Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Minus 148 on Denali

Yesterday I finished reading Minus 148: The First Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley. I finished the book while I was walking down the bus aisle to get off and walk out into the 5 degree weather in Denver. It was a very appropriate time to finish the book.

The book was really good and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes reading about adventures. First of all, it's crazy because they're climbing the tallest mountain in North America in March. They were happy to have a warm day where the high was -10F. It turns from an already extremely difficult climb to a survival situation and it's really fascinating.

Mountaineering has been a fascination of mine for a while. I love climbing mountains, so it makes sense. I completely understand the thrill of climbing a 20,320 ft mountain. The technical climbing, the camping at high altitudes, and the amazing views all sound thrilling. If this was all there was to mountaineering, I would jump at the opportunity to learn how to ice climb and travel in glaciers so that I could climb Denali and other high peaks. But there's much more to mountaineering than the thrill.

The thing that's had me confused ever since I started getting interested in mountaineering is how the climbers are willing to go through so much suffering to climb a mountain. The suffering seems ridiculous.

Even though I grew up in Alaska, I can't understand why climbers are okay with being so cold for so long. The guys in this book scheduled an entire month to climb the mountain. The high was around -10 at base camp, but they spent most of their time at higher elevations where the temperature got as low as -50 (with the wind chill it was colder than -148). I was stiff and grumpy by the time I walked 3 minutes in 5 degree weather to my connecting bus stop. I could never spend a month in weather colder than that. The cold is a huge thing about mountaineering that confuses me.

At high altitude, your body has major issues. First, there's the whole breathing issue. You have half the oxygen that people at sea level have for an extended period of time. You get to a point where you have to take a break after every few steps. Next, you have headaches, dizziness and slow brain function. Then you have altitude sickness, where you just feel miserable and your only option is to hike down in your misery to a lower altitude and wait until you recover. The worst thing that can happen because of the high altitude is pulmonary edema. Relatively high pressure in your blood veins causes fluid to fill air spaces in your lungs, making it even more impossible to breathe. You can die in days from this if you don't immediately descend to lower altitudes.

On Annapurna, a 26,545ft mountain in the Himalayas, 142 climbers have attempted the summit (as of 2008) and 58 of those climbers have died. That's a death rate of 41%, but people still climb it. Death is something that all climbers have to accept, especially on solo attempts, the very difficult routes, and winter ascents. Even on Everest, where the death rate is only 10%, it is still the most popular 8,000 meter mountain to climb. They know that one in 10 people will die climbing it, but it's worth it to them.

So you can see my confusion. It's hard to understand why climbers climb these high peaks with all the suffering they are putting themselves through. The cold seems unbearable, the altitude sounds miserable, and the danger of death is inevitable. This is why I have been so fascinated with mountaineering recently. I want to understand their motivation for going through so much difficulty just to climb a mountain. Mountaineers have a completely different view on suffering and death than we who have never climbed a mountain higher than 15,000ft and that's what keeps bringing me back to their stories.

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