A year ago, Matt Strauser had his mind on higher things. He was preparing for the climb of his life—to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley! As it turned out, the adventure that took 24 days in May and June of 2007 nearly cost him his life.
Part of a seven-man team, Strauser started out the climb as many others do—up to 1000 people each summer. Fifty-percent of them make it to the top, and he certainly expected to be among them. He’d been rigorously training by hiking with a heavy pack for a year and a half. He was mentally ready, too, in his words, “to maintain cool confidence in the face of danger and risk. You can never panic.”
The trek began when a skiplane delivered the team and each of their 150-pound packs of food and supplies to a glacier at an elevation of 7,800 feet. For nearly three weeks from then, they moved upward to their goal of reaching the summit of North America’s highest mountain—an elevation of 20,320 feet.
“We spent a lot of time looking up at snow plumes (snow blowing off high ridges),” Strauser recalled about waiting for the right climbing conditions along the way. “You could be stuck in your tent for days.” After all, Mt. McKinley is only 200 miles away from the Arctic Circle. Climbers begin the ascent knowing that weather on the mountain dictates their every move.
During the waiting time, Strauser said he met people in the same predicament. There were climbers from guided tours as well as independent teams like his own. They hailed from places such as Scandinavia, Poland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. “We spent ten days at 14,000 feet,” he related. “That’s when you really get to know people! You meet people and know them by name. You’re pretty social with one another.”
Finally on the 21st day of the trip, conditions were right to proceed from the camp elevation they’d attained at 17,200. According to Strauser, “It was an amazingly good day for a ‘summit day.’” Hopes for many were soaring as they set out with other climbers from high camp that day. The ascent went well as the summit of McKinley loomed nearer. But only 800 feet shy of the peak, Strauser noticed his hands felt numb. On top of that, his thinking seemed slow and confused.
Yet he knew enough to stop when his body was showing signs of serious altitude sickness. “You have to be prepared to self-rescue,” Strauser pointed out. “It’s the rule of McKinley.” With that in his clouded mind, he stopped, knowing a heroic effort to finish the climb could spell disaster. He had to be able to get back down the mountain. And with the less help, the better. Three of his teammates had gone on to the top. The three with Strauser stayed with him. “We’ll wait for you,” they assured him. They also radioed the other three about Strauser’s condition. Word spread fast in the thin mountain air.
Three professional climbing guides with groups of their own heard about Strauser from his teammates near the top. They understood the potential danger of the situation and immediately radioed back, offering their assistance. Mountaineering guides recognize the signs of pulmonary and cerebral edema and regard them as “serious, life-threatening conditions that require immediate descent.”
Now Strauser knows that he had, in fact, developed cerebral edema--the rarest and worst form of altitude sickness. He said it affects less than 1% of McKinley’s climbers. He waited briefly at that elevation, hoping his oxygen-deprived body would gradually acclimatize to the thin air. His three companions waited with him. But showing no improvement, Strauser was forced to descend, abandoning his long-awaited goal to make it to the top. And with him, his three companions also turned their backs to the summit.
A mere 100 feet down, Strauser began to recover. Eventually joined by the whole team, he continued back to high camp at 17,200 feet where rangers checked his vitals. Fortunately he required no medical assistance, but the whole team was spent physically. Because of scheduling, it was not possible to attempt the summit again.
“It could’ve been a whole different story,” Strauser said in January of 2008. Perhaps he would have claimed the summit another day. Perhaps the summit would have claimed him. It still moves him deeply to remember the willingness of others to abandon their own dreams for one person.
Like himself, the other climbers had spent years of preparation and training in order to be on the slopes of Mt. McKinley. The guides at the top who offered their help had groups for whom they were responsible. Realizing that they were willing to lay aside their own ambitions just for him, Strauser admitted, “It makes us all a little humbler.” “There’s a whole lot more to climbing than getting to the top,” he reflected. “For me, it’s not so much getting to the top as sharing the experience with other people.” With a twinkle in his eyes, Strauser recently admitted that he is still training, still preparing for another climb on Mt. McKinley, perhaps in the spring of 2009.