For us the final ascent proved uneventful, yet it underscored the mercurial nature of the mountain. After two nights the winds that had roared overhead like a 747 calmed. We joined a long line of climbers ascending the fixed line on an ice headwall at 16,000 feet, then climbed the rocky, exposed West Buttress. Two days later, wearing down suits stuffed with candy bars and water bottles, we made the treacherous traverse to Denali Pass and moved up the steep, snowy slopes below the Archdeacon's Tower, a craggy rock formation. At 19,000 feet we crossed the low point of a minor ridge. There the dead Taiwanese climber lay stretched out next to the path, half covered with snow, his face frozen in an impassive mask. I wondered what had motivated his group to climb in the teeth of a furious storm, and I tried to imagine his thoughts as he lay, tired, in the shrieking wind, feeling the cold slowly take over his body. I have heard climbers discuss a friend's death in the mountains with the remark, "He died doing what he loved." But I don't think anyone peering into the abyss high on a mountain thinks that way. I know I would not, and neither, I wager, did Chiu Jui-Lin, 29 years old, thousands of miles from home, trapped in a world of ice.
Two hours later we slowly traversed the airy summit ridge and joined a dozen jovial climbers on McKinley's pointed apex. A group from the Hong Kong police force planted flags, and a happy Japanese climber lifted his arms and shouted, "Banzai! Sixty-four!" It was his 64th birthday.
By the time we descended at 4 p.m., the dead Taiwanese man was gone; the Park Service's helicopter had flown up and retrieved the body. A sharp storm hit the next morning, and while reerecting our tent at 17,200 feet after an aborted attempt to descend, I suffered frostbite on the tips of four fingers. Still, by the next evening Tim and I were piling into our Talkeetna Air Taxi, then soaring past the granite buttresses of the Alaska Range. Tim grinned delightedly as the plane nearly nicked the ridges with its wingtips while a third passenger—a dropout from a professionally guided party—clutched Tim's seat back in terror.
Then we were out of the mountains and over the woodlands, where rivers boiled brown from mid-June glacier melt. Tim looked back at me.
"There's your green," he said. It took me a while to readjust to it.