Taking stock in not going all the way
Little more than a month ago, Summit County residents Dave Welch, Joe Damonte and Doug Feely sat silent at their camp in the snow on Mount Crosson in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
The three men and their bright yellow tent, pitched the day before at about 12,000 feet, were dwarfed by a vast Arctic landscape dominated by the three giants of the Alaska Range ” Mount Hunter, widely considered the most difficult 14,000-foot peak in North America; Mt. McKinley (also known as Denali), the continent’s highest peak; and Mount Foraker, the 17,400-foot goliath of ice, snow and rock that had occupied the three friends’ imaginations for more than a year.
The team, self-christened Hogan’s Heroes, had already shouldered its 70-pound packs for five days ” first skinning across the Kahiltna Glacier, then chugging up Crosson in winter climbing gear ” to position itself for a multi-day ascent of Foraker’s Sultana Ridge.
For Feely and Damonte, the trip to Alaska was a first. Feely, 50, an Intrawest executive, had been venturing into the Colorado backcountry for 20 years but had never climbed seriously outside the state. Damonte, 41, an accomplished Keystone chef, had developed his passion for mountaineering only within the past five years.
Welch, the trip leader, was the only one on the team with previous experience in Alaska. The 45-year-old professional chef had tested his wits and skills on the Foraker climb twice before, and had kicked his crampons into Mt. McKinley on four occasions, beginning in 1991. But his prior trips had not prepared him for the unusually warm conditions this group encountered, nor the decision he had to make.
Welch sat off by himself on a rock for several hours contemplating the group’s next move as he stared up at a wall of solid ice. The blades of a helicopter beat the air overhead, returning from Mt. McKinley The team would learn later that it was retrieving the bodies of two fallen climbers.
“In my experience, it should have been 20 or 30 below,” Welch said, sitting in his Frisco restaurant. “But we had temperatures that were 20 and 30 above zero. They’re truly seeing global warming up there.
“Another shocker was that there had been rain in April that put an ice layer down as hard as this tile,” he added, tapping the restaurant floor.
The group had flown onto the Kahiltna glacier geared up physically and mentally for 21 days of climbing over mostly snow. Instead, they encountered slush, rock, ice, crumbling cornices and deep crevasses.
“Being the team leader, it was my responsibility to make sure everyone came home to their families,” Welch said. “Making the decision that we’ve got to leave ” that hurts. But it wasn’t my decision. It was the mountain’s decision and the team’s decision.”
A year of dreaming
Feely, Damonte and Welch made a commitment to each other more than a year ago to tackle Foraker, the sixth highest peak in North America.
The peak looms high above the Kahiltna Glacier, just south of the Arctic Circle. And it would undoubtedly get more ink in climber’s logs and occupy more space in the American imagination were it not overshadowed by Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, just 15 miles away.
But Foraker’s relative lack of celebrity held much of the mountain’s appeal for the three men. As of June 17 of this year, more than 1,300 climbers have ventured onto Mt. McKinley in 2005, compared to only 33 climbers on Foraker.
“It doesn’t get the traffic, and it’s more technical than Denali,” said Welch, who summited Mt. McKinley twice out of four separate trips, but has never reached the peak of Foraker.
Welch and Damonte have made Summit County the base for their ice-climbing habit for several years. “I would always say to Joe, ‘This is nothing. You’ve gotta see Alaska,'” Welch said. “So, one day, he says, ‘All right, let’s go.'”
Welch recruited Feely, a longtime friend, and the three men ran, climbed, camped, lifted, biked, hiked, skied, studied and skinned during every scrap of free time they could wrest from their wives and bosses.
“We were training solid a year out, as soon as we set the date,” said Damonte, who climbed Mount Rainier as part of his preparation. “I was confident in my skills, but when you throw that huge pack on every day it’s different.
“But that’s what you’re looking for when you do these things ” you’re looking to get beat on hard,” he added. “That’s kind of the goal.”
Hogan’s Heroes gathered their gear, kissed their families good-bye and flew to Anchorage May 3. From Anchorage, they drove to Talkeetna, boarded an air taxi and finally touched down on the Kahiltna Glacier May 6.
“You’re just in awe,” Damonte said. “It’s so big. Colorado’s big, but everything in Alaska is tenfold. One of the coolest things was right after we flew in and set up camp, we heard this big roar, and an avalanche came right down onto the glacier.”
“It’s just a spectacular environment,” Welch said. “You can sit and stare endlessly at these peaks for days and keep seeing things you’ve not seen before. It’s almost overstimulating ” the climbing over crevasses, the avalanches, the way the clouds move. The colors are so phenomenal, even though all of it is blue and white and black.”
From the venture’s outset, Hogan’s Heroes knew the climb wasn’t quite what they had bargained for.
“In spots, all the snow was gone and everything was eroded,” Damonte said. “On the first climb, the snow wasn’t solid, and I was post-holing up to my armpits. Up top, where the snow should have been, it was gone and showing black ice.”
Nevertheless, the men’s attitudes stayed positive for the most part, as the scenery and daily progress fortified their spirits. With Welch leading, the team pushed upward, sometimes traveling ridges with several-thousand-foot drops on either side.
“You travel and work all day, so once you’re done with chores and eating, you were pretty happy to get back in the tent,” Damonte said. “But after four days, the tent became a pretty horrendous place, too. I mean, you’ve got three guys and the smell of their socks in there.”
On May 10, the team reached the Sultana Ridge of Foraker and made a gear-carry to 12,000 feet, where they ran into the hulking wall of ice that should have been covered in snow.
“After we hit this ice wall, we bailed back to camp. We needed short screws and short ice tools, but we had long screws,” Damonte said. “And there were huge cracks you could see from miles away.
“We didn’t really talk about it,” he added. “We all knew what was going down.”
Back at the camp the next day, Welch bore the responsibility of making the call.
“To not make it past the furthest point I had been to before was devastating,” he said. “You think about the money you’ve invested in the gear, the time away from your spouse, closing down my business for a month. You get to wondering what you’re doing out there, thinking maybe you’re too old for this stuff ” three strikes and you’re out.
“It’s easy to really get sucked up into that despairing emotional spot,” he said, “but you can’t let that happen.”
Together, the group came to a decision. The following morning, they would begin the four-day trek back down a socked-in Mount Crosson and across the glacier.
“The way Dave handled it was very cool,” Feely said. “We all spent time reflecting on what was best for the team, and he led us to the right decision. Abandoning the climb ahead of schedule was really difficult.”
Sitting with not summiting
When Damonte first returned from the trip, he planned to cancel his scheduled interview with the Summit Daily News because he still felt the sting of not summiting. But it only took a little distance in time and space to change his mind.
Six years ago, Damonte had such debilitating back problems he couldn’t have imagined skinning across a glacier for six hours, carrying 120 pounds of gear, food and fuel ” let alone spending 10 days in remote wilderness, scaling knife-edge ridgelines with 5,000-foot drops.
“The memory of it is so epic ” it lasts a lifetime,” Damonte said.
“What’s changed for me is a bit of enhanced respect for the mountains ” even around here,” Feely added. “But there’s also the confidence and experience you gain from doing something like what we attempted to do.
“We were hanging it out there a bit, compared to what you do in Colorado,” he added.
And their commitment to the sport has only grown. Since their return, the three have wasted no time getting back on local peaks. “We spent three days on the top of Red Peak, skiing off the summit,” Welch said. “These are three guys who like what we’re doing ” although, we did bring separate tents.”
Welch said people who aren’t familiar with mountaineering will ask a climber, “Did you get to the top?” But fellow climbers will ask, “How was your trip?”
And for Hogan’s Heroes ” three men who use words like “disappointing,” “devastating” and “crushed” when they talk about their decision to turn around ” the trip was “amazing.”
“Have you ever been to Alaska?” Welch said. “The flight in alone is amazing.”
Their eyes widen when they talk about basketball-size rocks falling around them, and they can’t keep from grinning as they describe the majesty of the Alaska Range and their planned return in 2007 ” in April, next time.