Companions in Misery

A cold mountain, a mismatched pair, and a meditation on the strange chemistry of partnership

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

CAMP 14,200 IS buried under four feet of snow when Mike and I reach it, the few tents crushed. We excavate a hole, put our tent inside it, and start winter camping for a few days.

"You know, Marco," Mike says, "it was only 40 below last night."

"Man, home's colder!"

It almost was. The previous winter, to prepare for McKinley, we would ski into Rocky Mountain National Park every time an arctic storm blew down, camp for a week, and fight our way up frozen waterfalls. We both had read Minus 148: The Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley, by Art Davidson, and considered the title's temperature our benchmark for when suffering should begin. Above that, we figured, it's all good times.

One morning Mike is not feeling so hot. Headache, nausea. I make a solo carry of food and fuel up to 16,000 feet. By the time I get back down, Mike is sick. Mortally sick. His face and hands are bloated, his breathing quick and bubbly, his movements simultaneously sluggish and jerky. We both realize—and will later confirm—that he has pulmonary and cerebral edema. We pack up and descend immediately, hoping to get down to 8,000 feet by midnight. We don't make it. A storm pounces less than an hour after we leave and we're forced to hide out in a collapsed igloo at 11,000 feet. For four days we can't even crawl out to relieve ourselves. We sing every song we know, trying to outdo the roar of the storm.

"Rocky Raccoon..."

"Checked into his room..."

"Only to find Gideon's Bible..."

Mike's condition doesn't improve, but it doesn't worsen, and that is enough. We both know our grand, inaugural expedition is over. No sweat, we've already planned the next one.


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