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.
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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. ūüôā

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!
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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. ūüėČ

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.
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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!)
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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. ūüėČ
 
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!

Denali Prep Top 10: The Best (and the Worst) of Preparing for Denali

julie-andrews

Every part of preparing for our Denali climb has been a revelation, and some of those revelations have been more satisfying (or more aggravating) than others. As I ran past my still-not-yet-unpacked gear piles (from Sunday night – eek) on the way to work this morning, I ruminated on the highs and the lows of a big project like Denali.

My Top Ten Highs (“…these are a few of my favorite things!”)

1. Feeling, getting, and being stronger. Exercise is such a funny thing in our society – if you chalk it up to¬†“work,” or pick something tedious (cough, stationary bike, cough), exercise can be so unbelievably unpleasant. Just another thing to do, like cleaning the toilet or unclogging a shower drain, and anticipated about as much. But if you can re-frame exercise, view it as part of your life, relish the endorphins (that happy little post-exercise buzz it generates), and can dwell on what it gives you (a bit more definition in the shoulder and bicep, more visible musculature around the neck, or the slight ripple of muscle in your thigh as you take a confident step uphill) it can bring you so much joy. I get such pleasure out of feeling strong.

2. Simple movements. My sprained ankle was a liability this month, but it also opened up a whole new range of movement, and a long list of ways to expand on the movements I would otherwise be doing. Swimming for cardio when my ankle couldn’t bear weight turned out to be an unanticipated adventure, and the movement a pleasure – the long stretch to reach as far as possible forward and then push the water behind me, the zen of stroke, stroke, breath. I’ve decided to keep a short swimming workout in the mix and have been doing it after my upper body workout, and relishing that movement.

And it turns out that this simple pleasure in movement is not unique to me Рthe New York Times carried a recent feature on how mindfulness Рfinding and focusing on simple movements can help people get more out of their workouts, and enjoy them more. You can read more here.

3. Discovering (and rediscovering) new ways to train. Both lifting and stair-climbing come to mind. I have never relished traditional weight training and lifting, but our team spent a long Sunday at Leigh Ann’s Crossfit gym, dragging “sleds” with weight around and practicing safe lifting movement, and it has become fun (and a good test of my commitment) to build that into my workouts (pairing it with swimming helps!)

Stair-climbing has been much the same. We have a notably lengthy set of stairs near our house, and it is a small joy to get out there in the early morning and walk the stairs for an hour. Part meditation, part pilgrimage.

4. Teamwork. Like exercise, there is so much work, and as a result so much joy, to be found in working together to become a team. We spent last weekend in the mountains and took a break on Sunday to work through a bunch of possible scenarios that could arise and present challenges on the mountain, and although those conversations will often be hard, the satisfaction in reaching a mutually agreeable consensus is perhaps unrivaled.

5. Friendship. I have plans to write a post on what actually happened on the day the other Girls walked down from Rainier after Search and Rescue had been called, but there’s a lot to be said and I am still sorting through how best to write it. But when the Ranger was interviewing me about the other girls he said something like “I understand you’re friends with one of the missing climbers?” and I bristled. “I’m friends with all of them!”

I think we four lady climbers have been friends from the start in part because we knew one another through being a part of the same community (and deeply appreciating what it has given us), but friendship grows through shared experiences, trials and tribulations.

Around 3pm on Saturday we realized the snow platform we had built for our tents wasn’t adequate for the sizeable footprint of the Hilleberg Keron 3 tent we are bringing, and would need to quickly build a second platform to fit both. Tones began to change slightly, and each of us got perhaps a bit more short in our utterances, when Jenn suddenly pivoted and headed toward her backpack. “I am feeling a little bit cranky and am realizing I need to have a snack and drink some water!” she announced, and then offered some of her snack up so that we all would do the same. I wanted to hug her, because that was exactly what was needed by all, and she demonstrated both friendship and leadership in that moment.

Friendship, and teamwork, and lifting, and strength, and movement (sing with me: "These are a few of my favorite things!" :)

Friendship, and teamwork, and lifting, and strength, and movement (sing with me: “These are a few of my favorite things!” ūüôā

6. Community. I’ve said this before and I will say it again (and again, and again) but I love being a part of the climbing community here in Seattle,and have relished the way we have felt supported by our peers. I don’t know if we will succeed in reaching the summit on Denali, but if we do it will be because of the assistance, support, and guidance of dozens of big-hearted, bad-ass, and totally rad people.

7. Recovery. Good god am I proud of my ankle recovery! This past Sunday was 4 weeks since I wiped out on the ice at Denny Creek, and the weekend was the first time I have been outside, climbing, with a pack on in as long, and it felt pretty darn good! This is the first time I have ever followed my PT and doctor’s counsel to the letter, and doing the physical therapy movements on a daily basis, and stretching and icing and not overdoing it once I started to feel better, has been satisfying. It’s not 100% yet, but it took a pounding this weekend, and hung in there. Being an active participant in and taking responsibility for my ankle recovery has been gratifying.

8. The joy of being intensely busy.¬†Having an all-consuming, life-shaping side project has been a revelation. All of my time outside of work (and during my lunch break) is informed by our Denali climb, and the things we need to do to be prepared. I do logistics over lunch, make phone calls before heading for the bus, read about training and the climb itself on my commute, do PT on and against and using the couch when I get home. All (and I do mean¬†all)¬†of my disposable income (and some of my non-disposable income, aka¬†credit) is dedicated to the climb right now. Anytime I have $50 extra in my week, it goes towards a gear purchase, as I lump together lists of the little things we need and buy them¬†all at once to get free shipping! Anytime I sell a piece of clothing or jewelry through consignment, I do the same. I’m working every pro-deal that is accessible to me, and we as a group are reaching out to everyone we know in the outdoor industry for help and support. Before and after work I work out, and when I leave work I take the shipped items that have arrived back home with me. Even my relationship is structured around the climb – Tuesday and Thursday nights (and a long list of weekends) are devoted to group trainings, and Ed knows those are the most ideal¬†days to go off and do his Ed things, while I sweat my way up stairs, or a mountain. Everything is about the climb, and that’s both a good and a bad thing – but the good part is about staying busy, and creating something together with my team.

9. Kitchen Cabinet-ing with Ed. A long time ago I came across a story about Andrew Jackson, who for reasons of political infighting eventually stopped relying on his official Cabinet for support and counsel, and began instead relying on an informal one, made up of trusted advisors and friends. Since Ed is also a climber and has himself climbed Denali, it has been a lot of fun (and oftentimes quite reassuring) to be able to head home at the end of a long weekend and talk through some of the challenges and questions that have arisen, and have him act as a sounding board and provide his own input as we Girls work towards a solution that is appropriate for our team. Each of us has our own Kitchen Cabinet in our lives Рwhether best friends, partners, or other climbing partners Рand sharing the experience of preparing for the Denali climb with someone who cares about you and is rooting for your success is an immensely satisfying experience.

10. The Satisfaction of Working Towards Big Goals.¬†This one is self-explanatory. You know all those cheesy “live your life” type adages and inspirational quotes that get circulated on Facebook (including by yours truly?) One of my very favorite parts of this, is that we’re actually doing it. We set a really high (truly, elevationally, high!) goal, a high bar for success, and are working towards it. And our goal is to accomplish something that not many people ever do. And that even fewer women do. And that even¬†fewer women do without the participation of men on their team! How cool is that?! When I tire of planning or training or reading or worrying about what we’ll eat on the mountain, I think about that. And then I wonder about what will make for a suitable¬†next big goal. If we can do this, what else might¬†we be capable of?

…Tomorrow – My Top Ten Kinda Sorta¬†Really Not My Most Favorite Things…!

How We Built Our Team

Climbing with girls is rad...because we're always stoked. :) Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

Climbing with girls is rad…because we’re always stoked. ūüôā Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

Despite the fact that lots (and lots, and lots) of teams fail to summit, or have a few party members fail to summit because of group dynamics, there isn’t a whole lot of guidance out there on how to build a really good, really strong expeditionary climbing team.

Knowing that I wanted to put together a team to attempt Denali, last summer I spent a good deal of time reading all the women’s climbing books I could get my hands on. I read them one after another, back-to-back, and fast, in the window that led up to and included the beginning of Washington’s climbing season (May and June, most years).

The books we’ve read and are reading are included under our resources tab, but the books that were most informative for me were Arlene Blum’s. Arlene is completely inadequately summed up by calling her amazing – I will write a post about her sometime soon, but I almost don’t want to get into it here for fear that I won’t do it justice, after 9 pm at night.

Suffice to say that Arlene was part of the generation of women that began pushing elevational (and latitudinal) limits of what was considered acceptable for women to climb in the 60s and 70s. She was part of the first group of women to summit Denali as a young twenty-something (in 1970), taking over for an older and more experienced climb leader when she succumbed to altitude sickness. From there she kept on climbing, despite an elevational ceiling imposed not by women’s abilities, but by the male-dominated climbing clubs of the time, and eventually organized the first successful all-woman climb over 8,000 meters (there are only 14 8,000m peaks in the world!), of Annapurna I. She is truly a foremother to modern women climbers, and, lest I make it totally obvious without admitting to it, she’s absolutely a role model for¬†me, personally. I see a lot of my character traits in Irene, and much of my current thinking on climbing overlaps significantly with the perspective she brought to climbing in her own early days.

So last summer I read Arlene’s¬†books, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, and Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, with keen interest, after one of the women who helped teach me to climb recommended them, some years ago. From there I read Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Women of K2, and then consumed Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top, whole, and fast. This on top of innumerable climbing tales featuring all-male climbing teams (of which there are, literally, millions), and any other climbing book I could find on Ed, my boyfriend’s, bookshelves – of which there are¬†many, for he is an accomplished¬†climber, himself.

I had known I wanted to climb Denali since the end of my first summer – the main question for me had always been with whom, and when.

Three summers of climbing sounded like not quite enough experience, so I settled on four. Four years of climbing experience at the rate I was climbing would include scores of climbs and attempted climbs, with dozens of climb leaders, and innumerable opportunities for appropriately challenging problems to arise, and for problem solving. Four years gave me time to progress into the Mountaineers Intermediate climbing program, to participate in the lectures and fieldtrips they offered, and then to teach them to the following year’s students, to really cement my knowledge. It gave me time to teach a Student Instructional Group or Basic Climbing “SIG” with Ed, and to learn with my students what hadn’t already sunk in – to really understand why we do what we do in the mountains, and to make my own choices about how to climb, what to bring, what to eat, and how to lead. Knowing that Blum’s group had summited¬†in 1970 added a nice, settled feeling to the decision – I would aim to organize a climb for 2015.

My two main climbing partners, and myself, headed to Spickard and Redoubt last summer. Photo Credit Rena Chinn.

My two main climbing partners, and myself, headed to Spickard and Redoubt last summer. Photo Credit Rena Chinn.

And so the main question became who to climb it with. I had long wanted to organize a women’s climb, but when Ed and I got together, my idea quickly evolved – he could join¬†us, and I would stick the idea of an all-woman climb on the backburner, for the moment – focusing on making an all-woman climb¬†happen for¬†the next big climb that comes¬†around, so that Ed would be included in this one. Ed has been one of my two primary climbing partners for the last two years, so it seemed only natural for us to do it together – until he decided he didn’t want to climb the mountain for what would be his second time, and I realized, again, how much it really meant to me to put together an all-woman team. And from there, I began to get really, really excited.

Leigh Ann was an obvious first choice, and someone who I had always imagined on Denali with me, whether with Ed as well, or with a group of women. We were in the same “Super SIG” (expanded instructional group) during our first year of climbing, and our friendship has grown as we’ve notched climbs together on our belts (or harnesses, as the case may be). Leigh Ann turned out to be the perfect climbing partner for Ed and I, as a couple – she’s fast, like Ed, so can keep up with him as needed, but is adaptable and easygoing, like me, and shares the same decision-making framework and limit for acceptable risk that I do – making for a very easy, fluid partnership in the mountains.

Leigh Ann and I relishing the "perfect" campsite in 2013. Photo Credit: Ed Ison

Leigh Ann and I relishing the “perfect” campsite in 2013. Photo Credit: Ed “Ison”

I first (very drunkenly) told Leigh Ann that I wanted us¬†to do Denali at a Halloween party a year and a half ago, but already knew she would be game for it. I’ve never known Leigh Ann to be anything but game when it comes to heading out for a climb – so we were on, in word, if not in deed.

I spent a lot of time this past summer thinking about how to identify the most appropriate partners to fill out the rest of our team, and trying to hold back on telling everyone I knew that we would be attempting Denali (and holding back is not my strong suit).

But I wanted to be close to the fall before we¬†started feeling people out so that we would know who was feeling strong, who was recovering from injuries, and who had a work situation in flux or otherwise didn’t have the finances to go for this mountain, this year. Embarking on a Denali climb is an expensive, expensive proposition, so our future climbing partners needed to both have the ability to self-finance the trip (or pay themselves back later), and also needed to have enough of their own initiative that this wouldn’t be something we tempted them into – the climb needed to be their own, belonging as much to each of us, and organized as much by all of us, as possible.

In August or September I reached out to Kat, a female climber I knew mostly by her reputation as a strong climber, who had been part of a team to attempt Denali the year before, to see whether I could sit down with her for a drink and some beta (another vocab word – beta is a climber term for advice, guidance, input – information about the climb itself), and to see whether she might be interested in joining us for the climb.

It was important to me at that point that we not decisively invite people to join us, off the bat, but rather get together with other women who were interested, to explore the possibilities. Everything I had read indicated that compatible personalities were a major determinant of a successful and perhaps more importantly enjoyable climbing experience, so I felt really cautious about not jumping in with both feet. Rather, I wanted to convene a meeting of interested climbers, and see where things took us from there. Perhaps we would become two all-woman teams attempting the mountain, as I later told the first group of girls that met, or perhaps there would be one group to emerge for this year, and one for next. I just wanted to get us all together, and talking.

Kat was wonderful, and provided tons of great beta, advice, and input, and let me know that although she didn’t know yet whether she was¬†interested for this year, she knew of two¬†women climbers who she believed most definitely were: Jenn, and another strong woman climber we know, Randi.

I tracked down my emails from last¬†fall tonight, and the first one went to Leigh Ann – yes, she was definitely, really, still in. We met over lunch, we schemed, we planned, we sent the email to Kat. Kat mentioned Jenn and Randi, and on the eleventh of September, I excitedly forwarded Kat’s email, and sent the following note (verbatim)¬†to Ed:

“I’m seeing the possibility of a great and powerful group of female Mounties getting their climb on… ūüėÄ You already know Jenn – Randi is the woman we always see at the gym in the morning. I just got even more excited(!)”

I think of climbers in the Mountaineers as members of a climbing “generation”: each generation of climbers goes through the Basic Class and is taught by Intermediate students who were Basics in the years prior. Those same Basic students then take the Intermediate course, are trained on how to teach their peers to climb, and then help more established leaders to teach the next Basic class, in turn. Above all of these folks are Climb Leaders, and SIG Leaders, and Mentor Group leaders, who are our most experienced climbers, and who are paying it back – or forward, really – in spades. It’s an apprenticeship model, and it works well, and creates micro-communities out of cohorts of Basic classes that turn into lots of things – some connect future climbing partners, many germinate romantic relationships, and a good number even turn into climber marriages (which occasionally yield¬†climber babies!) It’s a tight-knit community in part for this reason, and one through which information flows naturally.

So I knew of Jenn, even though I only knew her enough to say hi by name. I knew that she is an excellent rock and ice climber, that she is a Climb Leader within the Mounties, and that she is a volunteer with Seattle Mountain Rescue¬†(booooooonus!) Jenn was part of a preceding “generation” of climbers (she took the climbing courses a few years before me), but she’s part of Ed’s extended group of friends, and I like and trust the group of friends that likes and trusts Jenn!

I knew Randi even better. Randi was a part of the group of climbers that followed my cohort, and I had volunteered on her first-ever conditioner. I knew she shares my “women can do anything” mentality, and I knew how physically strong she is, and how hard she had worked in the two years since, and how actively she climbs.

This was sounding promising.

Here’s my first email to Jenn, misspelling of her name included:

Hey Jen,

I hope you’re well and having a great summer, and have been getting out to do lots of climbing!
Leigh Ann Wolfe (who is copied) and I are planning on attempting a climb of Denali next spring, and I wanted to get in touch because Katrina (who we’re also talking to) mentioned she was aware that both you and Randi¬†are also interested in attempting the mountain.
 
Leigh Ann and I are looking for ideally two but potentially three other climbers with whom to make the attempt, and are currently thinking it might be nice to climb with other women, provided we can identify other women climbers who are of similar mindsets and compatible demeanor(s) to our own. Is this something that might be of interest to you?
 
Please let me know your thoughts, and apologies if this is perhaps a bit out of the blue – we’re just putting out feelers to women that we think are interested and may be contemplating the climb already, and you were one of the women whose name surfaced. ūüėČ
 
I’m away without internet access next week for work, but if you are interested, it would be great if we could get together sometime during the first full week of October, with Leigh Ann and perhaps with Randi and Katrina, if they’re interested, to explore the possibilities and perhaps start making some plans…
 
Thanks! ūüôā

And yes, I’m a dork, and yes, that email was awkward and goofy and also brimming with excitement – but both girls wrote back to say yes(!) they were interested.

Suddenly, we were five maybe climbers Рand five is a decent-sized party. I was stoked to know of other women who were interested, excited about who the climbers in question were, and also slightly panicked, because if everyone wanted to go, then Рboom! We had a climbing team. Holy hell. That was quick.

For the record: we do sometimes climb with dudes. Me, Carolyn, Leigh Ann, and our friend Alexey on Shuksan... Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

For the record: we do sometimes climb with dudes. Me, Carolyn, Leigh Ann, and our friend Alexey on Shuksan…
Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

I had other female climbers (many other climbers) on the mental list of who I wanted to reach out to, or who I thought would both be a strong and complementary climber, but at that point I put on the brakes – I didn’t want things getting too big, too fast, and neither did Leigh Ann. This would be our first expeditionary climb – we were determined to do things carefully, and right.

Ed and I have chatted at length about optimal climbing team size, and over the last two years I’ve really come around to his “small is beautiful” approach. I wanted an even number of climbers, ideally – every climbing party I knew of out of Seattle had eventually split into two smaller parties (one that tired of the mountain or was due back at work or that got cold and sick of their team, or just sick in general, and headed home, and one that headed to the summit), so I wanted to ensure we had enough people to create flexibility there. I wanted to make sure we had the ability to divide into two rope teams as desired (you attach to your fellow climbers by tieing into a rope on these climbs), as climbing in pairs and on the rope often makes you safer on a glacier. But I didn’t want to get anywhere near more than six, and we already have five! And it was already the beginning of September! So I asked for a meeting, so that we could begin to figure this expedition team thing out.

One a rainy Seattle night in October we met at Randi’s place for what I can only describe as a bit of a climbing team “awkward first date” in only the girliest way possible – over tall glasses of wine, fancy cheese and bread, and olives (have I mentioned I love climbing with women?) We talked about our goals, our interests, our climbing styles, our risk tolerance, and our personalities. We talked about possible impediments to our participation, and we agreed to start conditioning as if we were going, and to confirm officially by December 1.

At this point we were right on track with what any Denali climbing guide will tell you is the standard timeline for this kind of thing. Spend the fall identifying and firming up your team, picking dates, etc. Spend the early winter getting your conditioning (cardio and strength training) into place, acquiring gear (because it’s expensive! Have I mentioned the gear is expensive?!), and setting up the logistics. Mid-to-late winter for pinning down food, timeline, reserving flights and such (and buying more gear). Late winter for the grown up stuff like putting one’s emergency notifications in place, packing up food and equipment (and buying even more gear).

So we were right on time, but I was nervous about waiting until December 1. Randi and Jenn had important decisions to make and approvals to get in their own lives – what if they both couldn’t make it? What if they both¬†could? Were we¬†the¬†team – our team? My team? The team I would climb Denali with?

I’m not going to tell you how many times I dreamt about Denali climbs in November – it was a lot. The part of the climb that failed (in my dreams) was always the leadership and logistics part – what I knew would likely be my piece of the pie, just based on my personality. I dreamt of failing my team, while I waited, tortuously, for the team itself to be finalized.

Jenn responded on the 24th of November, and her energy was electric:

My boss just approved my vacation for Denali!!! I’m in!!!¬† YAHOOO!!!

Randi responded on December first, much more subdued Рshe was unable to commit at that time, and would take herself out of the process in order to enable us to go forward and set a definitive team in place for the spring.

So we were three. Three people can reasonably (perhaps arguably?) climb a mountain like Denali, no problem. Some people would even argue that a three person team is best – one less personality to work into the mix, but enough people to do a traditional crevasse rescue, were someone in the party to fall in.

So once the base of our team became me, Jenn, and Leigh Ann, the decision became about a fourth – did we want a fourth? Did we need a fourth? In a climbing club full of awesome women, how the hell were we going to figure out which one person we wanted to ask?

So at our meeting on December 1st, we settled on two. We asked Miho, a climber from my cohort of Basic students, and we asked Carolyn, the only person we discussed that each of us had climbed with, with a clear understanding that if both said yes, we might in fact become five!

Both Miho and Carolyn would be excellent choices for our team, and both fit what we needed – we had sought from the beginning to only ask women who had themselves talked about big mountain climbing, including on Denali specifically, before, and women who really independently push themselves to go out and¬†get after it – who get themselves out there, day after day, because that’s where they want to be.

My first climb with Carolyn was a single-day push up Mt Baker's Coleman Glacier, some ...three and a half years ago. Photo Credit: Meredith Trainor

My first climb with Carolyn was a single-day push up Mt Baker’s Coleman Glacier, some …three and a half years ago. Photo Credit: Meredith Trainor

We also were realizing, I think, that we would benefit from another introvert, or at least another quasi-introvert. Jenn and I are big, energetic talkers (imagine if I would have talked you through this blog post – it would have been¬†exhausting¬† (but fascinating…right?)), and Leigh Ann is more of an introvert – she’ll stay quiet unless she disagrees with someone, and she is someone who values her down time. We needed someone else who tended toward this vein, to balance us out. And we wanted someone strong. And skilled. And determined. Both Carolyn and Miho fit the bill.

I emailed both women towards the end of the first week of December, and by the 8th we had our answer: Miho was out due to family obligations; Carolyn was freshly back from a month trekking in Nepal, knew each of us and what she was getting into, checked her vacation time availability, and was in!

And so we were a team. Suddenly, really, a real team. A¬†Denali Team. This was really happening! And I walked around the house for a night, shaking my head, staring slightly dazedly at Ed, and repeating: “We’re really going!”

And so we are.

But before we finalized our commitment, we had another meeting – and it was an awesome meeting. More wine. More hummus, more cheese. Some fruit. Many more hours. I think there were even olives. (Lady climbers FTW, right?) And we went through it all again.

Leigh Ann, Jenn, Carolyn and I built our team, slowly and deliberately, by learning about ourselves, and about our teammates.

Over several hours we talked about our personalities Рwe shared our Meyers-Briggs personality types, reviewing and even citing the parts of the descriptions that we felt most demonstrated who we are and how we think. We talked about what we do in the mountains that can be annoying, and we talked about what others do in the mountains that annoys us. And we found we shared a good amount of overlap.

Spoiler Alert – the Denali Girls is:

  • one ENTJ: The Field Marshal, or the Executive. Really. That’s me. And Hilary Clinton. And Napoleon, for crissakes.
  • one ENFP: The Inspirer, or the Champion. That’s Jenn.
  • one INFJ: The Protector, or the Counselor. That’s Leigh Ann.
  • one INTJ: The Scientist, or the Mastermind. That’s Carolyn.

In doing all this extra legwork to describe who we are, we had the opportunity to learn more about one another as climbers, but also to begin to bond. It’s a strange thing to tell people you don’t yet know very well about the ways in which you’ve realized you can be annoying on climbs. It feels cheesy to talk about your personality type, and how you feel it, but in some ways that was the point – actively bringing down the walls that we keep up around people we don’t know well, and beginning to build relationships. To laugh about our failings. To acknowledge our weaknesses. To tell others, in advance, and when there was no risk of failure, how to tell¬†us if we need to simmer down, or go take a breather, or rally and just get it done. We were giving each other the beta on how we could interact successfully as a team, and we were building camaraderie in the process.

My first Mentored Lead, with Carolyn's support Photo Credit: Carolyn Graham

My first Mentored Lead, with Carolyn’s support
Photo Credit: Carolyn Graham

And that’s how we built our team. Carolyn joined us, and became our perfect fourth – strong, capable, experienced, and wayyyy more patient with¬†navigation than I am. Suddenly we weren’t just “a” Denali team – we were a¬†strong Denali Team – something we each saw reflected back from our peers when we told others of our intention, as well as amongst ourselves.

And a last note, about building a team. Right before we decided to go for it, we had a conversation in which everyone admitted to at least a bit of doubt about whether we could do Denali, about whether this was the right year, we were fit enough, etc. But then we asked ourselves whether there is ever a time where people feel completely ready, completely sure of themselves,completely confident, and perfectly fit Рand we all said no. The thing I learned while building our team this fall is that the difference between being a Denali Team, and talking about climbing Denali, is just the decision to put your cards on the table and do the thing Рstop procrastinating, stop wondering, and do it. Try it. Risk failure. Commit to the expense and the training and the risk of injury and the time. Make up your mind.

Just go for it.

And so we will! ūüôā