The return to civilization, and thoughts of pecan pie

“Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory” – Ed Viesturs

Guest Contribution: Paul Bongaarts

On Saturday morning (5/30) I was in Leavenworth helping instruct with the Mountaineers Crag (rock climbing) course. It was a cloudless blue sky day, which also ended up meaning temperatures that approached 90 degrees in the afternoon. Since much of the rock climbing in Leavenworth is outside of cell phone reception, I wanted to periodically get into town to sync my phone and see if there were any updates from the Girls. Sitting in an air conditioned coffee shop with an iced americano didn’t hurt either.

To my delight, on Saturday afternoon this came through:

The Girls had made it to 17,000 feet and were now striking distance from the summit.

The other thing on my mind was the weather. Not the weather in Leavenworth, but the weather on Denali. The forecast as I remembered it had a few clear days, and then a week’s worth of snowfall approaching apocalyptic levels. I was hoping the Girls would also have access to this beta and be able to plan their summit attempt accordingly. They are all experienced mountaineers and are well aware of the fact that you not only need a safe and clear window to get up to the summit, but you also need that same level of safety on your descent down.

On Tuesday morning (6/2) I saw that the Girls checked in at the 14,200 ft camp. Makes total sense, but we will have to wait for their return to find out if they made the summit or not. Either way, they had started safely making their way back down the mountain and that was a relief to me.

For fun, I also checked the weather conditions on the summit, and here is what it looked like.

Denali Summit (20k ft) forecast for June 2, 2015 (

Denali Summit (20k ft) forecast for June 2, 2015 (

Yes, for Tuesday, you can read that as “wind chill in the -50’s and over THREE FEET of snow over the course of the day.”

Of course the NOAA forecast is a bit less pessimistic, but still forecasting a big weather system coming in over the next 2 days.

NOAA Forecast for June 2, 2015

NOAA Forecast for June 2, 2015

Good thing it looked like the Girls were headed to lower elevations!

But now comes the other half of the journey, getting back down the mountain. For the uninitiated mountaineer, this is often assumed to be a trivial task in comparison to the level of effort required to get up to the summit. But more experienced climbers like the Girls know that for a big objective you need to keep something left in the tank (both physically and emotionally) to get you back down the mountain safely. This is a much faster process than going up since you do not have to deal with going slow due to acclimatization, but is still a consistent effort of putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the bottom.

I like to think of the challenge as battling “I’m-done-with-climbing” syndrome.

For the non-climbers, I think the best analogy is Thanksgiving dinner. Contemplate this epic event you’ve been looking forward to for a long time, and recall how when you finally sit down around the table and start eating it is amazing. But around the 3rd glass of wine and second helping of stuffing you are starting to slow down. Then, you hit a wall… You are done with eating. Done. Shut it down, bring the bill, put a fork in me, whatever… And you don’t know how on earth you’re going to finish these five pecan pies all by yourself.

Seriously, I’m not eating any more pecan pie.  Are you kidding me? (Photo: J. Hakim, Wikipedia CC)

Seriously, I’m not eating any more pecan pie. Are you kidding me?  (Photo: J. Hakim, Wikipedia CC)

Climbing has a bit of the same effect on longer routes. Energy and enthusiasm runs high at the start of a climb. Over time, this erodes. Stronger climbers will have a higher tolerance and last longer, but everyone has a breaking point.

It might go something like this (paraphrasing the recent adventures of a few of our Seattle Mountain Rescue friends)

Pre Climb:
“Hey, who wants to circumnavigate Mt. St. Helen’s in a Day?!?”
“Awesome, I’m totally in!”

Climb Start:
“Going light and fast!”
“Yeah, let’s do this!”

Midway point:
“Is this whole thing really 33 miles?”
“Hmmm, I thought there would be more water sources…”
“This would be a great place to camp for the night!”
“Yes, yes it would be… But let’s not think about that.”

Somewhere else along the way:
“I’m drinking muddy water out of a puddle, and I don’t care…”

Within the last few miles back to the car:
“Fuck… This… Shit…”
“The next time we do this, let’s make sure there is less walking on sand and ash for 33 miles…MmmKay?”

And so it goes.

The point being, that when a climbing team is cognizant of the fact that “I’m-done-with-climbing syndrome” is in fact going to happen at some point, they can be better prepared for when it hits. Hopefully for the Girls, they will manage through it, descend the mountain and get a quick weather window back to civilization. A hot meal, cold beer, and a warm shower is the generally accepted prescription for I’m-done-with-climbing syndrome.

With their latest check in yesterday from 7,700 feet, it seems that should be just around the corner!

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