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

4.5 Pounds per Foot

Much of our training has been focused on increasing the load we can carry in our backpacks….40 pounds, 45 pounds, then 50 pounds. By now we are all carrying 55+ pounds on our weekly after-work conditioner hikes. The weight of high altitude mountaineering boots + snowshoes or high altitude boots + crampons + overboots is substantially greater than a standard pair of lightweight mountaineering or backpacking boots.

koflach_degre MSRDenaliAscent

In preparation for this additional load on each foot, my training hikes for the past month+ have been with lightweight mountaineering boots plus ankle weights. The ankle weights I’m using have iron bars that can be added 0.5 lbs at a time, so I can slowly increase my load without having to buy multiple sets of weights. Currently, I am hiking with 2.5 lbs on each foot, in addition to the weight of my boots.

At the beginning of our Denali climb we’ll be wearing boots+snowshoes. At around 11,000′ we’ll cache our snowshoes and switch to boots+crampons+gaiters or just boots+crampons. On summit day I plan to wear boots+overboots+crampons. My overboots are made of stretchy neoprene-like material – their purpose is to provide extra insulation from extreme cold. Crampons go on over the boot+overboot combination.

GrivelG12

Here’s a breakdown of my Denali footwear (for 2 feet): Koflach Degre boots (men’s size 10.5) with Denali Intuition liners (5.15 lbs); Grivel G12 crampons with New-Matic binding and antiball plates (2.40 lbs); Forty Below Purple Haze Overboots (1.45 lbs); MSR Denali Ascent snowshoes (3.90 lbs). I will also be bringing a pair of OR Exos Gaiters, size M (0.70 lbs) which may get used a lot or very little, depending on conditions.

ORExosGaitersSo What’s the Damage?

  • One boot plus one snowshoe = 4.50 pounds
  • One boot + one crampon + one gaiter = 4.15 pounds
  • One boot + one overboot + one crampon = 4.50 pounds

My remaining training days will include long hikes with of 4.5 pounds per foot.

10 Questions with: Meredith!

As we wind our way into April (crazy!), there’s a lot on our minds and several items on our to-do lists, although each of us is focused on and working hard to address different things. Over the next few days each of us will post a “10 Questions With:” blog entry, to each answer the same 10 overall questions and  share what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, and where our head is at with regards to the rapidly approaching Denali climb.
First up? Yours truly.
wpid-wp-1424358671091.jpeg
1. What has been the biggest change in your day-to-day life since beginning to train for this climb? What are you doing this spring that you wouldn’t normally be doing, at this time?
Can I say “spraining my stupid ankle” without sounding like a petulant seven year old? Because spraining my stupid ankle definitely became a defining experience in this training period. It was frustrating (and somewhat agonizing) to get super amped up to really get started and put in the training time with the rest of the girls, then go out on our first all day conditioning hike, and slip on ice …while standing still looking at the view. And it sucked to stay home while they went out to train, a few of those earliest weekends. It made me feel 100 years old. 100, and seven, apparently.
My sister during a recent visit, "helping" me with my ankle physical therapy the way she would have when we were little - by mimicking me, like a dork. :)

My sister during a recent visit, “helping” me with my ankle physical therapy the way she would have when we were little – by mimicking me, like a dork. 🙂

The biggest change post ankle, though, has been the addition of actual weight training (weight lifting) to my weekly workout routine, and that of ramping up that routine much earlier than usual (early January versus late February). I’m carrying 45 lbs, as of this week, and would normally be at about 35 right now.
Jenn pulling weights around back in February

Jenn pulling weights around back in February

In terms of weight-training – in early February we got together at Leigh Ann’s gym, Level 4 Crossfit, to talk about specific training movements to focus on, and pull sleds loaded with weight. Leigh Ann made a list of upper body and core workouts to focus on, and rather than keep track of them individually, I took a photo of the wipeboard, and then turned them into a checklist in my Droid’s ‘Keep’ app that I run through every single time I’m at the Y, checking them off as I go (very satisfying, psychologically). I do all the upper body and core stuff twice a week for about an hour and a half, and afterwards, I’m totally wiped – to the point where my arms tremble while I open my gym locker. Weight-lifting is hard (and a bit intellectually un-engaging) but I have the core (back and waist-area) resilience, and hunky new biceps, to prove it’s worth it!
wpid-wp-1427317481611.jpeg
 
2. We’ve each purchased or borrowed a ton of gear for the trip – what two or three Denali-specific new items are you absolutely loving right now, and is there anything that simply didn’t work for you, and that you returned right away?
Some of my favorite gear I’m taking on this trip is old gear: circa 2011 Patagonia Expedition 4 black long underwear pants (the newer Exped 4s are really thin!), and a pair of white Elita long underwear that I got way back when I first started backpacking, from my parents. There’s nothing like the old standbys.
Me in my "new" Elita long underwear, a thousand years and a lifetime ago, in an Appalachian Trail hut back during college, in 2006. This may be the coolest I've ever looked in an outdoors photo (because it's fuzzy).

Me in my “new” Elita long underwear, a thousand years and a lifetime ago, in an Appalachian Trail hut back during college, in 2006. This may be the coolest I’ve ever looked in an outdoors photo (because it’s fuzzy).

In terms of new gear: I bought a new hardshell jacket (hardshell = plastic-like wind-blocking external layer) from Patagonia, sized bigger than I normally would so that it can cover all my layers, and I took it out for a test-drive this weekend and kinda love it. It’s their Patagonia Alpine Houdini, and it’s a super stripped down, super lightweight layer, complete with tiiiiny zippers! Although I admit, I wish it had pockets! (They left ’em off because it’s supposed to be super light – hence the “Houdini”). Plus, I like it because mine is purple. And that’s not because I’m a girl – it’s because I like purple!
Putting hard-earned knitting skills to use unsnaggling well-snaggled tent cords for the new Trango! Check out that awesome purple hardshell and those sweet, expensive Spantiks!

Putting hard-earned knitting skills to use unsnaggling well-snaggled tent cords for the new Trango! Check out that awesome purple hardshell and those sweet, expensive as all get-out Spantiks!

I also love (love, love, love) my La Sportiva Spantik (Carolyn rather adorably calls them “Sputniks”) boots, which look like moonshoes. The Spantiks are double boots (so there are two individual lace-up boots you wear on each foot – one nests inside the other), as opposed to plastics (which have a hard plastic shell, like ski boots). The Spantiks were my biggest, splurgiest purchase – they cost more than I have ever paid in monthly rent, to put it in perspective. I really wrestled with whether I should get those, or the Koflach Artis Expe plastic boots, which are about $300 cheaper (I actually bought and took home both, and then stared at the two pairs obsessively for most of February before making a decision), but I realized that most of the time when faced with a decision like this, I go for pragmatism and choose the cheaper option, and I’ve been known to suffer for that in the past. But my feet are literally what’s going to carry me up the mountain – so I went for the fancy option, this time, and haven’t regretted it whatsoever. And to quote the MountainTrip gear list – what’s $750 divided by 10 toes? $75 a toe? The most expensive boots of my life, for sure, but keeping toes is worth at least that much. (Don’t worry mom and dad – losing toes is extremely unlikely!)
Other goodies I’m loving – the Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero parka I bought with a killer deal (in bright orange, no less), even though it’s sized for a dude with a barrel chest and I’m pretty sure I could fit Jenn in there with me(!), and Leigh Ann’s super sweet new Mountain Hardwear Trango 3 tent! So sweet! So much internal storage! Such bright colors!
Maiden tent erection. Hmmm, that's not quite what I meant. But I like it, so let's leave that here...

Maiden tent erection. Hmmm, that didn’t quite come out how I meant it… But, whatever. 😉

Finally, can I cast a “cool gear” vote for Leigh Ann’s sweet new climbing bibs, which I can’t seem to find in my size anywhere, for the absolute life of me, but I’m sure she’ll tell you about?
 
3. Which logistical or planning-related decision are you feeling most thoughtful about, or has you worried?
I’m not worried about much, to be honest – I’m a pretty level-headed, logical task manager, and that trait has been very much present these last two months. I think the main thing I’m worried about is what you might call the “controversial leave-behinds” – the question of how many shovels to bring, how many probes, whether to bring our avalanche beacons, and whether to bring helmets. (I’d be interested in the perspective of other people on this issue, I should note). A lot of the rescue gear we carry in the Cascades is more disproportionately useful in the Cascades, and so some climbers leave it behind for trips like Denali, but having been trained to compulsively wear one’s beacon…it’s really hard to contemplate leaving it behind, ever.
 
4. What’s your go-to snack for food on the mountain? The Denali Girls are planning for hot breakfasts and hot dinners – what will you be eating the rest of the time?
I can’t do bars or oatmeal, and I don’t eat meat, so no jerky, which pretty much makes me the most difficult mountain eater imaginable. I would rather do raw, unadulterated nuts (of almost any kind), straight up chocolate, or absolute crap candy (hello, gummy bears!) than anything else. Normally I’d carry raw almonds, dried apricots, Stretch Island, single serving fruit leather things that were all the rage a few years back, and Primal Strips – pseudo-paleo vegetarian snack strips, as well as a few pieces of honest-to-god candy, around here. I also regularly steal dried mango from Trader Joe’s and peanut M&Ms from my boyfriend, here in Washington. In Alaska I’m anticipating a lot of fruit chews and some gels (consistency is a hang up of mine – I think oatmeal has the consistency of that which shall not be named, and some of those gels – don’t even get me started). So I’m experimenting a lot with what snacky foods to bring, and would very much welcome creative suggestions!
 
5. What new food or drink products have you added to your daily life since starting preparations for the climb? What do you like the best?
This is one of my favorite questions, because I’m so pleasantly surprised by my answer. Coco Libre, a company that makes coconut water fortified with added protein, agreed to sponsor us by providing product (a few boxes full of single-serving, to-go containers of coconut milk) and I felt a little gun-shy at first, because the last time I tried coconut water that wasn’t straight from a coconut, I didn’t like it. The Coco Libre stuff is awesome, thought, and I’m completely addicted. Current training philosophy suggests that consuming additional protein after a work out aids in muscle recovery, so for awhile my fridge was totally stocked with the squeezable containers of it, and I’d grab one and throw it in my workout bag before heading to the gym. The chocolate one and the vanilla one are particuarly awesome, and both have additional protein added.
Breakfast of (pescetarian) champions: egg on a real east coast bagel, and a Coco Libre. Add a greek yogurt (Tillamook is my go-to) and I'm ahead of the protein curve before the day has even started!

Breakfast of (pescetarian) champions: egg on a real east coast bagel, and a Coco Libre. Add a greek yogurt (Tillamook is my go-to) and I’m ahead of the protein curve before the day has even started!

I’ve also added a fish oil supplement, whey protein shakes, and other healthy bits (plus more eggs for breakfast: protein source), but don’t have much more to say about that beyond – yeah – I’m doing it. Those whey protein shakes are pretty good – that BCAA-G stuff in “Lemonade” is headed back to the store as soon as I have a minute. The Omega-3 vitamins are the size of horse pills. Gulp.
wpid-wp-1427212252367.jpeg
 
6. What’s the most interesting, most complicated, or most useful skill or technique you’ve learned or perfected over the last few months?
Working with the sleds is pretty interested, pretty challenging, and just kinda cool. Probably just that experience, of wearing a huge backpack while towing a full-loaded sled last weekend. I felt so super strong (and so super wiped out afterwards!)
 IMG_3377
 
7. What’s still on your Denali to-do list? Give us a sample of the things you’re about to get to, or make decisions about, this week.
So. many. things. The most obvious are filling my gear holes (which are somehow more glaring than those of the other girls) – I still need a new pair of crampons, insulated overboots (which are like a wetsuit that covers your entire boot and lower leg), a bigger harness (sized to go over all the new clothes I’ll be wearing), an extra pair of long underwear, new glacier glasses (SO over my old ones!) and down booties. Like I said, I’m a little behind. Eeek. Other things – confirming our flight date and travel plans, ride information, etc. The biggest single thing we’re still working with as a group is our food planning – that’s a whole other challenge, with our varied diets and desire to travel light (freeze-dry allll the things…)
[Editor’s Note: writing this entry induced enough panic that as of yesterday I now have the overboots, long underwear, and down booties. I also don’t have $600 that I did yesterday…]
 
8. What does your training or conditioning schedule look like this week, for example? Is there any one part of your physical conditioning that has most noticeably changed your physique?
In a nutshell: two days outside last weekend – Saturday: sled work and snow camping, Sunday, hiking the big slope on the approach to Rock Lake. Monday: wasn’t feeling so hot – too much business travel wedged between a lot of climbing training. Tuesday: got stuck in traffic-pocalypse and missed my stair climbing plans (please see “Overturned fish truck on Viaduct ruined everyone’s day” – because, yep, thanks for that, Seattle). Tonight I’m working around social plans (with climbers – ha!) to hit up the West Seattle Y, first, and get my core and upper body workout in. Thursday I’m hoping to swim in the morning (for some active recovery and additional cardio),and then do our night hike with 45 lbs. I’m angling to take Friday off from work so that Jenn and I can head to the Mountaineers, hang off the roof, and give me a chance to practice escaping the crevasse by passing a sled, which the other girls practiced back when my ankle was still too messed up to bear weight. Then Saturday we condition again (45 lbs), and Saturday night we’re doing a “sleepover” at Jenn’s down to enjoy some downtime together but also get a bunch of small to-dos done! Sunday afternoon is real downtime, and then Monday it all starts over, again. The pace, at this point, is a little bit unrelenting.
And yes, on the physique – my core feels totally strong (which I partially attribute to the swimming I did most days in February!) and my biceps and shoulders could give Popeye a run for his money. 😉
 
9. What are you reading or listening to right now? Denali books, or training books, or books to give you a break from all of the above?
I’m trying to concurrently finish Steve House’s book ‘Training for the New Alpinism,’ and Colby Coombs’ ‘Denali: The West Buttress,’ which is a matter of fact treatment of what the climb entails. I had dropped both when we got really busy training, so that’s the goal for early April.
 
10. What, to you, would make for a successful climb? Is there one moment or experience you are most looking forward to?
I’m most looking forward to landing on the glacier – I think that’s going to be a bit mind-blowing – like whoa – we’re really doing this, we’re really here. To me a successful climb is everyone going up and coming down friends, and each woman feeling empowered to speak her mind about what we do from day to day, and feeling heard, and engaged in the decision-making. I’m less attached to the summit (to all summits, really) than a lot of people – for me it’s all about the adventure, and always has been. Even if something happens and I end up sitting down at basecamp, waiting for the other girls to come back – it will be an adventure, an experience, a great story. I just realized as I typed this that I have the perfect fortune cookie taped to my computer monitor, to sum it up:
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
I’ll take a bit of daring, please!