first stage: The ascent of Mt. McKinley
On Thursday, 9 May 2002, I was
finally able to board a plane at Findel airport in
Luxembourg to start my journey to Anchorage, Alaska.
It would take me 27 hours and stops in Amsterdam and
Minneapolis to get there. During the flights I had to
inject small doses of insulin on a regular basis in
order to compensate for the time difference of ten
hours. In the meantime I felt how the anxieties and
nervousness of the previous weeks slowly disappeared.
Having arrived in Alaska I was struggling with two
problems: jet lag and the long, almost endless summer
days typical of the far north at that time of the
During the two days I spent in Anchorage I met the
other members of the expedition and our guides. The
team was made up of several nationalities with people
coming from England, Australia, Venezuela, America,
Singapore, and Luxembourg, while the ages of the team
members varied from 25 to 69 years.
me briefly present the three guides:
- Chris Kerric, 32, expedition leader from
Tacoma, Washington, with the experience of 4 ascents
in 6 attempts on Mt. McKinley;
- Ryan Campbell, 32, from Juneau, Alaska,
third time on Mt. McKinley;
- Andy Wise, 27, from Conway, Washington,
first time on Mt. McKinley.
we got to know each other, and after I had explained
to the group what the symptoms of a life-threatening
drop in blood sugar levels were, we meticulously
checked our equipment and material. Denali does not
allow you to take any chances.
On the following morning we packed
our equipment on the trailer of a huge van 4 tents,
one kitchen tent, food for 26 days, 10 pairs of snow
boots, ropes, and the personal material of the ten
team members. We left Anchorage, a soulless and dull
city, and headed for Talkeetna, the entrance to Denali
National Park. There we had to register our expedition
with the Park Rangers Service, who also told us about
the very strict cleanliness regulations on Denali.
After the expedition we would have to take back all
our garbage and waste by plane. There were toilets in
the base camp and camp 4, as for the rest of the way,
we would have to use a portable toilet (actually a
bucket with some kind of a seat) equipped with
biologically disposable bags. Once full, the bags
could be dropped in specially marked, very deep
It took us three flights with
one-engine planes to get the group and our equipment
to the base camp on the south-easterly arm of the huge
Kahiltna glacier. The flight was extremely spectacular
and it could only be described in hyperbole. We then
put up our first camp at a height of 2295m. It
consisted of two three-man tents, two twin tents, and
one kitchen tent, which was rather comfortable, given
the extreme conditions. The kitchen tent was also the
only place that provided us with a small source of
heat and warm meals when the cookers were on, of
course. I shared a tent with Shani Tan from Singapore.
The strategy that our team,
Mountain Trip Three, applied, was double carriage.
We moved camps in two stages. On the first day we
would transport food and material that would only be
used at a later point to the next camp, or to a kind
of depot that we arranged just short of the next camp.
There we would bury everything that we had brought up
in backpacks and on sleds in the snow. On the second
day we would put down the old camp and carry the rest
of the material to the next. This strategy had two
advantages: the loads we had to carry never exceeded
25 to 35 kg, and by going up to a certain height and
down again to the initial camp, we acclimatised very
Regulating my blood sugar level
proved to be less difficult. I injected my low acting
insulin Basalinsulin - every night before I crept
into my cosy sleeping bag. Depending on the difficulty
level of the following days stage I injected about a
third or half of the normal dose. While on Mt.
McKinley I used normal insulin only once, during the
descent. Every morning and evening we had a warm meal,
while I almost exclusively relied on sugar during the
day. This sugar came in the form of chocolate bars and
sweets, and I used it all up by the time we arrived in
the places in which we spent the night through the
sheer physical effort that I put into climbing and
carrying my load.
Up to camp 4, the so-called Medical
Camp at 4320m, we were able to stick to our schedule.
In that camp I also met Martine Farenzena a
luxemburgish lady climber, who had reached the peak in
an amazing 7 days. However, in camp four our problems
began. After successfully getting past Ski Hill,
Motocycle Hill and Windy Corner, we found ourselves in
front of Headwall, a steep ice wall, which had to be
mastered with the help of fixed ropes with which it
was fitted out.
In Medical Camp, temperatures also
dropped quite notably. Until here it was harder to
deal with the intensity of the sun than with the cold.
Every day I drank between 5 and seven litres. In the
morning the temperature was around 25°C, so that the
daily ritual of getting dressed, packing and putting
on our climbing gear became an exhausting warming up
activity. We then climbed Headwall in order to set up
a depot at Washburns Tomb. The descent caused some
problems for Shani because she was afraid of the steep
wall. On the following day, which we wanted to use as
a rest day, we were plagued by a windstorm, so that we
had to spend seven hours in the beating wind and
extreme cold to safeguard our camp against being blown
off. In the evening the storm suddenly ceased from one
moment to the next.
May 22nd became our Black
Wednesday. We had planned to climb up to the high
camp but after we passed Headwall, the wind came up
again and a continuation along the exposed West
Buttress Route ridge would have been too perilous.
While we were climbing back down we became stuck for
some time because one of Shanis crampons broke, so
that she had to be lowered down on a rope. Ryan, who
was exposed to the wind at the top of Headwall,
suffered from severe frostbite on his lips. The
descent was a real pain to me as well, because the
strap on one of my climbing irons tore, and I had to
climb down using just one crampon. When we got down at
last, our camping places had already been taken by
other climbers, so that we had to find new ones and,
of course, we had to prepare them anew. We were all so
exhausted that Chris decided to have another rest day
the following day. Unfortunately, Ryan had to stop at
this point because of frostbite, and Shani wanted to
stop. She had decided to do so in the ice wall.
Furthermore, her climbing iron could not be repaired.
Luckily mine could be mended.
Two days after our odyssey in
Headwall we got to the high camp at 5330m. Climbing up
along the West Buttress Ridge was extremely
spectacular. On one side I had a view far into the
tundra, and on the other side I could see the huge
Kahiltna Glacier meandering along Mt. Hunter and Mt.
Foraker. We were the last group to reach the high camp
because we were delayed in the fixed ropes by a
South-Korean team. Again we had to prepare a place for
our tents and this meant, for safetys sake,
shovelling snow and sawing ice blocks until midnight.
The following day was a rest day.
On Sunday, 26th May, at 9 a.m., we
started climbing the Denali Pass in two rope teams of
four persons. Despite it being sunny, we had to fight
an icy wind. Ramon Blanco almost got frostbitten hands
when he took some pictures. But there was worse to
come. At 4.15 p.m. we reached Football Field. It was a
shock. On aerial pictures Football Field seems to
gently extend up to, and even flow into the summit.
But here we were, standing on a 5900m plateau, and the
peak reaching up 300m into the sky. My first thought
was, Another two hours! I was morally drained, Dave
was physically worn out. He showed the first serious
signs of altitude sickness he was absent-minded, and
he had not even noticed that he was suffering from
frostbite on both hands. Moreover, his water flask was
frozen so that he was also dehydrated. Ramon Blanco
was still up and running. The sun was shining, but the
wind kept bothering us. At 5 p.m. we climbed towards
the ridge that would lead us to the summit, but we had
to pause quite frequently. My body told me that it did
not want to continue, but I kept telling it to go on,
pushing it along, step after tiresome step. 75 minutes
later we arrived on a little plateau some 250m away
from the summit. The piece of the ridge that lay ahead
was by far the most dangerous part of the whole
expedition. We put down our backpacks several metres
below the summit. I started crying before I even
reached the top at exactly 7 oclock. I was unable to
bathe in the view because I suddenly realised how the
tensions that had been built up, and how the
expectations and anxieties fell away. It was like
dropping a huge load that I had been carrying on my
shoulders I MADE IT! Now I was overwhelmed by what I
saw. I had breathtaking views of the Alaska Range and
the Kahiltna Glacier. The landing strip where the
whole excursion had started was just behind Mt.
The descent was to become rather
exciting and hazardous as a White Out took us by
surprise while we were still standing on the summit in
35°C. Instead of just under two hours we needed 5
hours to find our way through the white void. I
arrived at the camp at 11.45 p.m. First of all I had
to check my blood sugar level 30mg/dl, hypoglycemia!
I ate some noodle soup, went to bed in a state of
utter exhaustion, and did not even think about what I
had achieved that day.
During the following two days we
climbed down to the base camp with all our equipment
and waste, and on May 28th we flew back to a more
civilised part of the world.
I know that I was on top of that
mountain, but I am as yet unable to understand how I
did it. I quite simply do not know where and how I got
the mental and physical power to reach the summit.
Yet, I do hope that I have been
able to present a good example of what a diabetic is
able to do.
I would also like to express my
gratitude to all those who have supported me and those
who have helped me realise this project Diabetes
8000, and I hope that they will continue to do so.
Background on Project
Patrick at the Summit