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At the Summit of North America
Kitsap Mountaineers Mike and Elaine Raymond reflect on their five-and-a-half-year quest to climb Mount McKinley — in pictures — Dec. 19 in Bremerton.
The walls of the tent ripple and whip with the force of the wind as the mountain quietly growls. It’s nighttime, but still light outside, colder than just about any place imaginable.
Camped in the snow atop an enormous glacier more than 17,000 feet up North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley (aka Denali or The Great One), everyone is bundled up in sleeping bags and tucked away in their tents waiting out the 60-mile-an-hour winds that have stalled the team’s attempt at the summit.
Mike and Elaine Raymond have been here before.
Four years prior, on their first attempt to summit McKinley, bad weather forced them down the mountain after they’d spent more than two weeks climbing to the 17,000-foot base camp, just below the highest point on the continent.
But this time had been different. It seemed to be going perfectly. Even though temperatures were colder and winds were harsher, everything had been on time. There’d been mostly clear skies, and it’d even been a more managable climb this time around.
“This time we were ready,” Mike said. It almost seemed easy, he noted — only in an incredibly difficult sort of way, I’d imagine.
Then came the winds, threatening again, attempting to spoil the Raymonds’ second attempt at the summit.
Located above the clouds in the middle of Alaska, McKinley’s 20,320-foot peak is notoriously battered by some of the worst weather of anywhere on the continent. But the climbing guides who were escorting Raymonds’ group on this May 2008 excursion decided it might be worthwhile to stay one more day, even past deadline, to see if the storm might break and allow the adventurers a chance to touch the top of the world.
Understandably having not been able to sleep very well that night, Mike peeked his head out of his tent around 1 a.m., and, to his surprise, he found clear, still skies. He jumped up and rushed to the guides’ tent, excitedly reporting the conditions. They told him to go back to sleep. They would start the ascent in the morning.
“When we got up there, there were no tracks,” Mike said — just a few hundreds-yard expanse of sloping frozen snow leading to the peak of a goal the couple had been working toward for more than five years.
Both “late-in-life climbers” Elaine noted, she and Mike, married for nearly seven years now, discovered early in their relationship that they both had a passion for the outdoors. They’re the type of people who will find their way to mountains all year round despite their day jobs. They also lead climbs and training for the Kitsap Mountaineers.
One day five or six years ago, Mike shared with Elaine a long-standing goal of his had been to summit Mount McKinley, one of the biggest, most treacherous and consequently most famous mountains in the world. And she said, “Let’s go for it.”
So finally, on the second attempt, here they were poised to reach the summit of North America. But, incredibly, perched just a few hundred feet from the peak, that’s only half the story. Another storm was about to hit — a storm of human drama fueled by ambition and competition.
The Raymonds will divulge the conclusion, along with a slideshow of photos from the trip and first person accounts from the excursion, at a free presentation hosted by the Kitsap Mountaineers at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at the Norm Dicks Government Center, 345 Sixth St. in Bremerton.
“How do three guides and seven clients get along in small tents and bad weather?” The Mountaineers’ press release reads. “Who will be turned around, and why? Who will reach the true summit? Don’t miss out on this exciting story and stunning photographs ... .”
Suffice to say, the next big reality show just might be set atop one of the world’s highest peaks.
FOLLOWING THE RAYMONDS’ PRESENTATION the Kitsap Mountaineers their coordinated courses in Winter Travel, Alpine Scrambling, Basic Mountaineering and Intermediate Mountaineering that begin on January 8, 2008. Info: www.kitsapmountaineers.org.