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

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.” ūüôā