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Ashes and Air

Posted on: November 13, 2015


June 19, 2015. On day five of a planned three-day ascent of the Denali Diamond, Chantel Astorga and Jewell Lund cramponed up steep snow slopes toward the Cassin Ridge leading to the summit. Out of food and hungry, they'd just ascended 3,800 feet of sustained mixed climbing up steep rock. Read the NewsWire on Alpinist.com or check out the extended feature by Jewell Lund in Alpinist 52 (below).

High on the Cassin Ridge above the Denali Diamond as clouds move in and out. Mt. Foraker is in the distance. [Photo] Jewell Lund

JAGGED RIDGELINES DARKEN and blur in the dim light. A palette of blues merges into thick, bland grey. I lean my head forward to rest on the rock wall in front of me. I pay out slack listlessly as the rope twitches to Chantel. In the murk of early morning, we find ourselves 2,500 feet up the Denali Diamond, with another 5,500 feet of mountain above. We've taken turns belaying each other as we explore the "snow band" for possible bivy spots. So far, we've found only shallow ice over steep rock. After thirty hours of climbing, my fatigue dulls the brilliant Alaskan skyline. I forget the gift of moving in such extraordinary terrain. I might as well be checking out at the grocery store.

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The rope is still for a time. Maybe she found something, anything. "Oy! How you doin', lady? What do you see?"

"I got nothing!"

Chantel returns to the belay, bleary eyed. She chops a small bench as I build another anchor and brew water. We put on all our clothing and sit—so exhausted that for almost two hours even this tiny ledge provides enough of a respite for us to sleep.

Racking up at the base of Denali Diamond at midnight. [Video] Jewell Lund

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I WAS UNSURE about coming to Alaska at all. Only a month before, my boyfriend, Kyle, had lost his father, Tom, to a sudden heart fibrillation. For weeks we stayed in his family's house, its walls brimming with Tom's absence: his hat still hanging on a chair in the living room; his hurried footsteps missing from the stairs, his workshop filled with half-repaired electronics. The abrupt silence blared over other sights and sounds. I searched for ways to express love, listening with heartache. As the time dwindled toward my departure date, I remained suspended between the decision to stay or go. Kyle urged me to carry on with the trip, to seek a refuge in the heights that he yearned to find for himself. With his quiet assurance, I packed my bags. I promised him that I'd open myself entirely to the mountains.

Denali Diamond headwall (Alaska Grade 6, 5.9 A3/M6 A1 WI5+, 7,800'; FFA M7/M7+ Amano-Masumoto-Nagato, 2010) on Denali (20,237'). Between June 15 and 19, Astorga and Jewell Lund completed the first all-female ascent of the route. [Photo] Jewell Lund

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IN EARLY JUNE, Chantel and I took nearly a week to haul almost 300 pounds of gear and food from Kahiltna Base Camp to 14,000' Camp—our departure point for the Diamond. Heavy loads forced slow, deliberate steps, a sharp contrast to my compulsion to rush uphill and dispose of the heavy pack cutting into my shoulders. All around me, the sun's rays glanced off tumbling icefalls and snowy slopes. As I blinked back shards of light, images of Tom flashed. I saw him holding a greasy towel in the garage, laughter smoldering in his eyes after I caught him tuning my bicycle. I saw him lying dead on the hospital table, his skin missing its once-vibrant color. Could he really be gone? I labored upward, breathing in rhythm with the sled that tugged at my hips. Gone.

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Astorga partway up the Denali Diamond headwall. [Video] Jewell Lund

TWO WEEKS LATER, Chantel and I stood at the base of the Diamond at midnight. "Ready?" Chantel asked. She pulled her hood snug over her helmet, Kiwi coil over her shoulder. The darkened granite of the southwest face towered over us, impartial and still. "Can't wait," I said. "Have fun up there." Our long wait at 14,000' Camp through blizzards and high winds had simplified this moment—an initiation of upward momentum. As Chantel cleared a path through the bergschrund, grains of hard snow clattered downhill with a metallic sound. Quickly, she bridged the gap and led on, steadily, efficiently. I'm lucky to have such a solid partnership; it's straightforward to commit. The slack dissipated, and we began to climb together, our movements sure and our minds clear.

The team grateful to have found a spot to lay down after 30 hours on the move. It took them one hour to chop this ledge out. [Photo] Jewell Lund

HOURS BLUR. Our progress is marked by minute shifts in the landscape: golden granite walls merge almost imperceptibly into smoky grey. The rock steepens as picks and crampons blunt, nearing the shadow of a giant roof. Ice remains scarce. Thin air turns my breath shallow while I bash away a rotten crust toward the top of a steep pitch. When I drive one tool over the final bulge, the blade glances off compact rock. I lock off on the lower tool and blindly scrape around to explore the top. Nothing. I swing the upper pick back into the ice below, and choke up on the shafts to peer over the rim. Smooth stone, melted ice. I slowly kick my crampons upward, and mantel—first on the heads of my tools, then on the rock. Above the bulge, I reach back down to regain my tools, laughing. Gravity feels as though it has flipped: upward movement is as natural as water tumbling down a cascade.

The sun circles low, lighting Mt. Foraker in a blaze of orange before dipping briefly beneath the horizon. Chantel weaves her way through a band of fragile rock in the steep dihedral. I admire her graceful, methodical approach: never rushing, always in control. Following in muted grey light, I stem amid a cemetery of precarious blocks. "We finally found some choss," I say. "Great job." Chantel smiles when she hands me the rack. "Thanks, lady. You're up."

With the headwall beneath the team, Astorga and Lund enjoy ascending snow slopes in the morning light. [Video] Jewell Lund

Of all the moments compiled in a lifetime, which ones define us most? Do they come from the ordinary routines that we create for ourselves, knowingly or not? Are they our moments of spectacular poise or our biggest blunders? I explore the loss in my soul, timidly, as if it were a cave. I see Tom riding his bike to work on a dark winter morning, pedaling through a foot of new snow because that commute was still "better than driving a car." I see him with his weathered sun hat and trekking poles, stooping to take a photo of a plant with a peculiar smell so he can research it. This void is shaped by Tom's daily endeavors, and as I become familiar with its boundaries, I consider the outlines of my everyday presence: Are they consciously chosen?

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I STEP UP cautiously and lean sideways on my tool, striving to get some rest while maintaining the same direction of force. I strain to find a hint of sunrise amid the shadows of an indistinct skyline. High on the face, perfectly parallel cracks require creative twisting and camming with our tools, while our crampons scum on granite dishes. Occasionally, we pull on a piece to surmount a roof, stunned to find the wall suddenly so featureless. Where did all the footholds go? Warily, I torque my tool over another small overhang, moving up. Above the roof, the angle eases, and I scramble to the snowfield.

Chantel follows, wrapped in her belay jacket, as morning light brushes the highest peaks. Exhausted, we nearly knock our stove down the slope as we bumble to brew up. Another 4,000 feet of snow and ridge soar above. But the giant head-wall is now beneath our feet. Our prolonged efforts have felt so natural, almost magnetic: we'll continue to endeavor upward, until it makes sense to go down. What else is there to do?

IN THE IMMENSE SILENCE of high peaks, I wade through stagnant air, struggling to kick steps in steep snow. Am I falling asleep? Perhaps the relaxation of easier terrain has allowed weariness to seep in. Maybe it's because we're on our second more-than-twenty-four-hour push, or the altitude and the lack of food have drained us.

Astorga climbing mixed ground high on the Denali Diamond. [Photo] Jewell Lund

My head snaps down with fatigue, and I glimpse my younger sister rowing a boat on the Colorado River, her sun-bleached hair and strong arms. I lean on my tools, and I feel the warmth of my mother's hug, sense the lingering smell of vanilla. Blinking, I watch Kyle on his dad's bicycle, coasting to a stop on the driveway. Tom's music blares in Kyle's headphones, and tears fill his eyes. The edges swirl and blend, until the contours of the alpine world crystallize once again. Focus, breathe. These visions hover over each painstaking step until I look up to see Chantel perched on a rock, her chin resting in her hands. "I'm fucked," I say. I muster a worn smile and drop my pack to find our last energy bar to share. We chew slowly.

"How tired are you?" Chantel says. She leans against her pack.

I peer at my boots, gauging. "I'm trying not to fall asleep as I climb."

"I'm worked as well," she says. "Do you think you can keep going if I break trail?"

I look at Chantel in the sunshine, her chapped lips and heavy eyelids. I know that she's offering freely what she has to give in this moment. I crumple the wrapper and stuff it in my pocket. "Yep. Thanks, love."

Summit photo: Astorga on the left, Lund on the right. [Photo] Chantel Astorga/Jewell Lund

Fog envelops us as Chantel steps onto the summit and turns to face me. Tiny snowflakes swirl around her smile. Our path, shaped by our shared exertion, has deposited us on the other side of interminable rock and snow for this brief instant in the clouds. Our simple words and quiet laughter scatter quickly in the wind. I thank her for her friendship.

From my pocket, I pull a film canister filled with a bit of Tom's ashes, a silent companion for the past month. I open it, and I tell Chantel about Tom's recycling exploits on a bicycle, his impressive consumption of coffee, his inability to sit still. Tom's ashes join a current of air to the south, becoming charcoal flecks within the cloudy tumult. Amid the grey, colors flare: slate-blue eyes; a tattered cycling shirt; a wry smile. The wind whistles, scouring my whispered thanks to Tom for the gift of this moment, consciously chosen. Chantel and I hug, and descend into the mist.

Denali's southwest face taken from the air from over Mt. Hunter. Denali Diamond (Alaska Grade 6, 5.9 A3/M6 A1 WI5+, 7,800'; FFA M7/M7+ Amano-Masumoto-Nagato, 2010) is shown in red. [Photo] Courtesy Talkeetna Air Taxi

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