Saturday, December 1, 2012

This is how it starts.

Ty Hardt with his Emmy.

Before Everest, before Carstensz Pyramid and Vinson Massiff, before Aconcagua, before Elbrus and Kilimanjaro there was Denali (Mt McKinley). For a variety of reasons I have not been able to write about Denali, the climb that set my life on this course toward Everest. But so much of that experience is intertwined in what comes next that it seems important to tell part of the story now, a story that begins in the guest room at my sister Michelle’s home. 

It was October 2nd of 2006. I was sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the dozens of dolls arranged on shelves around what had transformed into another playroom for my niece. They were all staring at me. Some dolls were dressed for the Ball while others doned traditional garments as though on their way to hand out informative leaflets at an interpretive center. A few were headed to the beach. One would be working in the flower garden. But they had all stopped in their tracks as the news spread among them.  My marriage of 18 years was over. None spoke. They did not need to. Their sad judging expressions said what they were thinking. “I don’t need your X#@&ing pity,” I yelled at the dolls.

A long cardboard tube lay at my feet. It had arrived, addressed to me, at my sister’s home earlier that day. I had been living there for the two weeks since my wife and I had separated. It was my 44th birthday.  

Several years earlier the husband of my sister Noelle had made an attempt on Denali. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful, the documentary he and his team filmed won Ty an Emmy. As evening news anchor for the ABC affiliate in Anchorage, Ty reported regularly on the topic of Denali and found himself tempted to make a second try a few years later. This time he left the cameras at home. Just a two-man self-guided team, Ty Hardt and John Harris summitted Denali in fair conditions in June of that year. 

The story might have ended there, but the advent of High Definition video changed everything. Television and Cable were going HD, yet virtually nothing had been filmed in High Definition. Ty got the idea to climb Denali once again, this time filming the expedition in HD. He could sell the footage or make a followup documentary with what he brought back. Ty started building his team, first pulling in three Firemen from Kenai. John, Mark, and Sam (all 6ft 4) would be the workhorses, there climbing ability only surpassed by their extraordinary strength. He brought a few other friends into the team, but also wanted a few non-climbers onboard. These, he reasoned, would add a valuable human interest aspect to the storyline, seeing everything through fresh eyes. 

“I wouldn’t even invite you if I didn’t think you could do it,” Ty said as we spoke on the phone during spring of 2006. I told Ty I was honored to be asked, but had only climbed one mountain, 10,400 foot Mt Baker about an hour from my home. This could in no way compare to 20,230 foot Denali. I did not consider myself a Mountain Climber, and certainly not of the caliber to climb the high summit of North America. "Besides," I added, "my wife would never agree to it." “It’s a year away. Just think about it,” Ty urged. Though I never considered the notion seriously, I found myself fantasizing about it from time to time and liked the way it made me feel. So it was probably a mistake to mention it to my wife. Our relationship was already at an all time low. She made it clear she would not support my going on such an outing and she doubted I could do it anyway.  It is tempting to villainize her in this respect, but truly I responded by doing something much worse -- I agreed. We could have been talking about something more plausible and I would have still agreed. It was not reality that had fallen casualty, but belief itself. Divorce is just the final destination in a long road trip of unbelieving. One of the last weigh stations is the point where you stop believing in yourself. A few months later I packed a bag and moved in with my sister. 

I picked up the cardboard tube and examined the shipping label. It was from Anchorage Alaska.  I removed one end of the tube and poured out its contents. Two climbing poles fell to the floor with a birthday card from Noelle and Ty. “Happy Birthday, Super Climber,” Ty had written inside the card. The message was clear; you don’t have your wife holding you back now so how about it? In that moment I decided to climb Denali. There was no reasonable basis for thinking I could make it to the summit, but my life was at such a low place that it seemed doubtful failing would bother me much. More importantly, if I could make it to the top of Denali, I thought, I might come to believe in myself the way Ty believed in me. As mountain climbing goes, it was both the best and worst of reasons.