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The Highest Summit


Experienced climbers often say

that mountaineering is all about
how well you can suffer.

story and photos by CHRIS KASSAR

y thumbs are shrieking with pain, It is not an avalanche, but to my horror a red, word the guy rises and wanders away, slipping and
but somehow I manage to cram white and black ball of a man somersaulting toward sliding down the steep and dicey slope.
my giant, mitted finger through us. He misses me by inches, but bounces off Nick, Shaken, Nick and I lock eyes and share yet
a ridiculously tiny metal grip. I who slides further downhill. When the blur finally another holy-shit-did-that-really-just-happen
pull back just enough to release comes to a halt, I see that he is coiled in the middle moment. Though we could both use a breather, we
the ascenders hold on the blue and white rope of our rope. have to wait until later to regain our composure so
anchoring me to the mountain. Descending an inch, Where am I? he says. Im sorry. Are you we disregard knocking knees and quiet our freaked-
I wait for Nick, who is about 10 feet below me, okay? out minds long enough to tiptoe down the final, and
to do the same. For hours, we sweat, swear and You okay? I shout to Nick from my precarious extremely slick 1,200 vertical feet back to campa
ponder why thumb strengthening exercises arent perch face down in the snow, shaking and just tiny city built from snow.
an integral part of every Alaska mountaineering barely holding us there. The next morning, a park ranger stops by to ask
training regimen. I dont know, he says. some questions. Only then does the magnitude of
Its not our shining or most graceful moment, Not exactly the answer I was hoping to hear, this encounter fully percolate my oxygen-deprived
but we make it down safely and the punishment but before I can inquire further, I feel a tug and slip brain. You saved his life, the ranger says. The
ends. Wow. Glad that parts over, Nick shouts a few inches. The guy, obviously dazed and still man, whose name I will never know, had gotten
trying to out-howl the unrelenting wind. We share entangled in our neon orange life line, tries to stand impatient, unclipped from the fixed line and tried
a collective sigh of relief at having finished our first, up and stumbles. to pass a huge, slow, guided group. Hed fallen at
somewhat harrowing and very awkward descent Stop! Nick and I shout knowing that a false least 300 feet, but he could have plummeted the
of the fixed lines that protect Denalis infamous move by this stranger will mean a one-way ride for entire 900. If he hadnt bounced off everyone in
headwall, a sheer slab of ice and rock linking camp all of us into the gaping crevasse 50 feet below. his path and if you hadnt clotheslined him with
at 14,000 feet with a treacherous, knife-edge ridge My mind flashes back to hours before; on the way your rope, wed be doing a body recovery instead
at 16,000 feet where we cached food and fuel. up a careless climber dropped a water bottle from of an incident investigation.
Give me a sec to trade my goggles for this very spot and it took 2.2 seconds for that For days, those words hang in the air reminding
sunglasses, Nick says. Not a moment later, a bottomless brilliant turquoise void to swallow it me of our proximity to death, but I dont think were
soundlike an avalanchepulls my attention down whole. heroes. We were merely in the right place at the
uphill. Oh God! I scream, diving onto my belly The maneither ignoring our protests or too right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time
and plunging my axe into the foot of freshly fallen disoriented to pay attentionis intent on getting depending on how you look at it) and everything we
snow that has quadrupled the slippery nature of the up regardless of the consequences. Nick frees the did was as much an effort to save our asses as to
solid ice layer below. rope with a couple flicks of the wrist and without a save his.



The most disturbing part of the whole incident, however witness a body recovery and we watch incredulously as
is this: though a man falling out of the sky was shocking a team unties and abandons one of its slower members
in the moment, Nick and I arent really all that surprised it in a sketchy glacier field. Hillsides sweep away into giant
happened to us. You see, despite all our training, planning, avalanches, crevasses of icy blue open before our eyes,
preparing and positive thinking, weird, unexpected things snow melts into rivers, giant boulders peel away from
have been happening since the moment we left home monoliths and tumble across our path. With death so close
making this trip more a test of will and mental strength than and the earth shifting beneath us, staying grounded feels
anything else. both impossible and necessary.
I lay in the tent wondering: if a man nearly pulling us off Throughout it all, I find that though I am breathing
the mountain feels like par for the course, are we tough, hard, my muscles tired, my body worked from full days of
crazy, unlucky, doomed... or just mountaineers? And, the climbing and pushing limits, more often than not, my mind
answer comes immediately. If the mountains taught me and heart are working much harder than my legs and lungs.
anything its this: you choose. I am constantly pushing aside fear and anxiety, trading what
I want for the reality of what is and what needs to happen.
wo weeks earlier, Nick, Dave and I (or Three Dopes And though some of it is instinct (self-arresting when faced
on a Rope, as we were officially known by the with a man tumbling toward me), much of it is a conscious
Park Service) left Colorado to fulfill our dream of decision (I cant be scared right now because I have to put
climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America. As luck all my energy into getting Nick out of this crevasse).
would have it, we flyor try to flyduring the crux of a Experienced climbers often say that mountaineering
freak late May snow storm. Delays and detours mean we is all about how well you can suffer. While I agree that
eventually make it to Anchorage, but our bags do not. suffering with grace is critical, Denali tests my resiliency,
No big deal, right? Normally, Id say yes, but Dave sees my ability to bounce back, even more than my capacity to
this as a bad omen and bails the day before we fly onto suffer. Do I have enough moxie to get to camp after nearly
the glacier. The lost bagswhich, of course, show up just being dragged into a crevasse by a falling stranger? Can I
in timeare a common casualty of traveling, however, continue traversing this narrow ridge while listening to a
having our climbing partner abandon us in the eleventh helicopter overheadknowing they are searching for the
hour, delivers a major blow to our expedition. Weve body of a woman my age who fell to her death just last
spent the last six months training and planning as a three- week? Can I keep climbing seconds after a fall that could
person team and his decision presents countless logistical, have ended my life? Can I walk head on into a whiteout
emotional, mental, safety and physical challenges. For a after almost losing Nick in a crevasse?
moment, I wonder if our trip is over, but we never really Our trip up Denali tests these scenarios and countless
consider going home. Weve put in too much work, time others and the fact is, yes, I can, but what other choice do
and heart to give up on a lifelong dream so easily. I really have? I can become a permanent, frozen fixture on
That doesnt mean that I dont have doubts as Nick and the mountain or I can shut off my mind and move forward.
Ipartners in life and climbingpush forward alone. Am I Like everything else in life, the ability to shift focus is more
tough enough? Can just the two of us carry everything? Is important than any technical skill. The mountain presents
this safe considering I weigh 100 pounds less than Nick? me with choices and I decide what to focus on: the
go outside and play. On the long, beautiful drive north, I push these insidious breathtaking beauty surrounding me or how tired I am? Our
thoughts aside. Theres no place for them now anyway and constant proximity to death or how alive I feel? My freezing

and take us
I figure its a good training exercise for whats to come. (As hands or how my actions affect those tethered to me? The
it ended up, I have no idea how right I am.) dumb things people are doing or the kindness shown by
Despite these hiccups, we land at basecamp just a day a few new friends who have hot drinks waiting upon our
behind schedule and begin our journey. Its slow going at return to camp? The fact that we dont reach the summit or

with you! first as we adjust to our newly found Two Dopes on a

Rope status, but we quickly find our rhythm. Then, on day
two, Nick falls into a crevasse carrying a pack weighing
more than me. Ive never seen him show fear, but now its
the herculean effort we put in to give it our best?

his last one is perhaps the most difficult. Turning

around at 18,200 feet due to impending weather is
palpable in his voice. Whoa. I just looked down and theres the right thing to do, but it also feels like a failure
nothing he says shakily. which is only reinforced by the countless strangers we
As if on cue, the sun gives way to a total whiteout at pass on our way down to basecamp who ask, Did you
this exact moment. A cloak of haze and snow appears from summit? Unable to deal with their pitiful stares, Nick starts
out of nowhere and envelopes us while the temperature yelling Summit! in response. Not a lie, but not an exactly
plummets. Even though I cant see him, I hold on while accurate answer either.
he works his way out, knowing that if his ridiculous, back- Despite laughing each time he shouts this ridiculous
breaking pack goes in, well both be pulled beyond the response, my frustration grows with each person we pass.
point of no return. I know its irrational, but it feels as if they are rubbing it in.
Eventually and with a bit of struggle, Nick emerges This innocent question asked by well-intentioned people
freezing and wet. Were not in Colorado anymore This focuses on the outcome and their vision of success,
whole place is f-in serious. Its the real deal, he says but does it have to be ours? Why arent they asking us
acknowledging the gentle reminder weve just received about the three life-changing weeks we just spent in this
from the mountain. Exhausted and frigid, wed rather rest incredible place, instead of the one day we spent trying
get connected ad: here, but instead we push forward through the whiteness. to reach the top? It seems like summing up our whole Hours later, we reach our second camp where we quickly experience with the answer no doesnt do justice to our
collapse into deep sleep. journey, to what weve learned, to how the mountain has
altered us. It doesnt seems fair. And then I realize, it isnt.
ver the next 22 days, we experience a lifetime
of beauty, adventure and trials, not the least of Chris Kassar and Nick Watson have already begun preparing
to return to Denali in 2015. A huge part of their training regimen
which are constant reminders about the fragility
involves thumb wrestling, meditation and mind games.
of life, the impermanence of it all. We see people fall, we

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