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Denali – First Portuguese Women to Summit (Part 2)

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Day 10

We climb from our 14,000 feet camp up to 17,000 feet.

I can’t lie… it was hard. The fixed lines were surprisingly the easiest to do, but there were high stretches and really thin walking sections along the ridges.

Luckily I felt Jesus had me through this climb. My lead guide had a rope closer to me and brought it in closer on more exposed sections to help me out. Bless him. Made all the difference in the world with my anxiety.

I will have to go back down though, a fact that has not escaped me.

Once we reach the 17,000 feet camp, or camp 4, it’s like a scene from a movie in the wild snowy dessert. There are ice walls everywhere and very few tents.

It’s cold (colder) up here.

There is no kitchen tent here. Ryan and Jason bring us hot water in thermoses to make our food-hydrated meals, noodles and oatmeal.

I have been peeing in my pee bottle and going out to empty it or using the big green bucket.

Summit morning we get up, get ready and are on our way at about 8:30 A.M. The sky is blue with not a cloud in sight.

I am wearing my puffy pants, but I have my parka in my backpack, along with snacks, my thermos of hot water, my inReach, my cell phone in the pocket of my light weight puffy jacket, and of course mittens, goggles, and sunscreen to re-apply constantly.

We set out towards the Autobahn and no, it is not the German highway – it is a steep climb on the side of a mountain, which is slow going. So slow it took us about 2 hours, and my lead guide, Jason was not too happy about it.

I found this section hard. The ingrained steps on the snow, set from the hundreds of climbers throughout the season, were big “risers” in certain sections for my short legs. When I took a higher, longer step, I felt out of breath. I felt we were moving fast, which did not allow me to breath properly during my rest steps. The harder I breathed, the harder it became to climb and thus I became slower.

“Well, let’s continue and re-evaluate at top of Zebra rocks, and we can go from there. We evaluate at every point.” Jason says.

I say nothing and just move. I self talk to myself to pick up my pace, as I do not want to come back here. The huge expense is one thing, but I know mentally I cannot repeat this challenge.

I concentrate on my deep breathing, and keep focus. I beg Jesus to stay with me and push me up, with each step.

When we reach Zebra rocks, Jason announces, “Great push guys. We made great time. Ema, great work. We are back on track.”

I respond with “Ok.”

I know I am the client and I can push back if I wanted to, but I don’t. I hired them to help me and guide me. I am more determined than ever to reach the Summit.

We continue to the next stage, then the next, until we are at the Summit Ridge. Its tall, well obviously – but it is also thin and exposed.

Jason reassures me that Ryan has my rope closer to him and if I feel unsure to let him know and Ryan will guide me. I am not going to sugar coat it – I am anxious. Ryan is a wonderful guide and he constantly reassures me that I am ok and that I am not going to fall. I finally start believing him.

I take a deep breath. I feel as if I am having an out of body experience.

As we are on the summit ridge a couple of other groups are coming down. One is a large group from Alpine Ascents and the other is an RMI group. We stop, and let them pass us on the left hand side. Ryan tries to talk to me about trivial things to distract me as the other climbers pass us.

One of the groups has a female guide among them and she looks at me as she passes, with annoyance and superiority. I don’t care. I am a few feet away from the Summit of Denali and she is inconsequential.

When we reach the summit, the area itself is larger than I anticipated. I take my cell phone out of my pocket to tell the world that I am at the summit. I am so excited and I want it documented. My InReach message is sent with a GPS recorded location. I just became the first Portuguese woman to have summited Denali. I am also the first Portuguese-Canadian woman to have done so.

We have time to take group pictures, individual pictures and with my 6 flags. We are allowed to attempt to call from the satellite phone 3 times, as the call keeps dropping.

Kaylee does a short run and jumps over the summit marker. It’s fun at the Summit!

There is no wind. It’s sunny and so clear you can see all the smaller mountains below you. I was elated. It’s time to descend, as we need to make our way back down.

Jason explains that I am going to be in front, with the 3 of them behind me. His rational and assurance is that if I were to fall, I would have 3 guides holding me and I would not go anywhere. I understand his reasoning and begin to descend.

Ryan is directly behind me and talks to me, “Slowly Ema. Take your time. You got this!” I walk slowly, but somehow confident. I stop when Ryan tells me, so he can secure his share of the rope to the fixed anchors. Then as he shouts back, “Climbing”, we continue.

Before I know it, we are out of the ridge and are making our way down. Amazingly we are going at a pretty good pace. So good in fact, that even with our generous standard breaks, we reach high camp at about 7:00 P.M. This signifies we took about 10.5 hours to summit and back.

I overhear Jason’s delight in his voice, “10.5 hours puts us on the top 30% of top ascents. This is nuts!”

Kaylee giggles, but in a humble voice, says,” Well yeah, but these are abnormal conditions. Usually the weather isn’t this great!”

I think to myself, “Yeah, so?” We did it, regardless of the weather.

The next morning, we start our decent back to basecamp.

We leave early morning to get to 14,000 feet before it’s too hot. We take a long rest at 14,000 feet until the temperature cools down, making easier to walk on the snow.

At camp 2 or 11,000 feet, we put our snowshoes back on replacing our crampons. The descent from here on is not easy. It is about 11:00 P.M. or just passed it.

The snow in some areas is mushy still, even though it’s in the middle of the night. I trip several times. Jason is leading; I am in second position, with Kaylee behind me and Ryan in the back. He has the hardest job, trying to keep all our slides inline.

I keep stumbling, and take a few falls, especially when Jason’s sled pulls me forward. Each stumble I shout. “Stop.” Everyone does. And each time as gracefully as possible, I get up again and we all continue.

Ski Hill is especially hard, as the snow feels slippery. During one of our brief breaks, I ask what time it is, and when Jason says, “It’s 1:30 A.M.” I say to Kaylee, “ It’s your birthday already – Happy Birthday!” The 3 of us make a small attempt to sing Happy Birthday to Kaylee. The sun is rising again behind us, even though it had only set a couple of hours before.

When we finally reach camp one there are several tents set-up, another set of Mountain Trip guides are escorting a group of several Russian climbers.

Jason says, “We are going to take a longer break here, once they retrieved the cache that we had left on the way up.” Ryan asks “Why?” and Jason replies with, “Let’s take our time. We are an hour ahead of schedule.”

I am silently happy we are moving fast, and think that falling so many times is not embarrassing. I actually take it as symbolism of why I am even climbing– you can fall, but you just need to get back up on your feet and keep moving. Is that not what we deal everyday with mental health?

And so we do. The walk out from camp 1 towards basecamp seems endless.
I tried to recall in my memory of walking up 12 days ago, and can’t remember. I know I made it, but with all the snow, I don’t remember the route.

I am careful to keep following Jason’s footsteps, as we walk around crevasses. I pull my trekking poles up, careful not to stab the snow where Jason has just walked over a crevasse wall and move as quickly as a can past it, until the next one.

I kept thinking of Richard Parks, when he was doing a 737 Challenge, and was on Denali in 2011, about the same time of year, when he punched through a crevasse and fell really deep. He had to use his ice axe on the lip of the crevasse to get himself out. So, stabbing the snow was out of the question.

We were back at basecamp at about 5:30 A.M on June 30, hoping to get on a plane to fly out back to Talkheeta, 12 days after we had arrived.

We did it.

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