The night before Summit Day…..

Climbers in Alaska
The Climb

The night was long and restless. He was cold inside his sleeping bag even though the three of them had worked so hard to make things cozy. And then, there was the wind. It blasted the tent relentlessly, and he was worried about getting blown off the ridge. What would that be like, he tried to imagine? There was no actual sleep. But there was a sort of vigilant grogginess. While his body was mostly still, his mind actively raced in a frenzy of hyperactive speculation. He was uncomfortable, and the situation was damn near depressing. But thankfully, he wasn’t outside climbing toward the summit- yet. That would happen soon enough.

The night sucked. Everything was frozen, it was loud, the tent anchors were worrisome, and he always needed to pee. If nothing else, at least the tent blocked-out the wind and created an orderly space.

It must be just as miserable for the other two, he figured. He looked at his watch and saw it was 2:34 am. He did the math, two more hours till wake-up time. He was intent on making it through the frigid pre-climb ordeal unscathed. It was only a matter of time till Summit Day rolled around, and it would begin to warm-up. While High Camp was a miserable place to spend the night, the location had them well-positioned for getting to the top. He felt good about where they’d be when the sun finally came up. Some things are just worth a little pain, he concluded.

And suddenly, he was there. Standing on the snow-covered summit with ice axe held high overhead. Time for a picture, he reckoned. Peaks rose in every direction. It was uncommonly warm, there was no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. The conditions were so good, it was almost spooky. He felt guilty that it wasn’t brutally cold. Normally, up on top, it was blowing a gale and snowing sideways. But this time, it was pleasant, and his water bottle wasn’t even frozen.

The realization that each minute of nighttime survival took him one minute closer to climbing start time was comforting. But when he tried to tie-in to the climbing rope, and couldn’t remember how, he panicked. Why were there four loose rope-ends and his fingers so stiff? He managed to wrap the ends around bights in the rope even though his hands were like wood blocks. But when he cinched it all up, everything pulled through, and there was no more knot.

Suddenly, he had two separate ropes draped over his block-hands. He glanced over to the side and saw that the other rope team members were already tied-in and were staring at him. He felt their agitation. Time was of the essence, and he had to do something. So, he turned away where they couldn’t see what was going on, held the rope against his waist as if he was tied-in, and said, “there.”

He was just going to walk along to the rope’s side and act like he was connected. The plan was simple- he’d create a jumble of rope around his waist that looked like a knot, and no one would ever know. Yes, that would be faster, and maybe he wouldn’t even fall. But what if Shirl fell into a crevasse and he wasn’t able to self-arrest and hold her. He tried to figure out how to hold both the rope and ice axe, and then her- all at the same time. But there were so many possibilities, and he was confused. But soon, he came up with a technique for doing it. Even though he didn’t know what the details of that were, he was satisfied with the plan. And so, he moved on.

The 43-year-old x-ray technician then pondered how, before the tents were set up, there had been nothing on the ridge-top except for the wind, cold, blowing snow, and the view of the surrounding mountains. He envisioned it that way. Their mountain world, devoid of a camp or people. Who would be there to describe what it looked like? Is a place that isn’t seen by human eyes even real? Is that what makes a place genuinely wild? He couldn’t resolve the idea.

He looked around, saw that they were surrounded by mountains, and concluded the peaks would be there regardless of whether the tents and people were. The mountains were of all sizes. Some had rocky summits, others were capped by big snowy humps, and a few had spectacular craggy towers that rose above all else. Each had a name, but he realized he knew none of them. While that wasn’t particularly relevant to his current situation, he found it intriguing and began trying to come up with names for each.

It was cloudy, but he was confident the sky was full of stars. Along those lines, he assumed there was also a bright, but seldomly warm Sun shining during the day. He saw the wind pick up even more, and it began pounding plumes of snow against the rocks of the North Face and heard it whistling through the West Ridge’s seracs. But where were they, he wondered? There was no West Ridge or North Face on their mountain. Were they on the wrong mountain? It was a troubling thought. What if they’d spent a week getting up to High Camp on a peak they had never heard of. He thought about going outside and using the stars to establish their location beyond all doubt. But then he realized how cold it would be out there and that the wind would probably mess with the compass, sextant, or whatever he was going to use. And so, he opted to stay in the tent.

His bag came partially unzipped, and the cold began soaking into his feet. His toes began to ache, but he did nothing about it. Suddenly, he was wading through deep snow that was spilling over the top of his boots and getting his feet wet. And then, miraculously, he slunk down to his head in the hot tub, and for the first time in days, he was warm. It felt good, and he relished the moment.

His mind abruptly snapped-to. His eyes opened, he flicked on his headlamp, looked at his watch, and saw that it was still too early to make a move—just after 3:00 am. Even though he’d decided that getting up and moving was what needed to occur, the reality of what time it was dictated he keep waiting. The guides had decided that 4:30 am was the alpine start time, and that’s what he was going with. He rolled over onto his left side and closed his eyes, but then the urge to pee hit him again. This time, wiggling his toes and tensing up his legs didn’t help. But that didn’t matter. He’d already decided that a warm and cozy bag was better than going through all the trouble of getting up, getting dressed, and going outside. But he wasn’t even really warm, was he? Ultimately, he decided that he wasn’t going to spend his last hour of rest thinking about going out to pee, so he closed his eyes and thought of something else.

He wanted to envision a cloudless, calm summit or a giant cactus in a hot, dry desert, but instead pictured a toilet in a well-heated bathroom. He wasn’t getting any rest, and he once again began thinking it would just be best to get up and go on outside and pee.

Like the others, he knew they were on a big mountain and close to the top. They were in range of their goal. It had taken them a week to get to this point. He considered that fact and realized that it had actually taken more time than that. He’d been studying it, buying gear, doing training runs, and talking about it for more than a year. Now, he was almost there, and nothing was going to stop him. He’d never fully comprehended the scope of what it would take to get up there. But now all of that was becoming clear.

As a part of his decision to join the climb, he’d committed himself to the pain and sacrifice that would be encountered along the way. That wasn’t difficult to do back when he was sitting on the cliff overlooking the beach, 1300 miles away. At that point, none of this had seemed so harsh. He enjoyed sitting out on his deck and reading mountain climbing stories while waves crashed into the rocks. Many of those stories were filled with tales of frostbite, snow-blindness, and freezing to death. But it never even froze at his house, and it was hard to imagine a world of cold and ice. From the very beginning, he was relishing the triumph of the summit, but lumping the pain and hardships into minimized points of interest. However, he was now a week into the climb, and the situation was real and not entirely comfortable.

There was a process to it all. Some things were uncomfortable- like spending the night at High Camp, melting snow for water, and looking a cold wind in the face. Mountain climbers inevitably had to crawl out of their warmish sleeping bags into frigid pre-dawn air, get dressed in cramped spaces, and lace-up their boots with numb fingers. It was just a part of it. Being connected to a rope, getting pulled forward or tugged backward, and always being on guard for something falling was not all that pleasant, but it was a part of the process. It was a part of the price.

And then, he thought about pleasant. Pleasant was lounging around in a warm sleeping bag or watching the Sun light up your tent before making a move. Pleasant was the sound of a stove firing up, a cup of hot coffee, and a full bottle full of melted snow.

Pleasant was coming over the last rise and seeing the top of the peak just ahead. Pleasant was standing up there and gazing out. Pleasant was taking pictures of each other holding up ice axes in a conqueror’s pose. Pleasant was sitting on a bench in a warm hut and telling summit tales while waiting your turn for a flush toilet. Pleasant was throwing out the name of the mountain amid idle conversation with your friends back at home. In some ways, peaks and summits were more pleasant later on when there wasn’t the incessant wind, and there was a comfortable place to sit down. He was intrigued by the quandary. Every mountain he’d ever climbed had followed the same play-book. Always, there’d been weeks of getting ready, followed by a lot of uphill, fatigue, cold, and confusion. But ultimately, the result had been excitement and a type of exhilaration that caused him to forget the first parts.

Latimer began to reenter the real world when the stove was lit. He wasn’t really sure if it was the sound of the burner chugging away or the idea of the heat that woke him up initially. But ultimately, it was the roar and its avalanche mimicking sound that brought him to full consciousness.
Getting out of his bag and preparing for the day was inevitable. The list of what needed to happen before the actual climb began was extensive. But even after hours of thinking about the various details, he’d only become more confused. He was intent on not being the last one of his rope team to be tied-in and ready to. To that end, he felt less pressure to do things quickly since Mark, who was remarkably slow and unorganized, was in his group. Surely, I can get ready before him, he reasoned.

Latimer was confident in what needed to happen in the next 15 minutes and how it would likely unfold. There was a lot to do, and while he couldn’t figure out how he would do it, he was confident it would get done. He realized that he would be nearing the summit, gazing out at the mountains, and watching the sunrise over distant peaks, in only a matter of hours.

He became preoccupied with trying to decide which layers to put on last since he anticipated they would be the first to be removed. While it was cold right then, he knew that once the sun rose and after hours of climbing, he would heat up and need to start removing clothes. But for the moment, none of that mattered, and he just needed to put on all the warm clothes he had. The hot oatmeal was more like a gruel of some sort, but Latimer gobbled it up and wondered why it had tasted so good. He vowed to get the recipe. The hot drink was almost just as good, but its smell was overpowering and filled the tent with an unpleasant odor that only accentuated the churning in his stomach.

Within minutes, breakfast was finished, and his socks warmed up in his sleeping bag and put on. By then, it was time to make a real move. Time was ticking. Tick, tick, tick. Latimer picked up his getting ready pace and unzipped his bag, which exposed his lightly clothed body to the cold. The move was a big one for him since, at that point, he was moving ahead with the climb. He looked around the tent with his headlamp for his plastic outer boot shells. Once located, he pulled his legs out of his bag and stuck his feet, with the inner boots already on, snugly inside. With still warm fingers, he pulled the laces tight and tied a double bow so that they wouldn’t come unlaced during the climb. But then, he realized his plan was hopeless—his bibs needed to go on before the boots and there just wasn’t any way to do that other than removing them and starting all over.

The climber untied his bootlaces, pulled his inner boots out of the shells, and then stuck his legs into the bib leg holes.

He pulled and wiggled his body to pull the pants up where they were supposed to go, but something was wrong, and they would only go halfway. After struggling for a few moments, Latimer pulled his legs out and then stuck ’em back into the right holes. The second time they went in smoothly, and he pulled the bibs up where they were supposed to go. He then stuck his still dry inner boots into the shells and re-laced the outer boots to make them snug and ready for the climb.

At that point, he was ready to go, although his fingers had become numb and were not working like they were supposed to. He wasn’t all that cold, but as he finished with the boot ordeal and took a moment to regroup, he could feel the cold begin to creep in. Nonetheless, he moved to the door, unzipped the fly, and nimbly made a duck walk exit out of the tent’s warmth and comfort. He was suddenly on the snow and in the clear, frozen air. While he wasn’t the first one out, he was thankful to not be the last.

Immediately the ends of his toes got cold even though he was moving around. He began jumping up and down in hopes that would help, but it didn’t. He wondered if he was the only one on the verge of frostbite or freezing to death. There was no doubt that it was frigid, and it was very early.

And then he once again remembered that he needed to pee. And he knew that sooner or later he would have to do the other, and he wondered how that was going to work. He also had questions about his tie-in knot and wondered how to carry his water. Then, he realized that he hadn’t thought about water. He didn’t even drink coffee, but suddenly wanted some. “What would happen to the tents,” he wondered? What if George Ellis fell in a crevasse? What if the guides all became unconscious, and no one knew where to go?

Climbing big mountains was not for sissies. And then he turned on his headlamp and looked at his watch. It was 3:43, finally. Less than an hour, he thought, as he rolled onto his back and closed his eyes.

The night before Summit Day.
High Camp

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.