Williston Olympian climbs North America

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Tony Palmer felt strong the first eight days ascending North America’s highest peak. Then his group learned that a few thousand feet up the mountain, a fall had just killed two climbers.

“I don’t think anybody admitted maybe how much of an impact that had,” Palmer, a 41-year-old software engineer, said this week.

It was mid-May. Palmer’s party was at 14,200 feet, at what is known among McKinley climbers as Camp 4. Having scaled 14,400-foot Mount Rainier last fall, Palmer knew he was comfortable at that altitude, and he was comfortable at higher altitudes in the days ahead.

So it wasn’t the altitude, Palmer said, that caused him to become so sick he lost all of the food he’d consumed that day, vital fuel for continuing on.

“News of the climbers dying was a lot to absorb,” the Williston father of three said. “That was the first point for me when I thought this was a big deal, a point for me when I felt a little bit vulnerable.”

About 1,300 people attempt to summit Alaska’s Mt. McKinley each year. At an elevation of 20,320 feet – the equivalent of more than five Camels Humps – the mountain is officially known in Alaska as Denali, meaning “the high one” in the Native American Athabaskan language. Extreme temperatures and weather, altitude changes and the sheer physical and mental stamina required to ascend the mountain translate into only a little more than 50 percent of climbers reaching the summit each year. Since the early 1930s when records began being kept, the mountain has claimed nearly 100 lives.

By Camp 4, Palmer’s guided group – which started with two guides and five climbers – already was one man smaller due to a hyper-extended knee in the first days of the expedition. By the time the group reached “high camp” at 17,200 feet, a second climber started to have fluid in his lungs and had to head down.

Palmer, however, who’d taken a rest day after losing all of his food, felt strong again, ready for the last stop after high camp – the summit.

But the weather didn’t cooperate. If it had only been cold – high temperatures at camp may have reached zero, Palmer said – they could have moved on. But the wind had picked up, forcing the five climbers to sit in their tents that day, just as they had for several days further down the mountain, waiting out a storm. A second full day at high camp was spent listening to 30 mile-per-hour winds and more snowfall. The third day, the weather started to look better.

For the final ascent each man carried a light load of survival gear, Palmer said, maybe 20 pounds.

“That felt great,” Palmer said. Until that point, Palmer had been carrying 50 to 70 pounds on any given day – more than the weight of his oldest daughter, Lauren, 9.

The group – tied together by climbing ropes – could see the first 1,000 feet ahead of them, until the wind picked up again. By the time they reached the ridge, a relatively narrow path, the wind was kicking up so much snow Palmer said he couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of him, or anything on either side of the ridge.

Suddenly, they were there. The top.

“I had all these grand pictures I wanted to take up there,” Palmer said. He had tucked in his jacket pocket a letter from his oldest daughter that had been signed by all of her classmates, hoping to get a picture of it at the summit. But the air was so thin, he said, “it took a lot of time to process things.”

“I’m really glad (the youngest guide) had the sense to say ‘doesn’t anyone want any pictures?’”

They took a few shots of the group standing in the 20-degree-below-zero (or colder) atmosphere, snow whirling around them, no clear view of anything but themselves. They ate a little and then began to head down.

Others had told Palmer that most climbing accidents happen on descent. Fatigue sets in. Some people let their guards down. For Palmer’s group, the weather began to worsen. Unbeknownst to Palmer until the next day, the goggles worn by the second to last climber in the group were fogging and freezing up. The guide behind him coiled the rope up between them and steered him. But when the group – still tied together – was supposed to head down the left side of the ridgeline, the climber could no longer see at all, and stepped off the right side. The guide tried to pull him back, but couldn’t. Palmer would later learn the pair had fallen about 40 feet.

“All I felt, I got jerked right into the side of the mountain,” he said. “I stuck in the ice pick and sat on it… I didn’t really know what was going on.”

With everyone completing a “self arrest” – ice picks into the mountain – there was no further falling. The fallen pair rejoined the group, and they made it back down to camp.

When Palmer called home to his wife, Esther, from 14,000 feet with a satellite phone, she said he didn’t sound the same as after his summit of Mount Rainier.

“After this one, he wasn’t bubbly,” she said. “It was a much more sobering experience.”

Esther had never worried for his safety, she said – her husband is cautious, responsible and was well prepared. A former Olympic athlete in cycling, the 6-foot, 4-inch Palmer is naturally athletic. His Mount Rainier guides last fall had said he was McKinley material. All winter he’d climbed Camels Hump with roughly 70-pound packs twice weekly.

Palmer said even when he was back down the mountain, he still felt more relief than excitement about the two-week journey.

“I think it took quite a while even after I got home to tap into even the ‘wow,’ the accomplishment, the excitement, rather than the ‘whew, I’m glad that turned out safe and sound.’”

Palmer will share pictures and more details of his journey in a presentation at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library: Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m.