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
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.
The 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 around 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
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
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! 🙂
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!?!?
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.
Mission Peak – Main Trail
Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top
This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.
Wunderlich Skyline Loop
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!
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
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
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 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
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
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
“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
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!