What Kind of Week Has It Been (Part II(A): Recovery & Rainier)

Good god. Where to start?

After I sprained my ankle and we found out that it was, indeed, enough of a thing that I had to stay mostly off it for a few weeks, the Denali Girls decided as a team that rather than all heading down to Rainier together on Saturday and Sunday of this past weekend, we would instead get up early as planned, meet at a coffeeshop to discuss the ramifications of my ankle injury, and then the other Girls would head off to Rainier to do a first planned overnight, and I would head off to figure out this whole “swimming” thing.

And so Saturday morning I woke at the wee hour of 5am to trek down to a Starbucks in Renton, where Leigh Ann, Carolyn, Jenn and I would talk it all through. I was worried the Girls would be more worried about me being able to hack it, after a month of not much activity, but we had a good conversation and came up with a bit of a plan (my end of said plan: more swimming) for how we’d continue to advance towards our training goals, and avoid having the Ankle of Gloom ruin all the fun this May.

After our meeting I gave the Girls a parting honk and cruised home to that first day of swimming I mentioned in my last post, and they rolled off toward Mt Rainier. Our plan for the weekend had always been to make it a bit of a gear shakedown weekend – we’ve been accumulating literal piles of expensive new gear – cozy down layers, technical equipment like trekking poles, ice axes, stoves and snow saws, and we had some decisions to make – decisions about which second tent we should take (we are already borrowing a first very bomber tent) and about the sleds – how does this sled stuff, work, anyway? We were going to go find out.

Secondary goals for the weekend were to have another good long conditioner, and to just plain old spend more time together – to create more of the kinds of bonds that take you through the moments in climbing that we describe as Type II Fun – the part of an adventure that is mostly fun when you’re laughing about it in a bar a few days later, and not in the moment where you’re dealing with it (I also recently heard this called “Pre-Joy” as opposed to the real deal – Actual Joy).

So: Gear test. Check. Gear decisions. Check. Yet another conditioner? All over it. Bonding. Yahoooo.

When the Girls left Starbucks without me, I had a mix of emotions. I was energized and grateful that the Ankle of Gloom wasn’t overly daunting for them, and I was full of excitement and the belief that this is a really, really great team. I wondered a little bit if it wasn’t maybe a good thing that I was being taken out of the picture for a little bit, as I had been the convener of the climb. Perhaps my absence would lead to everyone else getting to know each other a little bit better, without me there to talk everyone’s ears off…

And on the other hand, I was living a little bit in This-Sucks-ville, as here we were finally at our first overnight, and I wanted to test the tents…and try out the stove…and pull a sled…and just be out there. I wanted to go too!

Instead I headed off to the Y on Saturday and then again on Sunday, benefiting immensely from the time and guidance of a fellow climber and former swimmer and lifeguard who took the time to show me some techniques and acquaint me with a workout on Sunday morning, and returned from ‘Day 2 of Lap Swimming’ pretty pleased with life on Sunday (I even figured out the swim cap!) …until Paul called.

Me, totally stoked on the YMCA (and a lot of chlorine), until Paul called.

Jenn’s post did a great job of sharing the experiences of the Girls on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – well, here’s how it went on my end.

First I should say, though, is that one of the reasons I like climbing with these ladies is that we don’t take stupid risks. Did you see Leigh Ann’s note about her helmet being her favorite piece of gear? We’re not mindless rule-followers, but we’re not stupid, either (word to your mother – not wearing a helmet is stupid).  We take appropriate precautions, we plan well, and we play by the rules because they keep us safe. I’d love to say that I’m a balls-to-the-way wild-ass hipster climber, but really (you probably know this already) – I’m not. We’re smart, practical, driven women. We’ve got shit to do – we’re not interested in getting hurt, missing work, or messing around. We’re interested in climbing a mountain, standing on its summit, and returning to tell about it. Nothing too crazy here.

One of those rules we all normally play by, though, is the setting of an “overdue” time, and last weekend, we as a group – all four of us – completely overlooked it.

Given the way that Sunday and Monday went down, I’ve thought this over quite a bit, and I personally think the main mistake we made last weekend was to underestimate what it means to climb up to Camp Muir, the “basecamp” on Mt Rainier in winter. That whole winter part being the key.

Experienced climbers often climb Mt Rainier on a route called the DC Route (DC for Disappoinment Cleaver). The DC route is climbed in two or three days, and is widely considered the most basic (easiest) route to the mountain’s summit.  You leave from a massively accessible parking lot and Visitors’ Center called Paradise (which is entirely un-Paradise-like in the way that it is absolteuly  overrun by tourists on the summer days when we mostly climb), embarking on your climb from 5,400 ft. You hike up and up to Camp Muir, a bit of a (kinda vast) campsite, more or less, at 10,080 feet (on a 14,410 foot mountain, do recall). Camp Muir is used in our normal training months (more or less March through June, and/or beyond) as yet another conditioning hike to get ready for the climbing season – it’s kinda what we do for exercise, and just another way to workout. It’s “just Camp Muir.”

A wicked great image of the DC route can be found on highpressurephotography.com (except the turnaround below the summit was unique to that person’s climb – but look for Camp Muir in yellow)

So the girls went off to just go to Muir (in winter) as we had planned, with sleds and lots of lots of new (but technically tested) gear intended for weather much colder than anything they’d find on our “little” mountain.

And I didn’t really put much thought into it (besides occasional pings of jealousy when Saturday turned out to be a beautifully clear night…in the city) until Sunday morning, when Paul, a friend of ours and one of Jenn’s emergency contacts called, because another friend of Jenn’s had mistakenly believed that Jenn would be back Saturday night, and was growing concerned. I reassured Paul that the Girls had absolutely intended to be out overnight, and were equipped as such, and asked him to let Jenn’s other friend know, so she wouldn’t worry. But in the process, I suddenly realized that we hadn’t set an overdue time – a time when their emergency contacts would automatically initiate emergency protocols, so as to ensure they were ok.

A bit about how that works, for those who don’t know – first – climbing time and time of return is naturally fairly variable. The weather, the strength of the party, how a climber is feeling that day, if and what they drank the night before, and a whole slew of other factors can slow climbers down when they’re outdoors, and many times the most prescient thing for a slow party to do is to stay out an extra night, get a bit more sleep, or wait out a storm, and then head down when the climbers are more energized, the weather is better, or there’s more natural light to climb by. Because of that, many emergency contacts will be told to wait until somewhere in the vicinity of noon the day after a party is due back before initiating emergency procedures, because most of the time that group will trudge on out by itself, a bit wet, or with a sprained ankle in the midst, but none the worse for wear. So we normally give our emergency contacts a specific time at which “to worry,” when they should take action to make sure we’re ok, but are unlikely to accidentaly trigger, oh, I dunno, a full Search & Rescue response when the climbers in question are ok. 🙂

So on Sunday early afternoon, a bit  after Paul’s call, and without having heard from the Girls when I expected, I was surprised at myself, and shot off a text to the Girls:

Hi ladies! Just wanted to text and make sure you got off Mt Rainier ok! Hope you had fun – please let me know if you are out/down – I got a concerned call from Ms Carter’s eastside crew today because they didn’t know you were staying out overnight! 😛 (you so busted) 🙂

The ladies had planned on being back to Leigh Ann’s truck at Paradise by about 11:15, which we had discussed in advance, so that they could be back to the Park & Ride by 1:45pm, so that Jenn could be at work by 3pm – for which she’d mentioned she couldn’t be late.

At 1pm when I sent my text, I wasn’t that worried. Paradise has notoriously spotty cell coverage, and I figured if the Girls got out late they wouldn’t stop to send text messages, but would drive straight back to Renton to get Jenn on her way. I was mostly annoyed at myself for not having thought to ask more about their “worry time.”

After I didn’t hear back from the Girls by 2pm I began to assume they were delayed, and I realized that if I didn’t hear from them in the next few hours, it would mean they were spending the night on the mountain, because it gets dark at about 5:30 right now. Paul and I were in periodic and increasingly frequent text and phone contact, comparing notes on what we thought the story might be, and as the afternoon wore on I slowly began to be a bit more concerned about the team. I ran through their gear in my head: super bomber (very warm) sleeping bags and parkas, two 4-season tents, first aid gear because they’re all thorough like that, and a Denali-rated stove that I had personally tested in my driveway on Friday night before handing it off on Saturday morning. I didn’t really need to be worried, and I mostly wasn’t, yet.

The thing about worry (which I just explained to my still-concerned mother tonight), is that it’s contagious. When someone asks “Are you worried?” it seems to trigger more concern. Having climbed fairly extensively with Leigh Ann and a good bit with Carolyn, I know a lot about their decision-making, reaction to stressful situations, and tolerance for risk – in a vacuum, I wasn’t worried, and I probably wouldn’t have normally become so until heading to bed on Sunday night, because not having heard from them by bed on Sunday would mean needing to watch carefully for a message or signal for them on Monday. But having someone else (who was themselves concerned) ask the question, begged another: should I be?

And so I gradually became increasingly worried over Sunday afternoon. We had known that the weather was going to get blustery Sunday afternoon, but we’d assumed the Girls would definitely be off the mountain and back in Seattle by then – we didn’t even come up with a contingency plan for if they did get stuck, because (say it with me now) it was just Camp Muir. The forecast for Saturday called for new precipitation (several inches of snow) and blowing winds which could get up to 40-50 mph, up high. I’ve slept out in 30+ mph winds, and they’re loud, and feel violent, and eat lower quality 3-season tents for breakfast. So as everyone around me watched the Superbowl, I periodically checked my phone, and when no messages appeared, I became more worried.

Before the game started, Paul, myself, and Bree, Jenn’s primary emergency contact, had decided on a bit of a gameplan for what to do if we didn’t hear from the Girls as the hours passed. We knew our friends well enough that we felt confident they wouldn’t walk out mostly in the dark – for a little while, yes, but not at, say, 10 at night. So if we didn’t hear from them at 6 or 7 or so, we’d know they were overnighting, and would have a decision to make about whether to call the Park and let the staff there know that the ladies were overdue, or to wait till Monday morning, see if they walked out, and if not, then make the call. There are upsides and downsides to each option – the downside to calling on Sunday night was that it was really too early to call, given typical climbing conventions (that next day walk-out possibility) but then again, if the ladies hadn’t walked out already then Jenn was missing work at a job she loves, and nobody thought she’d be ok with doing that unless she absolutely had to – so were they all ok? The upside to calling was that Jenn was missing work, so we knew she was at least a little bit stuck in some way, and that if we called on Sunday night the Park would have more time to come up with a better plan in case a rescue really was needed, and they’d be ready to go sooner. Plus with that weather coming in…

It would be tedious to even begin to try to recount how 4 to 6pm on Sunday played out, but it would be accurate to say it was completely surreal. As the one person who knew everyone involved, their plan, and all of their emergency contacts (plus their gear and had a sense for their decision-making), a lot of the decision-making ultimately fell to me. Checking now, my phone records show that I made my first call to Leigh Ann’s emergency contact at 4:17pm on Sunday (as I watched the sky grow dark through the windows – that I clearly remember), that I followed it up with calls to Jenn’s emergency contact Bree, to Paul, then back to Bree, and so on, until we finally had a sense for a bit of a decision to call the Park, and I tracked down a phone number for and called Carolyn’s partner Jack at 5:57pm, explained the situation (which he, as a climber, had already anticipated) and he agreed that given the forecast, it might be appropriate to call the Park. In that window, between 4:17 and 6:06, I made and received twenty-five phone calls to four people, not counting the calls I made to the Girls themselves.

And so it happened that at a few minutes after 6, as the house at which I was a guest roared with the ebbs and flows of the Superbowl, I called 911, and asked to be connected to the Mt Rainier Ranger Station, because I wanted to report a climbing party that was overdue.

What we mean when we say we’re going to climb Denali

Brrrr. Snow shelters.

Brrrr. Snow shelters. Don’t worry mom, just practicing!

A recent conversation with my parents helped illuminate the extent to which we’d jumped right into the deep end in getting this blog off the ground. My parents live on the east coast, and are still wrapping their heads around this big northwestern adventure we’re working our way into, and my dad wanted to know just one thing – was I worried about the wolves and grizzly bears that would be out there with us?

In that moment I realized for the first time that in our enthusiasm, we dove right into the part about where we are at right now (training and buying gear) and neglected to explain, especially to our non-climbing friends and family, how a Denali climb actually shapes up.

So without further ado, here’s how this whole thing works:

First. Denali is the same mountain as Mt McKinley, and is the tallest mountain in North America, and therefore one of the “7 Summits,”  the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Denali or the “High One” is the original Koyukon Athabaskan (Native American) name for the mountain, and is now used both formally, for the park that surrounds it (Denali National Park & Preserve), and informally, in lieu of the name of an underwhelming president from Ohio whose name is preserved by a small and stubborn group of Ohioans who are resisting the restoration of Denali’s proper and long-standing name on official maps of the region. For more interesting history on the mountain’s name, Summitpost will fill you in here or Wikipedia will happily expand your mountain nerdiness if you click here.

There are many routes you can climb on Denali, but we’re doing one called the West Buttress, widely considered the “easiest” way to climb Denali. Interestingly, the West Buttress route was not the “first ascent” route – that early climb was made via the Muldrow Glacier Route, which has a much longer approach. (A climb’s approach is just what it sounds like – the part where you’re walking or otherwise traveling to the base of the route. The route is generally considered to begin in mountaineering when it becomes more technical than a hike, although where that occurs can be massively subjective).

Modern convention is for us low-landers to a) fly up to Anchorage, Alaska, b) pick up any last minute items; c) take a shuttle (bus or van) to Talkeetna, Alaska, d) get a pep-talk-meets-orientation from the Park Service; and then e) hop on a very expensive but very short small plane flight to get up to the West Buttress Basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, at 7200 feet.

Once we’re on the glacier we’ll be there for 3-4 weeks, depending on our speed and the weather, and we’ll go up, and up, and up for most of the time – the walk out to Basecamp often takes only a quick two days.

Denali’s summit is some 20,237 feet, so being dropped off at 7200 provides quite an assist, leaving us “only” 13,037 feet to climb to the summit. As a point of comparison, Washington’s iconic Mt Rainier is some 14,410 feet tall – so the actual climbing portion of our trip is in the ballpark to what it would take for us to climb from sea level (the actual level of the sea – not some parking area on the flank of Mt Rainier) to the top of Mt Rainier (give or take that last 1,250ish feet). Maybe that’s a weak point of comparison, given that last 1,250 feet, but hey, where’s Jim Nelson when you need him to just up and give you a 13,037 ft peak to which you can compare Denali?

When I first started climbing I found it annoying – almost infuriating – that we don’t start at zero and climb to the summit, before we claim that we’ve “climbed a X,000 foot peak.” How can we say we’ve climbed 14,410 foot Mt Rainier if we started at a parking area on the side of the mountain, at about 5,500 feet??

What you quickly realize, however, is that you often have to travel a long, long distance over land to climb a mountain from its base – and where that base lies is, again, somewhat subjective. The Muldrow isn’t the most popular route, despite being the first, because you have to hike a much longer distance overland (carrying all your food and gear) from Denali National Park’s Wonder Lake to even GET to the mountain (although some would say, and I would agree, that it is MUCH cooler to walk your way in and up from a low-lying lake, through the boreal forest, and up onto the glacier). Someday…when we don’t have jobs to get back to, and have copious amounts of time to explore – walking that far with all that gear is no quick trip.

Now about that glacier. Climbers pick up a lot of new knowledge in pursuit of their hobby: exercise physiology, first aid, geography, navigation, avalanche study, botany, geology, and glaciology all come quickly to mind, and there are surely other fields. Climbers are, if I do say it myself, pretty knowledgeable, well-educated people when it comes to the country they’re moving through – they have to be, because knowledge lays the foundation for safe travel in the outdoors.

So we know a bit about those glaciers. To keep this post manageable I won’t go too far into it, but suffice to say that when I say we’re going to land (or at least, the pilot will land) on a glacier, understand that there will be snow ALL AROUND. Snow on top of ice on top of rock, the latter of which we’ll almost never see. These aren’t those cute little glacial tongues you see lapping at the water’s edge on big corporate Alaskan cruiseline tours, but in this case, glacier = the ground, for all intensive purposes. The only ground for the weeks we’ll be on the glacier will be snow or ice. No trees in sight, no dirt, a minimal amount of rock. Just snow on top of ice, and us on top of snow.

The environment being so, well, alpine, means that we will have very little wildlife around us – we many not see any at all. There are no bears or wolves because there’s nowhere for the bears or wolves to rest, nothing for them to eat. The animal we’re most likely to see on the mountain is migratory birds that have been blown off course while traversing the high mountain ranges – and most of those won’t survive the experience (no worms of the kind birds eat, no seeds, no trees). So to my dad’s question – yes – I am entirely unconcerned about the bears!

But I am concerned about getting us and all our gear up the mountain.

To get up those great big glaciers with enough equipment and food for all those weeks on snow, we’ll climb it expedition style – which is to say, we’ll effectively climb the mountain twice(!)

Here’s how we get started:

We land at basecamp, unpack our gear to put it into its proper order in our backpacks and on the sleds we tow, and take a moment to dig a great big hole and leave some food well-buried in it, for when we get back to basecamp. We mark that hole with a long bamboo stick with some brightly colored tape on the end (these are called wands, and there will be a vocab quiz at the end of this blog post), and it becomes our first food cache. Then we get the hell out of dodge.

Our first trip is in some ways the longest, because we are wearing full backpacks, and pulling sleds laden with every single bit of our food and equipment except that which we’ve left in that first cache. We will hike over to Camp I (of six), and we’ll do two things there – set up our campsite, and then carry a load of our nonessential gear (at the first camp this might include our non-camping clothing that is for very high up on the mountain, and a lot of extra food and other more technical gear), and stash it (another cache) at Camp II. We can spread these activities out in many different ways, but the core principle is that of leapfrogging your gear up so you’re not carrying over 100 lbs of equipment and food on every leg of the climb. The critical step that makes this expedition-style is that as soon as we safely stow our stuff at Camp II, we turn around and walk back down to Camp I, to sleep.

Doing so helps us acclimatize – get used to the higher pressure and thinner air at elevation, and avoid worst-case-scenario medical complications that come with climbing too high, too fast. Climb high, sleep low, is the high elevation climber’s mantra.

The morning after we’ve gone back down to Camp I we’ll get up, pack up everything left at our camp, and carry our remaining equipment up to Camp II – and then the whole process repeats again. Carry nonessential load up, stash it, turn around and go back down to sleep. Pack up Camp II, carry it up to Camp III, set it all up again.

There can be variations in how this gets done (if we’re feeling strong and the weather is good we might skip a camp, for example, since Alaska has almost 24 hours of sunlight to work with by May), but the idea is everything gets moved over two loads, and you effectively climb the mountain twice. Here’s a terrific link to a photo of the mountain, with each camp numbered.

Sounds like a lot of hard work, but pretty straightforward, right?

We leapfrog our way up the mountain over the days we’re there, building elaborate campsites along the way – our tents will be on snow platform – flat areas of snow that we’ve flattened down and dug out, and surrounded with igloo style snow blocks built up into a wall to block the wind – and we do this over and over again, while intermittently caching food for the way down as we head up the mountain.

When climbers think about the kinds of obstacles that could get in their way while on a climb, they think of two things: objective hazards, and subjective hazards. Objective hazards are what I think of as neutral hazards – they don’t mean you any harm, but they’re out there – an overhanging snow cornice is a classic objective hazard -something that could fall down and hit you and it would just be bad luck. Avalanches are, in a vacuum, objective hazards (your decision to go out in avalanche prone terrain would be considered a subjective hazard).

In our case, the major objective hazard is probably the weather. Denali is famous for its epic storms – the mountain is said to “have its own weather system,” and although we can predict when they’re coming in, we may not have a ton of advanced warning on when they’ll arrive, or how severe they’ll be. The Kahiltna Basecamp crew radios out a forecast to everyone on the mountain before bed each evening, but it’s fairly likely that at some point during our trip we’ll end up snowed into our tents, getting out only long enough to shovel off the tent itself (so the snow doesn’t get too heavy!) or pee, and just waiting out a storm. So that’s part of why we need all those extra days (for those who were doing the math…)

We’re going to the mountain a little bit earlier than most groups do – the climbing season runs from April or May through late June or July, depending on the snowpack, and we’re going early in that window, which means it will likely be colder and clearer than it might otherwise be if we waited until later in the season. We didn’t do this because we like to suffer (ok ok – Leigh Ann does!) but because there are fewer other parties on the mountain, we feel good about our training and fitness (so don’t mind being a little bit ahead of the pack) and because we committed to each other that we’d make sure to have -40 gear (yes, clothing, sleeping bag, and mittens all ready for -40F!) so that the cold won’t become a problem. The advantage to going early, besides clearer days (and therefore what will hopefully be a nicer summit day on top of North America!) is that we avoid the crowds. Denali doesn’t have the kinds of epic crowds that other mountains ::cough:: Everest ::cough:: has had in recent years, but there are lots of guiding companies that lead paid trips (we call these climbs guided, for short), and may have bigger groups, and while we’re looking forward to seeing them – we wouldn’t entirely mind if it turned out we were slightly ahead of them on our way up the mountain.

The only particularly technical climbing we’ll do is ascend fixed lines. Once we leave the 14,200 ft camp, we’ll need to walk up a section that’s pretty steep, to get to the last camp, known as High Camp (you can see this in the image I linked to earlier, with all the camps labeled). Fixed lines are climbing ropes that are “permanently” attached to the mountain – they are anchored at each end by burying something in the snow, and you ascend the lines by placing a device called an ascender on the lines. An ascender is a small metal device that fits in your hand, and clasps the rope between metal teeth. Those teeth will slide up the rope smoothly if moved in one direction, but will catch and hold at their place on the rope if there is sudden movement in the opposite direction. The ascendar is attached to your harness, and you slide it up the fixed line (rope) as you climb up the steep part of the hill, with the ascender as a back-up, to catch you in case you slip. There are some great images of this part of the climb here – I recommend a scroll!

So we go all the way up to 17,200 ft Camp 5, storms and leap-frogging and caching behind us – and then we go for the summit! The summit day is a single day push – we get up early, take only what we need for the day and an emergency overnight (plus our 10 Essentials, which includes a med kit), and hustle up that mountain! Once on the summit we’ll take some pictures, high five, have a sip of something to drink, maybe stick some kind of an energy block in our mouths, and head on down, back to Camp 5 to rest up before the remainder of the descent. It’s kind of a quick affair, for all the work it took to get up there.

Another point of note for the folks who haven’t done much climbing – at altitude climbers move very…very…slowly. So slowly that if you walked past us on the street and we were going at our high elevation pace, you’d probably mock us, or stop to ask if we’re ok. The effect of elevation is that it makes it harder to breath, and therefore, to exercise. Not impossible, but hard enough that you take it slow, plant your feet deliberately, and look a bit like an old VHS tape on slo-mo.

This is partially why we are doing so much cardio in our day-to-day lives now – so that we’ll be as fit as possible for the elevation, which will help us cope, and help maximize our (relative) speed of movement up the mountain.

The good news is, it only gets easier as you get down. Most groups take only one or two days to get down from Camp 5, once they’re in motion – you have all your gear packed and with you, you’ve been on the mountain for weeks so you’re well acclimated to the elevation, each step is bringing you to a lower elevation, and, perhaps more motivating, closer to a shower/your dog/more breathing room/dirt/a change of clothes/your boyfriend. Most climbers we know who have already done Denali descended the mountain VERY quickly, motivated by a pizza, a beer, and that shower!

Once we get back to Basecamp the airline we’re flying will radio their pilot for a flight out, and as soon as they’re able to land (depending on the weather again) we’ll be on our way back to Talkeetna, and some serious hot shower and pizza time!

And that’s what we mean when we say we’re “going to climb Denali.” 🙂