News: To the Top

Clifton man summits Mount McKinley

Aug 15, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Rainier Mountaineering, Inc

Ed Wantuck is at the roof line of his three-story Clifton house painting trim. It's easy for him — Wantuck is also a mountain climber.

This summer he experienced the ultimate adventure travel: a near perfect climb to the highest elevation in North America, Mount McKinley in Alaska.

Wantuck, 54, had climbed Mount Rainier, a common training ground for Mount McKinley, six years ago. When summitting Mount McKinley became a passion, he signed on with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. for their June 13, 2007 trip and began six months of training. Workouts included hours of walking stairs with increasing loads of sand on his back, up to 60 pounds.

On June 11, loaded down with gear ranging from duct tape to world-class climbing boots and a sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees below zero, Wantuck departed Cincinnati for Anchorage. During the trip he actually used the duct tape to create a sunshield nose protector.

The group of climbers met at Anchorage International Airport for a three-hour ride to Talkeetna.

"The trip was spent learning each other's climbing resumes, training, careers, countries and cities of origin," Wantuck says.

"We quickly developed rapport and were excited to be together."

It was a disparate group — 11 in all, three guides and eight paying customers. The total cost of the trip was about $11,000 per person. Ages ranged from 27 to 57, with two women and nine men, including a married couple and climbers from Morocco, China and, in the United States, from Maine to Oregon.

At dinner that night, Wantuck says, "The thrill of anticipation was intense."

The adventure began early the next day when they were flown to base camp on the mountain at 7,000 feet. There they worked on tactics and with tools such as mechanical ascenders to provide fall protection.

They roped up and climbed to 9,500 feet. Climbers are roped together, usually four to a rope. It's fall protection for each other.

Being tired didn't count when they arrived at campsites. Immediate tasks: set up tents, build a kitchen, build a latrine and other privacy and wind-snow protection walls. The building material was snow blocks that they sawed out of the packed snow. Saws are standard equipment.

This was adventure travel, not a culinary event. Breakfast was instant oatmeal or freeze-dried eggs. Lunch, which started an hour after breakfast, was the sum of snacks eaten all day during the 15 minutes of rest after every hour of climbing — typically jerky, salami, cheese, trail mix, whatever provided concentrated calories.

Dinner was prepared in the kitchen, where snow blocks served as counter tops for the gas stoves and other equipment. Stoves are vital to melt snow for drinking water and for hot meals. Hauling heavy containers of gas is everyone's job. Dinner was dehydrated food reconstituted with hot water.

Sleeping arrangements were not up to Hilton standards either: three or four to a tent, sardine style, next to grubby climbers who had been working hard and not bathing — for three weeks.

At each campsite, one of the first tasks was probing. Every foot or so a pole is pushed down into the snow to see if the base was solid. If the pole went through, the snow was covering a crevasse.

In spite of precautions, a sobering event took place at 11,000 feet. While the un-roped climbers were leisurely wandering around camp, a crevasse cover melted and exposed a hole. Luckily, no one had stepped there.

In addition to the threat of crevasses, there was the almost daily sound of an avalanche barreling down one of the mountain slopes, leveling everything in its path.

At 14,000 feet the climbers made an unplanned rest stop that extended to five days before a storm at higher elevations abated. Available time killers: chess with playing cards, ice ax horseshoes, reading, listening to iPods, socializing.

Finally the weather cleared and they roped up and climbed to 17,200 feet.

Good weather prevailed, so the next day they climbed from 17,200 feet to the summit of Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet. The memorable moment was 8:40 p.m. June 29.

Wantuck talks about the summit view as other-worldly, like being on another planet — no flora, no fauna, stark, immense, serene. He found it exciting and deeply satisfying, a significant personal goal achieved.

He doesn't talk much about the extreme effort of the climb to get up there. Long days of trudging with 60 pounds on his back, each breath more difficult as they neared the summit. Only the passionate and the lucky make it. Weather is the wild card.

There was little time at the peak to bask in elation. One of the rules of climbing: If the weather is good, use it. They returned to 17,200 feet in a marathon 16-hour round-trip, functioning on their adrenaline high.

There were several more days of descent, returning to 7,000 feet. Then the flight back to Talkeetna, a motel room and creature comforts.

The farewell dinner, according to Wantuck, was "quite a celebration, sharing very personal feelings, gratitude about our achievement and our safety. Menu included many pitchers of Ice Ax Ale."

The next day Wantuck returned to Cincinnati and a very relieved wife. After a few days of rest, he went back to his day job as a psychotherapist. ©