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Big Boys Don’t Cry: An emotional summit day on Mt Kckinley

Updated: Jan 8

Tears welled up in my eyes. With each step I choked them back. 50m from the summit several escaped and with no one nearby I simply let them go. The day was stunning, three sixty degree views, stretching out past Mt's Hunter and Foraker over the tundra towards the sea. I had never cried upon reaching a summit before but something that day was unique and special. Our expedition was made up of two teams. Steve Fortune, Matthew Scholes & myself along with two young climbers Pete Harris (21) and Ari Kingan (20). Both were on their first expedition and other than brief trips to Australia, they had never left New Zealand. They are part of our mentoring programme, the New Zealand Alpine Team and thanks to some generous help from our sponsors we have been able to subsidise their trip. This gives them an opportunity that few other young climbers will ever be lucky enough to experience. A big expedition, the best equipment and clothing combined with some insights and support from some more experienced climbers.

The day before I found myself blubbering like a small girl on the roof of North America, we had said goodbye to Pete and Ari. They had packed up their bags at 14,000ft camp and headed towards 17,000ft camp. This is the final stop on the standard West Buttress route on Denali. The guys felt their best chance to summit would be by splitting the climb over two days rather than trying to make it in a single push from 14,000ft camp. Ari had been struggling with his acclimatization and this was the sensible approach to maximise their chances of success. I was of mixed expectations, giving them a 50/50 chance. After all we were only 9 days into the expedition and with no high mountain experience their chances of getting to the summit alone were not flash. The following day Matt, Steve and I headed up a separate route: the West Rib. A little under 7 hours later we found ourselves climbing the final ridge towards the summit of Denali. Much to our surprise Ari was just in front of us. As I watched him struggle moving slowly but determined along the final section of the climb, feelings of joy and admiration swelled within me. For the past three weeks, two of which were before leaving for Alaska and all of the trip so far I had been sick. Having a flue at altitude is no fun. Basically I coughed my guts out and deposited varying quantities of blood and mucus onto the glacier on a daily basis. Dragging our 80kg sleds to base camp and our climb up the West Rib for me had been exhausting. I was afraid of letting Steve and Matt down, so every day even though I complained endlessly and probably drove the guys nuts, I forced myself to move up the mountain. When they moved, I moved and with the chance to summit via the West Rib arriving so soon in the trip, I knew if I didn't join them that day, a part of the bond that grows between a climbing team would be broken. For myself and for our team I had to go.

The concept of the Alpine Team and our journey to see it to fruition was another factor leading to the strong emotions I felt on the summit of Denali. The concept for the Alpine Team was essentially born of initial discussions with Steve and Ben Dare. For well over a year before we did anything or even gave the team a name, many hours were spent discussing, planning and finding a strategy for making the idea a reality. Another friend Jamie Vinton-Boot had also played a big part in helping establish the idea. Sadly due to his death the previous year while climbing in Queenstown, we were not able to share this expedition with him. Ben was also absent, yet kept our friends and family updated at home with regular posts to our website. I knew both of the guys would have loved to be with us on that day. Steve however was the one who I discussed the initial plans with the most. In the early days while we sat out bad weather in El Chalten, more than three years ago we discussed structure, strategy and who we would want in the team. While the team was now well established, today was the first day our young climbers would summit a major peak. Their outlook on alpine climbing would never be the same. They would summit on their first big overseas expedition. The dream was becoming a reality and instead of hearing about it in the tent the following day, we were there to share in this moment.

Ari began to slow dramatically on the final 200m of the climb. We could see he was struggling with the altitude. Pete and Matt were already ahead of us on the summit. I walked in front while Steve assisted Ari. Holding him up, he guided and talked him through each step along the summit ridge. Little by little we inched towards the summit. Finally the team stood as one, five guys atop Denali. We hugged and posed for our summit photos. I lingered atop the summit as the others turned to descend. My emotions overflowed, all around me I was surrounded by the beauty of nature. I called Steve back, crying, I hugged him and with many thoughts flowing through my head, all I could manage to say was a simple thanks. I think in the end that was all that was needed. Later on the walk I was coherent enough to share my joy at seeing our project coming together, as we had imagined. Steve and I along with many of our friends are creating a team, a team that will take many years to build. The partnerships that ultimately will make it a success will take endless hours of hard work and suffering to forge. Knowing that along the way to building that team we will lose some of our best friends and the people you care about the most. Both of us know the game and its days like that day where you summit with your mates in perfect still weather, where all those around you support and share your passion, are days to be savoured.

They are the rare moments when everything around you aligns and your dreams are materialised in front of you as reality.

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