Mt. McKinley, Isis Face, second ascent. The few seconds seemed like eternity. There was no answer, only the glacier echoing our calls. I had this sour feeling that a tragedy might happen. After all these days of fighting together, it felt unfair.
The plane was swimming in snow at the West Fork base camp. We lost nearly one week with the first airdrop at the Mountain House, but this we preferred to eating more burgers in Talkeetna while waiting for flyable weather and landable snow.
We were motivated to climb, and for a warm-up the Colton-Leach route on the Rooster Comb seemed in shape. The next day, May 20, we found ourselves on an elegant 900m line of mostly good ice. We moved fast in two parties, Deux (Manu Guy) with Foué (François Savary), and Manu Pellisier with me. The last four wicked pitches took us more time than the rest, probably because we followed a thin line too far to the right. After some body-weight ice screws, we solved one dilemma by putting a left foot on a strong man’s helmet (starring Manu and Manu—do not try this at home!). After 15 hours of climbing, we started the Abalakov threads game and reached base camp around 5 a.m. The 24-hour push prepared us for a mountain of pancakes and roasted pig with garlic.
On May 24 we were ready again and pulled our sledges to Isis Face. We’d prepared the packs for five to six days, and the beasts weren’t light. The most detailed information we had of the line was a small photo with the bivouac indicated. We had been dreaming of this face for a year, and I could hardly believe that we were in the footsteps of the “maitre” (master) as we called Jack Tackle, surrounded by a perfect landscape. The first day we gained more than 900m of altitude, cruising in the couloirs of ice flutes and sugar-snow mushrooms. Nearly all day we moved together. These uniquely Alaskan features led to a perfect bivy under a sunny sky.
The next day started happily, and the sun was still smiling when we reached the first rock pillar. But after an easy pitch, bad weather greeted us. Friends and wires froze as Manu led the mixed pitches. We followed as fast as possible, not just to gain time but also to rewarm shivering bodies. The wind got really strong, and, 600m higher, we became aware that there was no way back.
The third day was a day with wind but without view. The second rock pillar’s surprise was the eternal spindrift, and about eight challenging mixed pitches. In the middle were the eyes of Isis, two snowfields we had been examining since we arrived. The sunny holiday became a survival scene. In the twilight we climbed the last snowfield, which had the steepest bad snow we had seen on the route. Occasionally we found a spot of ice for protection, but the deadmen placements only meant less weight on our harnesses. Isis found us on top of the South Buttress at 5 a.m. on the 26th, but in poor shape, and she kept us in her stormy arms for 30 hours more. While we dug out tents and melted snow, our thoughts focused more around home than this great climb. Our bodies were burned out, with some frozen fingers and toes. At home we had planned to try for the summit of Denali, but at the moment we knew it wasn’t realistic.
The descent on the South Buttress was a blank spot in our minds, as well in the rangers’ library. We left our snow hole around 2 p.m. on the 28th under a hot sun. The endless ridge, jumps above ugly bergschrunds, and the deep snow exhausted us. Long rappels and hide and seek in the labyrinth of seracs. We believed this risky game was finished when, around midnight, we reached the West Fork Ruth Glacier, only 10 km of “walking” from base camp. Suddenly Deux disappeared into a crevasse.
The uncertain moments without his voice woke us up. Finally, from 20 meters below the glacier, his voice cut the silence. We were happier than at the end of the climb.
Epilogue: “Too much is as bad as nothing at all.” Neither Deux’s injured shoulder, nor our agreement with the pilot to prepare his landing strip was reason enough for him to pick up us at base camp. After two round trips to the Mountain House ferrying equipment, we were angry with this part of the world. Fortunately, a canoe trip on a nearby lake to catch rainbow trout and a real dinner made us forget the evils.
Thanks to Jack Tackle for this great line and to Millet, Simond, GMHM, and Sandstone for support.
Ildi Pellissier, France