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

Last Day in Town!

Today is my last full day in town. I fly up to Anchorage tomorrow afternoon as our “advance” team – I’m going up a day early with all of our stuff that looks like weapons (we call them “sharps”) and all of our stuff that can cook or combust (three stoves!) so that I can fly at a manageable time of day, and also be the negotiation-friendly battering ram to get our gear through any hiccups it may encounter.

The other girls will fly out at the too-wee-for-me hour of 6am on Sunday (with a 4ish am start time).

On the Anchorage side we’ll be received by one of my close friends and trail buddies from college, Gil, at whose home I’ll stay on Saturday night. Sunday morning we’ll be out of bed early to get to the airport to grab the girls, and then we’ll drive straight from Anchorage to Talkeetna in a two car caravan, ideally after a decent breakfast, assuming everyone and everything arrives on time.

We have a 2:45pm check in with the rangers at the Talkeetna Ranger Station where we’ll be given the all clear to head out and get our Clean Mountain Can (where the poop goes as we climb), and we’ll bed down for the night at a modest hotel in Talkeetna, before (hopefully) flying out first thing on Monday, which would be at or after 8am, Alaska Time, although that will depend on weather.

In the meantime, here’s what life looks like this morning:

I woke up today to the urgent desire to go to REI, at 7am, because I’ve decided to switch up the way I’m sacking my food bags, so need a few more. Since REI doesn’t open until 9, you get this blog post. 😉

My Google Keep to-do list. Dwindling in length, and starting to feel manageable.

My Google Keep to-do list. Dwindling in length, and starting to feel manageable.

This is the Google Keep app that I’ve used to track my to-dos, and which I check more  times per day than Facebook. 😉 Each of the things that is on there isn’t on there because I haven’t tried to do it yet – it’s still on because of a hiccup.

My BD Guide gloves are the reason I’m up so early, and aren’t waterproofed yet because I lost the waterproofer they came with. Rather than sanely heading to REI to fork over the remainder of my dough, though, I felt compelled to search the house, top to bottom, sure I would find it. Instead…you can find me at REI today, a little after 9. I would have hurried up and gotten this done by now, but I knew I had most of two days for them to dry, and today and tomorrow off, so decided not to sweat it too badly. But yes – those gloves (and the need to give them enough time to dry) are why I’m up early. You’ll note “locate BD waterproofer” is still on there – what can I say? I’m stubborn.

Similarly, drying out the stoves is on the to-do list because I knew I had two solid days of sunshine coming up, but moreover, because I wanted to set them outside to dry out, but we have a very active raven/crow (which are they?) population, and I had this nightmarish image of them swooping in to sneak off with my stove parts with me oblivious, and not finding out until one of the other girls tries to light the stove on Denali. So the stove drying out waiting until today is really about me managing paranoia! I’m literally going to sit here and watch our stoves dry. Like paint, but more essential.

Other places in my house, it looks like this:

wpid-wp-1431098483210.jpgThat’s 26 “day bags” of food on the right side, with a day bag consisting of all my food from breakfast through to the hot drink and instant soup we’ll eat once we sit down in camp to heat water for dinner (the hot drink and soup are to fend off the “hangry”, and keep everyone happy while we wait for water to heat). The only food not in my day bags at this point is the cheese, which goes with the triscuits, which I’m going to vacuum seal into little baggies today, to try to preserve the triscuits intact. In front of the food is a luggage scale (handy-dandy, these days) and some extra stuff sacks, which are also piled on top of the whole mess.

We’re each bringing 5 “just add water and eat” high elevation meals – those are in the foreground. I went fancy on the risotto on the left – I promise to report back. The ‘Joy of Cooking’ is just there as a bookend, and on the left is Dr. Andy Luks’ guide to recognizing altitude sickness, which I plan on reviewing today.

Under the stuff sacks in the middle is my most exciting purchase -a new camera!!! I splurged (sort of) and bought a new camera even though my circa 2008 Nikon Coolpix would do. I got the Sony DSC RX100 I, after much agonizing and collection of data and reading of reviews, and when it came down to it I picked it because it had the larger sensor and the images would look better printed (or so they tell me). I haven’t even taken it out of the box (or the bag) yet, so my reward for getting through all my to-dos today will be playing with it as I head out for a last, nice dinner with Ed tonight, and then as we do brunch and hopefully sneak in a walk to the beach before I leave tomorrow. If I had more money right now I would have gotten the RX100 III, but this will still very much be an improvement over the Coolpix!

I ought to mention here that I feel very lucky we have such a spacious place – I often tease my boyfriend for having a house with a bit more floor space than two people need, but lately we’ve utilized every foot of it – and then some. Last weekend the girls were here alllll (and I do mean allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll) day Saturday and most of Sunday doing food packing and gear packing and sled-coffin weighing… and we had sufficient parking and space for all of it, and then some. So thank you to Ed, for sharing this big lovely house with me, and allowing me to fill it to the brim with climbing gear! 😉

And about that space – here’s what the other spaces look like:

wpid-wp-1431098585918.jpgThis is our gear room, and this photo makes me so happy I could burst. This is some seriously organized gear!!!

I’m one clothing stuff sack short of ready to throw these things into my duffel (lower left) and backpack upper left-center, just out of the shot, hence the REI urgency – really it’s just a matter of which stuff sack I’m not using for food, and that one will carry my remaining clothes. Because we have all our sharps in a sled, we have very little technical gear still out, and most of the rest is soft stuff. The pile in the lower right hand corner, plus my boots, will travel to Alaska in a carry-on, because we’ll be wearing them on the glacier when we fly in!

Otherwise you’re looking at my gaiters and overboots (both black in the middle-ish), a lingering extra glove decision to be made (also black in the middleish), a pile of cordage plus biners plus ascender plus tibloc plus harness on the left (seriously in need of better organizing – one of my to-dos today), a pile of food stuff (next to my boots and helmet) and then the following stuff sacks, from left to right: “head and foot” stuff sack (everything from spare socks to spare gloves to balaclava to sun hat), NeoAir Xtherm sleeping pad, clothing stuff sack (green), first aid/toiletries/self-care items (everything from sunblock to deodorant to lady-business stuff), my super warm high elevation parka (black stuff sack), the group food I’m carrying (orange), a small stuff sack with toe and hand warmers (I have terrible circulation!) 4 stove bottles, and three black stove bags. The sleeping bag is out so the down doesn’t get any more compacted, and the foam mat goes too. The biggest piece of group gear I’m carrying is our tent, in its entirety – we have two matching Mountain Hardwear Trango 3 tents, and I’ll have one. On the right are our radios, getting good and charged up before we go.

Finally, the gear “coffins”, and our wands. We take two sleds and put them together to carry our sharp stuff, and put duck (duct?) tape all around them to keep ’em together. One is closed and ready to go – the other needs to be taped up, but is also ready, since Ed helped me get a different sled than I had planned to use all prepared the other night. (My sled is the sweet one standing up on the left). The sleds are waiting in the hallway to our carport, to be whisked away to the airport.

wpid-wp-1431098621851.jpg

And that’s all she wrote! I’m off to nail down the to-do list – you can find me at REI mulling stuff sacks, or doing a stare down today with crows as our stoves dry out, if you need me. 😉 1 more day!!!