On June 12, nine Princeton University students—six of them seniors—took off for Alaska on a bold expedition with a novel twist: They proposed to climb Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, to raise money for AIDS research and awareness. Climb for the Cure, founded in 1991 by Alexander Friedman. 22. a politics major from New York City who graduated in June, had already generated more than $200,000 for the American Foundation for AIDS Research: now all that lay between the students and a successful completion of their project was McKinley’s 20,320-foot South Peak.
First climbed in 1913, McKinley is attempted by some 1,000 mountaineers a year. But its northerly site and the vicious weather that whips across its flanks in every season make it one of climbings’s prime challenges. Typically half of those who try to get to the top fail, and last year 11 climbers were killed on McKinley—also known as Denali, its Indian name, meaning the Great One. For the five men and four women of Climb for the Cure, all experienced mountaineers, McKinley would be—even with the addition of three professional guides from the National Outdoor Leadership School—their most ambitious expedition ever.
Like most McKinley climbers, the team was flown to a base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. From there, it was an 18-mile ascent to the summit, and they would have to cover most of that ground several times because two round-trips were required each time they transported their 2,000 pounds of tents, fuel, food and gear to a higher camp. As the following excerpts from the climbers’ journals vividly reveal, the expedition was both grander and more grueling than any of the team had imagined.
June 15, Base Camp:
Helena Taylor. 19. a chemistry major from New York City: 8:45 p.m. Wow! The sun has burnt off the clouds. We are surrounded by the most magnificent peaks that I have ever seen: Hunter, Foraker and McKinley all loom above us in majesty.
Felipe Valdes, 22. a mechanical-engineering major from Santiago, Chile: In the glacier we are followed by small copper-green birds, which are quick to pick up crumbs of food. We are also accompanied by the roar of avalanches that descend nearby slopes. Their immense strength reminds us of the power of the mountain.
From June 16 to June 19, the team moved Its food, fuel and climbing gear, first to Camp 1 at 8,000 feet, then to Camp 2 at 11,200 feet. On June 20, they began the excruciating haul to Camp 3.
David Plumb, 21, a politics major from Portland, Me.: The carry from 11,200 feet up to 14,300 feet made me suffer more than any physical challenge I can remember. The combination of my constant urge to hurl because of the altitude, the sled painfully tugging at my shoulders, the seemingly endless route, my unacclimatized body and, worst of all, the insufferable heat on the final hill made me a very unhappy camper. Paul [Frey, 20, an aerospace engineering major from Westport, Conn.] passed out from exhaustion 15 minutes from the upper camp.
Jessica Mosblech, 22, an anthropology major from Scarsdale, N.Y.: At around 11 p.m. Scott [Fischer, 37, one of the guides], Paul and I took a walk to a spot about three-quarters of a mile away called the Edge of the World. It was one of the most fantastic places I’ve ever seen! The glacier dropped off a sheer cliff into a sea of clouds. Hunter and Foraker were lit by the slanting sun on one side, with a hint of pink. I could have stayed there forever!
Sarah Prager, 22, an Italian major from Santa Barbara, Calif.: Bodily functions, so private and taboo, become demystified. Since the camp at 14,300 feet is so big, there are two latrines, actually just wooden seats with backs, but not enclosed or anything. As you sit there, you can look at Hunter and Foraker—and at everyone else in camp, cooking dinner and looking back to see if you’re off the can yet so they can use it.
Annie Howell, 21, an anthropology major from Bethlehem, Pa.: Things I will miss about Denali: the view of the Alaskan world, which seems like the whole world; hot cocoa with peppermint tea bags; no mirrors. Things I won’t miss: inch-long mucus, which eternally drips from your nose; cold, wet socks; fear of exposure.
On June 24 and June 25 the team moved Its camp one last time—up a 50-degree headwall to a plateau at 17,200 feel. From there, on June 28, it made a bid for the summit.
Mark Haefele, 22. an American history major from Stow, Mass.: The traverse to Denali Pass [at 18,000 feet] was scary—like walking a balance beam with Jaws, the gaping 50-foot-wide crevasse below. I was feeling sick. queasy and couldn’t breathe but kept going. It was really blowing…. I had a hallucination on the way up to the ridge in which I saw a mask in the snow that looked like the head of a native Alaskan. It said to me, “You are not working with the mountain, but trying to conquer it.” I beg, and we turn around.
Howell: There were incredible dropoffs and winds that barely let me stand. We were at 20,100 feet, 200 feel from the summit…. All of a sudden. I felt a tug on the rope behind me: “Annie, please don’t go on. I don’t want to do ibis.” It was Mark….
We couldn’t leave Mark alone, so we all had to go back. I can’t describe the rush of emotions. I realized I had been on autopilot for four hours. I puked but swallowed it again. It didn’t matter…. I had made it that far with the notion that I only had to do it once. But here I was, 200 feet from the summit. Unaccomplished.
For four days, Climb for the Cure was pinned down at Camp 4 by snowstorms and high winds. Then on July 2 the weather cleared a bit and the team made another attempt on Mckinley. Haefele remained in camp, and Taylor, Prager and Howell, feeling the debilitating effects of altitude, turned back. But at 5:15 p.m., Friedman, Frey Mosblech. Plumb and Valdes—accompanied by Scott Fischer—stood on the summit. There. Friedman held aloft a CD ROM containing dozens of “hopes and prayers for a world without AIDS,” sent to the climbers by entertainers and statesmen, to be taken to the top of the mountain.
Friedman: The hardest 10 hours of my life. Moving beyond known limits of myself. I am too exhausted to write much now, but today I wept at the summit of Denali. I will never forget it. I am so thankful.