During my time off, I did plenty of interviews to keep the Tour alive. New clients were added, including North Face, Cascade Designs, and Outdoor Research. My other sponsors actually believed I could pull off the impossible since I hadn’t missed a summit thus far, and advised me that I should keep Alaska for last. For one, it would be a spectacular finish, and another, if I did McKinley next spring and died, I’d have missed my goal by five summits. They were just thinking of their advertising. So…
When spring arrived, I was back on the road, or rather in the air, as the next high point began with Hawaii’s Mauna Kea (13,796). The entire road to the summit was paved. I could’ve easily made this a quick one. Drive up and cycle down, but if the press ever found out the man who once biked atop the Great Wall of China over a thousand miles had to get a ride up Mauna Kea’s backside, I’d never live it down. It took six hours to make the climb, and 17 minutes of non brake flying to come down, smashing yet another speed record with 52 mph. I could only imagine what would have happened if I had lost control and gone splat.
My time in Hawaii wasn’t long enough before I found myself on the icy slopes of Oregon’s Mount Hood (11,239). A month later it was Nevada’s Boundary Peak (13,143), and then onto California’s Mount Whitney (14,494) for a 27 hour round trip hike to end the season. Now, it was time to totally prepare and focus on all that I had been working for…Alaska’s Denali, the Great One.
The bike stayed wrapped in a body bag, I received from a local mortuary back in California. I figured if I was going to die, I wanted to be as prepared as I could. Also, the bag was large enough to conceal the bike from other climbers and roaming rangers. I still had a price on my head from the National Park Service in DC, and Denali was designated a Wilderness Area.
Somewhere between the 11,000 and 14,000 foot camps, we were hit with the coldest day of our lives, hiking for hours in –72 degrees below zero. All of us ended up with icicles hanging off our faces. In Alaska, this time of year, the sun never set, but we still couldn’t keep warm enough no matter how many layers we wore.
After nine days of brutal weather, we reached the high camp of 17,200 feet. Laid out before us, was a group of about 75 in multi-colored tents from other nations. My three teammates and I found a spot, pitched our 3 man tent, and bunkered down to make plans for a summit attempt the next day.
That day never happened. Within a matter of hours of reaching high camp and securing shelter, a monster of a storm hit our group, battering our tiny tents. For five solid days, the winds howled and the snows accumulated around us. Many of us thanked God we were men and could pee easily in a bottle. Others were thankful for their constipation. And no one wanted to go out and get the snow to melt for drinking and cooking.
When one brave soul couldn’t take the confines of his cramped quarters any longer, he ventured out to the open, public toilet to unload himself. Unfortunately, he sat on the plywood too long and literally froze to the seat. It took others to surround him from the winds, so that he could warm up his muscles enough to pry himself loose, although still ripping part of his skin.
The food became boring and tasteless, and for days we lived on calorie induced cookies provided by my sponsor, Nutrition-For-Life.
During this isolation period where, at this height, there was no rescue, three men froze to death in their sleeping bags. That brought morale down. Many of us wondered who would be next the hand of Death would touch.
At 20,320 feet, this was the mother of all 50 State high points. All the experience I had accumulated over the last two years and 49 summits would now be used in order to reach the final goal and add another dream to the shelf of reality.
I selected a group of individuals who were familiar with State high points, and were interested in seeing me place my bike atop the 50th summit. We flew to Alaska in May 1995 for the final leg of our journey.
In the tiny town of Talkeetna, situated at the base of the highest mountain on the continent of North America, we became stranded for five days, because the storms on the mountain were so fierce the planes couldn’t land anyone on the Kahiltna Glacier.
When the pilot finally decided to take a chance, we landed at our base in a raging storm. Gear and bodies flew out of the plane. The pilot made an immediate take-off. I got my video camera out to record the start of the event. The pilot roared the plane’s engine and began down the snowy runway. Just before lifting off, the force of the tempest grabbed the tiny aircraft, flipping it over without effort. The winds seemed to laugh.
I took this as a bad omen. From that point on, the group of us who were starting off for Denali’s summit together was caught in daily, blinding blizzards. I had never experienced such brutal cold before in my life. I thought New England winters were bad, but this…I’d have gladly hiked in a freezer.