One of my responsibilities as a Patagonia Ambassador was to write a Field Report every now and then. This one concerns the Slovak Direct, which we (disrespectfully) referred to as the Czech Direct at the time.
Both stoves ran out of gas at 16,500 feet. It was one of the saddest sounds I've ever heard.
Steve House, Scott Backes and I were 48 hours up the Czech Direct on Denali. The last of the fuel produced 8 liters of lukewarm water. We weighed our certainty of success against the improbability of such. None of us had climbed more than 39 hours non-stop before so we had no idea what might happen next. The cramps were already fierce, the hallucinations just beginning.
The sun crept across the South Face, reaching Steve first, then me and finally Scott. Our "bivy gear", a DAS Parka or down jacket for each of us, was suddenly adequate. Feeling returned to our toes, blood rinsing away the fear of having finally gone too light. With the frigid Alaskan dusk another 18 hours away, we could afford a fifteen-minute nap.
Fitful dream/ memories prevented sleep as I reviewed the previous month. We spent three weeks getting used to the altitude and the face itself, which was almost too massive to comprehend. The two previous ascents of the Czech Direct took 11 and 8 days respectively. Our attitude and aptitude, reinforced by incredible weather, gave us what House named the "unkillable knowledge" that we could climb the route without a bivouac.
Mugs Stump had inspired the best climbers of my generation with his Single Push climbs in Antarctica and the 15-hour blast up the Cassin. He'd been killed a mile from our camp but his presence filled the basin. We knew he'd appreciate the vastness of our plan.
Success would ultimately depend on whether or not we were willing to take the punishment this route in this style would inflict. Could we continue up when all knowledge, both modern and primitive demanded descent? Or strip ourselves naked enough to climb at the pace demanded by the dream?
Yes. And we knew it without having the language to say it.
We split 55lbs between two packs, 18lbs were water. After settling on 22oz of fuel apiece for the stoves each of us added spare mittens, goggles and a balaclava. A little extra gear in the pack can reinforce flagging confidence. We fought the programming of the "how to" manuals with every ounce we cut.
The leader climbed with nothing, moving free and fast. The climbing was amazing, the rock perfect and the ice unreal. The higher we climbed the stronger the dread imposed by our "Emperor's New Packs" became. We passed the point of no return 24 hours into it, almost 4000' up the route. The Czechs had climbed 43 pitches to reach the same spot. Our lack of gear prevented retreat. That we had to go up both liberated and terrified.
60 hours after we crossed the bergschrund we pulled onto the Normal Route and sprinted down. Three hours later we were eating toasted cheese sandwiches in the Park Service Weatherport at 14,000 feet, enjoying the luscious, bracing high that comes from getting naked where you're not supposed to. And not being caught.