20,320 feet ~ 6,194 meters
I've been fortunate to travel to Alaska several times, and each time I would twist my head sideways in the airplane hoping to catch a glimpse of "The High One". Usually it eluded me, but I clearly remember standing outside of Talkeetna and quietly deciding that I would attempt to climb Denali one day. I also remember, about a year later casually mentioning my plans to a sourdough while watching the Iditarod. He squinted at me beneath bushy eyebrows and said "Do you know what we call cheechakos who try to climb that mountain?" I could feel myself shrinking backward, like I'd just stepped too far into a frozen lake. I blinked hard and told him that I didn't. "News!" he said.
Summiting Denali has always been a significant personal goal for me. It motivates me to attempt a more technical climb and to test my fortitude in extreme circumstances. Success on Denali also requires moving a lot of weight up and down the mountain, and I'm excited to test my physical ability and training regimen.
This site outlines my training plans, time on the mountain climbing the west buttress route, and what I learned while on the mountain.
As a detail oriented person (as I like to say), I had to have a comprehensive training plan. Although there are guides on line, I have found that I know my body and its ability far better than a personal trainer who has never felt thin air in their lungs. My plan seemed very tidy and doable as I formatted and color coded a spreadsheet one December afternoon. My plan consisted of strength training, cardio, yoga, hiking or walking on en elevated treadmill with a weighted backpack and a day to rest and stretch. I carefully prescribed increasing weight for each month of the six month plan.
My strategy was to print the schedule – organized by activities per week – on poster sized paper and employ the first grade method of using stickers to document each day’s accomplishment. I don’t know why sticking a sparkly butterfly in the appropriate spot motivates me, but it does. I will literally rush into my home office, stand in front of the poster, and proudly put the day’s sticker in its rightful place immediately after my workout. Then I will stand back, and assess the beauty of all of those brightly colored, sparkly stickers marking my accomplishments. Like I said, I like the details.
I soon realized that my neatly organized plan was time consuming enough to qualify as a part-time job. But, it was the plan, and I had to stick with it or risk failing and wounding my poor little ego. So, I spent 7 – 10 hours per week running, hiking, lugging around a heavy back pack, practicing yoga and strength training.
One of the unique challenges of climbing Denali involves pulling a sled from base camp to camp 2. The conventional method of preparing for this torturous activity is pulling a tire up hill. I chose a cute little motorcycle tire because I figured that I would need to build up to pulling a full grown tire up a hill while carrying a 50 pound pack. I have named my tire Harley for obvious reasons. During our first encounter I squeezed a 2x4 into its center and attached a rope between it and my pack. The going was easy at first, I felt like a rock star on the steepest part of a hill near our house. I should mention that he was dragging an SUV tire, but I didn’t really care. Apparently he did because he stuffed 15 pounds of rocks inside my tire for the return trip home. Suddenly Harley and I were not friends anymore. Aside from the physical rewards, another ancillary benefit of looking like an idiot dragging a tire around the neighborhood is that you get to meet all of your neighbors. It’s just not humanly possible to pass two people on the street with tires attached to them and not make a clever comment like “where’s the rest of the car?”.
Three months into my training plan I am about to run out of stickers, and am loathing my backpack. I would drop it and its contents off the nearest cliff if it wouldn’t be so expensive to replace.
My training plan calls for increasing weight in increments of 5 pounds per month until I reach the ultimate goal of 60 pounds. I have tested many different materials to weight my pack: water (too sloshy), hand weights (to compact, however you can confidently leave them along a trail if they become too heavy during a training hike), bird food, cat litter. I opt for cat litter because it can be purchased in 20 pound bags, and because people look at me funny when I fill my shopping card with three bags of it. Also, my cat Murray likes to know that he’s well stocked.
I travel a lot for work, and while I love my job, it is making it difficult to meet the demands of my part time job. The other unfortunate fact is that hotel “gyms” suck. And, running up and down the hotel stairs tends to draw unwanted attention, plus the stairwells usually smell like smoke. I have begun choosing hotels in the cities that I travel to based on their gyms. There is one benefit of traveling from the sea-level oxygen of Seattle to more lofty places like Denver or Salt Lake City. While I appreciate the benefit a cardiovascular workout that cannot be easily obtained at sea level, it really hurts my ego.
At two months to go before our departure for Anchorage and the “High One”, I feel the need for a long overdue for a vacation from my second- and non-paying – job. Workouts and the details of planning to climb are never far from my thoughts, I feel like I am constantly sweaty. Mostly I am anxious about not training enough, or not training the right way. I believe that my greatest challenge will be slogging my body weight up the mountain.
May 1st, 2012
While climbing Mt. Elbrus in Russia, I met the CEO of Hypoxico, a company that manufactures altitude training systems. Altitude, or hypoxic training involves training in an oxygen-reduced environment in order to acclimatize before actually being at elevation. It's used by Olympic athletes and mountaineers and general health enthusiasts and me. I had employed hypoxic training for previous climbs, and was confident that it would be key to my success on Denali. My rental tent, oxygen mask, and generator arrived today, and I'm eager to begin using them.
May 6th, 2012
Today I hiked the 5,000 feet from Paradise to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier. This is a common training hike for mountaineers because it is steep, snowy and equalizing, plus most mountaineers know how long it typically takes them to get to the top and back with weighted packs. I headed out with my friend Jeff who would be climbing Denali with me, and I was interested to see how my training plan measured up to his as he was using a personal trainer.
May 7th, 2012
Today I called Jeff's personal trainer. Jeff smoked me on Rainier, and I feel panicked and horribly unprepared.
May 8th, 2012
Tonight after work I took laps up "suicide hill" in a park near my house with a 40 pound pack. It was near dusk and I tromped through the rocks and mud on the hill envisioning the saddle sores that my backpack was creating on my hip bones while swatting mosquitoes. This has to be good mental training for Denali, right? I've had three dates with a treadmill and my Hypoxico oxygen mask, and am sleeping at 10,000 feet.
May 9th, 2012
Today was my first meeting with, Courtenay, the owner of Body Results. I have read Courtenay's book and found her suggested workouts for mountain climbs useful, plus after my poor showing on Rainier last week, I needed to change things up. The goal of this first meeting was for her to understand my general fitness level so that she could specialize a plan for my last month of training.
I went home and carried 100 pounds up the hill near my house. The weight was distributed between my back pack and tire, and I honestly didn't think that I could do it, but I did. I didn't set any speed records, but I did it.
May 12, 2012
I needed to redeem myself and recover my ego from the last trip to Camp Muir. I headed up this morning and I made the round trip hike in four hours and forty minutes with forty-five pounds, forty minutes faster with five more pounds than the last time. I felt restored and realized the obvious, which was that I had had a bad day on the 6th.
May 13th, 2012
To complete my back-to-back workouts for the weekend, today I headed up Tiger Mountain, a peak near Seattle, it's a beautiful meander with the right amount of steepness and rocky paths, at least it was the first time I went up this morning. On my second trip, people started asking questions. My feet ached from the forty pounds in my back pack, and rocky terrain. But I had made it in just four hours total, and was happy to go home and soak in the tub.
May 15th, 2012
In addition to preparing myself physically to climb Denali, I am also focusing on honing the mountaineering skills that will be essential to traveling safely on the mountain. One of these skills is traveling with running protection. To simulate the snow pickets and strung together with climbing rope that I'll experience on the mountain, I hauled wooden pickets and an old rock climbing rope to the park near my house and set up a line or running protection on its steepest hill. This was an effective training exercise as I was forces to bend over and do a squat each time I needed to move my carabiner between sections. I was also able to practice improving my speed during this maneuver. But, I'm worried that soon my neighbors truly believe that I've lost it.
May 19th, 2012
I'm starting to feel disconnected from my friends who are making Memorial Day plans and excited for the warmer weather, I looked around my house today and realized that I've become disconnected from it too, the lawn and landscaping looks neglected and in need of spring cleaning.
May 20th, 2012
Today's objective was Mailbox Peak, or as I have decided to call it, Hellbox Peak. It was rainy and cold and gross when my friends and I passed the trailhead sign, warning of primitive terrain and poorly marked trails. I had 50 unbearable pounds in my pack, but despite motivational tunes on my Ipod, my little legs couldn't keep up with the boys. I sulked and dropped a 20 pound bag of cat litter next to the trail. What a difference that made, we made it to the graffiti-ed mailbox at the top of the in an hour and forty-five minutes. I went home and hiked 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles on the treadmill to make up for it. I think that I'm officially obsessed.
May 24th, 2012
Today is my last tire drag! I have retired Harley and graduated to a SUV tire donated by a friend. I was looking forward to this last tire workout and also dreading the 102 pounds I would carry. After carrying 100 pounds already, I knew that I could physically do it, but I also knew that it would be miserable. But, I would much rather be miserable now than on the mountain. So, I tried to focus on the trash and dead birds along the road, and instead thought about my muscled getting stronger and more prepared, we leave in sixteen days. I should probably be tapering.
May 26 - 27th, 2012
The best training for climbing - mentally and physically - is climbing. Along with friends, I decided to climb Mt. Rainier. I have an annual goal to climb Rainier, I like to know that I'm maintaining the fitness and skills needed to do it, it's like a barometer for me. On this trip, our route was a toss up between the Ingraham direct and disappointment cleaver routes, and in the end we chose the Ingraham because it was the Park Rangers were ascending it and we wanted to avoid the crowds on the cleaver.
We only made it to about 12,000 feet, there were just too make open crevasses on the way. Even though we didn't achieve our goal, it felt really good just to be climbing, I laid in my tent tingling with excitement before our summit attempt.
We also had an exceptional opportunity to pick Stephen's brain about climbing Denali, as he summitted previously. He assured us that we were more than prepared which made me feel better.
May 28th, 2012
Before each climb, I have had a moment of overwhelming confidence when I knew that I was prepared and capable of reaching my goal. Previously it had happened at the end of a yoga class, during savasana, but this time I knew that I was ready while running yet another interval prescribed by Courtenay. It's hard to explain this feeling, but I just know that I'm ready. It doesn't mean that a summit is assured, just that I have done all that I can do to prepare myself.
May 30th, 2012
Gear check has begun! Sadly, I realized that there are no down parkas at Feathered Friends to rent in my size, guess I'll need to buy one! I've also decided to buy some Intuition boot liners which will keep my feet warm and hopefully give me some more padding for my aching feet.
June 2, 2012
I guess that I just needed a little more assurance that I'm ready, today I opted for one more tire drag, and loaded my back up with 65 pounds plus the 48 pound tire. I weighed just 5 pounds more than this mass.
June 4th, 2012
Since my training has finally tapered, I'm using all of my new-found free time to be sure that I'm comfortable with the technical skills needed to safely climb Denali. Several months ago I tied an old climbing rope to the banister in my house, I simulated anchors by knotting the rope around some on the spindles, and used my ascender and heavy mits several times per day when I walked up and down the stairs. I also spent unknown hours wearing the same mits as well as gloves while tying knots and dealing with the zippers and straps on mt gear. All of it seems tedious, but really helps me to simulate the skills and movements that I'll need on the mountain.
Today I decided that I would replicate the anchor system outside on a steep hill in a park near my house, I needed a test that was longer and more like the the real thing, including wearing a heavy pack. I collected fifteen wooden pickets from the garage, drilled holes in them, and hammered them into the hard mud at intervals on the hill. Then I laced an old climbing rope through the hole in each picket, with my ascender attached to my harness just like it would be on Denali, I walked up and down the hill with a forty-five pound pack. This exercise seemed closer to the conditions that I would experience on Denali because the terrain was uneven and I had to bend over to clip and unclip from each anchor. I got a lot of weird looks, but at this point all of my neighbors think I'm crazy anyway, so I'm not concerned. I left the pickets in place and plan to revisit them again.
Five days to go!
June 9, 2012
We flew from Seattle to Anchorage this morning and spent the afternoon enjoying beers and sunshine with friends who graciously drove us from Anchorage to our lodge in Talkeetna.
The Fireweed Station Inn was an unexpected treat, the mosquitoes capable of carrying me and my gear off into the Alaskan bush, were not. The Inn was built in the 1940s as a hunting and fishing cabin and eventually purchased by the current owners in the 1980s, who basically took it apart and put it back together as a quaint B&B surrounded by the Alaskan wilderness. Except for the mosquitoes, I was fortunate to have the whole bottom level, I may have made a small dent in their bastion, I killed 10 in the bathroom.
As I crawled under my mosquito net in the plump queen bed, I contemplated the fact that this could be the last night this month that I slept in a bed and could just get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. I was nervous, running through all of my gear, reviewing my now-complete training plan. Would it all be enough? My mind wandered back to a warm afternoon in Seattle, dragging an SUV tire up the steep road near my house. A scruffy woman in a white SUV slowly pulled up to me, "What are you doing?" I looked up and tried not to loose my balance as I told her. Her eyes narrowed as she thought about it, like she was deciding whether my reason was sufficient. "You go kick that mountain's ass, girl!" she said and drove off. I knew that I would never see her again, and she likely will never know just how much this accidental exchange would affect me.
June 10, 2012
The last gear check! Together with my team I quadruple checked my gear for the last time. As I stood there looking down at all the neat piles of food and down clothing, I found it hard to believe that this is all I would need for three weeks! Surely I was forgetting something.
After a quick tour through town to pay our evacuation fee to the National Park Service, we headed to the airstrip. Although it was cloudy all day, we were able to get a flight to the glacier at 4pm. I have been thinking about this trip for more than a year but somehow I felt like things happened too fast today. As I changed into my climbing clothes and traded flip flops for mountaineering boots, I wasn't ready for say good bye to civilization, I felt like there was something more that I needed to do to prepare.
The flight from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna glacier was stunning, we flew so close to mountains I thought that I could reach out of the tiny Twin Otter plane and touch them.
June 11, 2012
Base Camp 7,200 feet
It's been snowing since we arrived, big, fat, wet snow flakes have spread over everything. There is an odd mix of people at Denali base camp. We are firmly in the newbie camp, we still smell like soap and haven't been burnt by the brutal sun. We still care about how we look. Then there are the climbers who are ending their expedition. They care about little but sleep. While I was snuggled in my bag last night, I heard two British climbers clamber into camp and sleep right on the glacier. Finally there are the tourists who have paid an outlandish amount to fly from Talkeetna to land on the glacier for snowballs and photos. We accidentally set up our toilet a little too close to their photo op spot ... oops!
Our team spent most of the day practicing the basics of safe glacier travel ... anchor building, self-arrest, crevasse rescue. Finally we rigged our plastic sleds with the gear and food that we will carry to half camp tomorrow. Now is when I start (ok, maybe continue) obsessing about weight! Being the smallest person on my team, I have a natural disadvantage when it comes to hauling heavy loads. I've spent a lot of quality time dragging an SUV tire around my neighborhood, so I should be prepared. But, tomorrow's load will be the heaviest of the trip. I estimate that my sled contains 45 pounds of group food and gear, and my backpack weighed thirty-six pounds without water in Talkeetna. Those weights are less than my top training weight, so I should be fine. I reminded myself that tomorrow's move will only be three hours with little elevation gain.
June 12, 2012
Half Camp - 7,400 feet
The move to half camp wasn't bad at all. Thankfully, since we were carrying all of our gear, the terrain was mostly flat. My shoulders ached from the pull of the sled - just like they had with my tire - but I felt fine. We left base camp at 7:30 am and were building camp by 11 after taking two breaks on the way.
The biggest risk on this part of the mountain is crevasses, and they are everywhere! I could tell from indentations in the snow where some of them were when I was walking over them. When I was near a crevasse, I always made sure to step exactly where the person in front of me had. Just before camp this strategy proved to be flawed when my left foot slid right through the snow bridge. I landed face first on the opposite lip of the crevasse. My first sensation was that I lacked an ice axe to stop my fall, the second was my foot hanging in the open air of the crevasse, my third thought was that my sled was about to hit me and fall in too. I screamed "faaaaalllllinnngggg!!!" and two rope teams hit the deck to stop my fall. I think this is the most control I have ever had over a group of men. Since I was in the middle of the rope, my rope mates walked in opposite directions and I popped right out. That left me lying face first on the glacier with 40 awkward pounds on my back. I flailed around like a wounded turtle but eventually got my feet under me again and continued on.
June 13, 2012
Camp 1 - 7,800 feet
There aren't many inhabitants at half camp, and I was ready to leave this morning and continue moving up the mountain. We left around 9 am and were at the base of ski hill by 11 after one quick break along the way. There was just one short hill on the route, and I felt strong; so far my training is paying off. The wind was strong today, causing my eyes to water and sting, I'm sure that in a few days my tears will freeze. I'm happy that our full carry days are over and weren't as bad as I envisioned. So far the hardest part of each day has been ensuring that our designated camp area is crevasse free. I'm not sure, this might be a mean mountain guide joke, but to do so we walk in a line and jump periodically - with packs and sleds.
Let't talk about the amount of gear required to safely travel on a glacier with a sled. In addition to the climbing rope, sled, and harness, there are more cumbersome cords to attach my ice axe to me, my back pack to the climbing rope, and finally my sled to me and the climbing rope, One twisted piece of rope and the whole thing turns into a giant snarl of rope and gear me in the middle squirming to try to escape.
June 14, 2012
Camp 1 - 7,800 feet
Today was a clear, beautiful day. We left camp around 7:30 am, headed for camp 2 at 9,800 feet. We're now caching our gear as we move up the mountain, which means that the day prior to moving to the next camp, we carry about half or our gear - the half that we won't need for a day - to the next camp, bury it in the snow, and then return to the lower camp to spend the night before moving the following day. We arrived at camp 2 at 11 and spent a couple of hours burying our cache and making tent platforms for our move here tomorrow.
We were back at camp 1 at 2:30, and everyone's attention turned to overdue snow showers. I'm happy that I brought a few contraband soap leaves, because I was able to scrub the stinkiest parts of the clothes that I have been wearing for the past 5 days. I even used the remaining soapy water to wash my hair and then sat outside for a few minutes in the sun. But, the most exciting part was .... clean underwear! It was a big day!
After dinner tonight a Park Ranger stopped by our camp to tell us that motorcycle hill, which is between camp 2 and camp 3, avalanched today, burying four Japanese climbers. This is an unusual place for an avalanche, but apparently the upper mountain got three feet of snow followed by warmer weather which created the conditions. We'll find out more tomorrow when we move to camp 2.
June 15, 2012
Camp 2 - 9,900 feet
We woke up early to break camp and prepare for our move to camp 2. While we were enjoying breakfast, another climbing team stumbled by our cook tent as they descended. They looked beat up - one girl was barely walking along the climbing rope, dragging her ice axe behind her in the snow. She had a big patch of frost bitten skin on her cheek. Her teammate's nose was purple. I promised that I wouldn't allow myself to look or feel like that.
We got to camp 2 in three hours, thirty minutes faster that the day before, it was nice to know ahead of time what the terrain would be like for our move today. As we got close to camp, a helicopter flew next to us and then turned and flew through a notch toward camp 3, in addition to the avalanche on motorcycle hill, there was one on the Denali headwall yesterday. The climbers on the headwall were injured and evacuated, the four climbers overtaken by the avalanche on motorcycle hill are still missing and likely dead.
Since we got to camp early, I took advantage of a warm tent to do some mountain yoga and stretch my aching leg muscles. The weight of my pack and sled haven't been as bad as I thought, but my hips and back are a little sore, mountain yoga was just what I needed to get my mind and muscles back in shape.
I'm starting to become obsessed with smells, After yoga, I smelled all of my clean clothes just to remember what clean smells like. I've carefully segregated them from the dirty ones in order to preserve their cleanness. I'm also very focused on not allowing my sleeping bag to smell like my quarantined dirty clothes, Baby powder, hand sanitizer, and sore muscle ointment are my only defenses.
June 16, 2012
Camp 2 - 9,900 feet
Today we cached gear, food, and fuel at Camp 3, which is at the base of motorcycle hill. It took us less than ninety minutes to move up to 11,200 feet. We arrived just before 11 to a bustling camp under the bright sun. Everyone was doing something - cooking, roping up, breaking camp, setting up camp. It all stopped abruptly when a red helicopter - probably the same one that we saw yesterday - flew into camp to drop off two search and rescue teams. One of the SAR teams included a very well behaved border collie, which made me miss my poorly behaved dogs at home. While it was interesting to watch the SAR teams work, it is eerie to think that there are four people buried on the hill. We could plainly see the crown of the avalanche at the top of the hill and its runout below.
We took our time caching gear, distracted from the SAR teams and the soberness of the situation. While we waited, I took a look at motorcycle hill and contemplated dragging my mischievous sled up it in two days. It looked daunting, but I timed other climbers going up in 60 minutes. I told myself that I could handle it and took a deep breath.
We were back at camp 2 by 1, just before the clouds started to build. The SAR team skied by on their way back to base camp, and stopped for a chat. Their dog made herself at home in our camp - I really wanted to kidnap her for the rest of the climb! They were unable to locate the bodies of the Japanese climbers, it made us all sad to contemplate their unfortunate fate, and was a sobering reminder of how dangerous our environment is.
June 17, 2012
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
One thing about Denali weather is that it changes quickly. During most days we experience snow, wind, scorching sun and freezing cold. Today we added one more weather phenomenon to the list - earthquake. I woke up at 5:20 feeling the earth under my sleeping bag shifting, it was just a small quake, but another reminder that we're at the mercy of the mountain.
This morning it was windy, foggy, and snowing but I was ready to move to camp 3. The poor weather continued as we moved, and I was thankful for my hardshell pants, which usually just make me hot and cranky.
June 18, 2013
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
When we arrived at Camp 3 yesterday there was not a route up motorcycle hill because it had snowed so much. When I woke up this morning, I was happy to see that there was now a route, unfortunately it went straight up. We left camp at 10:30 after a leisurely breakfast and made it to the base of squirrel hill by 11:40, we were moving faster than the teams I had timed when we cached gear. My little legs felt it. We took a welcome break at the base of squirrel hill and looked out over the pristine Peters glacier below us. I slammed some water and honey and focused on my next challenge. I hadn't read much about this section of the route, so I naively assumed that it would not be too difficult. It was soon apparent that my honey was inefficient and that my long underwear were painfully unnecessary. Being overheated zaps my energy, but despite my best efforts to unzip every possible zipper for ventilation, I was still uncomfortable. Thankfully things leveled off when we reached the polo field, my heart rate dropped, and I started to cool off. We put on our helmets as we neared windy corner, I ate a Snickers and some shot blocks and hoped that my energy would improve.
I was still sweating my ass off and wishing that I didn't have so much crap in my sled when a Japanese climber who was taking a break looked at me and said "powerful" in broken English. I needed to hear that more than he probably realized.
After caching our gear, we got back to Camp 3 in just one hour and sat in the snow eating ice cream imported from Talkeetna, tired from a long day. I reviewed the day in my mind, it was by far the hardest so far, partially because I was overheated thanks to too many layers. Tomorrow we would make the same trip, plus ninety minutes more to camp 4. I thought about what I could do to make tomorrow easier. Surely knowing what to expect would help, I also needed to hydrate today to be better prepared. I know that I can do it, I just need to focus and take care of myself.
June 19, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
We left camp 3 just before 10 this morning and made our last trip up motorcycle hill - thankfully! We followed the same route as yesterday, and this time I felt much better, thanks to one less layer, shorter ski poles, sugar, and probably some acclimatization. We arrived at camp 4 at 3:30 and during that time I ate four shot blocks, one ProBar, one Butterfinger, honey, and a gel shot. My stomach must be one gooey, sugary mess, but thank goodness for sugar!
We stopped at yesterday's cache site, just around the corner from windy corner, and continued another seventy minutes along moderate terrain to camp 4. It was blisteringly hot again; I start each day with cold fingers and with in a few hours am drenched in sweat. Speaking of sweat, I have been wearing the same shirt for ten days. It's beyond disgusting and there's even a blood stain on the front from a bloody nose two days ago. I'm going to burn it at my first opportunity.
When we got to camp 4, we assumed a vacated camp site and it still took two hours to step up. I felt exhausted from the long hot day, but some water and salty corn nuts helped. I felt tired, but not beaten up. As we were walking into camp our next challenge came into full view - the Denali headwall looks impossibly steep, but I'm taking it one day at a time, and focusing on taking care of myself.
June 20, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
We had a leisurely morning and then headed back to our cache spot at 13,400 feet near windy corner to retrieve our food, fuel, and gear. It took about thirty minutes to get there, and my load was heavier than I remembered. The big bonus is that since I have been reunited with my hermetically sealed clean clothes, I can rid myself of this smelly shirt that I have been wearing for eleven sweaty days. Hauling my load back to camp today generated enough sweat to reactivate the sweat from the ten previous days, the vapors almost made me pass out.
It is now 6:30 pm, and according to my watch it is 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the tent. Time for hot yoga and a snow bath, it's like being at the spa! Before putting on my clean clothes I relished the smell of detergent on them for the last time.
June 21, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Our tent is on the edge of camp, close to the trail that leads up the headwall, which still looks impossibly steep. It's good that I have today as a rest day to consider it. I feel like the previous eleven days were just the approach, and that now it's time to start climbing. Tomorrow's plan is to carry up the fixed lines of the headwall and cache food and fuel at about 16,200 feet. I'm ready to go, even though I know it will be difficult, I just keep telling myself that it's a four hour hike.
The weather so far for our climb has been unbelievable stable, while we've had snow and fog and wind, it hasn't been so severe that it has impacted our ability to move up the mountain. Temperatures have also been warmer than usual, which has been both good and bad. While I've fought not to overheat during the day, it was been in the 20s in our tent when we wake up in the morning, much better I expected.
Today's highlight was an evening walk to the "poop crevasse". In order to keep the mountain clean, the Park Service requires all climbing teams to use a Clean Mountain Can (CMC). Here's how they work: the can (which the Park Service provides) is slightly larger than a gallon paint can and is lined with a biodegradable bag. You sit on the can to do your business, if you're the one using the can when you unfortunately realize that it is full, you get to take the bag to the crevasse designated by the Park Service for disposal. It seems odd to me to throw that much poop into a crevasse, but I'm happy to not have to carry it, and I'm happy that the mountain isn't littered with excrement like others I have been on.
June 22, 2012
Camp 4 - 14,200 feet
Trip number one up and down the headwall complete! We left camp at 10:30 am and returned at 4:40 after caching our gear at the top of the fixed lines. The first section of the route - just outside of camp - felt very steep, in part, I'm sure because we were just getting started. It leveled off briefly after about fifty minutes; this sequence repeated again until we reached the bottom of the fixed lines.
On Denali, the fixed lines consist of several ropes strung together and anchored to the mountain with snow pickets. The blue rope in the photo below is the fixed line. The climber attaches to the fixed line using a device called an ascender or in some cases using a carabiner. The ascender or carabiner is connected to the climber's harness with a short rope. Fixed lines are used to increase climber safety when climbing on exposed terrain, if the climber falls, he or she will not tumble out of control down the mountainside because the fall will be stopped by the ascender attached to the fixed line.
In total there were probably six ropes making up the fixed lines on the 1,700 foot headwall, just to make it interesting, each rope had a different amount of give, and on occasion there would be a knot in the middle, requiring me to move my ascender from one side of the knot to the other, disrupting my cadence. In the end, it was more of an upper body workout than I anticipated, but I was happy to give my little legs a break. As we were climbing I kept thinking of the big fat rope in my grade school gym. My mind focused on the way that I felt then, as a little girl looking up at the impossibly high rope anchored to the ceiling and topped with a tiny bell. I remembered the way the fat, coarse rope felt in my hands as they got sweaty half way up. Most importantly I remembered the satisfaction and pride that I felt hitting the little bell at the top. I just kept reminding myself that if I could do that as a little girl, I could do this now.
Tomorrow we will move to high camp at 17,200 feet. I'm a little worried that my pack will be heavier, making the move up the headwall more difficult than today, but I also know that I am stronger than I believe!
June 23, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
My pack was definitely heavier. Forty pounds in my estimation, but I hung in there, and kept repeating to myself a quote that a friend gave me before I left ... the difference between possible and impossible is determination. That, plus a lot of honey and the a random guy taking a break who told me that I looked strong made a big difference.
We picked up part of our cache from yesterday at the top of the fixed lines, and continued toward Washburn's thumb. Although there was added weight in my pack, I knew that only 1,000 vertical feet separated me from the next camp. I was anticipating a mellow walk along a beautiful ridge overlooking pristine mountains. I guess that my perspective was based on the numerous books that I had read on the West Buttress route, none of which as I recall described the sketchiness of the ridge. It was exposed on both sides as I expected, but in several places I had to crawl around rocks using the pick of my axe to pull myself along. There was protection in a few places which I clipped in to. And then there was the wind. At times the rope was levitated three feet off the ground and vibrated, Camp provided protection from the wind, and because the only other occupants were three Park Rangers, we had our choice of campsites and were able to pilfer the best snow blocks from unused camp sites to fortify our own snow wall.
The best part of being at high camp ... I finally get to bust out my Feathered Friends puffy. It's warm and ginormous and bright yellow and I love it!
June 24, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
The snow and wind began last night and put our snow walls to the test, I hate to admit that I was dreading crawling out of the tent to retrieve the rest of our cache, even with my ginormous bright yellow puffy. The snow seemed to be blowing from all directions and, honestly I wasn't looking forward to climbing down and back up the ridge. For the first time, I considered putting heavy objects in my pockets to weigh myself down. We changed our minds every time the wind shifted. In the end, two members of my team plus one guide retrieved our cache. Selfishly, I felt better that I wasn't the only one not excited to make the trip. The group returned to camp around 8 pm. These were tough guys, who looked beat up! We helped them unclip and removed their packs, and offered warm drinks. They told stories of howling winds up to 50 mph. I'll forever appreciate their efforts and tenacity.
June 25, 2012
High Camp - 17,200
Today I feel like crap. I have had a growing headache, which I initially attributed to altitude, but now I'm not so sure, it should have been gone by now if that were the case.
The mountain continues to pelt us with 20 mph gusts and a few inches of snow each day, although it's hard to tell if it's new snow or just relocated snow.
Now is probably a good time to expound on the bathroom situation. Our team has always taken great pride in building a deluxe privy. We spend extra time to be sure that all of its components (door, walls to deter the wind, pee hole, CMC) are positioned appropriately and we even include an "occupied" flag, which we all appreciate because each person can peek out or their tent and decide whether it's worth the effort to suit up and make the trek to the bathroom. Suiting up at high camp involves ski goggles and two layers of clothes. I will never take for granted the ability to walk down the hall and use the bathroom!
June 26, 2012
High Camp - 17,200
We made an attempt for the summit today, although it felt more like a dress rehearsal than an actual attempt, which was fine with me. It felt good to move around and spend some time becoming familiar with the next section of the route, which is called the autobahn. The conditions were very poor, the wind gusted up to 30 mph, and snow was blowing in circles around me, at times I could see very little in front of me. All of the fresh snow made traversing the autobahn very difficult; I came to one snow picket, prepared to clip into it and it pulled right out of the snow. I pounded it down in a new location with my ice axe, and had to dig down six inches to find hard snow. Needless to say, we didn't make it very far.
We're all starting to get edgy about the weather. Each evening at 8 we huddle in the cook tent and listen anxiously for the forecast. And each evening the gentle female voice on the other end of the radio politely reminds me that I am on a mountain and that I'm not in control and that the mountain doesn't care if I've spent months training and years thinking about it, it doesn't give a shit about me.
The kind voice on the radio told me that it would be crappy for the next three days.
June 27, 2012
High Camp - 17,200 feet
Two other climbing teams have arrived at high camp, settled in, and then descended since we got here four days ago. That makes part of me feel resilient and strong, like the old man who won't leave his ramshackle house even though it is in the direct path of a forest fire. It also makes me feel like they know something that I don't and that I should just go back down to soft beds and cold beers and clean underwear. But I can't.
Last night's weather forecast predicted 12 - 18 inches of snow and 30 mph winds. While the wind arrived, the snow did not, and the winds died down today by 10 am. We're "preparing" for a summit attempt tomorrow, but I feel like it will be another dress rehearsal.
June 28, 2012
We woke up early and had breakfast at 6 - if I see one more "Denali delight" (comprised of an open-faced bagel with Canadian bacon and pepper jack cheese fried and steamed) I'm going to loose it. We all had our doubts about summitting since the forecast was for wind gusts up to 40 mph and a foot of new snow. But, it was calm, sunny, and probably -10 F when we got on the ropes at 8, so I hoped for the best.
The terrain just outside of camp is downhill, and we took a short break here before stepping foot onto the autobahn. I dropped a layer and looked up at the slowly curving traverse ahead of me. The autobahn is sloped toward Denali pass, and is known for deadly falls, more so than any other place on the mountain. This isn't to say that it is the most dangerous place on Denali, but it sees more traffic than other, more dangerous spots. The autobahn is not physically demanding to climb; it gains only 1,000 feet of elevation on its way to Denali pass. Snow conditions on the autobahn can range from hard-packed snow and ice to feet of avalanche-prone fluff. Today we were in for some fluff.
The route across the autobahn zig-zagged toward the pass, and I was thankful for the snow pickets that had been placed there to offer protection. Today they all stayed in place, but my ice axe slid easily through the powdery snow when I leaned into the slope, sometimes it would slide further than expected throwing me slightly off balance. I focused and stopped leaning on it so much. The autobahn ended at the rocky edges of the pass and dwindled to one boot print wide. We arrived at the top of the pass in two hours, and without any self-arrests.
I ate a frozen candy bar, contemplated the logistics of peeing, decided it was completely impractical given four layers of pants, a giant puffy parka and the precarious terrain. I looked up toward zebra rocks and started to move with my team.
I started to sense that the temperature was cold, it felt like everything had fallen away and all that was left was desolate and isolated and frozen. I focused on taking care of myself because I was the only person who really could. I mentally scanned my body and thought about where I was cold or uncomfortable, and narrowed in on the left side of my forehead. I felt a small gap between the bottom of my balaclava and the top of my goggles. An image of the girl with a frostbitten cheek popped into my mind. As carefully as I could using the enormous puffy mits on my hands, I adjusted it as best as I could, but still wondered what the cost of reconstructive surgery on my forehead would be.
About this time it hit me that we were probably going to summit, the weather was still clear and winds had taken a break, everyone looked strong, and I heard an overwhelming voice in my head telling me not to fuck this up. I became hyper focused on the route ahead of me and breaking it into achievable pieces. I focused on reaching archdeacon's tower and eventually we started down a small hill, which seemed horribly unfair, and I could see pig hill.
I had read about pig hill and the frustration it causes climbers so close to the summit due to its steepness. But, somehow it looked more menacing than I expected. I took the time to assess my strength, energy level, and general attitude at this point. I was tired, for sure, but I didn't feel exhausted and was breathing fine. I felt strong enough to descend safely. I started up pig hill with my team, and it was harder than I expected, there were several inches of fresh, powdery snow, making it hard to gain momentum. I just kept telling myself that I was stronger than I knew. I believe that we made it to the top in about an hour, and took our last break before reaching the summit. We all shared warm tea from a thermos and I ate more frozen chocolate.
At this point, I was less than one hour from the summit, but still had a lot of climbing and descending ahead of me, so I suppressed any thought of celebration. The summit ridge is narrow and corniced; although visibility was poor, there were times when I could see unknown distances of exposure on both sides and knew that a misstep would send me on a short cut 8,500 feet back down to the Kahiltna glacier. I summoned my yoga drishti and chose a focal point a few feet ahead of me while deliberately placing each foot on the precarious snow. In one section, the path was pointed so that my heels were on top of the snow and my toes curled along each side.
When I could, I looked ahead but couldn't make out the summit until I saw a small green flag flapping in the wind. After eighteen months of thinking about and six months of training for it, I was finally here, but I wouldn't let myself celebrate or get emotional. I had too much work to do.
We stayed on the summit for probably thirty minutes, taking the requisite photos in every combination. Visibility was poor, but none of us cared, we were just happy to be there.
The descent was thankfully uneventful. We made our way down the same treacherous summit ridge, down the loose powdery snow on pig hill, and onto the football field where I was reunited with my backpack. I reminded myself that this was a no mistakes environment as I crossed the rocks on Denali pass with shaky crampons. I thought about all of the twelve points of each crampon and ensured that they made solid contact with the snow underneath me. It took about two hours to descend, and I recall looking down and to my right and rationalizing what would happen if I fell in certain places, the outcome ranging from a few broken bones to death. It's funny how these thoughts feel natural in such an extreme environment.
Eventually we could see camp and the same hill that I was happy to descend this morning now became my enemy, but I was determined to end this day, which was now fifteen hours long. It was now 11 pm and our private camp was bustling with people, one of which was using our CMC, maybe it was an emergency, I'm not sure, he was very embarrassed, but still poop pirates are not cool.
I felt good when we got back to camp, tired for sure but thanks to too much sugar and a healthy dose or adrenaline, I didn't feel exhausted. The ramen noodles that I had for dinner that night were the best meal I had ever had.
June 29, 2012
We left camp today at 8 am, which didn't leave a lot of time for sleeping, but I was happy to go, it felt too crowded now. Gone were the quiet, pristine days that I had spoiled me. Despite a heavy backpack that threatened to pull me over backwards while I crawled around Washburn's thumb, I made it to the top of the fixed lines without incident. The Denali headwall had collected several feet of powdery snow, which would have been great if I was skiing, but moving down its steep slope with at least a forty pound pack was a challenge. I was up to my waist in powder in spots. I just focused on the goal of making it down the headwall, which I viewed as the last difficult section of the route. I actually was looking forward to reuniting with my sled so that I could get some of the weight off my back. Visibility continued to deteriorate as we approached camp 4 and struggled to locate the ski poles that we cached there days earlier.
I fantasized about staying the night at camp 4, but had to let it go, and accept that the next 24 hours were going to be long and tiring. The excitement of rejoining my sled also waned when someone dumped a bag full of canned food in it ... cans, really? Couldn't the same people that invented Gore-Tex figure out a lighter way to store food? Just as we were leaving camp I was told that the route was in good shape and that people were making good time, I felt a small sense of comfort until I realized that her definition of "good shape" meant hours of post-holing and miles of thigh-deep snow. Needless to say, the next several hours bordered on miserable.
I passed the time by contemplating a linear dynamics class from college. The person in front of me on the rope was pulling two sleds, the combined weight of which was probably greater than my body weight. Luckily, I had this eighty extra pounds of weight distributed between my sled and backpack. Even so, when the route was angled to either side, the sleds in front of me would pull me forward and downhill while my sled would pull me backward and to the angled side. My body felt like it might be torn in two like a paper doll.
It was beautiful watching the sun move across the horizon, never setting and creating a warm glow on the hills in front of me while the snow around me sparkled like a million diamonds. I reminded myself that I was surrounded by dazzling sights that most people in the world would never have the fortune to experience.
Finally we arrived at the top of motorcycle hill, truly the last obstacle in our descent (unless you could the hundreds of crevasses between it and base camp). The love-hate relationship with my sled had turned to all hate at this point, I had learned to listen for the zinging sound of it sliding into my calves despite the knotted ropes strapped underneath it for added friction. These sled "brakes" were problematic - too much friction and I worked to pull my sled despite traveling downhill, not enough meant bruised calves. As I looked down motorcycle hill, I doubted that there was any way to descend it gracefully. All of our sleds rolled and mine let loose of a plastic shovel, which I grabbed as it slid by me. Unfortunately I hadn't thought to double tie all of my gear when I loaded my sled, and now it was all hanging off the slide of my sled, which actually helped to create more drag, which I desperately needed on the steep hill.
June 30, 2012
Camp 3 - 11,200 feet
It was 10 pm when we reached the camp at 11,200 feet last night, and we opted to sleep without our tent fly in the balmy air. I woke up at 3 am before the rest of my team, and was treated to a spectacular sun rise, the sky glowed and shined in every color of pink imaginable. We left camp at 5, and headed for the comforts of civilization. It was incredible to watch the sun slowly continue to move across the horizon and illuminate everything in its path with gold and pink hues. I felt surrounded and sheltered by giants, the improbably pristine peaks comforted me somehow.
There were lots of people on the move this morning thanks to stable weather. As I passed the fresh faces of climbers beginning their trip, I did my best to give them an encouraging smile. I noticed a raven circling overhead and civilization started to move into the focus of my mind. Then a red plane crested the ridge to my right and I knew that we would fly to Talkeetna today, there seemed little risk that planes wouldn't fly. Eventually we could see planes landing on the base camp runway. It was exhilarating to see our connection back to the world. I crested heartbreak hill, which lived up to its name, I was dripping in sweat, even thought I had stripped down to a tank top and climbing pants. The heartbreak continued when we learned that we would be flying in 20 minutes from the upper runway. After that flights would be paused in the heat of the day due to crevasse danger. I moved as fast as my worn legs and lungs would allow to the airstrip, and the next several minutes were unfortunately chaotic as sleds and gear and bodies were loaded into tiny planes. I wish that I had taken the time to savor my last few minutes on this beautiful mountain. I did enjoy the return flight, and admired the terrain as it turned from white to brown to green - natural colors that I hadn't seen in weeks.
We all still had our fully loaded harnesses and climbing boots on when we landed in Talkeetna. I didn't think that many things surprised this little village, but we got some strange looks. I sorted gear with my team and took a "shower" in the tiny sink at the airport hangar. Oh, how good it felt to wash my hands and face with an actual bar of soap. Then I threw away my underwear.
We enjoyed (really enjoyed) beer and burgers in Talkeetna and then made our way back to the Fireweed Station for more glorious food, showers and actual beds.
July 1, 2012
Anchorage International Airport
We looked like a grubby gang as we walked through the airport, we each had more swagger than the last time we were here, but we were all sunburned, half of us were limping and/or coughing and none of us had shaved in three weeks. Plus, even though I had showered when I woke, I still felt behind in that department.
We flew home to our friends, pets, jobs, and responsibilities, but it would take and unexpectedly long time to settle back in.
July 21, 2012 ~ Washington
I didn't expect coming home to be difficult, but it was. I was excited to see friends, family and my beloved dogs, but it was hard to be around people for several days. I felt like I had a climbing hangover. Thank goodness work was slow and understanding, because there were times in the first few days that I couldn't look at those 700 e.mails. Plus, I felt like Humpty Dumpty - I needed to be put back together - massage, acupuncture, hair cut, wax, sleep.
Even two weeks after coming home my priorities felt shifted. I think that when you spend three weeks thinking about basic things like eating, drinking, breathing, and sleeping everything else feels overwhelming and unimportant. It was hard to have drinks with friends who were focused on very normal things like work and weekend plans; none of these things seemed important to me.
On Denali, more than any other mountain, I realized why I enjoy climbing - it focuses me to be in the moment, which is a place that I seldom occupy in my 'normal' life. Climbing is pure and simple, everything other than staying safe and taking care of yourself doesn't really matter, and I find that I need this break from time to time. I also realized while on Denali that I take too many things for granted. I promised myself to carry with me the simple pleasure of sitting in a chair or washing my hair or chapstick.
In terms of my physical preparedness, I believe that my training plan was sufficient. I would have liked to spend more time in the hypoxic tent, and would have done more upper body strength training. I thought - and worried - a lot about my ability to carry the eighty pounds or so in my pack and sled on the days when we carried the heaviest loads. While I knew that I could physically carry this much weight on my small frame, I worried about keeping up with the rest of my team. In the end, this wasn't an issue, and I'm thankful for the endless intervals that I ran and the relentless tire drags around my neighborhood. Ultimately, I felt mentally and physically prepared for the challenges of Denali.
To support my fixation with clean clothes, I will take more dryer sheets with me on future expeditions, and I will take antibiotic ointment to use as a moisturizer for cracked and sun burnt skin. I will also invest in moon boots, which I saw several savvy climbers wearing to stay warm and give their weary feet a break from mountaineering boots.
I relied a lot while on the mountain on cards and quotes from my friends and family. I would read them when I questioned my strength or ability, and it helped me to know that I was capable of achieving my goal. There is one that was especially meaningful from Winnie the Pooh:
If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together ... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart ... I'll always be with you.
--- Christopher Robin