Thursday, June 30, 2016

Currently: June

Currently living/working in: In limbo! We returned from Alaska June 16 and intended on only spending 1.5 weeks in Colorado … but we are still here. Just lots of adulting going on and we can’t make definitive plans until we sort out a few adult matters. 

Current mood: These in-between periods are always the most stressful for me, especially when you factor in some other things. 

Currently excited about: A possible backpacking trip next week to the Wind River Range … with J’s sister and wifey!

Currently not excited about: Have I mentioned on this blog how much I despise going to the dentist? Small mouth, bad genes, a major sweet tooth and poor hygiene are not a good combination. 

Currently worried about: Things. 

Currently thankful for: Comprehensive and affordable health coverage (not many can say that, so I count our blessings). 

Currently proud of: My husband. I still can’t get over how brave and bad ass he is. Or how beautiful the pictures are. 
Currently regretting: So it has been 90 bazillion degrees here in Denver since we returned and I have all of 4 short sleeved shirts in my possession. Since we are typically wintering in Colorado and summering elsewhere, my wardrobe is lopsided. I am going to venture to say my short-sleeved shirts are somewhere in this 10x10 storage unit. I am hoping we can soon visit the storage unit that we packed up this time last summer. 
Currently amazed by: Alaska. Yes, I love Colorado, but don’t tell my in-laws that I love Alaska more. 

Current guilty pleasure: Spending time with nephews ... first with our trip to Alaska with our oldest nephew and now with the two little ones here in Denver. However, we love giving them back. 

Currently reading: “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viesturs (with David Roberts). I stayed away from the mountaineering books while Justin was on Denali, but now they are back in rotation. Ed Viesturs is one of the strongest and most respected mountaineers out there, but has some pretty horrific survival tales to tell. I particularly love Ed’s motto, “Reaching the summit is optional. Climbing down is mandatory.” 

Currently watching on Netflix: Season 4 of “Orange is the New Black.” We are halfway through this latest season, and I feel the same way I did about seasons 2 & 3. It’s slow-burning and I could do without it. But, we’ll stick it out. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Denali Top Ten List

Another guest post from Justin (edited by Patrice of course)!

My previous mountaineering experiences helped me predict what to expect on Denali, but as with anything, you really don't know how it's really going to be until you are wearing the boots yourself. And since I received lots of questions about life on the mountain, especially where we went to the bathroom, I thought I'd share my top 10 list of things that may make you go, "what, huh, no way!" Be prepared for A LOT of photos.

Where do you go to the bathroom?
Part of camp-building duties including building an outdoor bathroom in the snow. This includes, once again, cutting ice blocks with a saw and building walls high enough to protect you from winds and well, for privacy. There is no roof of course. And my 8 team members and 3 guides all pooped into the same small bucket lined with a biodegradable bag.
Every few days, the guides would tie up the bag and before we left that camp, we would dispose of it into a crevasse specifically labeled by the National Park Service. So for example, at Camp 3 (14,200 feet) where we spent 11 days, we disposed of 4 bags.

Up at High Camp (17,200 feet), the bucket got smaller.
There is a great exhibit of climber's gear in Denali National Park Visitor Centers.

As for peeing, you never pee in the bucket, as that stuff freezes. Instead, you pee in a hole dug in the snow near the bucket. At night, you pee in your tent in your very own pee bottle, which you must keep in your sleeping bag. It is too damn cold to step outside (no one wants frost bite on their, you know). You have to keep the water bottle in your bag so it doesn't freeze and empty it in the morning. If it freezes, the bottle will expand. Then when it defrosts, the pressure could cause the bottle to explode. I've heard a few stories about exploding pee and it doesn't sound pleasant. I only had to pee in my bottle 5 times.
Don't eat the yellow snow.

Sunscreen is your most valuable piece of gear.
When temperatures drop to NEGATIVE 40, it seems weird to think about using sunscreen. Even in whiteout conditions, you need to apply. The sun is ALWAYS out in Alaska in the summer. We had dusk between midnight and 3am, but the sun would barely dip behind the surrounding mountains. I brought my headlight to Alaska, but I didn't bring it on the mountain. I also brought an eye mask, but I didn't find I needed that (our sleeping schedule was so odd--there was a lot of napping).

Not only is the sun always out, but it is very strong being so high up. And, it reflects on the snow. So you need to put sunscreen on every piece of exposed skin--up your nostrils, in your ears. Sometimes the roof of your mouth can get burnt. Believe it or not, the sun reflecting off the glacier can bring the mountain temps up to 40 degrees.

The only color is in your dreams.
The views are white mountains and white ground on blue sky, with the exception of camps, where multi-colored tents dot the landscape like flowers. It is a very sterile environment without many places for germs and allergens to live. The views were still unbelievable, but just colorless. When we flew back to Talkeetna on June 3, the snowy peaks gave way to a sea of pines and I immediately smelled it: Earth. It was an amazing smell.

Not only is your tent crowded, so is your sleeping bag. 
I sure wish I was snuggling up to Patrice every night, but instead, I was snuggling with my pee bottle, water bottles, batteries, all electronics, sunscreen, boot liners, any clothes I wasn't wearing and some food. If not, you would be sorry. One time, I left my sunblock out and woke up to it being frozen solid.
Building camp is sometimes harder work than trekking to camp. 
We slept in 5 places on the mountain--Base Camp (7,200 feet), Camp 1 (7,600 feet), Camp 2 (11,200 feet), Camp 3 (14,200 feet) and High Camp (17,200 feet). When Patrice and I are backpacking, getting to camp is a huge relief. We have to cook dinner and fetch water, but the hardest work is done.

This is not true for mountaineering. You first have to build camp for your own tent, the cooking tent (called the "posh") and the bathroom.
This is the "posh" where the team ate together.
You first level out a "platform," using shovels, snowshoes and your hands, then you use ice saws to cut cinderblock ice blocks. You stack the blocks to build walls around your tent and camp to protect your home from the winds.  These walls need to be built like you are a mason, filling in every crack.  Every camp is different, but it would normally take us at least 2 hours to do this task. At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we probably cut well over 100 blocks to set up camp and many more in the days that followed to reinforce.

On Day 9 at Camp 3, I started feeling extreme pain in my left hand and attributed it to chopping ice. It grew to the size of a grapefruit over the next few days, but at least I had plenty of ice to treat it and the swelling went down eventually.

Over time, the ice blocks melt a bit and you have to keep making sure that wall is strong and dig out the area around the tent. You don't want to subject your tent to the winds. One time, I was standing outside and saw a huge tent flying toward me in the air. I jumped and grabbed it, but it dragged me down. The tent owners were very grateful I saved their expedition because their tent would have otherwise blown off the mountain.

Climbers make runways too. 
K2 is one of the companies that flies climbers on and off Kahiltna Glacier. Their "Otter" planes have wheels to land in Talkeetna on a normal runway, and skis to land on the glacier. The problem with the icy glacier runway is sometimes snow covers it. The new snow is too soft for the planes to land; they will sink.

Base camp from above
When our team climbed down the mountain to Base Camp (7,200 feet) on June 3, the basecamp director made an announcement for all climbers to strap on their skis and snowshoes. It must have been quite a site to see a hundred of us stomping along the glacier in unison!

You eat really well on the mountain.
Believe it or not, climbers eat really well on the mountain. Of course, you are still trying to still to the lighter weight foods, since you are hauling 22 days of food via sled and backpack, but still. Consider that the surrounding environment is a great refrigerator, though sometimes the setting is too cold and can freeze. I slept with my honey sometimes to keep it from freezing. My hummus froze, but it was in individual packs, so it was easy to defrost.

Part of my package deal with RMI Expeditions is they provide breakfast and dinner. For breakfast, we had bagels with cream cheese, smoked salmon, bacon, oatmeal. My favorite breakfast was on Day 15--pancakes with chocolate chips and peanut butter and pancakes with blueberries. The guides always had hot water for us but you have to bring your own coffee.
Inside the "posh"
For lunch, I brought guacamole and hummus, but often I was just grazing and snacking all day, eating a lot of Honey Stinger bars and waffles. My favorite snack was vanilla wafers with honey and Pringles, but I didn't bring nearly enough of those. I brought 2 cans of Pringles, and cached one can at Camp 2 (11,200 feet). I was dreaming about them when I finished my other can at Camp 3 (14,200 feet).
For dinner, the guides made some great creations. My favorites were mac and cheese with bacon and quesadilla with cheese and veggies. We always had a nightcap of "hots" (hot tea, hot chocolate or cider) as well and enjoyed a choice of 3 types of cookies about every other night--I always chose nutter butters.
Inside the posh with snow seats and tables!
Two months prior to leaving, I changed my diet to eliminate dairy. Some of you know I have a stomach condition that I've had since I was a teenager. In the past year, it has worsened and I have been experimenting with different dietary restrictions. Going dairy-free seemed to help. Well, cheese and hiking/mountaineering go hand in hand. I brought dairy-free cheese on the mountain and the guides substituted it in my meals. It was an okay, but man did I miss real cheese.
We were on the mountain for 23 days. We probably could have lasted another few days because 3 people left the expedition and had their food. But, no one really spends that long on the mountain and we were jonesing for some real grub by that point.
You have to make water.
When Patrice and I are backpacking, we can usually find a stream, puddle, pump, etc.

But on Denali, there is nothing running. Everything is frozen. You have to make your own water by melting snow. And this is no easy task, especially when you are providing water for an entire team. The higher you go in altitude, the longer it takes to melt snow into water. At High Camp (17,200 feet), it took well over an hour to boil a pot of snow into water.

Also, finding snow is difficult. Yes, it is all around you, but you have to dig deep to find good, clean snow. Never touch the yellow snow.

Every single thing (except poop bags) you bring on the mountain, comes off. 
It is amazing how much garbage you create in 23 days.

Flying on and off the mountain is almost as dangerous as climbing.
Our team got really lucky flying onto the mountain. We were right on RMI's intended schedule when we woke up on May 12 to see blue skies. We flew onto the mountain at 9am, sorted our gear and started the 5-mile/6-hour trek to Camp 1 (7,800 feet).

Flying off the mountain, however, was a different story. We got down to Base Camp (7,200 feet) early on Friday, June 3 and heard the news that no one had flown on or off the mountain for 2 days and there was a storm upon us, so it would probably be another 2-5 days.  Not the news I wanted to hear since I knew Patrice was waiting for me at the K2 Airport Hanger in Talkeetna. Of course everyone on my team wanted to get off the mountain after 23 days. There were about 100 climbers waiting to get off, and probably 50 waiting to get on. Our guides told us to set up our tents and sit tight. The base camp director still had us stomp out the runway, just in case.
I didn't even unpack my bag because I was hopeful we would leave! 
At about 7pm, the skies cleared a bit. Our guides reminded us not to get our hopes up high. But, minutes later, I heard the base camp director yell, "RMI, K2 is sending 4 planes. Pack up now, you have 10 minutes!"
 It was very chaotic, and the 45-minute flight back to Talkeetna was extremely turbulent, with the pilots dodging storms. But, we made it and I was reunited with my love.
If you'd like a "tour" of all my different camps on the mountain, check out the video I just uploaded on YouTube.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Justin's Reflection on Denali

This is a guest post written by Justin (okay, it was edited by Patrice)!

It's been about two weeks since my 23-day adventure on North America’s highest peak concluded. I think Patrice did a wonderful job piecing together bits of information to keep you all informed on my team's progress on the mountain, but I thought I'd dive a little deeper into how it really was for me.
Stopping a mere 500 feet from the summit was very much a dissapointment for me. I have dreamed about climbing Denali since I worked in the backcountry of Denali National Park in 2004. Since 2013, I built up my skills with climbs of Rainier and Shuksan and beefed up my wilderness certifications. I truly worked hard to train, educate and be able to attempt this beast. 
However, mountaineer legend Dave Hahn says, "It is not the summit that’s important… It is the trying that is important." And I believe this is true. I pushed my limits and learned a ton. I endured intense weather. Every day, I helped shoulder the back-breaking work of hauling heavy loads uphill, then facing 2-4 hours of building camp, which involved cutting ice blocks with a saw and building walls around our tent. I always reinforced camp when we were in our holding pattern during foul weather, which meant waking up every hour to dig out our tent and make sure it didn't collapse.

Sure I wish I summited with my team--everyone wants to bag the actual summit--but I have no regrets on following my gut instinct and prioritizing my own safety. Plus, for someone who has a record of successes with thru hikes and climbs, it is humbling to have a few failures.
When I reflect on my climb, I can see how things stacked up leading to my decision not to summit. They say the mental demands of climbing are just as tough as the physical. They are right.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect for me was being away from Patrice and having virtually no contact. As you know, we spend every waking moment together in work, play and everyday life. Having our team break up for 23 days was one thing, but the most brutal part was having no contact. I did have the SPOT satellite transmitter, but it was only one-way communication that allowed me to let her and all of you know where I was on the mountain. No reciprocal communication. We debated about buying a Delorme InReach 2-way communicator, but of course we didn't pull the trigger.
I had no idea how she was. She admits she was a wreck. She was stalking everything Denali-related: weather reports, guide blogs, individual social media accounts. She heard reports from other expeditions and friends on the mountain about rescues, frostbite and even death. Not hearing from me and not knowing how I was worried her (and my mom) endlessly. 
It all started in Denver when I was packing up to leave. My mom's grim remarks and sending me off with a letter that talked about death and not returning definitely got in my head.
In Alaska, I met up with Bobby, my climbing and adventure partner of many years. We had been talking about this for years. As much as I wanted to climb Denali, I was relieved when Bobby said he would join me. I knew during rough patches on the mountain we could count on each other for support. We would be on the same rope team, in the same tent and get along great. 

So when Bobby left the expedition for his own personal reasons, I was truly distraught. I supported his decision, but it took me some time to grasp that the next 2-3 weeks, he would not be there. Obviously, you get to know your teammates pretty well while sharing confined spaces. But I no longer had that support, help and comfort of someone you know like a brother. My tent mate was a nice lady from NY, but unfortunately, I was the one to primarily build and dig out camp. 

I also questioned my abilities. Bobby is a much better climber than me and had more skills than anyone else on the team. If he could not do this, in mind I thought there is no way I could. 
This thought came full circle the last few days leading up to our summit. If I am being honest with myself and with you guys, my head was no longer in the game after moving up to High Camp at 17,200 feet. I lost a lot of stamina withstanding 11 days of the lethargic waiting game at Camp 3 (14,200 feet). It was long and boring. The weather was some of the worst the guides have ever seen on the mountain--three huge winter storms with 8+ feet of snow and record-breaking 80+ mph winds. Two more team members had to leave the expedition. I also watched several medevac helicopter rescues of other climbers with severe frostbite. At this point, less than 50 climbers made the summit with the success rate hovering around 20 percent.

We spent 2 nights up at High Camp (17,200 feet). My female tent mate and I squeezed into a tent with one other person. A good analogy would be jamming 10 Sumo wrestlers into a Fiat. Both people also snored, so adding that fact to my racing mind, I did not sleep. Plus, the altitude finally caught up to me. Even the spryest among us were like elderly salmon swimming upstream. Simple tasks like eating became monumental projects.
Still, on June 1, I nervously downed warm, caffeinated drinks and donned my warmest clothing along with my 5 other teammates. Summit day was not only 12 hours long, but the most dangerous terrain. I certainly was not feeling confident in my skills. My guide was being very critical of my breathing and walking. After the plateau (rightfully called the "Football Field"), we started up Pig Hill, about 100 vertical feet of climbing. By that point, I couldn't hear the words coming from my guide. He instead sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, "wha wha wha." I was tripping on every step. I knew I could summit, but could I get back down? Would I jeopardize the safety of my team?
And with that, I made the difficult decision to stop. The summit was tantalizing close and I watched my teammates hit it.   
To say this was the most arduous task I ever attempted would be an understatement. I knew this was not going to be a cake walk, but it was harder than I ever could have imagined. As I said, it was the most beautiful, terrifying, educational and mentally altering experience of a lifetime. I would not trade the ups and downs, the highs and lows and what I learned about myself, because the journey was truly good for my soul.  Plus, this mountain, and plenty of others, will always be there. 

Stay tuned to hear my top 10 list of biggest surprises on Denali!