We passed 18,200 feet–the elevation of Denali Pass between the north and south peaks–and pressed on. There is a dream that makes people come to the heights, and I was living the dream. It was summit day, I forgot about the lower world, sun was on my back, and I felt fantastic. The snow sparkled as it flew away from my boots in graceful arcs. Step by shining step, I approached the venerable upper slopes on one of Earth’s great peaks. Afternoon was slowly slipping into early evening when Geoff and I pulled up onto the crest at the top of the steep slope. As we sat at 18,700 feet, well above Denali Pass, Geoff said, “Our shortcut worked!” The comment needed no reply.
The view down the other side startled us. We had been living with the same views for two weeks, and now reveled in our new, chimerical vista. For the first time, we had a clear view of Denali’s North Peak. It was two miles away, and still higher than we were. Its graceful summit ridges crowned ramparts that fell away into the Harper Glacier basin below. The Harper drew our eyes to the northeast where Denali dropped for miles into deep shadows. Beyond the shadows lay the painting-perfect tundra with its jeweled lakes. Roberts was down there in the shadows somewhere, but we were up here in the light.
Geoff and I were now as high as Mexico’s Orizaba, the highest peak the Summit Club had climbed. Our eyes traced a long line up nature’s screen to the summit of the Great One, which was still a mile away, and 1,600 feet above us. We were poised to smash our altitude record. With crampons squeaking on the hard snow, Geoff led us up into the evening light.
A subtle pink glow infused the snow as we passed Archdeacon’s Tower. When we stopped to eat some candy, I noticed that we were now higher than the North Peak, which impressive as it was, was just a false summit. Now, only the highest snows in North America remained above us. Mike and Dick had fallen behind, and for the moment, Geoff and I were alone. As we sat together munching and eyeing the final, 700-foot slope to the summit, we felt our old Summit Club companionship. The weather was still perfect, and we sensed the great summit’s closeness. We were strangely quiet, as our usual banter and macho blustering were completely unnecessary in this sacred place.
The hard snow here was unlike anything I had seen below. It was not clear like ice, but it felt just as hard. Unknown winds had scoured these slopes for centuries leaving graceful, curving ripples. Calmed, I sensed a permanence in these snow slopes, as if the rest of the land was soft and might suddenly wash away, whereas these sculpted slopes were here forever. The rigid ripples caught the evening alpenglow as Geoff and I continued up into another colorful fairyland. Denali’s summit slopes became my entire universe; I could no longer even see the painting that represented the rest of the world, and this new, detached dimension captivated me. Halfway up the final slope I wondered if this mountain would ever stop going up, but I did not break stride. We were on a mission that could no longer be denied.
|The outer world fell away even farther below us|
|We were privileged passengers in a fleeting, mountain rapture|
|We felt completely detached from the lower world|
|Strangely quiet, we sensed the great summit’s closeness|
Photos by Dick Springgate - 1963