Pete Spagnoli, a Sag Harbor physical therapist and adventure racer who often traverses in his wide-flung travels some forbidding terrain and has faced some of nature’s more daunting conditions, returned, as he had vowed, to Alaska’s Mount McKinley last June for a second attempt.
His first, in 2009, had ended well short of the 20,320-foot summit, “the highest point near the Arctic Circle,” according to a National Park Service guide, which lists acclimatization, acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema, frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning, physiological and physical impairment, lassitude, diarrhea, and dehydration as some of the things climbers ought to bear in mind should they be planning an ascent there.
The guide says further that Mount McKinley, also known as Denali (the High One), “is buffeted by storms from the Gulf of Alaska and from the Bering Sea. In few mountain locales of the world does the weather change so precipitously and dramatically. A balmy day of glacier travel can rapidly deteriorate into a day of survival-snow-cave digging. The intense cold is, of course, another unique feature . . . comparable only to the Antarctic ranges. The Himalaya is tropical by comparison.”
Spagnoli went with two fellow Sag Harborites, Mary Scheerer and Shari Hymes, as well as with his brother, Rob, of Stony Brook, and Scott Pleban, a Virginian, and Brian Reiss, an eastern Pennsylvanian — the latter two frequent teammates of Spagnoli’s in adventure races, though McKinley had been Pleban and Reiss’s first mountaineering expedition.
In January 2008, he climbed the 19,340-foot Cotopaxi and the 17,159-foot Cayambe volcanoes in Ecuador, whose ice-bridged crevasses had provided “a good training ground” for Mount McKinley’s glaciers, though because volcanoes are cone-shaped, they were, he said, easier to scale.
“June 1st to the 20th is supposed to be the optimal time to climb Mount McKinley,” the thick-chested former Sachem wrestler and football player said during a conversation in his Bay Point house, which looks out onto Noyac Bay. “If you go earlier, there are fewer storms, but it’s colder. It you wait until July, the temperature will be warmer, but the crevasses open up, and avalanches are a possibility.”
The group, with two knowledgeable guides, each of whom led a rope team, chose the West Buttress route — one of 30 such routes up the mountain — “but,” Spagnoli said, in answer to a question, “the West Buttress, while it’s the most commonly used, was no walk in the park. . . . Seven people had died on the mountain when we were there. Some fell, some got separated from their groups in storms, one froze to death. . . .”
When a member of a roped-in party fell, he said, in reply to another question, “we’re trained to go into a rest position and to dig in with our ice axes to set a brace up. You’ve got to be watchful. If you’re not, and someone falls, you might get pulled off too. . . . You can also trip over the rope that links you all together. I did — it’s easy to do — but I stopped myself.”
“Patience” was the watchword of Phil Ershler, a well-known guide who had taught him a lot, said Spagnoli. It took the group 17 days to make the round trip. “Coming down,” he said, “is sometimes harder than going up, because of fatigue.”
“You’re going up and down, up and down — up to drop off supplies and down to rest. . . . The air gets lighter as you go up. We carried 70 pounds on our backs and 80 pounds on a sled.”
The Park Service guide advises parties to “limit ascents to 1,000 feet per day at elevations above 8,000 feet. . . . The extra rest days at 14,200 feet have proved to be critical before ascending higher. Allow three to five days food and fuel at the high camp at 17,200 feet.”
“Compared to the last trip, this was perfect,” Spagnoli said in reply to a question. “It was cold and it snowed, but we were able to progress steadily. We didn’t get stuck in our tents this time.”
(In 2009, his party packed it in after spending eight days and nights in tents at 14,200 feet. When he reached that height this time he “prayed that the weather would hold up. . . . Sixty-mile-per-hour winds at the top of a mountain will blow you off it.”)
“As I said, as you go up it gets harder,” Spagnoli continued. “If there’s a problem, an injury or something, it could affect you. Actually, we were questioning whether my brother was going to make it. He’s a very good athlete, but he wasn’t as fit as we were.”
“We discussed this behind closed doors,” Spagnoli said with a smile, “but he picked up on it. ‘You don’t think I can do it, do you?’ he said. Actually, he did unbelievably.”
“There’s a ridge at 17,000 feet,” he said, looking with his visitor at a photo of the mountain. “A mile down that way and a mile down that. You don’t want to fall. Rob said, ‘Does it flatten out?’ I told him it didn’t flatten out until the top.”
The summit of Mount McKinley was about the size of his living room rug, he said in reply to a question. “You’re freezing and exhausted, but euphoric. You’ve got to be there to experience that feeling. It’s an unbelievable feeling. You’re on top of the world, in the clouds. There’s a marker and a prayer flag. Scott was going to take a photo of me, but my camera was frozen.”
Asked what was next, he said, “I’m taking a year off from mountaineering, but I’m going to climb some ‘14ers’ in the Rockies in May with our daughter, Kelly, who is doing her physical therapy clinical work in Boulder. I’ve done several of them before. My next mountaineering expedition will be Mount Elbrus in Russia next June. I’ll go with whoever wants to go.”
Meanwhile, there were, he said, “two big adventure [orienteering, mountain-biking, kayaking, trail running, and rappelling] races coming up — in Maine in June and the world championships in France in September near Nice. . . . I’ve been adventure racing since 1998. I got into mountaineering after that. . . . They say climbing Mount McKinley [because of its northern latitude and lower barometric pressure] is as hard as [the 29,029-foot] Everest. I’d love to climb in the Himalayas someday, if I could get the financing.”