It has been ages! We’re sorry. So here’s a powerpoint to help you plan your own trip to Denali!

I fell off the wagon – I began writing up the story of our adventures on Denali, and then we got busy putting together and giving a presentation on our climb…and now it’s JANUARY! Eeek. Our bad!

Back in November we got off track because we began working on a presentation for the Seattle Mountaineers’ Beta Night, which was held on November 10th, 2015. We’re going to reproduce that here (with one or two minor modifications for a broader audience), for your viewing and climb planning pleasure.

Please note the presentation was co-authored and co-presented by all four of the Girls, and **if you share it or re-present it (even informally) elsewhere, please acknowledge us accordingly!**

We worked hard on it!

If you’re planning on climbing Denali this spring, don’t hesitate to get in touch – we’ve been giving advice like it’s going out of style, so if you need input on your backpack/pee bottle/tentmates/solar panel/Meyers-Briggs personality compatibility…well, we’re your Girls!

And if this information is helpful or you are using it to plan your climb(s), please let us know in the comments – it helps us stay motivated to keep the site active, and I might even get around to writing up the rest of our trip, if you do.😉

Happy Planning!

The Denali Girls
(Jennifer Carter, Carolyn Graham, Leigh Ann Wolfe, and Meredith Trainor)

How to Get Onto the Glacier: Part II

[This is a continuation of last week’s post, and will (apparently!) be a three or four part intro giving the background on the beginning of our climb.]

Once we had a plan for how we wanted to approach the mountain and tackle the climb, back-planning logistics from there was easy – we wanted to fly out and onto the Kahiltna Glacier (where basecamp is located) first thing on Monday, May 11th. We needed most of Sunday in Talkeetna to repack our bags post-commercial flight and pre-short-haul, small plane flight, and we needed time to meet with the National Park Service (which closed at 4pm) for our Orientation with a Ranger (and to get our Clean Mountain Can, aka poop bucket, before we left). Oh, and we needed to actually get from Anchorage (where our commercial flight would land) to Talkeetna, two and a half hours north of Anchorage by car.

We knew we wanted to fly Alaska Airlines because we had heard that they are gentler and more reasonable with climbers (and because, let’s face it – United and Delta are kinda really the Devil), so we were left with two options for flights that would get us into Alaska that first weekend, and also leave us all day Sunday in AK– a 6am flight from Seattle on Sunday morning, or a late afternoon flight on the Saturday before. After a lot of discussion and weighing of the benefits and drawbacks, we decided to split the difference – I would fly in on Saturday, May 9th in the afternoon with all of our sharps and most of our stoves, in case anything got stuck or lost in transit, and the rest of the girls would fly in with just their two main bags (1 huge backpack and 1 huge duffle) in the wee hours of Sunday morning, when myself and my dear friend Gil (and his lovely girlfriend Caitlin) would meet them, and whisk us all off to Denali!

This was a great solution on many levels. Years ago I did a wee-hours flight to northern BC for a backpacking and rafting trip, and that first morning was a totally wretched experience, spent nauseated and exhausted because I had been up, excited, all night the evening before, and then had woken up before 4am to head to the airport to just sit and wait in line for the desk to open – and I wasn’t ever doing that again. The anxiety of trying to get all of us, and all of our sharps (by sharps we’re referring to our ice axes, crampons, snow saws, and other tools that the airlines won’t let you carry on, not to mention stoves and fuel containers!) onto the plane on the same day we hoped to get to Talkeetna, and get everything done in Talkeetna, was too much for me to want to take on – I knew I would want to KNOW it was all there by Sunday, KNOW it all made it to Alaska in time, KNOW we were ready to grab the Girls when they landed, and hit the road. So if I was going to fly in early, we all agreed, I would take the sharps.

Sled coffins with sharps

Sled coffins with sharps

The other Girls all looked at both flight options as well, but largely preferred the early Sunday morning flight because it gave them more weekend time in Seattle to pack and get organized after a full work week, and because in Jenn’s case, she had work all day Saturday, so would only have Saturday evening to get reorganized, get her head focused on the climb, and then go to the airport on Sunday morning – making Sunday’s flight the obvious best option for her.

The added benefit to this two-flight plan was that by the time the Girls boarded the plane on Sunday morning, they’d already have heard from me and know that our technical gear made it, which would make for a much more relaxing flight – now they just needed to get to Alaska. An additional benefit was that getting in Saturday night gave me time to hang out with my friend Gil (a friend from my college days) and meet Caitlin, which was extra nice for me on a personal level, especially considering they had kindly volunteered to chauffeur our whole group and all of our gear from the airport, to Talkeetna, on Sunday.

Gil offered to take the first photo of our climb, once we all got to Talkeetna, so I gave him my camera. A month later I looked at my photos from the climb for the first time, and this is what I found! Thanks, Gil. :)

Gil offered to take the first photo of our climb, once we all got to Talkeetna, so I gave him my camera. A month later I looked at my photos from the climb for the first time, and this is what I found! Thanks, Gil.:)

Thus, the process of getting through May, and getting out of Seattle and up to Talkeetna, more or less played out as follows:

On Saturday, May 2 (1 week to the day before I would fly away with most of our technical gear), we planned for an all-day packing session at my former residence, where we could spread out and take up multiple rooms with gear, food, “sled coffins” full of sharps, and the like. We thought if we started early, were organized, and were diligent we’d be done by end of day. Buuuuuut…

Carolyn with our big blocks of cheese, on day 1 of the epic packing weekend!

Carolyn with our big blocks of cheese, on day 1 of the epic packing weekend!

The long driveway of my former residence, covered in gear at the end of the day

The long driveway of my former residence, covered in gear at the end of the day

On Sunday, May 3rd everyone came back over for what we hoped would be just a half day of finishing up on the packing, and then spent another entire day really wrapping things up, making final decisions on what equipment should stay or go (to the most finite degree – “how many bandaids and how much extra webbing do we really need?”), and then packing it up, for real – for the last time before we would arrive with it in Talkeetna, and repack it a second time for the second flight. These were some long-ass days, and required focus, teamwork, and the support of my then-partner, who had himself climbed Denali, and who contributed a fair amount of valuable “yes take it/no leave it” advice as we frantically watched the time tick down before embarking our last full weeks of work for a month! It was a crazy, busy, antsy, and hectic two days.

All business on day 2: calculating distribution of gear for the climb

All business on day 2: calculating distribution of gear for the climb

Our sled coffin inventory list, which came with us separately

Our sled coffin inventory list, which came with us separately

That work week was a crazy one – my calendar shows Monday included: a sports massage (trying to get the kinks out before putting them back in), printing some additional maps at Kinko’s, finalizing one of my personal dinner meals which was only half-dehydrated at that point, picking up a rental sleeping bag from Feathered Friends (we rented one, as a group, and due to the good graces of our friends and climbing club, managed to borrow the rest), double-checking my list of and instructions for prescription drugs, and my former partner helping me by retying the webbing and replacing clips on a sled I was using, while I adjusted a new set of prussiks that were fitted to my big Spantik moon boots. Tuesday was finding a backup watch battery, getting a secret gift for the girls delivered, and a blog post here; Wednesday I wrote and sent Mother’s and Father’s Day cards (because it wouldn’t be good to blow off that particularly holiday while their offspring is off adventuring on a big mountain!), reorganizing emergency info for my family and my emergency contacts, calling my doctor because I had realized the quantity of one of my prescriptions was off, and calling my brother so that I would have talked to him before I left. Thursday was my last day at work because I had panicked last minute and realized I couldn’t go from working on a Friday to being in Alaska on Saturday, and so Friday ended up being about returns – returning all the things we had decided against bringing before we didn’t care enough to do so, and calling my sister, completing the round-robin of family phone calls (for the moment).

Just part of the checklist on my phone around that time...

Just part of the checklist on my phone around that time…

Wednesday's task: turning chili (or whatever that was) into lightweight, transportable, dehydrated food!

Wednesday’s task: turning Louisiana Beans and Rice (or whatever that was) into lightweight, transportable, dehydrated food!

Louisiana Beans and Rice dehydrated but before being shrink packed and sealed

Louisiana Beans and Rice dehydrated but before being shrink packed and sealed

By Saturday morning I was a focused bundle of nerves – I don’t know that I’ve ever been so efficient or on my game in my life, although the stress would turn up in funny places. My former partner and I got the car all loaded up for the ride to the airport on Saturday afternoon, and I checked and re-checked the contents before getting in: two sets of sleds duct-taped together (to make the two “sled coffins”) and full of gear that had been checked off on a list, and then re-checked before we sealed them shut, one huge Mountain Hardwear red duffle (one of my overall favorite gear purchases, although it was heavier than the ones the other girls brought, because mine is waterproof), and one monster backpack, for this first flight just crammed full of soft stuff, like clothes, sleeping pads, tents, and other things that could be squished as they were thrown from one conveyor belt to the other behind the scenes at the airport.

I also had a small duffle as a carry-on, in which I carried my most precious and most uniquely expensive new pieces of equipment – my $800 Spantik mountaineering boots, which I was unwilling to check for any reason, my new camera, purchased for the trip, and my “town clothes” – the clothes to get me through the day Sunday in Talkeetna, and which I would change back into (plus fresh underwear!) after flying off the glacier at the far end of our climb, to travel back to Seattle. That bag also carried the accoutrements of my civilized life: toiletries and a hairbrush for whenever there would be showers, a simple summer dress to wear after so much time spent climbing in frustratingly proportioned men’s clothes, and a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt in case I got off the mountain and just wanted to be comfy and cozy. Plus my Denali Girls trucker hat from Leigh Ann, and my secret presents for the other ladies, which would be gifted once I greeted them at the airport.

Once I felt sure that it was all in the Subaru, and could actually see the backpack, big duffle, and the brightly colored sled coffins over my shoulder, I turned a last time to glance at my home, and my car, Snowflake, which had trucked me out over I-90 to our training hills so many times over the last few months, lonely where it would sit for the month we were away, gathering pollen and spiderwebs. I briefly contemplated what the implications would be if some terrible accident were to happen, and I never got to go home again. Were we crazy to be doing this?

I’ve learned over the years to trust myself, and to trust my judgement, on what scale of adventure or major change is right for me, and this was one of those moments. I learned before my first multiple month trip in college (for study abroad) that for the evening before I begin something epic and life-changing, I usually feel what can only be described as a sense of abject terror in my gut – and that it often keeps me up all night. But in my old age of adventuring, taking last minute trips to various foreign countries solo and otherwise exploring the world, I’ve learned to embrace terror-gut – to reinterpret that feeling and understand that the fear that I feel makes me human, and is appropriate, and signals that what I’m doing is right. That I am pushing myself in all the right ways. That I am living my life fully, and that I’m all in.

I didn’t actually think that we were risking a serious accident, climbing Denali, but there is always the “what if?”, and I think that’s what I was grappling with, standing in the driveway. It’s the same “what if” that hits you when you are driving on the highway and a near-miss happens in front of you, or a plane crashes somewhere in the world while you’re sitting in an airport, or a climber or skiier dies on a mountain and a route you’ve previously climbed. So it’s not that I thought we were taking on some terrible risk, or doing something actually crazy – it’s just that innate impulse for self-preservation gave me pause.

And so admittedly a bit teary I jumped into the car, sat down, took a deep breath, and we rolled backwards …and into something, pushing it backwards down the driveway. Something of mine. Gear? Shit.

I hopped out, and there was my little “in town” duffle and all of its expensive contents, scraped just enough to rip open the fabric but not damage anything, wedged behind the rear right tire. “Shit again,” I thought. So much for being zen about it!

Duffle retrieved and levity restored, we headed to the airport early enough to allow for questions, delays, and lots of explanations about how ice axes and crampons work, but things went pretty smoothly – we were charged oversized baggage fees for our sled coffins, added some additional tape to be super certain they were secure, and off everything went. My big bags got sucked down the conveyor belt (to my relief – they were heavy!) and I said a tearful goodbye before joining the security line, to head off to Alaska!

How to Get onto the Glacier: Part I

Heading in.

Heading in.

When we first began to get serious about planning our Denali climb, a few key logistics presented themselves as the obvious “first steps” to actually getting ourselves onto the Kahiltna Glacier, where the climb begins. The first was choosing a team – Leigh Ann and I knew we wanted to do the climb long before that part of our process began (a full year before we first stepped onto the glacier), but the actual team formation part largely took place in the fall before our climb. A quick Gmail search turns up an email to Leigh Ann on September 3rd 2014, confirming that “we [were] really doing it” in spring of 2015, and asking about getting together to do more planning. By mid-September we had met with a friend from the Mountaineers climbing community who had previously attempted the climb, and with her input added a few more names of potential partners to our short-list of folks we wanted to talk to, who we thought might be interested.

By September 22nd emails to a round of potential climbers went out, and meetings, and emails, followed. We set December 1st as a do or die date (for our third, fourth, and potentially fifth and sixth climbers to confirm), and on that date Jenn committed and was in, and another opted out.  We wanted to climb with at least a party of four because redundancy (when climbing on a rope) generally makes climbers safer – by having two separate ropes, with two teams of two people climbing, we would have a built in back-up system for the parts of the climb where the climbers need to be roped together. We were open to going up with five (although an odd number can be hard in case of a dispute, as some minority will always be outnumbered) and would consider six, but we thought a party of four was probably the sweet spot – it would be challenging enough trying to manage communication and ideas about how to do the climb between four smart, competent, and thus justifiably opinionated climbers.

So after our December 1st opt-out, we sent another pair of invites on December 5th, and by the 8th, Carolyn was in, and we had our climbing party! With a diversity of skill-sets, a diversity of interests, and a diversity of strengths, I felt good about the women who were embarking on this crazy adventure together, and believed that our complementary skills and backgrounds would prove crucial for our success. And they were.

After settling one’s climbing party, it becomes easy to focus in on the training – but that’s not what this post is about. Once we settled the who, we needed to decide on the when, in order to apply for our National Park permits, and request specific dates. Denali National Park and Preserve (which is the park’s formal name) has an application process that most groups complete months in advance, in order to get the ideal “fly-on date” for their group’s interests and needs. We were lucky in that in our case, we had all agreed upfront that although many groups manage to make the summit in 21 days, we would give ourselves a full four weeks of time off (which, for a variety of reasons but mostly the need to travel to and from Alaska turned into first 26, then 24 actual climbing days), so as to not need to rush it. We reasoned that if we were going to do that much work, and that much prep, and spend that much money, we didn’t want to get up to the 17,000’ camp and then have to bail just because one party member had to be at work that Monday. This turned out to be an extremely good decision, and one of the keys to our ultimate success.

In scheduling the climb, we knew the target for being on the summit was to get there right around the first week of June, but we also knew that that was when everyone else would be doing the same – and in particular, many of the guided groups. Guided groups are sort of their own thing on a big mountain on Denali  – for the one thing, the guides themselves are total badasses, and insanely capable mountaineers. But for another, their clients can vary in caliber, and sometimes wildly. There were some guided groups (or guided individuals) that a smart climber just wouldn’t want to find herself behind, so we elected to try to plan around the biggest rush on the mountain, and go when there would be slightly lower numbers of other climbers standing between us and the summit. We didn’t want to be the very first people on the mountain (in hindsight that would have been fine, although the weather proved to be terrible at that time), and we reasoned that we knew were generally pretty good, proficient climbers, and that we planned to train hard to climb strong, so decided to aim for a slightly “early season” climb, and risk being a bit colder, and in slightly less predictable weather, in order to have more of the mountain to ourselves. This was also a good decision – to a point. More on that later.

As such we set our “fly-on date” (when we would fly to the glacier from the small “bush”/tourist town of Talkeetna, Alaska), for Monday, May 11th, about a week or so before the Park Service’s online calendars began to reflect non-stop daily climber orientation sessions, and committed to one another that we would each go all in on gear, carrying negative 40 degree sleeping bags and jackets so that we wouldn’t risk going in early, and then having to bail because we were too cold.

The way it works in practice is that to climb Denali you fill out an application on the National Park Service’s website, and then are routed through a federal government portal to pay the $365 or so for your (individual) climbing permit…and then you wait. Your application has to list previous (relatively) big mountain climbs you’ve done at altitude (mine listed the Washington volcanoes, for example, plus a few other peaks), plus your teammates, emergency info, and other essential information. I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s pretty rare for a climbing team to not get a permit based on their application, but I’d be interested in seeing the data data (in case anyone reading this post has seen any). It’s at this time that your team gets a name, something that we anticipated when we began our process, and created this, the The Denali Girls blog. Team names are kinda dorky and lame, but we figured we might have the market cornered on being an all-female team (turns out there was at least one other, although they were a pair, and climbed a MUCH harder mixed  [ice, snow, and rock] technical route). Officially, on our paperwork, we were the Denali Girls of Seattle, but by the time we landed on the glacier, we were just the Denali Girls.

Eventually the government writes back to say “yay, go for it!” and then it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. In addition to the money for the permit, you need to then reserve your flight onto the glacier (that little hop skip and a jump from Talkeetna to Basecamp on the Kahiltna glacier). We flew Talkeetna Air Taxi (which is not the cheapest) and will always be grateful we made that call and tell others to do the same – but more on that when we get to the part of the story where we fly off the glacier, and back to Talkeetna.

So it was a security deposit, and then $585 per woman to TAT for our flights, and then we needed to back-plan for our flight from Seattle to Anchorage, and arrange a shuttle (bus or van) from Anchorage to Talkeetna. Shit was, as they say, getting real, but we were helped massively here by a generous (and kind of totally amazing!) grant from the American Alpine Club’s ‘Live Your Dream’ Fund, which is  supported by The North Face– each of us received some $500 to help us pay for this flight. As we pointed out in our applications, the AAC literally was making our dream possible by helping to get us onto the glacier to start our climb – and we all were, and remain, incredibly grateful for that support! (And for the sweeeeet AAC and North Face hats they sent us with our grant checks! Woot!)

We knew we needed at least a good half day of waking hours to get our stuff organized in Talkeetna (you fly to Alaska with it packed a certain way [hint: EXTREMELY CLEAN STOVES! EXTREMELY WELL-PACKAGED TOOLS AND SHARPS!] and then need to repack it for the small plane flight), so our idea was that we’d aim to fly out first thing on Monday, May 11th, and have that whole day available to us on the glacier. Some parties fly onto the glacier and set up at basecamp, stay a night or two, and then begin their climb, but we’d received good beta from a fellow climber that if we got on the glacier early enough we could hightail it out of basecamp and do the 5.5 miles across the lower Kahiltna to the 7,800’ camp, and in so doing avoid having to set up that first camp at all (because word to your mother: setting up camp is exhausting and the less you do it, the better). So that was our plan.

The rest of this post will continue later this week, but for brevity, we’ll leave it there, for the moment.

Because we want this blog to be useful to others who are planning for their own climb, we’ve uploaded our planned itinerary, below. Check out the link for more detail and a pdf of our Excel spreadsheet (nerds, I know).

Denali Itinerary – Climbing Schedule Denali Blog Restart 2

So. About that Denali Climb.

So fresh and so clean: Wednesday, May 13th, 2015, before flying onto the glacier to begin our climb. Photo c: Jenn Carter.

So fresh and so clean: Wednesday, May 13th, 2015, before flying onto the glacier to begin our climb. Photo c: Jenn Carter.

When we left for Denali, and again after we got back, the Girls and I promised that we would return to blogging, and share more in-depth information on our prep, what worked, what didn’t, and how the trip went. We wanted to share our stories, and we wanted to do it through this blog, which was such a great asset as we prepared for Denali, and which triggered so many wonderful conversations along the way.

What we overlooked when we made those promises, however, was that when we returned, it would be summer. Full-blown, gorgeous, glorious, Seattle summer. The time of year when Seattlites burst out of doors and don’t come back inside until the fall, when it turns rainy-er, and darker, and we remember there are other things to do besides climb and scramble mountains, hang from rock walls, and sleep in tents or bivvy sacks all over the gorgeous state that we four call home.

For me, personally, this summer was also a summer of change. Big climbs, big trips, and long breaks from the usual create space for us to reconsider the shape of our lives from a new vantage point, and for ourselves and those who love us to step back and consider whether we are each living our lives in the way and in the places that we seek. When I returned from Denali I experienced a big change in the shape of my personal life, and as a result ended up spending far too much of my summer looking for new housing, before eventually relocating to Seattle’s lovely and welcoming Magnolia neighborhood in early August.

In the midst of a period of so much transition – so much change – it was hard to even think about Denali – hard for me to remember we did it, hard for me to find the time to process what it was, what it meant to me, and what I want to do next.  I was so consumed by the effort required to make necessary changes to my life and my housing that I didn’t really get a chance to stop and think about what it meant to me – to begin telling friends my stories, and to even finally look at the other girls’ photos – until two weeks ago, when I finally began to find my way to the other side of all that change, and found the time to really dig into what it meant to me.

The incredible upside of all that change is what an immense joy it has been to rediscover our Denali climb – to begin to pick it apart, dissect it, turn it over again and again in my mind, and relish all that I learned about myself and my friends, about climbing big mountains and the community of people who habitually climb them. I’ve found that now that I’ve re-opened those memories and begun telling the stories, and dissecting the experience, I can’t stop – it brings me too much joy.

So as Jenn mentioned in her previous post, we’re going to resume the blog, and tell the story of the climb as it went down (or up! All the way up to the summit!), and I personally am going to commit to a weekly post starting this Wednesday (“hump day” posts seem appropriate for a successful summit attempt), moving through the days of the climb incrementally, and also incorporating bits and pieces of data, called ‘beta’ by climbers – the stuff you’d need to know if you wanted to climb the mountain yourself. I have all my receipts in a shoe box that moved with me to Magnolia, and I’ll go through them and itemize what was worth it, what it cost me, and how I used it, and also talk about what we might do differently, knowing what we know now.

Each of the other ladies will participate and add her own blog posts as she sees fit, and as work schedules and busy lives allow.

And for those in the greater Seattle area, you are welcome to join us at the Mountaineers’ Climbing Committee’s inaugural “Beta Night” on Tuesday, November 10th at 7pm, when Leigh Ann, Jenn, Carolyn, and myself will give a presentation on how to prepare for a Denali climb, with lessons learned from our own trip (and photos! And beer!)

[Editor’s Note: If you do plan to come, please RSVP at the link above!]

In the meantime, we’ll get busy writing posts and organizing photos(!) for the Denali Girls blog, so feel free to post and ask questions as we go!

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to return to sharing our story with you.:)

Much love.

M

Back to the Blog – Post trip post – Can you ever be ready?

We got an email from Meredith that it’s time to get back to the blog and write about our climb now that we’ve had some space to digest it all. I didn’t think I had that much to say, but I guess I might.  Here’s random thought #1:

You can never really be ready for a trip like this. People told me this and I read this and I told myself this I think I even blogged about it but really, really you can never be ready. Listen to me people” YOU CAN NEVER BE READY.  AT SOME POINT, YOU JUST HAVE TO GO.”   All the training and reading and  talking to people and working through spreadsheets and gear matrices… it’s great to be prepared and it eases your mind and makes you feel more in control than not training.  It will never be enough.

I’m not saying not to train.  If nothing else, the confidence you gain from training is invaluable, after all, and I lack confidence, for sure.  This is without a doubt my biggest weakness.  I think women more than men struggle with this (See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en)

It’s this idea that we can’t be fully prepared for life.  It’s like if we could research the heck out of something and train away all our self-doubt, we could somehow glean some control over the uncertain world.

And women worry about appearances more than men, I think.  I don’t want to look like the foolish, middle aged lady who doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into. I definitely don’t want some guy to have to rescue me.  That would be proof of my incompetence.
So if I were to say there was one big lesson from Denali that I knew before I left for the climb, but now has finally been hammered into my dense skull it would be: prepare, train, yes; but then in the end, just go.

So I’m starting to train for two new projects and here are my new thoughts about being ready:

Project #1:

* A Big Wall Climb of El Cap. Maybe Lurking Fear or Triple Direct?

http://www.supertopo.com/bigwalls/yosemite/bigwalls.html

So I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time ever since I went to Yosemite for the first time and saw it.  I think anyone who loves rock would look up at El Cap and say to herself “I need to do that.”  And for the full experience, I really want to do it big wall style.  And now I actually have a partner and we’re starting to plan.  I’ve convinced Stef that in 2017 for her 50th birthday, the two of us are heading up.   Stef asked me early on, “Do you think we can be ready in time to do this?” And my answer is “no, of course not!”  Neither of us have done more aid climbing than the occasional french free and the bolt ladder on Monkey Face.  We need to climb together and we need to learn how to aid climb.   But we’ll figure it out.  We’ll hire someone to help us.  We’ll train.  We’ll practice our systems together.  We’ll read the book (I shamelessly just bought my copy of “How to Aid Climb” and have been taking notes, even). And in the end it will still be a mind blowing experience where we’ll make lots of mistakes (small ones, we can recover from only, please) and there will be some Euromacho guy who will want to pass us just because we’re middle aged ladies (and maybe because we look like we don’t know what we’re doing, but I doubt that.)

Project #2

*Kimchi Suicide Volcano, Coflax.

http://www.colinhaley.com/colfax-peak-kimchi-suicide-volcano/

I was at the gym a couple of months ago when Anita turned to me and asked me to do this route with her.  I, of course, said “Sure!” as I always do before I even know what I’m getting in to.  And here is a different preparedness dilemma than El Cap.   I’m not sure I *can* do this route, like ever.  It may be over my ability.  While I may never *feel* ready for an El Cap big wall I may actually never *be* ready for this climb. So in this sense training for it takes on a different element. I’ve started training and I’ve started climbing with Anita every chance I get.  I may never climb this route, but I’m going to be a better person for training for it and I’ll be a better climbing partner to Anita for training with her.  And even if I can’t do this route, I would love to skip up there and have a look and maybe do the route next to it.

Some pictures from the trip

At the start. Getting ready to fly onto the glacier with TAT.

At the start. Getting ready to fly onto the glacier with TAT.

Base camp. A single carry up to camp one.

Base camp. A single carry up to camp one.

Home sweet home on the glacier.

Home sweet home on the glacier.

Our deluxe bathroom.

Our deluxe bathroom.

Photo by Carolyn. Me and my trusty sled.

Photo by Carolyn. Me and my trusty sled.

Headed upward...very slowly.

Headed upward…very slowly.

14,200 camp from above. A small village.

14,200 camp from above. A small village.

Leigh Ann keeping hydrated.

Leigh Ann keeping hydrated.

Selfie.

Selfie.

Meredith enjoying a melted peanut butter cup.

Meredith enjoying a melted peanut butter cup.

17,000 camp.

17,000 camp.

View of the fixed lines from 17,00 camp.

View of the fixed lines from 17,00 camp.

Mountain ninja returns from summit.

Mountain ninja returns from summit.

Back at base camp.

Back at base camp.

Selfie.

Selfie.

Crazy hair after 24 days of no washing!

Crazy hair after 24 days of no washing!

We finished off the Bailey's before the flight!

We finished off the Bailey’s before the flight!

Waitng for the weather to clear at Base Camp.

Waitng for the weather to clear at Base Camp.

Here's our flight! We're going home!

Here’s our flight! We’re going home!

Coming Down from the Mountain

Basecamp view

A wisp of clouds, and a bit of blue – our last morning at Basecamp (photo copyright: Meredith Trainor)

It has been four days now since the Girls and I landed back in the midst of a beautiful early Seattle summer, and four amusing, full, and thoughtful days, at that. We returned to the land of the internet full of promises to pass along stories and photos, and share bits of wisdom and insight, but to tell the truth, it has been daunting. How do I sum up a twenty-six day experience like a Denali climb in a way that I will be satisfied with, or that you will? How I can I capture all of it – from the snot frozen across my ski goggles to the kinship of people in 14,000’ Camp, to my completely obsessive new affection for Gold Bond foot powder – in any one descriptor? Good and bad, great and amazing, strenuous and satisfying were all a part of the experience, but none of them really adequately summarized what it was to me to climb Denali.

For that matter, I’m not sure even I know what it meant to me, just yet. We did this big thing – a big achievement, to be sure, but one that hundreds of people around us on the mountain were also doing last month – was it really that big of a deal? Didn’t we just climb a mountain, just like we have each done hundreds of times before? And if I allow myself to think about the climb as just that – “just” climbing a mountain – does that mean it doesn’t mean as much to me as it should? What, really, is significant about climbing Denali, as opposed to any other mountain? Is it the journey (which was substantial) or is it the summit (which I regret to admit not thinking all that deeply about, at the time)?

There are no answers to these questions, and I’m not really looking for them, if I’m honest. I’m mulling them over daily, sleeping on them, and dreaming about them, but really, at this point I’m processing. Sorting out what I thought about the experience, what its worth to me was as a climber, and what it is worth to me all over again, as a person.

We flew off the glacier last Saturday morning, less than a week ago today. We were on the fourth plane of many to fly out that day, after at least dozens if not hundreds of climbers became stuck at the lower, safer camps on the mountain, in the kind of snowstorm that we would call a ‘blizzard’ anywhere else in the lower 48. We ourselves waited for several days at the 7,800’ camp, a mere 5.5 miles from the landing strip and the Basecamp at 7,200’, gradually becoming stir crazy and cabin fevered while sleeping through days we had once thought we’d spend in Talkeetna or Anchorage, poking around and giving the other Girls their first exposure to Alaska, and in my case, seeing dear old friends. Instead we waited until the weather cleared for a bit on Friday, June 5th and hustled down the glacier flanked by several other groups, before putting our name on the all-important fly out list with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), and setting up our tents and sleep systems for the night, one last time.

On Saturday we woke early to pack up, and ensure that we’d be ready to roll in case some other group wasn’t, and we could snag their plane seats, or at least be totally ready to go when our assigned turn came. We knew that the window for getting small planes into the valley and onto the glacier was going to be small – the weather was still all stirred up – so we made sure to be all packed up inside our tent, and immediately began packing the tents themselves once the Talkeetna Air Taxi pilots began bouncing their way up the glaciated glacier “runway.”

I and we will write more about this day and all the other days in the near future, but this is the story of how our trip ended and how we returned.

Once the first Talkeetna Air Taxi plane (an Otter, for the aviator types) bounced to a stop on the glacier, Lisa, the TAT dispatcher who lives on the glacier for the summer, rallied all those still waiting for their flights and not scheduled to be on the first few, and several dozen of the Basecamp community donned their snowshoes and walked the section of the glacier that makes up the runway, flattening it out by virtue of their steps as they went, trudging along, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. It was an amazing sight to behold (one of the other Girls might have a picture!) – this legion of climbers from around the world, some speaking English, some not so much, walking in a tight, straight line, like police searching for a body in a field, slowly tramping down the runway so that the plane would be able to take off. Teamwork, in every sense of the word.

Once the first plane cruised down the runway and took off, it was game on, for our airline. TAT had some kind of special infrared technology that had been installed in their planes, which allowed them to fly into the clouds and amid the mountain peaks and narrow valleys, even though the pilots might not be able to actually see anything through the windows, and it was part of why they were able to fly that day. There are several other small airlines in Talkeetna that do glacier flights, but they remained grounded because in the absence of that technology, their pilots would not be able to distinguish the subtleties of flying between peaks versus into them.

By the time the third and fourth planes landed, Lisa really had the camp moving, and she was calling out group names (our group name was officially the Denali Girls) left and right, and trying to make herself understandable to speakers of several different languages, many of whom spoke extremely subpar English – making it awfully difficult to discern what flight your team might be on!

We boarded what the pilot later described as one of the newest Otters in the fleet, and were flown off the glacier by what we believe was the owner of TAT, a man named Paul. Paul was everything you want to believe or imagine about a bush pilot – laconic, with a bit of a southern drawl to him, laid back, wearing a beat up old hat and, later, a feather boa we had impulsively brought along to stash at Basecamp, and that Jenn had pulled out of her bag in her early morning enthusiasm to be heading home.

We loaded our plane quickly and efficiently (we had a plane to catch! It was 11:30am on Saturday and we had a 5pm flight booked to Seattle, three hours south of Talkeetna, where we’d be dropped off by this first flight), and were off. And what a flight it was.

The weather being so poor along the normal route meant that the pilots were coming from the north, instead of the south, climbing extremely high (as high as 14,000 feet, so basically to the elevation of the ‘Advanced Basecamp’ we were stuck at for eight days in the middle of our climb), and then dropping in, which is about as abrupt as it sounds – circling tightly as they quickly lost elevation, so as to get down to the glacier in the little pocket of decent weather right above the camp.

This meant that on the way out, Paul and the other pilots flew down the glaciated runway, then banked sharply and climbed abruptly –up, and up, and up! – until he was flying into clouds so dense that you really didn’t know whether there might be a mountain inside them. I generally relish small planes and have been on my fair share of small plane flights into wild places (between my extracurricular activities, and my job), so am not afraid of them, but this flying between huge gray craggy massifs in the whiteout conditions of a cloud, playing peak-a-boo with the mountains (now you see ‘em – now you don’t!) was something else. I felt one, brief moment of terror as we cut a steep turn at the end of the aerial chute that Paul was carving with his plane, and we flew rapidly toward the steel grey of a big peak right in front of us, a cloud rapidly moving in to obscure it, and we turned. “How does he know he definitely has enough space to turn?” I thought to myself, before settling in to the inevitability that in this case, and for these moments, my fate was decisively and unavoidably in Paul’s hands until he decided otherwise, and set the plane down.

The flight out was beautiful. Once we gained the needed elevation, we carved around back over the basecamp and towards the usual climber’s route, and Leigh Ann wordlessly pointed out to me that looking below, you could see the long, slender track cut by legions of climbers into the snow, the track that led from Basecamp, towards Camp I at 7,800’, and to the experience of climbing Denali, beyond.

When one thinks of a flight like this one pictures the mountains. The grey and the black, the cool blue of the ice on the glacier, the blinding white of the snow, everywhere, on everything, and the white of the clouds, puffs and wisps obscuring those few other colors that have dominated one’s entire life the last twenty-four or so days.

But what was so – enrapturing, is really the word – on that flight off the mountain, was the green. A mossy, emerald green. A startling green – the green of life and vigor, of things that grow and can be eaten, and in turn nourish other things that grow and can be eaten. The green of alive. That green rushed up to greet us – there was literally a line (a squiggly line, following the terrain) where we crossed over from white, black and grey, and into green, with cascading blue rivers, and it was such a rush. It was like returning to life, and the world of things living. It was so green.

I’ve read accounts of frequent high altitude climbers where they, in their darker moments, reflect on what it is inside of them that pulls them to the places where things do not grow, and muse on spending time in a place that can’t sustain life, but I didn’t understand it until I saw the green. I didn’t know what I was missing, or that I was missing it, until we were over it, and then I wanted to cry. The world is so beautiful. There is so much life here. We should never allow ourselves not to see that.

The rest of our return to civilization was a rush of activity – it felt, for the rest of that day, like we were living, hovering, in a blurry still image – everything in motion, and it was hard to see any one thing. We landed, I took on the work of getting us to our flights (and then getting our flights changed, once we knew we wouldn’t make them), and we struggled to make decisions. Should we eat first? Were we hungry? Should we repack gear? What time is the shuttle coming? Fuck it, let’s go eat.

We headed back to Mountain High Pizza Pie, where we had eaten twice when Leigh Ann was sick, and ordered beers, and pizza. I was dazzled – there were so many people in Talkeetna now. The tiny town buzzed with tourists, and there were motorcycles and people smells (so many people smells!) and blithely ignorant old people who asked us how the pizza was, not knowing what we’d just done, where we’d just been, that we’d just come down a mountain as slightly different, wiser people than those who had eaten the same pizza and left town a month before.  “Was the pizza good?” they asked. “This is the best food in town,” we told them, self-consciously wondering if they could smell us. “We’ve eaten at every business here.”

Halfway through my beer, that first beer that Jenn had so anticipated, I realized I didn’t want it. For the one thing, I was skinny – crazy skinny, judging by how hard I had to haul on my belt to get it to interact with my hips, to keep my pants up, so it was going to make me very, very drunk, at 11am, and potentially very, very sorry later. And for another, we were sitting across from Talkeetna Roadhouse (my favorite business in Talkeetna) and we’d just entered the window of time in which they open their showers to climbers, for $5 a shower, if you use their towel. “I’m going to take a shower!” I suddenly announced, standing up, grabbing my shoes, and making the fastest exit from a social space of my life. “Someone else can finish my beer.”

That shower was as surreal as the flight, and as being in Talkeetna. I stripped off my clothes, the clothes that I had worn for a majority of, if not every single day we were on the mountain, and old, urban, retentively thoughtful me surfaced for a moment, and wondered where to put them while I showered. There was no bench in the bathroom, no rack, and the floor was decidedly dirty. I looked at the pile of clothes again, saw the dry skin I’d shed all over them, the greasy hair snaking its way through the matted fleece of my hat, and the dirty underwear, and laughed, hard. I dumped them on the floor. The dirtiest part of the floor, on purpose, gleefully. I wasn’t going to have to put those back on! I thought with joy, and then turned on the hot water.

The shower, I’m delighted to say, had hot water for days. I washed my hair, and watched long strands that had spent weeks in the tangled mat of grease under my cap run off and away and into the drain, and then washed it again, for good measure, and to feel the soap  on my scalp. And again. I covered every part of my body with soap, and then I re-soaped my impressively hairy underarms and poor, workhorse feet, mentally thanking them for carrying me so far. I ran the hot water down my face, and relished it, eyes closed, and then marveled at the incredible growth of hair all over my body. I hadn’t had leg hair that long since a few treasured rebellious months during college, and I giddily contemplated keeping it, and wondered what the world (and my boyfriend) would think of me if I did.

After my shower I headed out to the lobby to await the other girls, as one by one we emerged again, ensconced in the clothes (and in Jenn’s case, even the mascara!) that we think of as what we wear when we are dressed as ourselves. We headed to the TAT Bunkhouse where we had dumped our stuff (TAT is lovely, and I would fly with them in a heartbeat, but their dirty “bunkhouse” leaves *a lot* to be desired), and began throwing wet food out, repacking and weighing our bags, and prepping for the van ride to Anchorage, and our flight home the following morning, surrounded by the signposts of early summer – bright green on the trees, insects in the air, everything alive, buzzing, moving, growing.

Later that afternoon a van picked us up for the ride to Anchorage, as arranged, stopping at a gas station where we each took the opportunity to load up on sweets and other things we don’t normally eat, for the three hour drive to Anchorage, where we would stay with two thoughtful and generous friends of mine for the night, before a 4am trip to the airport, and a 6am flight home, the next day. We were finally headed home.

………………………………………

It has been another week now since I first drafted this post, and I am happy to report that I feel much more situated, content, and grateful for the experience of the climb, now that I have had more time to process it. The first week back was a hard one – I foolishly went straight back to work (24 hours after landing in Seattle I was in my office), and the high of the climb, and of returning, diminished proportionally. I spent evenings that week hanging out at home, relishing the couch, the personal space around me, hot showers, a soft bed, and the presence of my boyfriend. Those nights were incredible – hot summery nights, like Seattle in August – and I spent time eating strawberries from our garden right off the plants, mulling the experience, and contemplating what it all meant, including drafting the blogpost, above.

At the end of the week Ed thoughtfully threw us a welcome home party, and we Denali Girls had the opportunity to reconvene, briefly compare notes, and visit with our friends, so many of whom supported us along the way to Denali. It was a joy to see everybody, if slightly and pleasantly overwhelming, because I wanted to talk to everyone in-depth, and I couldn’t summarize the experience at all, and I didn’t really know where, yet, to begin in doing that.

Since then I’ve dug into gratitude for the experience – I’m grateful that I could go, I’m grateful that my work was supportive, I’m grateful to have a job to return to, I’m grateful that my parents are resilient in the face of all my adventures, and I’m grateful that my loved ones are and were supportive – and managed what I think, in hindsight, was almost a sense of bereavement, those first days back. Having spent the last few months seeing non-Denali Girls friends less, and working out incessantly, there was at first the question to be dealt with – what was it I used to do with this time, before I set out to climb Denali? What do I miss that I haven’t been doing? What should I do now?

I hope to write more about some of those thoughts and feelings (and ideas! And my developing opinion of popular climbs and big mountain climbs and the Seven Summits!) at some point, but I’ll leave it here, for now.

My conclusion on Denali at present is this: I’m so grateful we got to go, and I’m just as grateful that we came down the mountain the way we went up: all together, with an almost untouched First Aid kit, because it wasn’t ever needed, and back to the people, and place, I love the best.