Herald JournalHerald Journal, Dec. 6, 2004

Garrett Ehrke's fourth conquest: Denali

By Troy Feltmann
Staff Writer

Why climb?

“If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy,“ George Leigh Mallory said.

Mallory died on Mt. Everest in 1924.

“That pretty much sums it up,“ said Garrett Ehrke of Winsted who is on a quest of becoming the first Minnesotan to conquer the highest summit on each continent.

Last June 10 through July 4, Ehrke climbed Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska.

“The locals and climbers refer to the mountain as Denali. They tried to change the name, but didn’t have any success in Washington,” Ehrke said

Denali sits at 20,320 feet above sea level. Denali is a Athabascan Native American word meaning “The High One.”

About 1,200 people try climbing Denali each year.

Denali has a short climbing season starting in May and ending in early July.

“By July, it’s too warm to climb. The snow bridges are lower and not safe. You start punching through them,” Ehrke said.

Almost 100 people have died climbing Denali. Four deaths have occurred on guide trips.

“That’s why you pay the money to go professional. A lot of people think they can follow the trail up the mountain. It’s one of the most dangerous mountains in the world,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke flew into Anchorage and spent a day biking around the area. The next day Ehrke left for Talkeetna. Talkeetna is the launching pad for the small bird.

“I flew on a plane called “The Beaver.” It is known for its ability to work hard. It carried five guys and all the gear,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke said the flight was beautiful. There was some smoke in the air because of some wildfires in Fairbanks.

“The air quality was worse in Fairbanks than in Los Angeles,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke and his group spent two days at base camp. His group consisted of five hikers and two guides. Two of the hikers were a husband and wife team.

The first day at base camp, the group learned crevasse rescue training which it put to good use later on in the trip. A crevasse is an open fissure in a glacier surface.

Ehrke and the group went to bed early and got up a midnight to do the first carry to camp one. At every camp, they had to do a double carry to get all the gear and supplies to each camp.

“It seemed like odd hours, but it stays light out almost all day. It’s cooler at night and the snow is harder,” Ehrke said.

Early on in the climb, Ehrke got caught in a brutal snowstorm.

“We were lucky we at the bottom of the mountain. The higher up the mountain the weather was worse,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke said most of the groups that were ahead of his didn’t get to summit. Only about 50 percent of the hikers who climb Denali summit.

“It is not because that they are untrained or unfit, but the luck of the weather. You get stuck at high camp. You have five days of food and fuel. In those five days, if you don’t get a weather window you’re not going,” Ehrke said.

“After five days, you are psychologically out of it after being snowbound in a tent and exhausted. Your body is wasting away from the high altitude,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke was prepared mentally if there was bad weather and he would not have made the summit.

“It would have been out of my control. I would have been upset if it was my fault by not training hard enough, not eating right, or not getting enough sleep,” Ehrke said.

After the snow quit, the group was back at it. It was about 15 miles from base camp to the summit. That was traveled twice because they had to double carry to every camp.

“I kept wandering when we were getting to Summit Hill. By that time, I was exhausted. I was at the collapsing point,” Ehrke said.

“It was mental. Take one step, then six deep breaths for six to eight hours a day,” Ehrke said.

Finally the team made it to the summit.

“I was an awesome feeling. I love being above the clouds. Denali is such a beautiful mountain range. It is so much prettier than South America,” he said.

The team spent 45 minutes on the summit enjoying the view. They then started down the mountain and ran into a problem. The sixth person who crossed a crevasse fell through.

“We had to put crevasse rescue training into action. After realizing the group member was alright, we developed a system to pull his gear and himself out,” Ehrke said

After an hour, they rescued the trapped climber.

When Ehrke made it off the mountain he met up with his parents, Glenn and Mary Jane.

“What a great way to finish a fantastic climb,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke has now climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt. Elbrus in Europe, Mt. Aconcagua in South America, and Denali in North America.

That leaves Cartensz Pyramid in Irian Jay on the Oceanic Continent, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, and Mt. Everest in Asia.

Ehrke’s biggest obstacle is paying for these trips.

“Vinson is about $30,000 and Everest is $75,000 to climb. I’m trying to get a sponsorship from a corporation to help finance those two trips,” Ehrke said.

“I look back at the trip in retrospect and think why am I doing this? You’re cold and struggling with the physical side,” Ehrke said, “but it is a very intense, richly enhancing experience for the mind and soul.”

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