– The day we did not summit Mt Healy
The Alaskan sun stayed out all night drinking and is waiting for us behind the cabin door with irritable fists. Eyes pummelled by unrelenting morning. Further explorations in Denali National Park. Taking on six million acres of wilderness is all about tactics. Start small, then get even. Today we start small on Mount Healy.
Taiga Trail outside the Denali Visitor Center. Spruce. Low sun. Long shadows. We join the Mount Healy Trail. Cool air in the forest. It looks like the English countryside. The dense woods spook my secretary and she gets a nasty bout of bear paranoia. But her paranoia is justified. This is not the English countryside. We are in Alaska; estimated grizzly bear population = 30,000.
The trail soon becomes rough and English countryside begins to look more like Scottish Highlands. Many places look like Scotland. And with good reason: Scotland is everywhere. Geologically, Scotland has more in common with eastern Canada than England. 500 million years ago, England and Scotland were separated by 5000km of the Iapetus Ocean. Scotland, then part of the North American plate, was pulled into unwitting collision with England as the ocean shrank and volcanoes in Japan rained fire across the east. By unfortunate coincidence, the geological boundary between Scotland and England roughly follows Hadrian’s Wall.
Timberline. Without the cover of the forest, we cook slowly in the sun. It’s a desert up here. The trail winds up to the Mount Healy Overlook to reveal a shimmering panorama of hazy blue peaks smouldering like the frozen embers of a world on fire. Once upon a million years ago, this would all be water. The oceans burned until all that was left were the granite corpses of a thousand giants. End of maintained trail.
Northwise along the ridge towards Mount Healy. From this angle, the sky begins to look like space. For a second, I forget that I am looking up. There is no sky. There is no earth. I am suspended in an infinite chasm of stratiform blue. In a sea of space, up is down and down is back there and back there is yesterday of the tomorrow after last. Deep Exospheric Indigo. It would look good in your kitchen, but only if Other People think so.
Our progress slows to a crawl. We are irradiated meat, unfit for consumption. The barren south face of Mount Healy will beat us. We arrive at the last rocky outpost along the ridge before the mountain.
Between us and the peak is a bottomless pass, a scree slope the size of several football pitches and a treacherous walk along an exposed arête. We have no gear and we have no map. Failure is inevitable. An attempt on Healy now would be more than stupid.
But just how stupid are we? Could we be stupid enough to actually pull it off? How does one properly quantify these things?
Burning in this impossible heat, we finish the last of our water. Our meat is doomed. I had not considered the possibility of a heat wave in Alaska. It must be at least ten thousand degrees Celsius. Only a few days ago, I had agonised over whether I should bring a parka with me. Insanity.
Wretched steps. Heroin shuffles like walking dead. Delirium. Nausea. Decrease in blood pressure. Disruption of metabolic processes. Charred flesh. Slight headache.
My secretary begins to cry, but she expels no liquid.
The inevitable occurrence of failure has occurred. Forevermore, this day shall be known as The Day We Did Not Summit Mount Healy. Solemn walk back along the ridge. Denali breaks the horizon west. It is shrouded in a cloud full of tragedy.
Visitor Center reunited. My secretary and I took a much needed air conditioned break to fill in some Junior Rangers activity books; books that were designed for children no older than ten. Unsure if we could be classified as juniors, the ranger in charge told us that ‘there is no age limit on fun’. ‘Abso-fucking-lutely’, my secretary replied. I drew a picture of a mountain with a road paved up to the summit carrying the caption ‘Mountains are mega, parking lots are not’. This pleased the ranger greatly. We were initiated, by way of sacred rite, into the secret world of the Junior Ranger. Communal Ranger hats donned, swears sworn, inadvertent crowd drawn. At last, our great services to the wilderness had been recognised. Inexplicable rounds of applause. All those moments of hard work had finally paid off.
We were heroes to many. Saints to some.
My secretary gave a short speech about the importance of preserving wilderness areas, not just in Denali, but across all America’s endangered lands. Small children looked at us with admiration and, indeed, hope, unaware of our shameful incompetence on Mount Healy mere hours ago. We smiled and told them to stay in school. We didn’t even go to school.
Heroes to many. Saints to some. Frauds to the bitter end.
You can’t trust anyone these days.