Sunday, 30 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 7 - McKinley Denali

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

There’s one last summit for Cason Crane to conquer before he can claim to have climbed the Seven Summits – Mount McKinley in Alaska. The local name for it is Denali, but for most of the world the name McKinley is more familiar. Which is why I’ve using the name McKinley Denali thoughout this week.

Cason had attempted to climb McKinley Denali in 2011. This attempt was unsuccessful due to weather conditions, so as Cason makes his second attempt at this very moment, here is the story of what happened last time.

The first few days at Base Camp were spent in skills training. The mountain is surrounded by glaciers, so climbers need to know how to keep safe if they slip on the ice. Cason’s group would all be roped together for the climb, not something that has happened on Cason’s previous climbs. The group was more varied in both age range and nationality. One member was someone even rarer than an openly gay mountaineer – an openly lesbian mountaineer.

Silvia Vasquez Lavado is a Peruvian-born climber who lives with her wife Elayne in California. Silvia spent time at Everest Base Camp in 2005 but didn’t attempt a climb there. Since then she too has decided to climb the Seven Summits. Most of her climbs have been for charities she has co-founded. These range from helping women and children in the Congo to supporting local communities in the Peruvian Andes. Silvia had already climbed Kilimanjaro and Elbrus. A team from her Congo charity were on Everest at the same time as Cason just over a month ago. However, Silvia herself was not part of the team. Her mother passed away shortly before the team left for the Himalayas. The team did reach the summit on 21st May, the day after Cason’s team. I hope one day that Silvia will eventually climb Everest and become the first openly lesbian climber to complete the Seven Summits challenge.

Back to MacKinley Denali. After the group had got acquainted with each other and spent several days training they moved up to Camp I. All seemed to be going well until Day 7 after they reached Camp 2. The weather took a turn for the worse and they were stuck at camp for 3 days. By Day 11 they had managed to reach Camp III.

This was where Cason had his first real encounter with homophobia on all his expeditions. Also at Camp III were a group of disabled climbers from the Wounded warriors charity. They had been forced to abandon their own summit attempt because of bad weather. Cason was very excited about meeting them, but it was when he placed his Rainbow Pride flag on his tent that Cason received homophobic comments from the Wounded Warriors. We’ve got used to some military personnel questioning the presence of gay soldiers, but here the heroes stained their reputation. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand why a gay man should choose to be a mountaineer. Cason could have said exactly the same about disabled mountaineers, but he didn’t. He attributed their abusive behaviour to their disappointment at not reaching the summit. But disappointment or not, it can’t excuse homophobia – disability or no disability. After all, the whole point behind Cason’s Rainbow Summits project is to put a stop to this kind of thing. Any school bully could use disappointment as an excuse, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

As Cason’s team headed up to Camp IV they got news of more bad weather on the way, and after 3 days of waiting for the weather to abate the group decided to abandon their summit attempt.

They made their way back down the mountain in howling winds and near blizzard conditions. Arriving safely at Camp III Cason was given the opportunity to join another team who were on heir way up in the following days. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t improve. Thick snow and high winds continued for several more days and the risk of avalanches from the new snowfall was too high to continue. The weather was so bad that the team got lost on the way down to Camp I. Thankfully, they used GPS to find their way back to base.

“I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t upset about not summiting Denali,” said Cason on his blog. “That said, I am very proud of myself for giving it my all.”

And here we are, ten months later, and Cason is back on McKinley Denali aiming to reach the top and complete his Rainbow Summits Project. Has he made it? After a rest day yesterday the team are going to make the final push today.

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