How to Get onto the Glacier: Part I

Heading in.

Heading in.

When we first began to get serious about planning our Denali climb, a few key logistics presented themselves as the obvious “first steps” to actually getting ourselves onto the Kahiltna Glacier, where the climb begins. The first was choosing a team – Leigh Ann and I knew we wanted to do the climb long before that part of our process began (a full year before we first stepped onto the glacier), but the actual team formation part largely took place in the fall before our climb. A quick Gmail search turns up an email to Leigh Ann on September 3rd 2014, confirming that “we [were] really doing it” in spring of 2015, and asking about getting together to do more planning. By mid-September we had met with a friend from the Mountaineers climbing community who had previously attempted the climb, and with her input added a few more names of potential partners to our short-list of folks we wanted to talk to, who we thought might be interested.

By September 22nd emails to a round of potential climbers went out, and meetings, and emails, followed. We set December 1st as a do or die date (for our third, fourth, and potentially fifth and sixth climbers to confirm), and on that date Jenn committed and was in, and another opted out.  We wanted to climb with at least a party of four because redundancy (when climbing on a rope) generally makes climbers safer – by having two separate ropes, with two teams of two people climbing, we would have a built in back-up system for the parts of the climb where the climbers need to be roped together. We were open to going up with five (although an odd number can be hard in case of a dispute, as some minority will always be outnumbered) and would consider six, but we thought a party of four was probably the sweet spot – it would be challenging enough trying to manage communication and ideas about how to do the climb between four smart, competent, and thus justifiably opinionated climbers.

So after our December 1st opt-out, we sent another pair of invites on December 5th, and by the 8th, Carolyn was in, and we had our climbing party! With a diversity of skill-sets, a diversity of interests, and a diversity of strengths, I felt good about the women who were embarking on this crazy adventure together, and believed that our complementary skills and backgrounds would prove crucial for our success. And they were.

After settling one’s climbing party, it becomes easy to focus in on the training – but that’s not what this post is about. Once we settled the who, we needed to decide on the when, in order to apply for our National Park permits, and request specific dates. Denali National Park and Preserve (which is the park’s formal name) has an application process that most groups complete months in advance, in order to get the ideal “fly-on date” for their group’s interests and needs. We were lucky in that in our case, we had all agreed upfront that although many groups manage to make the summit in 21 days, we would give ourselves a full four weeks of time off (which, for a variety of reasons but mostly the need to travel to and from Alaska turned into first 26, then 24 actual climbing days), so as to not need to rush it. We reasoned that if we were going to do that much work, and that much prep, and spend that much money, we didn’t want to get up to the 17,000’ camp and then have to bail just because one party member had to be at work that Monday. This turned out to be an extremely good decision, and one of the keys to our ultimate success.

In scheduling the climb, we knew the target for being on the summit was to get there right around the first week of June, but we also knew that that was when everyone else would be doing the same – and in particular, many of the guided groups. Guided groups are sort of their own thing on a big mountain on Denali  – for the one thing, the guides themselves are total badasses, and insanely capable mountaineers. But for another, their clients can vary in caliber, and sometimes wildly. There were some guided groups (or guided individuals) that a smart climber just wouldn’t want to find herself behind, so we elected to try to plan around the biggest rush on the mountain, and go when there would be slightly lower numbers of other climbers standing between us and the summit. We didn’t want to be the very first people on the mountain (in hindsight that would have been fine, although the weather proved to be terrible at that time), and we reasoned that we knew were generally pretty good, proficient climbers, and that we planned to train hard to climb strong, so decided to aim for a slightly “early season” climb, and risk being a bit colder, and in slightly less predictable weather, in order to have more of the mountain to ourselves. This was also a good decision – to a point. More on that later.

As such we set our “fly-on date” (when we would fly to the glacier from the small “bush”/tourist town of Talkeetna, Alaska), for Monday, May 11th, about a week or so before the Park Service’s online calendars began to reflect non-stop daily climber orientation sessions, and committed to one another that we would each go all in on gear, carrying negative 40 degree sleeping bags and jackets so that we wouldn’t risk going in early, and then having to bail because we were too cold.

The way it works in practice is that to climb Denali you fill out an application on the National Park Service’s website, and then are routed through a federal government portal to pay the $365 or so for your (individual) climbing permit…and then you wait. Your application has to list previous (relatively) big mountain climbs you’ve done at altitude (mine listed the Washington volcanoes, for example, plus a few other peaks), plus your teammates, emergency info, and other essential information. I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s pretty rare for a climbing team to not get a permit based on their application, but I’d be interested in seeing the data data (in case anyone reading this post has seen any). It’s at this time that your team gets a name, something that we anticipated when we began our process, and created this, the The Denali Girls blog. Team names are kinda dorky and lame, but we figured we might have the market cornered on being an all-female team (turns out there was at least one other, although they were a pair, and climbed a MUCH harder mixed  [ice, snow, and rock] technical route). Officially, on our paperwork, we were the Denali Girls of Seattle, but by the time we landed on the glacier, we were just the Denali Girls.

Eventually the government writes back to say “yay, go for it!” and then it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. In addition to the money for the permit, you need to then reserve your flight onto the glacier (that little hop skip and a jump from Talkeetna to Basecamp on the Kahiltna glacier). We flew Talkeetna Air Taxi (which is not the cheapest) and will always be grateful we made that call and tell others to do the same – but more on that when we get to the part of the story where we fly off the glacier, and back to Talkeetna.

So it was a security deposit, and then $585 per woman to TAT for our flights, and then we needed to back-plan for our flight from Seattle to Anchorage, and arrange a shuttle (bus or van) from Anchorage to Talkeetna. Shit was, as they say, getting real, but we were helped massively here by a generous (and kind of totally amazing!) grant from the American Alpine Club’s ‘Live Your Dream’ Fund, which is  supported by The North Face– each of us received some $500 to help us pay for this flight. As we pointed out in our applications, the AAC literally was making our dream possible by helping to get us onto the glacier to start our climb – and we all were, and remain, incredibly grateful for that support! (And for the sweeeeet AAC and North Face hats they sent us with our grant checks! Woot!)

We knew we needed at least a good half day of waking hours to get our stuff organized in Talkeetna (you fly to Alaska with it packed a certain way [hint: EXTREMELY CLEAN STOVES! EXTREMELY WELL-PACKAGED TOOLS AND SHARPS!] and then need to repack it for the small plane flight), so our idea was that we’d aim to fly out first thing on Monday, May 11th, and have that whole day available to us on the glacier. Some parties fly onto the glacier and set up at basecamp, stay a night or two, and then begin their climb, but we’d received good beta from a fellow climber that if we got on the glacier early enough we could hightail it out of basecamp and do the 5.5 miles across the lower Kahiltna to the 7,800’ camp, and in so doing avoid having to set up that first camp at all (because word to your mother: setting up camp is exhausting and the less you do it, the better). So that was our plan.

The rest of this post will continue later this week, but for brevity, we’ll leave it there, for the moment.

Because we want this blog to be useful to others who are planning for their own climb, we’ve uploaded our planned itinerary, below. Check out the link for more detail and a pdf of our Excel spreadsheet (nerds, I know).

Denali Itinerary – Climbing Schedule Denali Blog Restart 2

10 Questions with Leigh Ann


Enjoying my UL Down hoody underneath Steven’s Pass chair lift. Rough winter to hone snow skills!

  1. What has been the biggest change in your day-to-day life since beginning to train for this climb? What are you doing this spring that you wouldn’t normally be doing, at this time?

Most of my thoughts revolve around some aspect of the climb, it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking about! From training, to being terrified of how cold it’s going to be, to wondering if I’m training correctly, to figuring out the best clothing system, I can’t get away from it!

Normal climbing season prep involves training hikes, but I don’t usually start ramping up until right before spring where this year I started in late December. I’ve never prepared so much for one particular climb or with this much weight in my pack. I usually concentrate on going fast, which is not the case here. Slow, heavy, and steady wins the race!

  1. We’ve each purchased or borrowed a ton of gear for the trip – what two or three new Denali-specific new items are you absolutely loving right now, and is there anything that simply didn’t work for you, and that you returned right away?

I bought my first pair of bibs for this trip and I’m totally stoked on them! Per usual, I had to buy a handful to find the right ones. The glass slHYPBLU_D1ipper ended up being Mountain Hardwear Drystein bibs. These things are awesome! They’re meant for climbing (alpine and ice) unlike most, which are generally built for ski touring. The difference is that they’re super light and articulate well at the knee for high stepping, something climbers do but skiers don’t.

Even though I’ve had some serious issues with Patagonia’s clothing this season, I’m super stoked on two items I’ve purchased. The Ultralight Down Hoody and the Active Mesh Boy Shorts. Do yourself a favor and don’t even look at the price of the Down Hoody. Ha, I knew you had to look! It’s F*CKING expensive, but unfortunately one of the only lightweight down jackets that actually fits my athletic build. Yes, I tried the very similar, cheaper Patagonia jacket and it’s apparently not meant for women with strong shoulders or arms and the same goes for so many other down jackets. I literally flexed my arms and then basically felt like the Incredible Hulk about to send 5,000 goose feathers shooting through the air! Although it’s a pretty funny image, it was a bit frustrating. I guess at least the super-duper expensive jacket that actually fits is kind of like my new wooby.


  1. Which logistical or planning-related decision are you feeling most thoughtful about, or has you worried?

Food! Nutrition is such a vital part of this climb and directly correlates to performance and recovery. One, there is the big question of how many calories do I need? This number depends on current weight, lean mass, and energy expenditure, so it’s not as simple as “everyone should aim for 4,000 calories a day.” It’s much more complicated and individual than that. Two, there is the issue of long endurance days at high altitude. This trip requires a ton of fuel, however, altitude affects the way your body burns fuel and affects appetite. Things that taste good at sea level don’t taste the same at altitude. Luckily, I have some high altitude experience and generally know my likes and dislikes although preferences can change from trip to trip. It’s a balancing act of bringing enough of what you’ll actually eat, but not too much.

  1. What’s your go-to snack for food on the mountain? The Denali Girls are planning for hot breakfasts and hot dinners – what will you be eating the rest of the time?

Plantain chips and nuts and dried fruit mix. I generally prefer salty and bitter foods over sweet, so it’s critical that the majority of my snacks are on the savory side rather than sweet like candy bars and cookies.

  1. What new food or drink products have you added to your daily life since starting preparations for the climb? What do you like the best?

I haven’t really added anything totally out of the norm. I generally have a high training volume so I’m constantly trying to stay fueled with whole foods and performance products (protein powder, gels, BCAAs), it’s just the type of fuel has shifted a little. I’ve added more carbohydrates into my diet to accommodate the higher volume of endurance training, but honestly I’ve been trying to add carbohydrates for several months now, which has proven to be difficult. However, with this type of training I can’t really get away with it anymore. I found myself losing motivation halfway through a long workout, which is not like me and not good for training. Now when I say increase, I mean going from a low carbohydrate diet to what’s considered “normal”. I normally eat a ton of fresh veggies (an absurd amount really), protein, and a modest amount of carbs.

One specific product that I added, thanks to the suggestion of fellow trainer Jim Hein, is Generation UCAN  Superstarch. It’s a slow burning carbohydrate powder that you mix with water. It’s been an awesome addition to my pre-workout routine!

  1. What’s the most interesting, most complicated, or most useful skill or technique you’ve learned or perfected over the last few months?

Crevasse rescue. In general this is the most complicated glacier climbing skill and one I already knew. However, adding HEAVY packs and sleds complicates things a lot. I realized when we practiced the self rescue side of crevasse rescue (hanging ourselves off the Mountaineers roof) that all of my practice prusiking up ropes had been done on a rock rope, which is typically a larger diameter than a glacier rope. Using prusiks toIMG_2055 ascend a glacier rope is ridiculously hard! The prusiks are either too tight and are really hard to move with big gloves or their too loose and slide, making ascending nearly impossible (yes, correct size of prusik cord was taken into consideration and tested). Since the West Buttress route on Denali involves fixed lines (fixed ropes that help with ascending), we all have to have ascenders, which allows us to travel up a rope without sliding back down. After some testing we realized it made a lot of sense to use our ascender and a tibloc or traction pulley in place of prusiks. This required a whole nother round of testing! Now we’re super confident that we can quickly and easily get ourselves out of a crevasse if necessary. Let’s just hope we don’t actually have to use this skill!

  1. What’s still on your Denali to-do list? Give us a sample of the things you’re about to get to, or make decisions about, this week.

Socks and baselayers. For some reason these items have been the most difficult for me to settle on. I have a pile of base layers that I’m still contemplating, as well as waiting for new, light weight ones to show up in stock. I have a few different styles of socks being delivered this week and I hope to make that decision as soon as they arrive.

  1. What does your training or conditioning schedule look like this week, for example? Is there any one part of your physical conditioning that has most noticeably changed your physique?

No big noticeable physical changes for me. Honestly, I’m surprised how much muscle mass I’ve been able to hold onto with the endurance training. I’ve made it a priority to continue strength training, however it looks a lot different than what I was doing. I went from training Olympic lifts (snatch, clean & jerk), strength lifts (back squats, press, deadlifts, etc.) and CrossFit-style workouts 5x a week to 2-3 upper body (high volume) strength training sessions and 1 lower body (high intensity), 2-3 heavy pack hikes, 3-4 circuit, interval, or CrossFit workouts a week. Just like my fuel, my training has just shifted priorities from strength to endurance.

  1. What are you reading or listening to right now? Denali books, or training books, or books to give you a break from all of the above?

My favorite on the current reading list:

Nutritional Needs in Cold and High-Altitude Environments: Applications for Military Personnel in Field Operations,

Bernadette M. Marriott and Sydne J. Carlson, Editors;

Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Institute of Medicine

I like to nerd out on these things. Again, thanks to Jim Hein for pointing me to this resource!

  1. What, to you, would make for a successful climb? Is there one moment or experience you are most looking forward to?

A successful climb will be one where we feel like we gave 200% of our effort, while walking away safe and happy. It’s about the experience, not about the summit. I look forward to sharing this experience with these ladies!