Eiger Dreams (Jon Krakauer)

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The mountain that officially bears the surname of our twenty-fifth president (an appellation that is largely and pointedly ignored by climbers in favor of "Denali," the peak's Athabascan name) is so big that it beggars the imagination: One of the largest landforms on the planet, McKinley's hulking massif occupies 120 square miles of the earth's surface, and its summit stands more than 17,000 vertical feet above the rolling tundra at the mountain's foot. Mt. Everest, by comparison, rises a mere 12,000 feet from the plains at its base.

McKinley's bitterly contested summit was first reached in 1913 from the north by a party led by Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon. It took nineteen years for the peak to be climbed again, but in the ensuing decades approximately five thousand people have joined the Reverend Stuck. Along the way, McKinley has seen some memorable feats and personalities.

In 1961 the great Italian alpinist, Ricardo Cassin, led a team up the elegant granite buttress that bisects the mountain's south face, an impressive enough achievement to prompt a congratulatory cable from President John Kennedy. In 1963 seven brash Harvard students took a route directly up the center of the 14,000-foot, avalanche-swept Wickersham Wall, an act so bold or foolish that, twenty-four years later, it still hasn't been repeated. In the 1970s and 1980s such bona fide heroes as Reinhold Messner, Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, and Renato Casarotto visited McKinley and left challenging new lines in their wakes.

Most people who attempt McKinley, it is safe to assume, do not do so seeking the solitude of the great outdoors. There are currently more than twenty different routes to the summit, but an overwhelming majority of those who attempt the mountain do so by a single line, the West Buttress, a route pioneered by Bradford Washburn in 1951. In 1987, in fact, nearly 700 of the 817 climbers on McKinley thronged to the "Butt," as it is affectionately known. During the peak climbing months of May and June, while nearby faces and ridges are often completely empty, lines of climbers cover the West Buttress like ants. So many people try the route, Jonathan Waterman writes in Surviving Denali, that at the higher elevations where gale-force winds regularly scour all fresh snow from the slopes soon after it falls, climbers must "select cooking snow very carefully from among the wasteland of brown turds.... Fortunately, sometimes below 15,000 feet, snowfall will cover the excrement, the bodies, the trash, and the jettisoned gear."

The typical McKinley climber drops, on average, between $2,000 and $3,500 (a sum that rises to $3,500 to $5,000 if he climbs with a commercial guide service, as forty percent of McKinley climbers do), and subjects himself to three weeks of exceedingly cruel and unusual punishment. He does so not in order to commune with nature, but because he (or she: perhaps ten percent of McKinley climbers are women) wants very badly to add the pinnacle of North America to his trophy collection. And by ganging up on the West Buttress--the easiest way up the mountain--he hopes to stack the odds in his favor as much as possible. Most years, McKinley still wins about half the time. Some years it does even better. In April and May of 1987, for instance, Park Service records show that six out of every seven climbers on the mountain went home in defeat. One of them was me.

Things began well enough. When I arrived in Talkeetna, the time-honored point of embarkation for McKinley expeditions, I expected to have to wait the customary three or four days for flying weather, as I had the last time I'd flown into the Alaska Range, twelve years before. I was thus pleasantly surprised, just fourteen hours after pulling into town, to find myself shoehorned into the back of a small red Cessna owned by ace pilot Doug Geeting. Forty minutes later I was delivered intact to Kahiltna International Airport: a rutted snow landing strip on the lower Kahiltna Glacier. Exactly 13,320 vertical feet above the airstrip, and fifteen circuitous miles to the north, the summit of McKinley glistened in a flawless sky.

To be torn from the security of Talkeetna's Fairview Inn and dropped into a landscape of vertical granite and avalanching ice that dwarfed the human form to utter insignificance was rather disquieting, but every fifteen minutes another Cessna or Heliocourier would buzz out of the sky to disgorge a load of climbers, and the swelling ranks beside the landing strip went a long way toward softening the shock of the inhospitable new surroundings.

Thirty or forty tents were dug into the slope above Kahiltna International's crude runway, housing an army of climbers who were hooting and yelling at one another in at least five languages as they inventoried supplies and packed their loads for the climb ahead. Rob Stapleton--a tall, dour man hired jointly by the various competing glacier pilots to live at Kahiltna International and try to maintain some semblance of order--shook his head at it all and speculated that some of the folks around him were headed for trouble. "It's amazing," he opined, "how unorganized and fucked-up a lot of the groups already are by the time they get here. Too many of these guys are operating on about ninety percent energy and ten percent brains."

This collective energy, misplaced or not, was a welcome antidote to the unrelieved drudgery of the slog from the airstrip up the lower glaciers, a 7,000-foot elevation gain that most parties take a week to cover. I had come to Alaska alone, but as I skied up the Kahiltna each day I would inevitably be absorbed by one or another genial, funky procession--a seemingly endless line of climbers, trudging stoically upward with teetering, hundred-pound loads that brought to mind scenes of the Klondike gold rush. For that first week the weather was all anyone could ask for: At night the air had a wintry bite, and enough snow fell to make for some memorable after-dinner powder skiing, but the days were generally filled with sun.

Occasionally a knot of climbers, already having met defeat, would pass in descent, offering warnings of sledgehammer winds and hellish cold above 14,000 feet, but those of us on our way up maintained a smug conviction that conditions would be different by the time we got up high. Even after encountering two Scotsmen whose teammate had just been helicoptered off the mountain with severe brain damage after taking an eight-hundred-foot tumble, and two other climbers on their way down after nearly dying from pulmonary edema--first a Yugoslav, then a Pole, both with Himalayan experience--the optimism of those fresh off the Cessnas remained unshakable.

When registering climbers for McKinley, the rangers ask that each party provide them, for record-keeping purposes, with an official expedition name. The expeditions with whom I shared the mountain chose such official designations as "The Walking Heads," "Fat Rod," and "Dick Danger and the Throbbing Members." Upon pulling into the large camp at 14,300 feet that climbers use as a launching pad for assaults on the upper peak, I threw my pack down near a couple of Throbbing Members, who were in a heated argument with another climber.

"I tell you something, big guy," the non-Member spat contemptuously, m my country you do that, they line you up and shoot you. I had no idea what the discussion was about, but there was no mistaking that heavily accented voice, which I'd heard ranting similarly on many occasions at the Rock in Seattle: Adrian the Romanian was back on McKinley. You had to admire the guy's nerve, I thought: The rangers were still fuming about being stiffed for his last rescue bill.

Adrian, however, had had plenty of time to mull over the debacle of the year before, and was determined not to fail again. "All winter, it is all I can think about," he explained. "It make me crazy."

Though he had again come alone, this year he'd assembled a full arsenal of top-of-the-line gear, including not one but two tents, and had double-carried enough food and fuel to 14,300 feet to stay on the upper mountain for two full months if need be, an approach that reflected a more enlightened view of acclimatization.

He had, in fact, already been up to 19,000 feet on two occasions, and had prudently turned around both times because conditions were less than perfect. "I tell you something," the new Adrian was now in the habit of admonishing anyone he could buttonhole, "this is very big mountain. You make one little mistake, it really kick your ass. From the looks of the way the camp was dug in, by the time most people had reached 14,300 feet they were starting to believe it.

The "camp" was in reality a full-blown tent city, with a population that fluctuated between 40 and 120 as parties came and went. It spread across the edge of a desolate glacial plateau. To one side, the upper ramparts of the mountain soared in a single sweep of granite and snow and gleaming blue ice, culminating in the summit more than a vertical mile above; to the other side, the flat shelf of the plateau ran for several hundred yards before breaking off abruptly in a clean four-thousand-foot drop.

To prevent their tents from being ripped from their moorings and blown off that drop, climbers had taken to placing their shelters in deep bunkers surrounded by massive snow-block walls. The walls lent the camp a battlefield air, as if a barrage of incoming artillery might be expected at any moment. Carving such bunkers is a formidable chore, so when I found a good, deep one that had recently been vacated I immediately laid claim to it, even though it was located in one of the seedier neighborhoods, next to the camp's continually busy communal latrine: a plywood throne, completely open to the elements, that had an inspiring view but left tender flesh dangerously exposed to the full brunt of a windchill that regularly dipped below minus-seventy degrees.

The opposite side of camp, the high-rent district, was distinguished by a complex of igloos, bombproof dome tents, and propane-heated Weatherports that served as the offices and residences of Dr. Peter H. Hackett and his staff. Every summer since 1982, Hackett--a lean, laconic, tired-looking climber/physician who is the world's foremost authority on high-altitude pathology--has set up shop at 14,300 feet to conduct research into the mysterious ailments that afflict humans at altitude. He comes here, he said, because he can always count on finding a reliable supply of very sick climbers to study: "Lots of people on McKinley don't know what they're getting into, and climb too fast, and become seriously ill. Fresh guinea pigs are always staggering in the door." At least a dozen of these guinea pigs would now be dead were it not for the ministrations of Hackett's team.

Hackett was quick to emphasize that "we never perform experiments on walk-in patients that we wouldn't perform on ourselves." At that very moment, for example, his research partner, Rob Roach, was in the process of testing a new, blue-colored medication for altitude illness on himself. From the green cast of Roach's skin, and the blue vomit splattered over his white vapor-barrier boots, it appeared that the new drug was less than completely effective.

Hackett's team, I later learned, not only received no remuneration for their lifesaving labors, but--having failed to obtain funding in both 1986 and 1987--met most of the project's expenses out of their own pockets. I asked one of the doctors, Howard Donner, why they volunteered to spend their summers toiling in such a godforsaken place. "Well," he explained as he stood shivering in a blizzard, reeling from nausea and a blinding headache while attempting to repair a broken radio antenna, "it's sort of like having fun, only different."

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Excerpted from Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer. Copyright © 1990 by Jon Krakauer. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Anchor Trade Paperback edition published June 1997.