[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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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!