The Canadian Direct, Walking a Fine Line on the South Face of Mt. McKinley

Publication Year: 2007.

The Canadian Direct

Walking a fine line on the south face of Mt. McKinley.

Maxime Turgeon

“Hey, are you the guys who were on the south side of Foraker? Joe Reichert wants to talk with you on the radio.”

As soon as I heard his voice, I knew that Joe, a climbing ranger, was worried about Karen and Sue. How many days was it since I’d seen them at the base of Foraker? Seventeen!

“Yes, they told us, ‘Hopefully, we’ll see you guys in 10 days,’ but they had brought 14 days of food and fuel.”

“OK, thanks, Max. They had a radio, so if they didn’t call they must be getting down the Sultana Ridge. And what about you guys? How did it go down in the Northeast Fork?”

“Actually, we changed our minds and went into the East Fork.”

“And what did you do over there?”

The Canadian Direct! You know that buttress, the one that many parties had looked at, between the Japanese Direct and the American Direct….”

Six days had passed since we’d last seen Joe. We were almost back down to Kahiltna Base Camp, but every step felt like the last one we’d ever be able to take. Less than 24 hours earlier, we had been totally lost at 19,200 feet on Denali. We had no radio, and no one had known about our plans. Now our feet were so trashed by three days of nonstop effort that our socks felt like sandpaper. The snow on the glacier had transformed into a sugary mixture that wouldn’t support our weight. Our packs’ painful shoulder straps, shearing our trapezius muscles, made us feel a bit less guilty about the rope that we had left behind when we reached the summit ridge on Denali.

Foraker’s Sultana Ridge filled the horizon in front of us. We wished we could see two small dots coming down through that complex structure of seracs and crevasses, but for a while now we hadn’t even been sure of what was real and what was not. We probably hadn’t exchanged a word for over seven hours, and we didn’t feel any need to. The rope between us was enough to tell us exactly what was going on in each other’s minds, and now it was clearly transmitting the desire for a good meal and dry clothes.

In the morning, lying on thick mattresses in the warmth of base-camp manager Lisa Roderick’s shelter, we awoke to the good smell of pancakes, eggs, and hash-brown potatoes. There was still no news of Sue and Karen, and Lisa was really worried. At first the women hadn’t wanted to bring a radio, but Lisa made them understand that she was the one who would be upset if they were overdue. Did they run out of batteries, or were they out of range?

The next afternoon, as we pulled our sleds for the last time up Heartbreak Hill, we saw the Lama fly out of base camp carrying the “jaws.” Soon we caught sight of it coming back over the east ridge of Foraker with a backpack dangling at the end of the cable. We knew then that something bad had happened.

On May 19, Louis-Philippe Ménard (LP) joined me at base camp. Denali was to be my second climb of the season; I had already climbed a new line on Mt. Foraker with Will Mayo, though we did not reach the summit. [The story of Mayo and Turgeon’s climb on Foraker begins on page 42 of this Journal.] My new partner and I planned to go as high as possible on Denali to see how we would do at altitude before attempting a more serious route. A day later we were already at the 14,300-foot camp on the west buttress. We spent a day going back down to 12,000 feet to have a look at the Fathers and Sons Wall and found that the conditions were not good. After a rest day we continued to 17,000 feet, where LP started to feel a little altitude illness and descended. The next night we traded places, but at 3 a.m. a party of climbers woke LP at 17,000 feet to help them bring down one of their friends, who was showing signs of cerebral edema. Reunited at the 14,300-foot camp, we gave up our plans to go to the summit for acclimatization.

Our plan until this point had been to climb something on the southwest face, reaching it by going down the West Rib Route, but the forecast for the next three days called for 60 mph to 80 mph winds from the northeast. Looking over the Washburn photos of the mountain, an obvious feature on the south face grabbed our attention. Just a few words were needed before we forgot all the effort we had made to bring all our gear up to 14,300 feet. A few hours later, we were heading back to base camp to have a look at the south face from the East Fork of the Kahiltna.

After a full rest day we went to Lisa’s place to ask for the weather report. In the background the south face of Denali was barely breaking through a thick layer of clouds. It looked so far away. We could easily have borrowed a radio from her, but with weather reports being what they are in the Alaska Range, we weren’t sure we wanted to hear them once we were on the route. We headed back to the comfort of our multiple mattresses and sleeping bags and dozed off.

On May 27 we started skiing into the East Fork to set up our camp at the base of the icefall below the south face. Around 7 p.m. the low clouds began clearing from the valley, so we grabbed our skis and went to scope our prospective line. It didn’t take much to convince us of its quality. Back at camp we geared up for an attempt the following morning: two 40-liter packs; a double bivy sack and one sleeping bag between us; 44 ounces of fuel, gels, bars, and oatmeal; two 60-meter ropes and a light alpine rack. Our packs weighed less than 20 pounds each. We planned for four days to climb the route and make it back down to the 14,300-foot camp on the West Butt.

At 7 a.m. we were trying to follow our wands from the previous night through the complex icefall below the Ramp Route, guarding the south face. “It’s so fractured! How can this be a route?” The crust under our skis barely supported our weight. My aching hip complained every time I sank into the snow and had to pull my skis back onto the crusty surface. On the way back from Foraker I pushed a little too hard, and now I was paying the toll. Would I be able to tolerate it for all the hours of constant effort and sleeplessness to come?

We had not even reached the base of the Czech Direct when the sun hit the lip of Big Bertha, 5,000 feet overhead. We had to spend as little time as possible under this huge serac, and we couldn’t even think of stopping for a breath of rest. We’d agreed to play Russian roulette, but not with five bullets. At 9 a.m. we stepped across the schrund and were clear of Big Bertha, but the sun was now warming up the whole face, and the sound of bouncing rocks was like a metronome, forcing us to quicken our steps. At every safe spot we found, we stopped to catch our breath. It was so warm that even in the ice sections we could climb bare-handed. We ran through many 5.5 to 5.8 pitches on great granite, and by 3 p.m. we were at 14,000 feet and ready for a brew stop. Two hours later, a big rock bounced right beside us. Our hearts raced, and very soon we began stretching the rope again.

As soon as the sun turned around the Cassin Ridge, everything got much quieter. The temp dropped dramatically, and the climbing got much harder, forcing us to spend a lot of time belaying. Minutes now felt like hours and the tension was building. We grew more and more frustrated at each other for being slow. We needed a ledge to stop and take out the sleeping bag, but it was too steep. Finally, after climbing all night, we manteled over the top of the lower buttress at 16,000 feet at 10 a.m. and crumpled onto a snow ledge.

For the First time we realized how high we were. Kahiltna Peak looked so small below our feet. Across a col at the far end of the south buttress, we could see the site of Kahiltna Base Camp—we were right at the lowest point on the wall I could see from base camp when I landed there three weeks earlier, and now I realized how far away the summit still was. Back at base camp we’d been so sure we wanted to be completely independent on this face, but now we felt that a little Talk-About would have been nice to have. A good weather report, even a suspicious one, would have been really comforting. On the horizon the French Ridge of Foraker hid the big, wild valley on the south side, where I had been just a couple of weeks ago. I spotted our high point below the 16,800-foot plateau under the summit. On the other side, the Sultana seemed to go on forever. I realized even more how committed we had been back there, and our current position wasn’t any more reassuring.

At 2 p.m. we started climbing again, making our way toward the upper buttress, where we would join the American Direct for its last 3,000 feet. We headed for an obvious groove right in the center of the buttress. At its base we found a bolt, probably placed by the American or the Japanese climbers that had passed this point a couple of decades ago. I clipped it and kept simul-climbing, but soon I found myself scratching on the rounded edge of the groove. When I finally managed to make a belay I was shaky and my heart was hammering in my head. LP took over, and the climbing remained insecure. Two pitches later we finally exited onto lower-angled terrain and found ourselves in hip-deep snow. In the last couple of hours the weather had changed drastically, and now it was snowing heavily and the wind was picking up. We were really slow, and even with some extra Clif Shots we felt out of energy. At 17,500 feet, LP stopped; when I finally joined him, he told me he couldn’t take one more step. He sat down and I automatically started chopping a ledge.

It was 10 p.m. and without even lighting the stove we squeezed into our double bivy sack together. It grew warm really fast in our Gore-Tex cocoon, but spindrift constantly came in through the air hole we left open. The fabric flapped in our faces, and our leg cramps made our situation intolerable. Minutes seemed to last forever. At 6 a.m., after eight hours of torture, we couldn’t endure it any more.

“Do you think we can rap down from here?”

“Fuck, no!”

“Then let’s move!”

We manteled onto the southeast spur at 7 p.m. in a whiteout. We both were extremely stressed. We could barely see 15 feet ahead of us, and we knew almost nothing about the terrain around us. We didn’t even need to talk. Our only option for getting out of there alive was to follow the cornice toward the summit and then head down the West Butt. After many hours of slogging we were at 20,200 feet, where we could see what seemed to be the slope giving access to the summit. In our minds, we had stopped climbing a while ago, when we started to try to save our butts. The idea of expending even one more calorie just to put our feet on the highest point didn’t even register.

We started angling toward the Football Field, but we couldn’t judge the angle of the slope and fell every 10 steps. At about 11 p.m., when the GPS indicated 19,200 feet, the slope seemed to steepen in front of us, so I turned around and started to downclimb. I couldn’t see any farther than my boots. Suddenly, both of my feet cut loose and I was flying through the air. I hit the snow and the rope tightened and then went slack again. Then I saw LP fly over me and land in the snow. When the tumbling finally stopped, it took us a while to realize what had happened. We had fallen over a 15-foot serac wall. Fortunately, we weren’t hurt, but our synthetic pants and jackets were all ripped and the filling was coming out from everywhere. Where were we? There could have been a 1,000-foot wall right under us and we wouldn’t know it. It would have been suicidal to continue in those conditions.

We started to empty our packs and establish a bivy. When I tried to light the stove, I couldn’t get any pressure in the bottle. I threw it down and told LP it wasn’t working. “Man, that’s not an option! It needs to work!” he shouted at me. After warming up the pump and replacing some parts, we managed to light it. We were all wet and so was our only sleeping bag. After no more than two hours, hypothermia started to take over and we hadn’t melted more than a quart and a half of water. The weather hadn’t improved at all. We were trapped much higher than either of us had been before, and nobody on the mountain had any idea where we were. Should we leave everything and try to find our way to Denali Pass? If we didn’t find it, we’d be dead. We shouldered our packs, crossed our fingers, and headed straight down until the GPS showed 18,200 feet. If we kept that altitude and headed west, we should end at Denali Pass.

Neither of us had ever seen the pass and hallucinations were starting to create an imaginary col. Something that looked like a rock wall appeared on our right, but then it went all white and flat again. Then it reappeared, getting bigger and bigger. When we got close enough to be sure it was the pass, we both fell onto our knees. We might not believe in any god, but something must have guided us through that whiteout. In less than an hour we were down to the 17,000-foot camp, where friends hooked us up with hot drinks and oatmeal.

It’s hard to define all the reasons that compel someone to walk the thin line between life and death. There is probably a good deal of insouciance in this balance, but such experiences also cause something powerful, something indelible, to happen deep inside us. The bond between two people that emerges from such experiences is linked to feelings of extreme distress and profound joy, and these can’t be shared with anyone else. LP and I now understand more than ever the spirit in which Sue and Karen wanted to live their lives. We will always remember them as partners linked by total engagement, by the desire to experience their climbs in complete detachment.

Climbers are probably the most selfish people I know, making all their life choices in order to pursue such self-rewarding experiences. To everyone around us, please forgive us for this.


Area: Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska

Route: Alpine-style ascent of the Canadian Direct (8,000'/4,000' new, Alaska Grade 6, 5.9 M6 AI4), on the south face of Mt. McKinley (20,320'), between the American Direct (1967) and Japanese Direct (1977), finishing on the American Direct; Louis-Philippe Ménard and Maxime Turgeon, May 28-30, 2006. The two climbed from the bergschrund at around 12,000 feet to 19,100 feet on the summit ridge (southeast spur) in 58 hours, reaching a high point of about 20,200 feet before descending via the west buttress.

A Note About the Author:

Maxime Turgeon, 26, lives in the suburbs of Montreal, Québec. He has an engineering degree and has worked briefly in the aircraft industry, but now makes a living as a mechanic, welder, and carpenter between climbs. He says, “I’m not really someone that doesn’t like to work, but I have so many climbing projects coming up that I don’t see how I can have a full-time job right now.” His and Ménard’s new route on the north face of Mt. Bradley in Alaska was featured in the 2006 American Alpine Journal.