Leadership Bones

I used to think I didn’t have a leadership bone in my body.

I was always a great student, worked hard, got top grades, but I was painfully shy and terrified of authority. My hard work helped me graduate first in my class from American University and then get into UC Berkeley’s business school, one of the best in the country.

But my fear of the limelight, fear of responsibility, and belief that I was not a leader persisted. Berkeley, and many graduate level programs, has a strong emphasis on leadership. If you are being groomed for management, leadership kind of goes hand in hand with having strong analytical skills. What good are good decision making skills if you can’t execute those decisions and create buy-in from your stakeholders, whether clients, employees, management, or investors?

I slipped into a high pressure and highly quantitative role after business school structuring esoteric collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Never you mind what exactly those are (they are less scary than they sound but evade a one sentence explanation), but suffice it to say, the work was very detail oriented and analytical. I enjoyed it and excelled at it.

Outside of work, I had been introduced to the world of mountaineering and was pursuing it with gusto. That’s a whole other story about how I got into climbing, but I discovered that I loved the sense of accomplishment that comes from selecting a difficult but achievable objective, researching it, preparing the logistics, training adequately for that particular climb, facing the obstacles that the mountain chooses to throw at you, and seemingly against all odds, making it to the top of a mountain and then back down safely.

Success on Kilimanjaro

Success on Kilimanjaro

I also had never been very athletic but found that some of my physical weaknesses became competitive advantages in the mountains. I’ve always been prone to easily overheat and become overexerted in warmer climates, but it turns out I have an above average tolerance for cold temperatures. I’ve always been very slow and steady, but it also turns out that slow and steady can translate into superior endurance and is the right way to help your body acclimatize at altitude.

 

FIRST ECUADOR EXPEDITION

After hiking Kilimanjaro (19.3 k ft) with success and completing a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course with Alpine Ascents, I decided to try my hand at the Ecuadorian volcanoes. Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo range from 18.3k ft to 20.5k ft…amazing that such high glaciated peaks can be found near the Equator! I went with Alpine Ascents again, one of the best mountaineering guiding outfits around. As usual, I was the only woman – 1 out of 9 men (6 clients, 3 guides/staff) for two weeks.

It was great. I don’t mind that environment as it’s only a matter of time before I offend the guys who are on their best behavior in my presence. :-)   However, our second acclimatization hike was really too tough for me physically. It was Imbabura, a tough hike with 5,500ft gain up to 15.2k ft. Most of the day was sunny, hot, and humid, but when we reached the summit by a section of exposed scrambling, all of the sudden the clouds closed in on the mountain top and we were all shook by a terrifying clap of thunder. Our helmets buzzed with the electricity in the air. The guides yelled, “Down! Down! Down!” and we practically ran down what we had delicately climbed up.

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

The sky opened up and let loose a torrent of hail which transitioned to rain as we descended. The volcanic ash soil turned to black, slick silt and we jogged down the mountain, bracing and falling and tumbling. I was absolutely wrecked from the hike and my quads were unreasonably sore. Bruce, one of the other clients, felt the same way, so we agreed to be on the same rope team for the first mountain, Cayambe. We attempted the climb but turned around early together to save ourselves for the gem, Cotopaxi.

Long story short, the only mountain I summited on that expedition was Imbabura and I learned a valuable lesson – no harm comes from conserving energy, but if you expend it all and overdo it, you may not be able to recover in time.

 

FINDING A NEW WAY IN MEXICO

I continued climbing peaks in California and Washington when I received an invitation to climb with my guide buddy Eric on an independent guided expedition to climb the highest peak in Mexico, Orizaba at 18.8k ft.

Although Eric is 6’2″ and freakishly strong, he has one of the slowest paces of any guide I know. He does it because he has the clients’ success and safety in mind. Typically, a Mexico volcanoes expedition would include both Orizaba and another high, glaciated peak called Iztacchihuatl, or “Izta” for short.  It was 17.2k ft high and Eric found that clients would be too burned out after trying Izta to be successful at the main objective, Orizaba.

Eric designed a more humane acclimitization schedule with Orizaba as the main prize.  Instead of pushing our limits on Izta, we would do two mellower mountains that would still incite the acclimatization process.  We hiked to the top of both La Malinche (14.6k ft) and Nevado de Toluca (15.4k ft) which were tough, good workouts, but did not destroy any of us.  All three of us clients, another woman from California and a French Canadian man, were successful reaching the summit of Orizaba.

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

I learned a valuable lesson about what works for me.  A much gentler acclimatization program with emphasis on not burning out before the primary objective helped ensure that the primary objective was met.

 

BACK TO ECUADOR WITH A NEW VISION

I hadn’t stopped thinking about Cotopaxi and wanted to go back. I mentioned the idea flippantly to my two climbing buddies, Jeff and John, who both jumped at the idea. I had never planned an international expedition before, especially not where I was the leader.

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

Jeff and John were great, they just said, “Tell us what to bring and we’ll bring it. Tell us where to show up and we’ll be there.” I leveraged my contacts, my new vision of what the itinerary should be, and my Spanish language skills. I developed a different itinerary where we would do 2 brand new hikes I had never done before (Pasochoa & Ruminahui) that weren’t as difficult but would provide exposure to high altitude. We would spend one night at the hut and practice on the glacier the next day before heading up to give ourselves yet another night at altitude without too much exertion.  Everything would be done with an eye toward maximizing acclimatization while minimizing exertion before attempting Cotopaxi.

I kept chuckling when the locals would start talking to Jeff and John in Spanish, assuming that the men would be in charge, of course. They would receive blank stares in return (Jeff and John knew how to order cerveza, but not much else) and then I would answer in my halfway decent Spanish, much to the locals’ surprise to see a small woman speaking for these two tall guys. While this was unusual, the locals also seemed to feel respected by a gringa speaking their language fairly well and out of mutual respect and interest.

At the climbing hut on Cotopaxi, the local guides also seemed surprised that I was “in charge” but I received nothing but respect there as well. Although the Latin culture has a reputation for being patriarchal, there are many men who respond positively to a woman who exudes confidence and demonstrates credibility.

I still remember cresting a final bump near the summit of Cotopaxi only to look down and see this frighteningly yawning crevasse below me. I yelled back to John, “Watch me!”, crossed it by gently placing each step on the snow-bridge spanning the crevasse, and began ascending the other side of the dip, passing a team waiting to go back down. As I passed by, one of the local guides said out-loud, “Un verdadero alpinista.” [Note that "alpinista" is a masculine noun despite ending in an "a" and being applied to a woman.]  That translates to “a true alpinist.” That remains the highest compliment I have ever received.

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater (photo credit: John Gray)

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater with me in the lead and Jeff in the middle (photo credit: John Gray)

What does this all have to do with leadership? Well, I discovered that in the right situation:

  1. I had the skills required to guide a group to making decisions that were appropriate for all of us and for the conditions.

  2. I had a vision! I had done this Ecuador expedition before, learned from it as well as the Mexican expedition to come back and do it another way that worked better for me and my team!

  3. I created a solid team. John and Jeff had the appropriate skill, gear, and demeanor. They both also respected my decision making and experience while providing their valuable input where they felt inspired to do so.

  4. I accepted help from my team. When I was suffering up the last 500 ft to the summit, John walked up to me and took a few things off my harness and pack to lighten my load. Even though I was the leader, the lighter load helped me feel stronger and our collective strength grew with John’s actions. Leaders do not have to be able to do it all!

  5. Even in environments like mountaineering in a developing Latin country (talk about a male dominated environment!), it is possible as a female to demand respect and credibility.

I began to believe that if I could successfully manage a leadership role in a high risk endeavor in a developing country with male teammates, there was no reason I couldn’t handle leadership roles in Corporate America…how might YOU be holding yourself back???

Lost

I performed this piece at the “First Speak” event at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR on May 31, 2014.  Watch or read below as I try to answer the age-old question, “Why do you climb?

I’m often asked to answer the age old question – “Why do you climb?” It’s a difficult question to answer adequately. I hesitate to speak for all mountain climbers of all styles, ages, and disciplines as it’s an intensely personal motivation. My automatic reaction to give the surface answer which never seems completely satisfactory to neither myself nor the questioner.

Yes, there is great satisfaction in meeting an objective, a natural discipline that must be summoned to train and prepare for greater and greater mountains, a camaraderie in the mountaineering community unlike that I’ve experienced elsewhere, the peace and focus of moving meditation, a deepening connection with and respect for nature.

…these are all valid reasons…

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

But none of these speak to the underlying DRIVE or REWARD to explain why the moving meditation or the satisfaction of physical challenge feed ME. Why do I feel drawn to the high mountains rather than trying to compete in triathlons or ski at resorts for example?

I think there’s some aspect of mountaineering that’s seems so extreme and remote to the “average” person…that once I realized I, “little ‘ole me”, could be competent in this environment, against all of my own and others preconceived notions, it felt even that much more impressive.

There’s something satisfying about actually BEING GOOD at something. Like, if you suck at golf, it’s not so pleasant to go out and try to play golf with your friends every weekend. But if you are decent or even excel, the reinforcement is confidence building.

I pretty much suck at everything physical.

I don’t have great motor skills or hand/eye coordination so I always suffered at sports like golf, tennis, or volleyball. I basically sat on the bench for any team sport or pulled the team down when I participated. I dabbled in adventure racing and mountain bike racing for a while, which appealed to me more than triathlons because they were more focused on backcountry activities rather than running or riding on roads, but I’m REALLY slow. Racing is kind of demoralizing to come in last, or if I’m lucky, second to last every time.

I discovered what my body is good at is endurance. As long as I go my pace and eat a little something every hour or so, I can go for hours…and I mean HOURS. I can just keep hiking and hiking and hiking. And that’s the primary ingredient for mountaineering. You also need to be able to carry a heavy pack and there are some technical aspects to climbing on different terrain like snow or glaciers, but it’s basically hiking up hill for hours and hours and hours. I have a surprising capacity for carrying loads uphill despite my stature, as long as it’s slowly.

I was smart and I methodically acquired skills over the years, learned from experts, and slowly progressed to more and more difficult, committing, remote, and lengthy climbs until my climbing “career” culminated in an attempt of Makalu, the 5th highest mountain on the planet.

I think if I were a man, 6’2″ and genetically gifted, mountaineering might actually feel less satisfying to me. I have to work hard, I have to train smart, I have to be strategic about how and with whom I climb…because it does not come naturally to ascend 5,000ft up steep snow slopes with over 50lbs on my back in weather that ranges from blizzard to heat wave. It’s NOT easy, but if I apply myself, train, prepare, focus, AND I make it to the summit, it feels like it was against all odds and I feel that much more impressed with myself.

BUT still, WHY do I need this kind of reinforcement, WHY does it feed me so much.

Without engaging the help of a psychologist to try to draw connections between the events of my childhood and my adult psyche, I still struggle to give a clear and meaningful answer but recently garnered some insight…

After three years of being on the sidelines of the mountaineering world, recovering from a stubborn knee injury and surgery, I’ve just begun tipping my toes back in the water and have set my sights on the Cascade mountains on our horizon, part of why I moved to Bend in the first place. Seeing those mountains day after day without climbing them is like being teased constantly.

I decided to focus on Mt Hood. Even though it’s the most impressive and the highest mountain in Oregon, it was still ONLY half as high as I’ve ever been. I know I’m out of shape and haven’t been hiking regularly for a long time, BUT it’s ONLY 5,000ft gain and only requires carrying a day pack. It’s steep but not ridiculous. I’m the mountaineer after all who has been to 23,000ft. This should be a realistic challenge to tip my toe back in the water to effectively day hike to 11,250ft.

Mt Hood

Mt Hood

I met some nice fellows through the Cascade Mountaineers club here in Bend who were planning an ascent of Hood. I called the trip leader, Frank, and explained my situation – “Yes, I have tons of experience. Yes, I do very well at altitude. Yes, my self-arrest skills are dialed, in fact I led a self-arrest clinic for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit in January. No, I don’t feel very fit and I’m worried about my ability to keep up with a group.”

Frank was understanding about my situation and was supportive and encouraging. I convinced him that if I had any trouble, I was self-sufficient and could turn around on my own.

The Wednesday before our climb, I met one of the other guys on the trip, Nathan. He was a young buck around 20 who was still in college. Sweet guy, but he said he had climbed North Sister the day before with a friend. North Sister. The mountain that some of the Cascades leaders were talking about trying with trepidation this season…

I joked with him and asked him, “Are you cool with climbing with someone twice your age?” and he asked back, “Are you OK with climbing with someone half your age?” I chuckled. He had a good sense of humor and said he was fine going any pace – he just wanted more experience.

Friday evening, I met Frank and the final member of our team, Bridger, to carpool. Bridger was a tall, handsome, young fellow. I would guess early twenties as well. I was thinking to myself…”Uh oh! TWO young bucks!” My anxiety level began to elevate.

We swapped stories on the 2.5 hr drive to Timberline Lodge. The plan was to sleep in our cars in the parking lot. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag on purpose because it seemed silly to use for three hours of non-sleeping. Instead I planned to bring my beefy super warm Denali-worthy down jacket to keep me warm for just a few hours. On every trip, it’s inevitable that you forget at least one item. This time it was my down jacket! So I lay in the back of Frank’s Subaru Outback with all my layers on, softly shivering.

Because I couldn’t sleep, the hamster wheel in my head was whirring. “Could I keep up? What about those gusts of wind hammering and rocking the Subaru? Would the young bucks be tolerant of my pace and rustiness? Would the weather hold? Do I have what it takes?” My anxiety grew to a deafening level and I could think of nothing else until our wake time of midnight.

I took myself back to a time in Ecuador where I and two of my buddies were attempting Cotopaxi, a glaciated peak that was 19.3kft. One of the guys was super fit and the other one had inadequate gear and needed to go faster to keep warm. To keep them happy, we had to go at a pace unsustainable for me and I nearly bailed at 1,000ft below the summit despite the fact that it was my second time traveling to Ecuador and all the training and planning that went into getting to that point.

I decided I would not even try to climb Mt Hood because I was convinced I did not have what it takes and that the pace would be too fast for me. Frank assured me it was the wrong reason not to go forward, “We want you on this climb!” I told him my anxiety was simply too great. They said they would miss me and headed out into the darkness. I jumped into Frank’s sleeping bag and while my body was happy with the newly acquired warmth, my heart was heavy.

After a couple hours of delicious sleep, I took myself to a leisurely and not-very-well-deserved hearty breakfast at Timberline Lodge. When I swung back by the cars, the boys had already returned. They were back so early that I was convinced they had had to turn around, but no! 9 hours door-to-door! I remarked, “Wow! Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t go with you! No way I could have done it in that amount of time!” They said, “No, we really wished you were there. The conditions were great. We went very slowly and surely. You could have done this.

I held back tears on the drive back to Bend but a few defiant ones snuck out and rolled down my cheeks. I was frustrated for myself for not even trying, for letting fear of the unknown keep me from knowing, for feeling like now maybe I don’t belong to the tribe of mountaineers. I did EXACTLY what I tell others not to do. I held myself back. I didn’t even try.

So why do I climb? Mountaineering defines me as a person. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think that should be the case, but it is. I am lost without it. A tortured soul wandering this Earth trying to find meaning and a place of belonging. If I am not a mountaineer, then who am I? To what tribe do I belong? How can I connect with this world? There is no neat resolution to this story…I will be lost until I find my way into the mountains again.

Never Give Up!

IgniteBend is a unique event where each presenter/performer only has 5 minutes on stage with 20 slides that rotate automatically every 15 seconds.  It’s fast-paced, fun, and very challenging.  I had to figure out what story or message I would share in just 5 minutes!  I chose my epic descent of Mt Sill (about which I also wrote for the Sierra Journal in 2009).  Below is the video and transcript of what I planned to say.  :-)

I travel around the country speaking about how to “Achieve Peak Performance,” telling tall tales from the mountains and how the lessons I learned transformed me as a person and a professional. The most influential trip out of all of them was Mt Sill’s Swiss Arête in California.

People often think that climbing is a really dangerous activity, but in my case it was mountain biking. I had a bad accident and managed to suffer a broken collarbone which needed a pin to hold the pieces together.

I was still recovering from the injury when my buddy, Jeff told me he was saving the Palisades Traverse for me as a birthday present – climbing 5 of the CA 14ers in one go. An endurance challenge along an impossibly long knife-edged ridge. How could I possibly say no?

I was out of shape and hadn’t carried a pack since before the accident, but I had been following 5.9’s in the gym, Jeff was willing to lead all the pitches, and I rationalized it didn’t matter how heavy the pack was if I could just go slow enough. Everyone needs a buddy like Jeff!

My pack ended up being the heaviest I had ever carried at 61#, nearly half my body weight, but I couldn’t complain as Jeff’s was 72# and weighing his pack actually broke our hanging scale!

The approach hike is 8 miles with a 3,000ft gain straight uphill to 11,000ft. We both suffered under the weight of our packs but made it to our new home at Sam Mack Meadow after 8 hours of hiking.

It’s difficult to describe the anticipation the night before a committing climb and you struggle to get everything prepared and get a restful night sleep. The wind howled all night as gusts up to 50mph as has been forecast. We woke at 2am, got ready in the cold and started hiking in the dark.

As we were climbing up the left flank of the Palisades Glacier, it was so cold in the shade with the high wind gusts that we were shivering even as we were hiking. We passed the high camp of another group of climbers who shouted, “You don’t know how bad it is up there!”

We reasoned that we could always turn around and go back to camp, but we had to see the conditions for ourselves. We reached the beginning of the rock climb at just over 13,000ft and got ready for the climbing to become more serious.

The climb is five long pitches (rope lengths) to the summit at 14,200ft. It’s moderate climbing but very strenuous in the altitude, and the high winds made for very chilly belays.

The crux, or the hardest part of the climb, is in the middle of the fourth pitch, past the point of no return. I reached over into a thin crack system, pulled backwards in a move that’s called a “layback” and I felt the searing pain of the pin blow through my shoulder.

I dropped and fell onto the rope, stunned and in pain, despondent that I knew something had gone terribly wrong but I still needed to get through the crux section. Adrenaline is an amazing thing and I still can’t remember how I got through the section to climb up to Jeff.

I told Jeff, “Jeff, we have a situation. I blew the pin in my shoulder. We need to get down and get me to a hospital. Don’t ask me about it again, I’m going to try to tune out the pain.” We still had one more pitch to climb upwards and reach the summit.

Jeff was eerily calm and just said, “OK” and got to work. It’s a scary feeling to be that high and know that you are so far from help. It’s important to be self-sufficient, and choose partners with whom you can work together to get out of emergencies.

We abandoned the goal of a full Palisades Traverse and began descending around Mt Sill, picking our way down carefully and looking for a faster non-standard descent route. The going was VERY slow as I was in pain and we had to try to find our way down an area about which we had no “beta” – climber speak for information.

We looked straight down several thousand feet and began a series of sketchy rappels. Around every corner, I thought “one mistake here, and we could both die.” We both kept that eerie calm when I started to slide on some ice and when Jeff dropped his backpack into the bergschrund.

There was no moonlight and could not find our way back to the climber’s trail back to camp. We had no choice but to spend the night out unprepared, spooning for warmth, hoping our significant others would forgive us as we did it for survival.

We spend the whole night awake and shivering, readjusting as our body parts kept going numb from cold and lack of circulation. We simply had to make it through the night and sunrise would guide us to food, water, and shelter back at camp.

We hiked all the way back down to the parking lot, grateful to be alive and in the grand scheme of things, unharmed. We found that the cars in the lot had been vandalized and my car had not escaped someone’s wrath. Instead of getting upset like I might usually at something like a parking ticket, we both gave thanks just to be back at the trailhead.

The accident and unplanned bivy taught me how to keep going in the face of adversity, when around every corner lies another seemingly impossible obstacle. Pick good partners, stay calm when the you-know-what hits the fan, and figure out what you need to do to keep going…and never give up!

Are you surviving or thriving?

Many people are intrigued by my departure from the corporate world to follow my passion of making adventure travel for women, but I’m going to take us a few years back to one of the hardest climbs that clearly demonstrated the value of following my passion.  I’m including the video from this talk.  It was done with amateur videography equipment so apologies that the audio is not the most awesome.  Regardless, you might get a kick out of the live version as well.  :-)

Mt McKinley, or its native name, Denali, is the highest mountain in North America and is known as a “mountaineer’s mountain.” Even those who have climbed both Everest and Denali often say Denali is tougher.

Denali - West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Denali – West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

It’s 20,320ft which is high, and as you may know, as you go higher, the air pressure drops making less oxygen available. However, it’s location close to the Arctic Circle makes it feel higher as well because the air pressure also drops as you go further north. You are dropped off by ski plane at 7,800 feet and have 13,000 ft of glacier and vertical relief to climb to the top of this formidable mountain.

It’s intimidating when you are dropped off as you are on your own for 21 days. You worry about your physical preparation, skills, logistical planning. As you look up around the Kahiltna Glacier and see these intimidating peaks all around you are only 9k ft high and realize there’s over 20kft of climbing because you nearly climb the mountain twice.

IMG_3979The typical routine is to carry heavy loads up higher, dig caches 6-10 ft deep, bury your cache, and head back down to sleep at a lower altitude to recover. The total load I carried was around 120# split between my backpack and the sleds dragged uphill every day. There had been a volcanic eruption of Mt Redoubt earlier in March.  As a result of the heat-absorbing ash that blanketed the glacier, it was less stable than usual so we chose a night schedule. That means that we slept during the day, would wake IMG_3983around 10pm and be climbing before midnight each night.

Sometimes people tell me vacations sound like their worst nightmares. :-)

But I was in heaven. It was the most intense, isolating, scary, committing thing I have ever done, and John kept saying he was surviving but it seemed like I was thriving.

It made a difference later after we made our way up to our final camp. We had to dig out a platform and build walls made of snow blocks. It was hard work as we were now above 16,500 ft which felt like digging at 19k ft. You would pull three strokes of the snow saw and have to lean against the rock to catch your breath.

Location of our high camp

Location of our high camp

We came down to recover and witnessed an accident up high that proved to be fatal to the two fallen climbers. It made me nervous and we decided to take a rest day and head up the fixed lines, our descent route, to familiarize myself when I was unexpectedly shut down by incredible pain upon each inhalation. I was debilitated. We waited three days and each day tried again but the pain only got worse.

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

I got checked out by the ranger medic and we confirmed that it wasn’t anything life threatening. I still had to get myself out of there. A helicopter ride was an option but any self respecting climber will at least try to self-evacuate rather than put others’ lives at risk.

So we packed up from 14k camp and started to head down. I was in excruciating pain the entire time as breathing was unavoidable. But we were hell bent to get all the way down what had taken us 14 days to climb up, we descended in 11 hours.

I kept thinking of John’s words, “In this environment, I am surviving but you seem to be thriving!” It was a good thing that I was so passionate about climbing, about being on that mountain at that time, and about getting my own butt off the mountain. It was the only way I could keep going was to remind myself that I WANTED to be there.

Having the time of my life!  :-)

Having the time of my life! :-)

Sometimes the paths we take when we follow our passions can seem really difficult. But the reality is that life is really difficult and there will always be obstacles and challenges along the way no matter what.

If you are living supporting someone else’s dream, those inevitable challenges can seem intolerable. But if you are following your own passion, you will always be working toward your personal mission.

Then the question becomes…what is YOUR passion!?!?

Best Training Hikes in the Bay Area

Training for backpacking and mountaineering has several components – cardiovascular (both endurance and interval to raise anaerobic threshold), strength training, and “sport specific.”

Sport specific refers trying to mimic the activity as best possible.  For example, in mountaineering, we typically carry heavy packs up and down steep slopes over several days for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on average.  It’s tough to mimic those conditions in the gym, but we can do so out on the trails.

Hiking Montara Mtn gives training at sea level new meaning

Beautiful single track

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would recommend hiking with the pack you will actually carry in the mountains.  This achieves several objectives – gets you more familiar with your gear, gives you a chance to see if there are any issues with the fit (i.e., waist belt digs into your hips), and best simulates the actual conditions of your climb.

Water is the best way to weight your pack.  It’s easy to calculate (1 gallon is 8.8# and 1 liter is 2.2#), it’s plentiful and can be convenient on really hot days, and you can pour it out if you need to move faster or your knees are bothering you on the downhill.

A girlfriend of mine once brought 10# boxes of trash compactor bags in her pack, but when we started to run out of daylight and needed to move faster, she couldn’t do anything with those boxes. If she had water, she could have poured it out to lighten her load.

One disadvantage of using water is that it is more dense than the actual gear with which you will fill your pack.  This makes the center of gravity feel much lower than it will be on the actual climb.

Hiking the fire roads on Diablo

Company at the summit of Olympia Peak

One standard training principle is to carry the water up to the top of your hike, pour it out, and then descend with a lighter pack to save your knees and legs.  I never did this because I find the downhill to be quite challenging.  Its also the most dangerous part of most climbs – you have gravity pulling you downward, a false step is more likely to result in a fall, and you are the most tired when descending.  I always found it really valuable to train for the descent as well as the ascent.

When I first started climbing, I took the time to research all the major steep day hikes in the Bay Area.  I calculated the feet gain per mile to figure out which hikes would give me the best bang for my buck.  Mt Diablo tops them all for being a butt kicker that really simulates the strain you’ll experience on a mountain.  Mission Peak as also great for its relentless slope and was a great hike to do when I was more pressed for time.  Others are good for variety, but I didn’t feel were as beneficial as a staple.

Hike Miles Altitude Gain Feet/Mile Comments
Mission Peak – Main Trail 6.0 2100 350 Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top
Mt Diablo North Peak Loop fm Regency Gate 9.9 3100  313 Real butt kicker -  when I’m really serious, I would do this one EVERY weekend. Bring a map and lots of water, can be VERY hot in summer.
Mt Diablo – 4 peaks of Diablo 16 4700 293 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Del Valle to Sunol 19.5 5600 287 Long long hike that requires a car shuttle. I’ve done this twice in about 8.5 hrs
Mt Tam – Mtn Home Inn TH  6.5 1500 250 Beautiful hike. Good for variety, but not nearly as hard as top two.
Montara Mountain 8 1800 225 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Windy Hill – Portola Valley Loop  7.2  1400 195 This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.
Wunderlich Skyline Loop 10.0 1800  180 Wooded and cooler in summer.  Well-marked trails.  Gentle grade but continuous slope.  Good for endurance but not very grueling.

All distances and altitude gains are based on publicly available info, my own recollection and use of an altitude watch, or maps.  If you redo any of these maps with your own GPS, feel free to send me your stats so I can improve the accuracy of this chart.

Please feel free to shoot me any questions or share any other local hike gems you may have.  Finally, I’ll put in a plug for my friends at BodyResults.  Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Courtney Schurman who has been writing my training programs for the last decade for big objectives.  Call of the Wild clients get special discounts at www.bodyresults.com/wild.

Hope this helps your progress toward your backpacking and climbing dreams!

The gang on a windy day on top of Mission Peak

Friendly tarantula on Mt Diablo in Oct

Plan B on the Clear Creek Route

This is the story I shared at the Armchair storytelling event in April 2014 at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR.  The theme was “Plan B.”  Listen below or read on…

 

It was 2005 and only my second full season of climbing. And by climbing, I mean mountaineering – multi-day ascents of snow covered or glaciated peaks ideally at least 14,000ft high. One such mountain was Mt Shasta, one of the southern most Cascade volcanoes in Northern California standing at 14,162ft high. I had successfully summited the summer prior via the Avalanche Gulch route, the normal route, with a guide service. I returned with Gregg*, a leader of the Sierra Club, and a man I greatly admired for our second attempt of the Clear Creak Route. (*name changed)

The Clear Creek route is an unpopular route due to it’s long approach, both on unmarked logging roads and then hiking from around 5,800ft up to around 8,000ft where we would make camp in the protection of the last clump of trees. It creates a tough and long summit day with over 6,000ft gain up to 14,162ft.

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Gregg was a the trip leader who organized this trip after we aborted our 2004 attempt due to rain at “main camp.” We were back with an even smaller team, just Gregg, my friend, Nora, and myself. It was nice to have a small team with fewer variables in terms of team dynamics.

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Gregg was an experienced trip leader, long distance ultra-thru-hiker, and mountaineer. I knew he had climbed Denali and even though he didn’t summit, simply the fact that he had set foot on that mountain and made it to 17k camp made me worship him as someone I aspired to be like. Denali is a very serious mountain where they drop you off by ski plane and you try to get to the top in around 3 weeks. Gregg was extremely knowledgeable about all things mountain-related…he knew all about Leave No Trace wilderness ethics, dehydrated all his own food, and yes, had lived on the flanks of Denali.

My friend, Nora, was tall, gorgeous Italian woman who was really intrigued by the physical challenge and drama of mountaineering. She was ambitious but really cautious. After we made it to “main camp” with considerable effort, she stated that this was as far as she would go. She was too beat from the approach hike and was happy as a clam to sleep in and serve as our “base camp manager” maintaining radio contact.

I was bummed that she wasn’t going to try to go higher, but in reality, if she really had serious doubts about her ability and desire to go on, it would likely mean we would all have to turn around. With a small team of three, it’s just not wise to send someone back down to find camp alone.

Gregg and I decided to stick with our plan to get up at 1am and be hiking by 3am. When that alarm comes in the middle of the night, I ALWAYS snooze at least once and think to myself “Why the hell do I do this shit?”, but then I find some kernel of willpower deep within and get my butt out of my sleeping bag to get ready in the freezing cold and a state of brain fog.

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing in the middle of the night is a difficult thing to describe. It sounds quite miserable, but it’s actually quite magical. Even if there is the sound of wind, the silence is absolutely deafening and you tune into the sound of your own breath, the soft sounds your clothes make while moving, the crunching of your crampons in the firm snow, and the creaking of your ice axe when it shifts so lightly with each placement. You can’t really see where you are going and fall into a trance like moving meditation where you have never been more disconnected yet more aware at the same time.

Incredible hoar frost

Incredible hoar frost

We had gained over 5,000 feet with less than 1,000ft to go when we came around a ridge to the north. We were completely blasted by a steady stream of wind that felt like what I imagined the Jet Stream to feel like. We had to head directly into the wind on a slope of jumbled rocks and rime ice, ice that’s growing into the direction of the wind, which really slowed us down and sapped our energy.

We could look up now and see the summit in the distance. It was at least an hour or two away but now was within our grasp. Gregg started to say something to me with a desperate look on his face, but I couldn’t understand him. “What???”, I shouted over the wind. He was practically slurring his words, “I’m so cold, so cold and so hungry. So sorry. I must eat now!” He tossed his pack down and started digging around for food.

I watched him in a bit of disbelief. Here was my mentor acting like a starving madman, and he was violating a cardinal rule. If you stop for a break, the first thing you do is throw on your down jacket to conserve body heat before you do anything else. I felt weird giving Gregg any kind of direction, but I said, “Hey Gregg, Why don’t you put your down jacket on first? Then we can stop and have a break.” He said, “No! Too hungry! Must eat first!” as he was visibly shaking now trying to tear open his protein bar wrapper.

The final traverse up and left to the summit

The final traverse up and left to the summit

Then he began to explain that he was too tired and didn’t feel like he could make it the rest of the way. He said, “You are doing great and are strong enough to finish this climb. Take my GPS. I have all of the waypoints that you can follow to the summit.”

I was surprised. Why would he want me to go on? Clearly he wasn’t doing well and there is safety in numbers. It would be a huge deal for me to go on alone with my low level of experience at this point to summit by myself. I was looking up at how close we were to the summit and thinking about the fact that this was our second attempt and all the physical effort we had put in to getting to this point. But maybe I could do this and it would be a huge coup for a beginner!

Then Gregg broke through my thought processing and said, “Really! You should go! I will make myself a little fort from the wind and sit here and wait for you!”   Sitting without moving in the middle of a freezing jet stream for several hours when you are already too cold just didn’t make any sense to me. I literally looked at Gregg, looked toward the summit, looked at Gregg, and looked toward the summit again, calculating how long it would take me to get there and back to him. No way around it, it be at least 2-3 hours.

An image suddenly came to mind of Gregg’s wife, who I had never met in person, asking me why I left her husband on the side of the mountain. She was asking me this because in one scenario in my mind, Gregg was nowhere to be found when I came back down to regroup. I realized I didn’t have any good answer, that the allure of the summit was not great enough to explain to a loved one why I had chosen to go on.

I knew Gregg might continue to fight me if he felt I was turning around because of him so I said, “You know, I’m actually pretty tired, too! I’m ready to call it a day. Why don’t we head down together and we can take another break when we get out of the wind?” Gregg reluctantly agreed. I knew from my previous guided climbs that guides like to put the weakest person out front…partly so that they can better observe how that person is doing and pace the group for that person’s speed, and partly to avoid having the person fall on top of them. Not explaining my thought process out loud, I told Gregg he should go first. He looked at me for a minute, as if he was processing my words in slow motion, and said, “I don’t think I can do it. My brain feels like I’m in a fog and I can’t see the way down.” I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This guy is my leader. This isn’t good!”

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

“OK, Craig, follow me then.” Gregg and I began to work our way down the loose bouldery and icy section slowly but surely until we rounded the ridge. The wind suddenly fell silent and the temperature spiked with the solar radiation bouncing back up off the snow onto us. We stopped again for another break and ate some more. Gregg seemed like he was rapidly reawakening from his fog. I explained how I had been really concerned up higher and that he hadn’t seemed to be making much sense.

Gregg looked at me with some humility and said, “I think you made the right call. I don’t know what I was thinking. I must have been sliding into hypothermia.” We continued down the thousands of feet left to retrace back to main camp. On one of the steeper slopes, Gregg and I were heading down side by side when my feet slipped out from under me in the slushy snow of the early afternoon. I started to slide but my reflexes were fast. I flipped

Standing "tall" under a towering cornice

Standing “tall” under a towering cornice

over so quickly and arrested my fall with just one hand on the head. Gregg was standing above me looking down at me and said, “Wow, you really have learned some things in the last year!”

I beamed as if Gregg was my sensei and I was the young grasshopper who had just graduated from training! The mountains are a fantastic training ground with lessons to bring back to our every day lives. I realized that on this climb, the obscure Clear Creek Route on Mt Shasta, I learned to respect authority, but not to be afraid to ask questions or even take charge, especially if your life or that of others depend on it!

The Sound of the End of the World

In March 2014, I performed in “First Speak”, a personal storytelling exhibition at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend with 6 other brave souls that bared themselves to the world.  I told the story of the night on Makalu when I wasn’t sure I would live to see the next morning…

To describe the sound of an avalanche as a freight train running off a cliff is to do this force of nature a great injustice. The sound of an avalanche is the sound of the world ending.

It was 2010 and I’d been climbing big mountains around the world for just under a decade. I was invited to join a Himalayan expedition at the last minute and the stars aligned with the start date of a new job. The objective was Makalu. A mountain few have heard of but that demands great respect. It is the 5th highest in the world lying on the border of Nepal and Tibet, situated just 15 miles as the crow flies from Everest. Makalu is 27,700 ft high, twice as high as South Sister…and then add another 7,000ft!

Big mountains are really unique animals as a climbing objective. They often require months if not years of physical and mental training, and equally as long for acquiring the specialized gear and arranging logistics. Each mountain is different in its altitude, terrain and dangers, but the same formula is applied to most to allow the human body to undergo fascinating changes to adapt and perform to the rigors of high altitude.

Typically, you will trek in anywhere from 7 to 10 or more days to a base camp or advanced base camp where you set up your new home for the next few weeks or months. In Makalu’s case, we lived at 18,500ft for around 5 weeks total.

 

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

After you establish base camp, a rotation schedule begins where you climb higher to bring a new load to a new altitude, then return to base camp to recover. Climbing high stresses your body with the lower levels of available oxygen to spur the adaptive process while sleeping low gives your body a better chance at recovery with a bit more oxygen. The next rotation, you might spend one night at Camp 1, then reach Camp 2 and scurry back down to base camp. Effectively, you end up climbing the mountain several times over!

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Back to Makalu, my partner, John, and I made it to Camp 2 and spent one night at just under 23k ft without any major problems. The next rotation would be to go straight up to Camp 2 from base camp and spend the night again before hitting a new altitude at Camp 3. I really wasn’t feeling like I was strong and fast enough to go straight to Camp 2 in one shot, so I decided to spend the night at Camp 1 alone and then join my partner on his way up to Camp 2 for a second night.

The morning I was set to leave and head up to Camp 1 alone, I woke up to knock snow

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

off our tents at ABC. The weather didn’t look great and I was feeling a bit nervous, but I knew I couldn’t miss this rotation or I would be off schedule. I was also nervous about crossing a glacier alone, but I knew the terrain from the previous rotations and my partner and I had designed a communication system for my solo adventure.

It was 10:35am and I am packed and ready to head off on my solo adventure. It’s as close as I’ve come in my lifetime to knowing what some of the great explorers of the last century felt. John snaps a final picture of me and says, “Last seen alive!” I respond “Not funny.”

I am alone now. It’s eerily quiet with just the sound of my own breathing and the creaking and popping of glacial ice all around. The terrain is steep and undulating and every now and then, my steps cause a rock slide beneath me that breaks the silence with the sound of rocks clapping against each other as they tumbled. After a short section of scrambling and hugging a rock wall during a traverse, the going is getting easier but more dangerous as the tongue of the glacier was right above me, threatening to let loose at any moment. I move quickly, that is as quickly as high altitude will allow you to make it to “crampon point.”

“Crampon point” as we call it was a place where all of the climbers were stashing our heavy technical gear like mountaineering boots, crampons – the spiky things that you lash to the bottom of your boots, ice axe, harness, etc. That saved us time so that we didn’t have to carry it back and forth through that section every time. But it also meant that things were about to get more serious.

I am a lone figure out in the Himalayas taking the time to carefully don my technical gear.

Leaving "Crampon Point"

Leaving “Crampon Point”

There’s a certain freedom and magic about being alone on the flanks of a Himalayan giant. I think at myself, “How many other human beings have the opportunity to feel so alive?”

I take a few deep breaths to center myself and step directly onto the glacier ice with my ice axe in my uphill hand to stop myself in case of a fall and a trekking pole in my downhill hand for stability. I begin working slowly upward, one step at a time with a breath or two in between. Step, breath breath, step, breath breath, was my rhythm for hours.

I love the moving meditation of glacier climbing but it was interrupted as the weather got just plain weird. The sky became slightly overcast with really low hanging clouds and it became hot like a convection oven with the suns rays reflecting up and baking me. I strip all the way down to my lowest layers and even pull my t-shirt up through the collar for ventilation. I am panting and sweating and stopping every few steps to lean on my ice axe and catch my breath.

Then the clouds close in into a whiteout – a condition where you can only see a few feet in front of you – and the temperature plummets 50 degrees easily. I stop and throw a few layers back on so that I don’t lose too much body heat. But then the clouds came back and it heated up again.

I reach the apex of the slope to where things leveled out a bit but then the crevasses began. Crevasses are big cracks in the giant slow moving river of ice that threaten to swallow a climber whole. If I fall into any one of them, at best I can be killed in the fall or at worst be stuck in an icy grave for hours succumbing to hypothermia.

My insurance policy is to be on radio contact with John. At least someone would have a

Crevasse Crossing

Protected Crevasse Crossing

clue where I had fallen and I wouldn’t have to wait until the next morning to be found. When I was about to cross a crevasse, I would radio John, “Crevasse #1″ and he would return “Copy.” If there was a safety line, I would clip in and jump across. Then I would call out “clear” if I had successfully crossed the crevasse and he would copy again. I did that 6 times over crevasses on the way to Camp 1.

I jump across the final crevasse and a wave of relief floods me to see the Camp 1 tent on the horizon. It’s 4:30pm and we agreed to talk again at 6pm. I am able to make my fabulous dinner of chicken soup and tuna and boiled 2 liters of snow into water without incident. Some people loose their appetite at altitude. I think everything tastes fantastic!

At 6pm, I confirm with John that he would radio at 7am the next morning when he was leaving Advanced Base Camp so that I will know what time we would be meeting to head up at Camp 2 together. I told John I loved him and he joked that this was an official channel and he couldn’t say it back. In addition to being my climbing partner, John is also my emotionally unavailable boyfriend. That is the last time I speak to him.

After we hang up the radio, the silence is deafening. I have over 12 hours here alone at 21k ft without radio contact. Nothing to do but eat, drink, pee – life reduced to the bare essentials. Talk about feeling like you are out on a limb!

All of a sudden, there is a huge crack like thunder right on top of me followed by a

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

rumbling roar that sounds like a freight train tumbling off a cliff. I shoot over to the side of the tent, open the tent in a flash to look outside. It’s a serac avalanche, an avalanche of chunks of ice as a big as car tumbling down the glacier. I watch in horror as the seracs tumble down into the area where I had been a few hours before but I was safe for now. We had placed this tent in a zone that was supposed to be safe, but there always could be a catastrophic event.

It takes an eternity for the sound of my heart pounding out of my chest to merge with the reborn silence.

I literally had just relaxed when I hear another huge clap and roar, this time coming from behind my head. I reach over again and unzip the tent again…but this time I look out and there is a complete whiteout. I can’t tell where the avalanche is coming from and whether I should run or stay put. Not only can I not see where the avalanche was coming from, I can’t see where I am going.

I realize I am a sitting duck. All of the wide temperature variation during the day had loosened things up and there’s no reason to believe this isn’t just the beginning.

I think about whether I should stay or if I should go. I have no radio contact until morning

Last "Selfie" Taken

Last “Selfie” Taken

and it will be getting dark soon. Even with light, you can only see a few feet in front of you in a whiteout. If I fall into a crevasse, no one would find me until the next morning…or perhaps they would never find me since I hadn’t told anyone I would potentially leave camp. It was extremely dangerous to try to reverse my steps.

I know it’s a probability game either way and my odds aren’t good, so I choose to stay. I know I should probably have my life passing in front of my eyes thinking of all the things I still wanted to do with my life, but that’s not my style. I might have lost it if I let myself go there mentally. I just lay there alone in my tent, feeling the rush of adrenaline and stress hormones coursing through my body. Primal fear is something few of us every have the chance to really experience and it’s wild how intense all of your sensations get. The refrain that keeps going through my head is “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck, mother fucker, how did I fucking get here?” There was no one to blame – I chose this path and here I was.

I put on my climbing helmet. I know it wouldn’t save me from a direct hit of an avalanche, but it can at least help in the event a stray ice chuck hits the tent. I write in my journal, “John, I really do love you if you read this for any reason.”

Clearly I’ve survived to tell this tale, but I was forever changed by that night. I’ll never experience fear, risk, or life quite the same again after hearing the sound of the end of the world.