevasse rescue techniques. Some of us were wondering what the hell we were doing there. I was one of them. Of the six climbers, I was the oldest at age forty-six. Maybe Shelli was right. Another self-help book would not kill me; Denali might. Some in the group had climbed other mountains; I had climbed only Flattop. I could not help but think how much I had invested physically, financially and emotionally. I had actually drawn up a new will. I had finalized an agreement with my manager, Doran Powell, to acquire stock in my company. I had visited my dad’s grave and I had collected roughly $10,000.00 in pledges for the Alaska Mental Health Association in honor of my schizophrenic son, Michael. I was not backing down.
Making cachets for my climbs was my wife, Shelli’s, idea, borrowed from the Iditarod dog team racers. The dog racers postmark their cachets in Anchorage, carry them on their sleds 1,100 miles to Nome, where they have them postmarked again and then either sell them to raise money or give them to friends and sponsors as philatelic collectibles. I had my cachets designed by Ruben Gaines, a dear friend, Alaskan poet laureate, talented cartoonist and creator of Chilkoot Charlie, Alaska’s legendary, titan, sourdough reprobate, after whom my nightclub is named.
My climbing cachets were adorned with a caricature of Chilkoot Charlie drawn by Ruben in an outfit appropriate to each mountain. On the cachets for Denali and Everest Chilkoot looked like himself, a sourdough; for Kilimanjaro he was dressed as a French Legionnaire; for Elbrus he wore a big Russian-style fur hat; for Aconcagua he wore a serape and gaucho; for Vinson he was shaking hands with a penguin on the summit and for Kosciusco he wore an Australian hat.
I had the cachets stamped and postmarked at a post office near the base of each mountain, carried them to the summit, had a photo taken with them, and then had them stamped and postmarked at a post office again near the base of the mountain. Getting the stamping and postmarking done in the various countries was often a challenging and interesting experience, but the climb was never over until the cachet stamping and postmarking had been completed.
Upon my return to Anchorage, Ruben hand-colored each cachet, a job he dreaded but did with kind-hearted tolerance, and then he signed each one. I then numbered and signed them myself. Each cachet and climb also was dedicated to some important person in my life who was no longer alive. People enjoyed collecting them, some even framing them and hanging them on a wall in their home or office.
On the Kahiltna Glacier and the lower part of Denali up to Motorcycle Hill we roped up in three teams of three or four climbers, each on snowshoes pulling plastic sleds that carried thirty to thirty-five pounds of camp gear in addition to the thirty to fifty pounds of personal gear in our backpacks. Head Guide, Gordy Kito, twenty-two years old, led one, Assistant Guide, John Evans, led one and Apprentice Guide, Wayne Mushrush led another. Except for the last haul from 17,200 feet to the 20,320 foot summit of Denali, most climbers in expeditions essentially climb the mountain twice. You carry a load up to the site of the next camp, then you return to camp and do it again, or you carry a load to a cache someplace between camp and next camp, then leapfrog the cache and return to get it from the camp beyond.
Our expedition, aside from the guides, was comprised of Dave Danner, a thirty-three year old Washington, DC lawyer, Cliff Harrison, a thirty-four year old trial lawyer from Houston, Hendrick Jones, a twenty-six year old Harvard Business School graduate, John Schroder, aka Big John, a forty year old accountant from Indianapolis, Bob John, a thirty-two year old IBM executive from New Jersey and me, a forty-six year old bar owner from Spenard.
Stashing snowshoes at the 11,000 foot Camp II, our group put on our crampons and ascended Motorcycle Hill, making a carry to Windy Corner at 13,500 feet. Returning to Camp II, we had a dinner of spaghetti and returned to our tents. I decided to wash my hair and nothing had felt better since we had left Base Camp. Then I discovered a new torture: flossing one’s teeth with blistered lips! My face was badly sunburned and my lips were a mess. I would awaken in the night, open my mouth, which had been more or less glued itself shut, and pull the flesh as well as the lips apart before I realized what I was doing, then having to staunch the bleeding before attempting to go back to sleep.
The second time out of Camp II we leapfrogged the cache at Windy Corner and slogged into Camp III at 14,000 feet. From our tents there we could see the Headwall, rising another 2,200 feet. It was awesome, and intimidating. After a one day rest we were to make a carry to the top of it, leaving a cache at either 16,200 feet or 16,400 feet.
Denali rises directly to 20,320 feet from sea level. Everest rises to 29,028 feet from the Tibetan Plateau of 12,000 to 14,000 feet. It is 1,292 more vertical feet from the 7,500 foot Base Camp to the summit of Denali than it is from the 17,500 foot Base Camp to the summit of Everest, albeit at a lower altitude. One of the problems with selecting Denali as your first climb is that you really do not know what to expect. Nothing could possibly prepare you for the scale of it. You could pile fifty Empire State Buildings in one spot, back up a few miles and they would be completely lost in the ice and snow. Worst of all, having no previous experience, you not only do not know what to expect, but you have no idea of what you are emotionally or physically capable.
I had my first experience with acute altitude sickness on the way down from the Headwall. By the time we got into Camp III I was stumbling, and my headache, which was at the base of my skull, was killing me. It was in fact the worst headache I had ever had. Gordy sent me to the medical facility, which was two canvas Quonset huts packed with gear, where they checked my pulse, blood pressure and absorption rate, listened to my lungs and announced that I did not have pulmonary or cerebral edema. I swallowed an Advil with a glass of water, thanked them, and left, but I did not make it more than fifty feet before puking my guts out, whereupon I was immediately returned to the medical facility.
Coincidentally, the medical staff was conducting a study on the use of Diamox, historically used as a diuretic, to aid people adjusting to altitude and recovering from acute altitude sickness. After I agreed to be a guinea pig, they asked me a lot of questions, had me blow into various measuring devices, took a blood sample, monitored my vital signs and gave me one half of a pill, which might have been Diamox or might have been a placebo. John Evans, after bringing me my sleeping bag and some clothes, announced that the next day was a rest day. I was more than a little pleased to hear that news since I did not believe I would be ready to tackle the Headwall again the next morning, essentially ending my climb. It was hard for me to believe that I had been on the mountain for thirteen days already.
The rest day turned out to be a good call for everyone in our expedition. No one in our camp besides John, Bob and I stirred before noon, then there was a lot of cooking activity and talking for two or three hours, after which everyone but Bob, who was visiting neighbors, went back to napping and reading. It was such a clear day that we could see great distances. We could tell where Anchorage was by picking out the little bump in the terrain that was Mt. Susitna, or Sleeping Lady. Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and the rest of the Alaska Range stood out brightly in all their blazing glory, especially from the vantage point of the Camp III outhouse, probably the outhouse with the best view in the entire world.
The next time I made entries in my journal I was snugly wrapped in my sleeping bag at 16,200 feet in a small but beautiful campsite precariously perched at the bottom of the West Buttress Ridge and overlooking the Peter’s Glacier, from which we could also see the North Peak of Denali. We had climbed the West Buttress Ridge, from which you can see thousands of feet down on either side just by turning your head, all the way to Camp V at 17,200 feet, left a cache and returned to Camp IV. From Camp V we had found it was very windy up above at Denali Pass, though some climbers were attempting the traverse in spite of it.
Everyone was tired when we had arrived back at Camp IV, except Hendrick and Gordy. Big John was very tired and complained of a headache. Cliff Harrison was exhausted and complained of sore feet. Even Bob, for the first time, complained of being tired. John admitted that he did not feel well. I was tired, wind-burned and sunburned, but at least I was not sick. I had taken Diamox the past two mornings, and whether because of the Diamox, or not, I had not suffered from either headaches or nausea. We had now lost one climber, Dave Danner, due to frostbitten fingers, which he had apparently gotten climbing the Headwall.
When we got to Camp V, before we had erected our tents and built snow walls to protect them from the wind, we had our second casualty. Cliff now had severe foot injuries inside his ill-fitting climbing boots. John Evans took him back to Camp III where they were to pick up Dave Danner and head back to Base Camp and Talkeetna. I felt bad for Dave and Cliff and I worried I was going to miss John Evans because I thought he added some balance to the guiding of the group. His was the fate of Assistant Guides. He had been on the mountain five times and never reached the summit because of having to escort injured or sick clients back down the mountain.
It was now Wednesday, June 14, 1989. The wind had blown all night Tuesday and it blew all day Wednesday. It was difficult to determine how hard the wind was blowing, but there were certainly some violent gusts. The temperature without the chill factor was around zero Fahrenheit. We all wished we had brought a book, but we got brutally selective about what we were willing to carry the higher up we got.
At 3:00 pm on Friday, June 16, Gordy came by the tent and hollered, “Saddle up. Let’s go!” We were stretched out in our tents thinking mostly about heading down, not up. We clambered out of the tents, and behold, the sky was cloudless with no lenticular cloud over Denali pass or higher up, which would have been an indication of high winds. So, off we went, dressed for cold weather, with clothing for even colder weather available in our packs. It took us three hours to ascend the thousand feet to Denali Pass, which is a giant traverse with a very steep uphill at the end and we were breaking trail through waist-deep snow a good part of the way.
We took a break at the top of Denali Pass and headed up toward Archdeacon’s Tower, then around the tower to the Football Field at 19,200 feet, arriving around 10:30 p.m. The sun covered only half the Football Field and it was cold, but at least there was not much wind. We took another lengthy break before ascending the hill up the other side of the Football Field to the base of the Summit Ridge. It was a long, steep haul, and we used fixed lines in a couple of places, but the rear-view scenery all the way up was astounding. Though Mt. Foraker slides beneath you as you get closer to the summit it never loses its majesty.
I was pretty whipped by the time we got to the base of the Summit Ridge around 12:45 a.m. The wind had picked up and the temperature was probably minus thirty to thirty-five degrees, not including the wind chill factor. We were all immediately cold and began getting into our summit clothing. Gordy came over to assist me and mentioned that I had frostbite on my nose. Though I figured he was right, I told him it was just zinc oxide. He also asked me how I was doing and I said, acting pugilistic, “You want to go a few rounds?” He liked the answer. I was relieved.
Off we went again with the summit about an hour away. I had long since given up on my glasses and goggles, which were totally fogged up and useless, so I just let them hang around my neck. The sun had gone down to the Western horizon giving everything a beautiful alpenglow. The Summit Ridge is a narrow affair with cornices of snow overhanging the north side of the mountain, which we stayed well away from. As I plodded along I was in some kind of other-worldly dream, marveling at the beauty and worrying about my nose, my feet and my stamina Finally, one ridge distant, I saw Wayne with his hands in the air and Bob and Hendrick milling around. It was not until that very moment that I realized I was actually going to make it. Gordy, Big John and I, the second line, were soon on the summit as well.
Taking photos was a cold and rushed affair; there was so little light we had to use the flash function on our cameras. Descending, it seemed to take forever to get back to the Football Field. Hendrick fell once and did an excellent job of self-arresting. When we finally got there Big John fell down on his back and announced that he could not get up. Gordy made it very clear to him that if he did not get up and get his act together that he was going to die. No one was going to carry him down the mountain.
When we started out again Gordy put Big John in the lead, which was a good idea because it forced him to think about what he was doing and where he was going, and he could set his own pace. It worked nicely down the fixed line and the upper reaches of Denali Pass, when Big John started to fade. He began stopping more and moving less. He would just stop and look around, as if getting his bearings, but then do nothing. The rest of us were cold and tired, most suffering from frostbite, and we wanted to get back to Camp V. Gordy finally walked down to Big John, had a few words with him, and began marching downhill side-by-side with him. Soon we were all back in Camp V warming up in our sleeping bags. It was 6:30 a.m. and it had been the most grueling fourteen hours of my life. I had intended the climb to be sort of a spiritual purgatory and it had not disappointed me.
It was not until we got back to Camp V that I realized the extent of my frostbite. My left cheek was so swollen that my left eye was practically closed. My nose was very tender and taut looking. A fellow who was half of a duo that had been following us up and down the mountain came by my tent at Gordy’s request. He was an intern from California. After looking at my face he said he was not worried about my cheek because it was superficial, but he was a little worried about my nose. He said he did not think I was going to lose it but that I had better be very careful about damaging it or refreezing it, which sounded familiar. Not being keen on the idea of losing my nose, I fashioned a very swank bandage to cover the whole mess for the descent. In addition to my nose and cheek, and Hendrick’s toes, Gordy had a frostbitten toe and Wayne had some on the tips of his fingers. Only Bob and Big John were free of frostbite.
We awoke at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, the 18th prepared to leave Camp V via the Rescue Couloir by 10:00 a.m. because the winds had picked up again and Gordy wanted to avoid the West Buttress Ridge. The Rescue Couloir drops straight down the face of the mountain for a couple of thousand feet, almost to the level of the 14,000 foot Camp III, where the medical facility was. The first line down was Hendrick, me and Wayne, in that order. The wind was blowing like nobody’s business and breaking camp had been a real chore.
An amusing incident occurred while Hendrick and I were getting started; he went over the edge and I eased my way to near it and waited for him to go lower, keeping the line taut lest he fall. I waited and waited. Nothing happened. The second line was impatient for us to move over the ridge and Gordy was getting worked up. He came over to me and asked what was happening and I said, “I don’t know. I’m waiting for Hendrick to move lower.” Gordy walked over to the edge and there was Hendrick, who had been waiting for me, afraid of pulling me over if he moved lower, while I waited for him, not wanting to leave any slack in the line. Gordy hollered something akin to, “Hendrick, get your ass moving!” and over we went.
Fine snow, as well as larger chunks of ice and snow, were falling on my head from above, and the wind was howling right down the chute. It was a difficult descent for me because I had not cut sufficiently large air holes in the bottom of my nose bandage and Wayne continually allowed too much slack in the line, but we all made it without mishap. As we broke out into the sun and could see Camp III I felt like I was coming home!
At Camp III, I had a conversation with Scott Wollems, another Denali guide, during which he said, “If I had been your guide, you never would have summited.” When I asked him to explain he simply said, “I don’t do nighttime summits.” I did not have to use my imagination to understand what he meant, but I certainly was glad that we had though, admittedly, things might easily have turned out differently.
I had had problems in the Rescue Couloir with Wayne letting out too much line; now Hendrick had a different kind of problem with Wayne. The sun from the long summer days had been working on the snow and there were many more crevasses to be crossed on the way down the mountain. Hendrick was on the line in front of Wayne and it seemed every time Hendrick got right over the top of a snow bridge that was particularly scary for him, Wayne would have to stop and adjust his boots, or slow down for some other reason. Hendrick had become very agitated, and I could not blame him, but it was amusing in a perverse way because it always occurred at just the right (wrong) time.
The last night on the mountain was spent at the 11,000 foot Camp II. We had descended six thousand feet in one day. You could literally taste the oxygen! I slept so well that I do not think I even turned once in the night, and I was disappointed to hear the crunching of snow and a priming stove at 7:19 a.m.
The weather was beautiful when we arrived at Base Camp and we waited only an hour for our flight to arrive. In the plane we passed mountain after mountain, and glacier after glacier, huge, craggy, barren and cold, and mile after mile of stark, rugged, raw beauty, until we saw the first green moss on some lower mountainsides, and then more and more green and less and less white. It was full-blown summer. Soon lakes and trees and rivers were everywhere, with no sign of civilization. Then the first remote lake and river cabins, then all-terrain-vehicle tracks in the tundra, then homesteads with airstrips, then a road, a highway, a railroad and finally, Talkeetna.
At home, reflecting on the climb I felt better about myself than I had in a long time. I felt purged. Things appeared to be in much better perspective. I had worked hard at earning a new respect for myself, a better appreciation of friends and a deeper love of loved ones. In other words, I was hooked!
About Mike Gordon
I was born in Ft. Pierce, Florida, moved to Alaska in 1953, graduated from Anchorage High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a Minor in Philosophy at the University of San Francisco. I played alto saxophone in the Anchorage High School band, as well as ice hockey through high school and as a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving on to USF. Incidentally, I completed the seventeen credits I needed to graduate from USF in the Spring of 2011, 48 years late and earning a 4.0 gpa for the semester!
I have been a member of the Anchorage City Council and Anchorage Borough Assembly before unification, twice a board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, State of Alaska, and twice its Chairman. I have been on many boards, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska, Anchorage Opera, Anchorage Repertory Theatre, Anchorage Mental Health Association and Boys Scouts of America, Western Alaska Council. I am an active Rotarian and past president of Anchorage Downtown Rotary.
My interests are climbing, running, skiing, scuba diving, reading, writing, traveling and opera. I have climbed six of the seven highest mountains on each of the continents and made three attempts on the seventh, Mt. Everest, reaching 27,500 ft. at age 50. I have also run fifteen marathons, including the original run from Marathon to Athens.
I have a son, Michael, a daughter, Michele, and seven grandchildren by my first wife. My present wife and I will celebrate our 26th anniversary in September 2012.