June 18, 2006, 6:49 am; Day 23:
My right binding, that siren from hell, still creaks every other tortured step. I laugh at it now. I should stop. I should fix it. I should eat a snack, have a drink of water, take a break, check our bearing. After all, we’ve been moving since midnight. I am tired; I am so tired, I feel like I am dead. And now I’m going uphill.
We’re either almost to basecamp, at heartbreak hill, or else we’ve looped around a crack and are going in circles, going back up the mountain, spiraling infinitely through this labyrinth of crevasses. I don't know.
I am not the one with the compass. I am the one who is so afraid of the snow collapsing beneath my feet that I will not stop. Not for a snack, not for some water, not for a rest, not to make sure we’re not going the wrong way.
“Zero!” breaks my solitude. It makes my cry. I do not stop; the voice may not be real.
This, I am sure, is madness.
Two years earlier:
I met my climbing partners, Nancy and Sheldon, our freshman year at Colorado College. Miss Nancy Calhoun, a debutante belle out of North Carolina, was the first girl ever to beat me in an eating contest. It was beans and rice on our wilderness orientation trip in the Rocky Mountains and I think she ate about three pounds. At least that’s what it smelled like in the tent that night.
When we met Sheldon Kerr, a hardcore feminist, women’s studies major, and currently an international big mountain climbing and skiing guide, she was still recovering from a broken back she’d gotten from a bad belay in a climbing gym.
“Want to climb Denali?” I said.
“Yes,” said Sheldon.
“I don’t know the first thing about mountaineering,” said Nancy.
“Neither do I,” I said.
“I know how to belay,” said Sheldon.
And so we trained. We trained until we knew how to climb. And then we realized that climbing Denali is expensive and selfish. So we created a nonprofit to leverage our costs and our self-worth. By aligning our climb with the American Breast Cancer Foundation, we were able to raise over $30,000 in six months, most of which went directly toward breast cancer treatment and prevention to women throughout America. The rest went toward -40 degree sleeping bags and the world’s best boot liners.
In May of 2006, after two years of training, half a year of fundraising, with no guide but ourselves, Nancy, Sheldon and I headed north to Denali. We were Breasts on the West Buttress. We were 21 years old. And we were climbing the Great One.
There is a mandatory orientation debrief at the ranger station before you climb Denali. Our ranger, Tucker, has the tell-tale raccoon tan of a stint on the glacier. He was just there. He knows what’s up.
“Tell us about the crevasses on Ski Hill,” I say. “The cache at 10,000. Motorcycle Hill. Squirrel Point. How wide is Windy Corner? And the fixed lines? The Thumb? Arcdeacon’s Tower. Summit Ridge.”
We speak the lingo in order to exude confidence and cover up the fact that we don’t know what’s up, and we are scared shitless. Crevasses, avalanches, serac-fall, hypothermia, frostbite, high altitude cerebral edema, pulmonary edema, acute mountain sickness or even just getting lost, getting a blister, being too tired to go on, going crazy; death has so many snowy faces in the Alaska Range.
Today is my last day of green grass, of hamburgers, of shorts and t-shirts. It's my last day existing with the certainty that I will live through it.
May 27, 2006; Day 1:
Talkeetna Airport. It is 70 degrees and we are wearing snowpants. Our 8 am flight is delayed due to high winds at basecamp. So we wait. Other teams join us at the hangar. We wait. My skin sweats under gore-tex. We wait. I break into our duffel marked “Snax: 37 pounds.” I eat some cheez-its. We wait. The airport closes at 8 pm. At 7:30, I start thinking about what kind of pizza I’m going to have for dinner. I’d rather climb Denali tomorrow anyways.
“Breasts on the West Buttress?” The airport girl beckons us. “You’re up. There’s a weather window. Let’s go.”
We have four minutes to load all 400 pounds of food and gear onto the plane. And then we are on our way to basecamp. After so many years of thinking about it, planning it, and training for it, finally we are climbing Denali.
May 28, 2006; Day 2:
We wait at basecamp until midnight to start climbing. At night the glacier is colder and snow bridges over crevasses are less likely to open up underneath you. We talk about goals. We talk about fears. We talk about the Irishman who just fell into a crevasse a half-mile up-glacier.
He survived, but is too scared to go on, and is waiting at basecamp to fly home.
“That won’t happen to us,” says Sheldon. “We will always have good communication and rope tension. So even if we do fall, it’ll only be a few feet.”
“But he couldn’t even see the crevasse,” I say. “It was all just white and flat. And then he fell. Out of nowhere. The whole glacier is like that.”
“We are better at this than them,” says Sheldon.
“But they’re men,” I say. “And we’re just girls.”
She looks at me like I obviously don’t get it.
May 29, 2006; Day 3:
We walk three times past the Irishman’s hole. If it weren’t for the wands they marked it with, we wouldn’t know a crevasse was there.
We shuttle our body weights in packs and sleds up the long, gradual Kahiltna Glacier.
We keep our rope tight.
In the tent we talk about girl stuff: cramps and tampons. Crampons stay outside. We eat chocolate and peanut butter and whisper about boys.
We drink Tang. I love Tang. My lips are orange with Tang. We drink it cold, we drink it hot, we drink it with yesterday’s macaroni bloated and pale and stuck to the pot. In the tent we laugh, we truth and we dare. We, BFF three, stoked and stinky, giggle like a sleepover.
But outside, with our crampons on, we are 50 feet apart, serious, scared and silent. The only words we say are “Clear,” which means go, and “Zero,” which means stop.
May 30, 2006; Day 4:
It is hot and sunny during the day. The glacier amplifies the UV rays, so we apply sunscreen. We re-apply sunscreen.
We meet Croations, Lithuanians, Koreans, Minnesotans. We develop crushes on men with interesting names: Fabio, Shnizel, Ronan, Dean, Chelan. Countless men with names of no consequence have crushes on us. We are the only all-girl team, the youngest people on the mountain.
I have never been so popular.
May 31, 2006; Day 5:
11,000ft camp. I’ve crossed three open crevasses now, a leap of faith each time, and on the third, a guy on the team behind us fell in up to his waist. We heard him scream. It is so sunny and my boots are so hot that I have a minor case of trench foot.
My lips are a bloated combination of cold soar, fever blister, and sunburn. But today I changed my socks and flipped my underwear inside out.
So I’m feelin’ fresh.
June 1, 2006; Day 6:
Windy Corner is the crux of the lower mountain. Wind is funneled through this tight spot, amplifying its velocity, threatening to blow us climbers off the 5-foot wide trail that drops 5,000 feet to the Kahiltna below.
On the other side of the trail is a huge wall that periodically pops Subaru-sized rocks off and onto the path.
We know of people who have been crushed and killed here, so we walk fast, and thank the mountain for her mercy when we’re past. We make it to 14-camp, jubilant and ready for the party that awaits.
June 2, 2006; Day 7:
There are bathrooms at 14,000 feet on Denali. There is a med tent, a ranger station, a helicopter landing pad, and 200 men just hanging out.
I love 14-camp; it’s the best place ever.
June 3, 2006; Day 8:
We plan on acclimating here for four days before moving up to high camp. In the meantime, our job is to consume calories and rest. So we eat bacon. Lots of bacon. We eat my favorite snack: frozen butter dipped in brown sugar: Sugar-Butter.
We make friends with the rangers, the remaining Irishmen, and everyone else because we’re girls, a rare species up here amidst so many pompous and stinky men.
June 4, 2006; Day 9:
Weather moves in. Nancy and I organize a camp-wide game of whiffle ball. Hiraldo the Puerto Rican steps up to the plate.
He swings. He connects. He runs to first base, trips on a posthole and tears his hamstring.
Now everyone calls him Hammy, and he has to wait for a helicopter to fly him home. Because of whiffle ball on Denali. The wind has picked up above. Nobody is moving in any direction.
June 5, 2006; Day 10:
100 mph winds at high camp, above. We exist in our megamid.
June 6, 2006; Day 11:
I chip my tooth sewing. When I inhale, the cold cuts deep in my teeth.
Camp is a snowstorm today. So we stay in the tent.
June 7, 2006; Day 12:
40 mph winds here at camp. Anything not staked down is blown away. Nancy loses her spoon, so now we have to share. Sheldon snores and we’re out of Tang.
I’m sick of this.
June 8, 2006; Day 13:
60 mph winds in camp today. Whiteout. Sheldon and I rope up and mission 100 feet to the ranger tent. We learn about two women in an avalanche on Mount Foraker. Supposedly they were the best female mountaineers in the country. And they just died.
Just right over there.
When we get back to the tent, Nancy is gone. We are not even close to being the best mountaineers in the country, visibility is at 2 feet, windchill at negative 40 degrees, and Nancy is now missing. Her parents will kill me if I let her die, so I head out to search.
I have to pee too, and I’m sick of the stink of pee bottles in the tent. My search is fruitless; finding anything in this weather is impossible. I am terrified, angry, and really don’t want to pee, because even with a funnel, that exposure is so cold. So horribly cold in all the places that weren’t ever meant to be cold. Tears freeze on my face. My teeth burn. I unzip my snowpants. I pee. But the funnel is clogged with old frozen urine. It backs up, fills my gore-tex, and my boots, and now in the worst weather I have ever experienced, with a missing teammate who might be dead, I’ve gone and pissed my pants.
I want to go home.
I want to go home.
I want to go home.
June 9, 2006; Day 14:
Nancy was hanging out in an igloo with the Lithuanians. We don’t leave our tent today. The weather remains the same.
June 10, 2006; Day 15:
The only good thing about today was that yesterday I stashed a bunch of snacks in my sleeping bag. So now I don’t even have to sit up to eat. Included in this delicious concoction is beef jerky, fruit n’ nut mix and chocolate, all melted together with a little bit of sleeping bag funk for flavor.
June 11, 2006; Day 16:
The storm has subsided down here, but is still raging up high. The rangers have replaced the dismal predictions on the weather board with a far more accurate cardboard weather forecaster.
“C’mon, It’s fun,” says head ranger Mike. It’s our tenth day weathered in and we all, by now, have a crazed look about us. Sheldon spins “High Heat: 100-120 degrees.” Nancy spins “Torrential Rain and Flooding.” I spin, “Citation from Chuck Norris for being a weinie.” All the guided groups turn around today. Their climb is over. I kind of wish I was them.
June 12, 2006; Day 17:
The latrines are filling up, so we help the rangers dig new ones. Now I am careful to bang out my pee funnel before I use it. Unfortunately, in doing so the frozen tube breaks off. Now we have to share the two pee funnels we have left. To this day, Nancy and Sheldon are still my best friends.
Looks like tomorrow we will move up high.
June 13, 2006; Day 18:
The move entails a 500-vertical foot 60 degree ice slope known as the headwall, then several miles across the knife-edge 16-ridge to high camp at 17,200 feet.
With the guided groups gone, we are now the slowest team on the mountain. We make it to high camp, arriving past midnight. There are no men awake to help us build our snow walls. And none of them would even if they were.
After an hour of cutting ice blocks and stacking them around our tent, it’s obvious to my teammates that I can longer function. I have acute mountain sickness, low blood-sugar, dehydration, and a serious case of the umbles.
They assign me to stove duty. All I have to do is cook ramen. But the stove breaks, and my fingers are too numb and bumbly, my mind too grumbly to fix it. I am beyond exhausted. I curl up in the tent a failure, while Nancy and Sheldon heroically finish our wind wall without dinner. They crawl in around 4 am. I am too ashamed to sleep.
June 14, 2006; Day 19:
Above 17,000 feet, the body burns 5,000 calories a day just lying down. This is all we can manage to do today.
It’s perfect, summitable weather, but we only leave our tent to pee. And even that is too hard. The digestive system all but shuts down this high. I force a few crackers, some cold ramen, but it’s all I can do not to vomit. My body is wasting away and won’t live for long like this.
My teammates are the same. We don’t talk. Nobody up here is nice.
June 15, 2006; Day 20:
It’s summit day. That fact alone gives us the strength to move. This is what it’s all been for.
The first section is Denali Pass: a thousand-foot incline prone to avalanches and punctured with crevasses. If we go too fast and fall, we will die. So we go too slow, and frostbite creeps through my world’s best boot liners.
Above the pass at 18,000 feet, the trail is marked by yellow ice. The wind blows off loose snow up here, but decades of climbers pee holes are preserved and guide us toward the top.
At 19,000 feet, I’m on top of the world. I know exactly what I’m doing and I know I can make it. I am undefeatable. I am on the Great One and I am the greatest thing alive. We are there. We are so close to being there that it’s like we’re already there. The summit is just three hours away. Just over 1000 vertical feet. I can do that. I can do anything. I have made it.
My toes are cold but I ignore them. Just as I ignore the lenticular clouds above Mount Foraker: a sure sign of approaching storms.
We take a break at 19,400 feet. We have less than 1000 to go. In the time it takes to swallow half a Snickers Bar, drink a mouthful of water, and stop to look around, the wind has picked up to 50 mph and gray clouds race over us.
Two minutes later, we will be in a complete whiteout. The summit push is a knife-edge ridge that drops you to probable death if you fall; it is inadvisable for even the best mountaineers to attempt it in a storm, much less a whiteout.
Sheldon and I belay ourselves in to Nancy. Even at close range, we have to shout to hear each other over the shrieking wind.
“Should we go down?” yells Sheldon.
“I don’t want to, but…” I say.
“I think we have to,” screams Nancy.
We stand there, looking at one another for a few minutes, debating nothing, because the stakes are defeat or death.
The background diffuses from top-of-the world vistas to nothing but grayish white.
A team ahead of us has turned around. They’re more experienced, have been here before. “Get down,” they yell as they hurry past.
So now we’re going down. It’s the twentieth day of our expedition, we are three hours from the top, and now we’re going home. Failures. This is what it is to be a mountaineer.
In a whiteout there is no depth perception or landmarks or differences between solid ground and sky beyond cliffs. There is only white, the snowy tops of my shuffling boots, and an occasional faint yellow spot to lead the way.
The wind screams in through my multiple hats, deafening me to all else. Snot stiffens above my lip, freezes and breaks off. My toes are cold. We cannot move fast enough for them to warm up. I stomp. I kick. I waste enormous amounts of energy swinging my legs wildly between every step to try and get the blood back. There is warmth only in movement, and safety only in warmth.
I hail the mountain. “Don’t let us die,” I say. “Be kind.” I panic. “Please?” I whimper. She roars. And then, because I figure she punishes liars, I am honest. “I hate you! I hate this!” I scream as loud as I can. “I want to go home!” But I can hardly hear myself. I shake my fist into the infinite white like an idiot.
We are just above Denali Pass and the rope pulls taut. We have 1200 feet to descend to high camp and my teammates have stopped behind me. I cannot see or hear them so I wait.
Minutes pass. I tug on the rope. Still taut. Now my heels hurt. My toes at least are numb. The cold creeps up my ankles. I kick my legs, but this is too exhausting. I tug again. Nothing. Now I’m mad. What are they doing? Why aren’t we moving? I wait.
And then there is slack in the rope. Annoyed, I jerk forward. The rope tightens again. Another eternity is spent waiting and I can think about nothing but my cold, cold feet. Finally we move and I clip into our first piece of protection. I belay in Nancy. Maybe they need a break, I think. Maybe one of them is hurt.
When she is five feet away, I finally see her. “There’s something wrong with Sheldon,” Nancy says. She sits and I belay. Sheldon appears stumbling, leaning on her ice axe. It’s slow-going and all I can think about is my feet.
“Vertigo,” Sheldon says. She is crying. Her tears freeze and she blinks the icicles away.
We clip in, untie, re-tie, unclip and switch positions so that Sheldon is in the middle, Nancy is in front, and I am supposed to catch them if they fall. Then Sheldon tells us that she does not know which way is up or down. We were stopped because she was throwing up undigested ramen from last night. And then we tugged on her and she fell in it. She shows us the puke on her sleeve. Nancy and I are so sorry that we don’t know what to say.
We descend the pass slow enough to create a bottleneck when we reach the bergshrund. The men behind us have no energy left for sympathy. Even though we’re girls. Even though we’re just kids. An Aussie tells me that we should go faster, as though we could if we wanted to. I want to spit on him.
We make it back to high camp, where we still can’t digest food, hold down water, or breathe deeply. Yet we are relieved. We are safe in our tent. The worst, we assume, is over.
June 16, 2006; Day 21:
We down-climb to 14-camp in the middle of the night. The air at 14,000 feet is thick and warm. We celebrate by streaking past the latrines. It’s the first time I’ve taken off my shirt in 21 days.
June 17, 2006; Day 22:
Tonight we will walk down to 11-camp, pick up our skis, glide on into basecamp and fly home.
Piece of cake.
Except I haven’t eaten more than the few crackers, half a Snickers and top ramen since we were last at 14,000 feet, five days ago. I haven’t drunk more than a liter of water total in the last three days. I have hardly slept, and my body has never experienced such prolonged exhaustion. But whatever, it’s all downhill from here.
June 18, 2006; Day 23:
We descend in the middle of the night because by now, late June, the snowpack on the Kahiltna has melted 10, maybe 40 feet, and is completely unstable. The snow bridges that once held our weight now sag and collapse unpredictably.
We believe that the lack of daylight will freeze things over, make the glacier safer. At least that’s what we’ve been told. Although in June, in the Alaska Range, there is no real lack of daylight. There is only that in-between time, when perceptions and temperatures drop.
11-Camp is only recognizable by the Niagara-sized icefall to the left that crackles in the freeze of dusk. Its seracs hang suspended above a sea of fog that sits on the 10,000ft basin: the eerie orange fog of an Alaskan midnight twilight.
We descend into that fog on skis, visibility 10 feet. I am in front, and must snake around hundreds of holes that didn’t exist before; what was a 5-mile straight shot uphill is now a labyrinth of undefined length.
My right binding creaks as my skis compress the snow. I try to think light. For every crevasse I can see, I imagine ten, disguised by soggy snowbridges. I must traverse them; I mustn’t stop, for fear I’ll fall through.
“Creeeeak,” says my binding. The orange fog throws the sound, bounces it off some unseen obstacle, swallows my sanity and hides my teammates. I am alone, but for the company of strange glacier sounds.
“Creeeeak,” it says again, only this time, from over there.
It is maddening.
I hear seracs rumble and crash in the distance. The snowpack whoomphs far away, then suddenly, “Stop!” someone screams.
So I stop. I am on a snow bridge. It settles under my weight, so I jump to the other side, just as my sled breaks through behind me and falls in the crevasse. It is bottomless and black. The rope slides down to my sled as my teammates continue forward.
“Zero!” I scream. I can’t see them, but the rope stops.
“My sled just got crevassed!”
“What?!” yells Nancy.
“My sled! Crevasse!” I yell.
“Crevasse?!” says Nancy. Her voice is muted behind the fog.
“Yes!” I say.
Nancy hollers at Sheldon, “Crevasse! Keep me tight!”
“Did you say something?!” I yell at Nancy.
“Did you say, ‘stop’ when I was on the crevasse?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Clear.”
“Clear,” says Nancy.
Sheldon’s “Clear” is faint. Maybe she was the one that said stop, I think.
We continue on, but I am shaking and weak. I should stop, take a break, but I don’t trust the ground enough to stand still.
“Squeak,” says my right binding. “Creak.”
“Clear,” I hear, which doesn’t make sense. “Clear.”
Then, stumbling a bit I hear, “Zero!” So I stop. Nothing. I wait.
Then, faintly, “Zero.” This time it’s unmistakably Nancy. “Libby!” she screams, “Say Zero when you stop!”
“You said zero!” I scream back.
“You said zero!”
“No I didn’t.”
“What? Yes you did.”
“No!” she yells.
“Whatever,” I say. “Clear. Clear!”
“Clear,” says Nancy.
“Clear,” says the faint voice of Sheldon.
“Clear,” echoes back at me. “Clear! Clear! Zero! Clear! Zero! Zero!”
“Stop it!” I scream, but there’s no one there but myself. I start to cry. And then I hear laughter. Cackling, crackling, serac-cracking laughter.
Suddenly I realize that there are ghosts here. There are ghosts on this glacier. I laugh because I am perhaps, a ghost as well. Did I die up high? I stop laughing when I realize what it means to be a ghost; I will never make it to basecamp. I will never make it home. I am never going to escape. It is 4:24 in the morning and it will be so forever. I will walk on this glaciated treadmill until my skin sags away and my bones crumble into my boots. My skis will forever swish along to the tune of the voices, their incantations harmonizing with my squeaky right binding in perpetuity. I will cry until every last liter of burnt-tasting melted snow water is drained by my tears, until my metabolism has eaten every scrap of flesh from the inside out, and then, and then I will laugh. I will be no more and still I will walk here. Still that cackling crackle will taunt me. Still, I will laugh with it. It is now 4:25 in the morning and it will be so forever.
June 18, 2006; 6:50 am:
“Zero!” Sheldon yells again. This time the rope pulls tight, forces me to stop. I panic and prepare myself to fall. When I don’t break through, I probe the snow with my pole. It is solid, so I breathe.
“This is heartbreak hill!” she says. “We’ll want to start angling to our left.”
“We’re almost there,” says Nancy. “Good job, ladies. Good job.”
At 7:38 am I see the latrines on the edge of basecamp, like a heaven on the far side of hell.
We arrive, haggard, gaunt and wild-eyed. We fly home, and only when I smell green grass, eat a hamburger, shed my snowpants for shorts and a t-shirt, am I certain that I survived.
I'd like to thank my climbing partners, Nancy Calhoun and Sheldon Kerr for putting up with my whininess and my stinkiness during the climb and my bossiness while training. Nancy provided approximately half the photos in this post. I'd like to thank the American Breast Cancer Foundation for facilitating our fundraising and providing treatment to women suffering from breast cancer. I'd like to thank my parents and Sheldon and Nancy's parents for allowing us to do this crazy thing. I'd like to thank all of the supporters of B.O.T.W.B. for their pledges and donations and trust in us. And I'd like to thank the members of the Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund for their confidence in us, for making this all possible, and for making the dreams of so many young mountaineers come true.