Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
Aaron Sorkin of ‘West Wing’ and ‘The Newsroom’ fame is notorious for titling multiple episodes of his different shows “What Kind of Day Has it Been,” a quote which he attributed to a movie producer who used the question as a kicking off point for review of the day.
Last night as I drove home from a wonderful Town Hall talk by famed climber Reinhold Messner, the “week” version of those words ran through my head over and over, some 20-plus hours into what proved to be anything but an ordinary Monday…
But before I get ahead of myself –
Earlier last week, on Sunday, the 25th, we Denali Girls embarked on a first daytime conditioner, and I was.so.pumped. to be getting out there together. You could have fairly called me hyper.
Our training hikes mostly take place at night, in the dark, but back in November or December we sat around a table with our calendars out, and planned an extended run of weekend-long or long single day weekend outings to work on specific skill sets (which we then outlined in a shared document). We were very organized about it, as we have been in most aspects of the climb planning, and I was so stoked that we were finally getting outside together to keep making things happen!
Carolyn planned the outing for us, and did a great job. Her aim was for us to get out on an accessible but long day-hike, carrying most of the Denali-specific gear we have to-date, and get a long-ass, vigorous conditioner in: 6+ hours of continuous movement, as she put it.
As I drove out to meet the Girls in the wee hours, I ran through the order of operations for once I arrived at the trailhead (moving efficiently to get from car to hiking is not my strongest suit), and then switched to thinking about all the cool blog posts we could write – this was going to be such a great day!
And it was a great day. We got out and got moving, it was a beautiful, ridiculously warm morning, and we were chatting and comparing notes on gear, trip ideas, conversations we’d had about the climb – a perfect outing for a great group of friends.
After gaining some elevation we came upon a stream (Denny Creek), with a prominently placed sign highlighting that the only somewhat-deep water can occasionally rise abruptly, and a log crossing that was clearly washed out. We considered hopping across anyway, but since we were at the beginning of our hike, didn’t really want to risk slipping into the water (or having Jenn slip into the water, since as our most petite member, she has the smallest stride), and so we opted to go poke around the hillside above us, to see if there was an easier way across.
A half hour or so of some hillside exploration later we decided there really wasn’t a better way, that we still didn’t want wet feet all day (we thought we heard another party slip and splash in after we left the crossing area), and decided to head back to the trailhead and switch over to nearby Granite Peak for a drier training hike, as it was still early. We headed back to the area next to the river crossing, paused to consider whether we were being wimps about it, and then as we turned on the ice-filled path to head down and out and over to Granite, I completely wiped out.
In the process of pivoting and turning to head off on my left foot I somehow managed to pull one heckuva banana peel slip and slide, and arc’ed up through the air, and down hard onto the ice, landing with my full body weight on my right ankle, effectively spraining it, although that wouldn’t be confirmed until the next day.
A sprained ankle is a major drag for a climber (any kind of ankle or knee injury is a major drag for a climber), mostly because we are so very dependent on those very joints to enable us to walk uphill. It is a major drag for this climber for two reasons: one, because I already was feeling a bit behind the others on conditioning after a minor back issue and a nasty cold compelled me to miss a couple of our training hikes earlier in the month, and two, because I sprained the exact same ankle this time last year, and re-sprains take longer to heal, and increase the likelihood of re-injury in the future.
And then there’s the mandatory break from our group climb conditioning, as the sharp pain in my ankle and resulting swelling clearly weren’t going to allow me to trek rapidly uphill anytime soon.
Admittedly, my little skate across the ice really threw me for a spiral last Sunday. We were finally getting out! I was feeling strong and fit! It was a beautiful day! The Girls are awesome!
And so when I left the girls (as they headed off to continue their hike and I drove myself home to ice), I was stewing. I bought a pizza and a beer and sat in the sunshine in West Seattle and hated everyone who walked by smiling, which was everyone, because it was sunny out, and then I hated on them some more. And I hated my body for being weak and I hated myself for not pushing through the back pain and the cold the previous weeks and conditioning anyway, and I was just – so pissed. I headed home to ice and elevate (or RICE: Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation) and proceeded to RICE my ass off for the next twenty-four hours, like clockwork – if this was really happening I was going to do everything right – no, perfectly – and I was going to heal as fast as humanly possible and get back out there. I went from livid with outrage at my own clumsiness to furiously determined to catch up to the other girls and not lose my conditioning, and my resolve only grew from there.
The next morning a quick trip to the doctor confirmed our fears, and I was instructed to take 3-4 weeks to let things heal before again carrying weight.
3-4 weeks is a long time when you only have four months left! I wanted to punch holes in things. I wanted to punch holes in things a lot. But instead my ever so thoughtful athlete-doctor helped me shift to focus on reorganizing my training, and figuring out how to keep my cardio up and on the increase, while meeting the requirement of staying off the ankle at the same time. She considered all the options, then gave me her recommendation: lap swimming, and lap swimming only, for one to two weeks, followed by one-two weeks of biking and rowing, while slowly adding walking, and then a StairMaster with a pack, and then real honest-to-god hiking conditioning back in over those last two weeks, – all assuming my ankle didn’t hurt.
Lap Swimming. Really? I haven’t swum laps since…visions of my hometown public swimming pool filled my mind. Since I was a scrawny sixteen year-old trying to pass the lifeguard exam because I just liked being certified in things, really. Because I just wanted to see if I could pass it.
So, lap swimming.
One of my favorite life lessons that climbing has taught me, is that every goal can be reached, if you are willing to focus, double-down, and really work for it (ask Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, if you don’t believe me!) You just have to really bust your ass and earn it. I had planned on applying that experience to Denali, in the 3-4 weeks and moreover, 3-4 months to come, but instead, I began to refocus. I would bring the same approach to healing, and recast my training over these coming weeks as a “micro-training” period. I would be serious about not using my ankle, serious about not weighting it, serious about doing the PT exercises my wonderful friend and PT Sarah showed me, serious about eating right, reducing (note: not eliminating – sorry!) alcohol consumption, and serious about god-damned lap swimming. I was about to become a lap swimmer, and I would do it every day, for a month. Period.
By Tuesday of last week I had suspended my Crossfit subscription for the month (my doctor said no Crossfit), found the nearest YMCA, figured out what it is that one needs to equip oneself with to become a lap swimmer with the help of some amazing friends and a long Facebook post, met with my physical therapist, consulted with a naturopath on diet, and added all the public lap swimming hours at the Y to my Google calendar. Shit was getting real.
By Thursday I had a swimsuit, goggles, and a swim cap (I didn’t know exactly why I had a swim cap yet, but whatever, I bought one), and on Saturday morning I timidly but determinedly became a card-carrying member of the West Seattle YMCA, donned my swimsuit (too tight), peeled the protective covers off my goggles (hello, raccoon eyes!), left the swim cap in the packaging and in my locker, and limped my bum ankle slowly down the old lady ramp and into the pool to get my freaking swim on.
And that about brings us up to speed on where I was at when the Girls left for their first overning training outing to Mt Rainier National Park on Saturday…
It should probably not surprise me that Leigh Ann and I both decided to write posts about conditioning in the same week – since that’s what life is focused on, right now.
In addition to our perpetual need to “Get the Gear,” the main thing we have to work on as a team right now is getting strong – massively strong. As we climb Denali we’ll have huge packs – approximately 60+ lbs on our backs, and we’ll be towing long sleds behind us that carry even more of our gear, food, and gas for the stoves, to distribute it, so that we can actually lift our backpacks.
By comparison, a weekend-long climbing trip in our native Pacific Northwest often merits a backpack that weighs about 40-50 lbs (depending on how light your gear is and how much, to borrow from Leigh Ann’s language, you’re ‘willing to suffer’ to go lighter and therefore have less stuff). And when climbing in the PNW, we’re not dragging additional gear on sleds – so this requires a big uptick in our normal training, for all of us.
All that means that in terms of fitness, we’re focused closely on two things: Strength training, and cardio. “Conditioning” (short for physical conditioning or training) is the term we use for all of this work – we’re getting “into condition” for our climb. A third element, movement specific training, I lump in with strength training, here – movement-specific training is practicing the actual movements we will use in the mountain, which in our case is predominantly the act of walking slowly upstairs while wearing a heavy backpack…for four weeks!
So how do we “condition all the things?”
We do cardio. We get cardio fitness (which down the line provides us with the ability to breath and stay in motion while working hard to walk up hill) from our conditioning hikes, which each of us is doing once or twice a week, together with the other Girls and a few like-minded (read: similarly masochistic) friends.
We meet up after work, in the dark, at a local trailhead, and pop our headlamps on, plus a layer (fleece, puffy coat, etc or two) that we can take off once we get moving and warm up. We carry trekking poles so we don’t slip in the dark, and in our backpacks right now we each carry 35 lbs of equipment – some of it is just large bottles of water (a new take on the term “water weight”) which we’re carrying as a stand in for all of our usual equipment (I don’t carry my ice axe on conditioning hikes, for example – although Leigh Ann does, because – she’s Leigh Ann). Some of what we carry is actual gear – we each carry first aid kits and the rest of our “10 Essentials,” both because doing so has been drilled into us by the Mountaineers over the years and because we want to make sure that if someone slips and falls or cuts herself, we can patch her right up and keep going, or descend.
We’ll steadily up the weight in our backpacks in the weeks to come, increasing it by 5lbs every few weeks or so, until we’re more closely approximating what it means to truly “climb with weight,” and can move easily and steadily with about 60lbs on our backs. And when we get to that point, we’ll descend our training hill, then turn right back around and do it again – to be sure we have that kind of stamina.
These night hikes are a form of cardio, and also provide some of the movement-specific training I mentioned earlier – walking slowly uphill (it’s muddy this time of year!) while carrying heavy weight. Doing so makes our legs stronger, most obviously, but it also makes our core stronger – it tones our ab muscles and lower backs, which are the muscles that you use when you start to slip and catch yourself, or rotate to the side to pick something heavy up, or scoop up a wiggly little kid. This kind of training isn’t the kind that will give you a six pack, but will make you strong in a way that I’d argue is way sexier than a six pack. A strong core is critical for climbing (and life!), and all this conditioning just builds it up, day by day, climb by climb, step by step.
For strength training, we’re all doing something a little bit different, and I’ll leave it to each of my teammates to explain what they’re doing in depth – but generally speaking: in Leigh Ann’s case, she’s doing Crossfit, and is a Crossfit trainer herself; Jenn is working with free weights at home and doing extra trips up our local conditioning peaks, plus running; and Carolyn is doing extra longer conditioning outings and other forms of contextual fitness training (I might have just made that term up – what I mean to say is she is doing the sport to get good at doing the sport – climbing makes you better at climbing, for example, and running better at running).
For me myself, it’s a mix. Each climber has to know her own body, limits, strengths and weaknesses – mine include a generally weak body, as compared to most of my climbing partners – I start over from a baseline of zero, in terms of strength, every winter, if I don’t make sure to maintain by staying deliberately active in what are usually our “off-season” months, from November through February (when we “only” cross-country ski and snowshoe and backcountry ski and scramble and and and…)
My strong bits are my legs and butt and my back/core, generally speaking – I’m very proud of those muscle groups (and, hell, they way they look in my jeans!) The gaps in my fitness are definitely my arms – you don’t necessarily use your arms as much as your legs in alpine mountaineering (although don’t get me wrong – climbing around boulders or pulling oneself up onto a ledge does work the arms), but if we were to fall and be sliding while climbing on Denali, we’d use a move called “self-arrest” – and that is heavily arm reliant – so I want to ensure those are strong as well.
(I tried to find a video of ice axe self-arrest to share with you all here, but – LORDY- they are SO BAD. Google it but don’t consider what you see the “correct” way to do it. Yeesh.)
This year I sought to mitigate these known weaknesses and gaps starting in September, by training for and running my first half marathon, to keep my cardio conditioning up and keep moving during the beginning of our rainy months. I also do a lot of informal yoga around the house and before and after workouts – yoga, at its heart, is about stretching – this helps me heal and stay resilient, to avoid injury.
In terms of strength training, then, my goal is to focus on the arms and building overall strength – so I surprised myself, and turned to Crossfit. Leigh Ann and I have climbed together extremely consistently over the last few years, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch her get stronger (and stronger…and stronger) as she’s been deliberate and dedicated about her training. It got to a point where even without having recently gone climbing she could more or less “just show up” and go out to climb, because her overall fitness was at a level that she was, more or less, “ready for everything.” And I thought … I want that!
So in addition to those one or two nights a week of hiking with weight, and some yoga, I’m doing Crossfit at 6am two to three times per week at my local gym. Getting myself to a Cross-fit gym has been something of an exercise in mind over matter: I’ve always sworn I would never get into weight-lifting, because I found the concept repellant (as I’ve said since high school, the simple concept of amassing weight for the sole purpose of repeatedly picking it up and putting it back down is nonsensical), so to find oneself hoisting a metal bar (with admittedly the most embarrassingly tiny weights ever) over my head, repeatedly, exhaustively – it’s really a big mental transition. But it is getting me to weight train, it is getting me stronger, and I like the community at my local gym, which is co-owned by a man and a woman (cool) and has a lead trainer who is also a woman, and who, despite almost certainly being younger than me, can probably bench-press my body weight (although that’s probably the wrong term for it. So many new words, in weight-training!)
So there’s the strength training component. Other aspects of training that I’d like to build in over the coming months include getting back to running once or twice a week – I dropped it like a bad habit shortly after finishing my half marathon – whoops. And in a perfect world I’ll pick up a class or two of hot yoga each week, to help with recovery – the time after a work out when you let your muscles heal, and also build themselves back up. My doctor is a marathoner and yogi, and has prescribed “more yoga” (in writing!) every time I’ve seen her for the last two years, so that’s on the list, as well.
It’s hard to know when you’re doing enough, though, when you have never done something at this scale before. What does “Denali Fit” look like? Will all our weight training, night hikes, movement-specific training, stretching and extra cardio add up to being ready in just shy of what is now three and a half months? How strong is strong enough?
The answer to these questions will become clearer as we get closer to Denali, and when we begin a planned series of weekend overnights at Mount Rainier National Park, to be spent reviewing our technical skills, getting our winter camping habits and camp setup nailed down as a team, and testing out our fitness by, hopefully, climbing Rainier itself. It helps you get a sense of where your fitness is for a 20,000 ft mountain when you have a 14,000 footer eye-balling you as you cross over the West Seattle Bridge on your commute each day!
Those outings begin for our team on January 31st, a wee 11 days away (and I kinda can’t wait). In the meantime, we’re headed out on yet another night hike tonight – to ensure we condition all the things.
Think of us enjoying the “summit” and the stars tonight, if you crawl into bed early. We’ll be out there, getting strong.