What Kind of Week Has It Been (Part II(A): Recovery & Rainier)

Good god. Where to start?

After I sprained my ankle and we found out that it was, indeed, enough of a thing that I had to stay mostly off it for a few weeks, the Denali Girls decided as a team that rather than all heading down to Rainier together on Saturday and Sunday of this past weekend, we would instead get up early as planned, meet at a coffeeshop to discuss the ramifications of my ankle injury, and then the other Girls would head off to Rainier to do a first planned overnight, and I would head off to figure out this whole “swimming” thing.

And so Saturday morning I woke at the wee hour of 5am to trek down to a Starbucks in Renton, where Leigh Ann, Carolyn, Jenn and I would talk it all through. I was worried the Girls would be more worried about me being able to hack it, after a month of not much activity, but we had a good conversation and came up with a bit of a plan (my end of said plan: more swimming) for how we’d continue to advance towards our training goals, and avoid having the Ankle of Gloom ruin all the fun this May.

After our meeting I gave the Girls a parting honk and cruised home to that first day of swimming I mentioned in my last post, and they rolled off toward Mt Rainier. Our plan for the weekend had always been to make it a bit of a gear shakedown weekend – we’ve been accumulating literal piles of expensive new gear – cozy down layers, technical equipment like trekking poles, ice axes, stoves and snow saws, and we had some decisions to make – decisions about which second tent we should take (we are already borrowing a first very bomber tent) and about the sleds – how does this sled stuff, work, anyway? We were going to go find out.

Secondary goals for the weekend were to have another good long conditioner, and to just plain old spend more time together – to create more of the kinds of bonds that take you through the moments in climbing that we describe as Type II Fun – the part of an adventure that is mostly fun when you’re laughing about it in a bar a few days later, and not in the moment where you’re dealing with it (I also recently heard this called “Pre-Joy” as opposed to the real deal – Actual Joy).

So: Gear test. Check. Gear decisions. Check. Yet another conditioner? All over it. Bonding. Yahoooo.

When the Girls left Starbucks without me, I had a mix of emotions. I was energized and grateful that the Ankle of Gloom wasn’t overly daunting for them, and I was full of excitement and the belief that this is a really, really great team. I wondered a little bit if it wasn’t maybe a good thing that I was being taken out of the picture for a little bit, as I had been the convener of the climb. Perhaps my absence would lead to everyone else getting to know each other a little bit better, without me there to talk everyone’s ears off…

And on the other hand, I was living a little bit in This-Sucks-ville, as here we were finally at our first overnight, and I wanted to test the tents…and try out the stove…and pull a sled…and just be out there. I wanted to go too!

Instead I headed off to the Y on Saturday and then again on Sunday, benefiting immensely from the time and guidance of a fellow climber and former swimmer and lifeguard who took the time to show me some techniques and acquaint me with a workout on Sunday morning, and returned from ‘Day 2 of Lap Swimming’ pretty pleased with life on Sunday (I even figured out the swim cap!) …until Paul called.

Me, totally stoked on the YMCA (and a lot of chlorine), until Paul called.

Jenn’s post did a great job of sharing the experiences of the Girls on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – well, here’s how it went on my end.

First I should say, though, is that one of the reasons I like climbing with these ladies is that we don’t take stupid risks. Did you see Leigh Ann’s note about her helmet being her favorite piece of gear? We’re not mindless rule-followers, but we’re not stupid, either (word to your mother – not wearing a helmet is stupid).  We take appropriate precautions, we plan well, and we play by the rules because they keep us safe. I’d love to say that I’m a balls-to-the-way wild-ass hipster climber, but really (you probably know this already) – I’m not. We’re smart, practical, driven women. We’ve got shit to do – we’re not interested in getting hurt, missing work, or messing around. We’re interested in climbing a mountain, standing on its summit, and returning to tell about it. Nothing too crazy here.

One of those rules we all normally play by, though, is the setting of an “overdue” time, and last weekend, we as a group – all four of us – completely overlooked it.

Given the way that Sunday and Monday went down, I’ve thought this over quite a bit, and I personally think the main mistake we made last weekend was to underestimate what it means to climb up to Camp Muir, the “basecamp” on Mt Rainier in winter. That whole winter part being the key.

Experienced climbers often climb Mt Rainier on a route called the DC Route (DC for Disappoinment Cleaver). The DC route is climbed in two or three days, and is widely considered the most basic (easiest) route to the mountain’s summit.  You leave from a massively accessible parking lot and Visitors’ Center called Paradise (which is entirely un-Paradise-like in the way that it is absolteuly  overrun by tourists on the summer days when we mostly climb), embarking on your climb from 5,400 ft. You hike up and up to Camp Muir, a bit of a (kinda vast) campsite, more or less, at 10,080 feet (on a 14,410 foot mountain, do recall). Camp Muir is used in our normal training months (more or less March through June, and/or beyond) as yet another conditioning hike to get ready for the climbing season – it’s kinda what we do for exercise, and just another way to workout. It’s “just Camp Muir.”

A wicked great image of the DC route can be found on highpressurephotography.com (except the turnaround below the summit was unique to that person’s climb – but look for Camp Muir in yellow)

So the girls went off to just go to Muir (in winter) as we had planned, with sleds and lots of lots of new (but technically tested) gear intended for weather much colder than anything they’d find on our “little” mountain.

And I didn’t really put much thought into it (besides occasional pings of jealousy when Saturday turned out to be a beautifully clear night…in the city) until Sunday morning, when Paul, a friend of ours and one of Jenn’s emergency contacts called, because another friend of Jenn’s had mistakenly believed that Jenn would be back Saturday night, and was growing concerned. I reassured Paul that the Girls had absolutely intended to be out overnight, and were equipped as such, and asked him to let Jenn’s other friend know, so she wouldn’t worry. But in the process, I suddenly realized that we hadn’t set an overdue time – a time when their emergency contacts would automatically initiate emergency protocols, so as to ensure they were ok.

A bit about how that works, for those who don’t know – first – climbing time and time of return is naturally fairly variable. The weather, the strength of the party, how a climber is feeling that day, if and what they drank the night before, and a whole slew of other factors can slow climbers down when they’re outdoors, and many times the most prescient thing for a slow party to do is to stay out an extra night, get a bit more sleep, or wait out a storm, and then head down when the climbers are more energized, the weather is better, or there’s more natural light to climb by. Because of that, many emergency contacts will be told to wait until somewhere in the vicinity of noon the day after a party is due back before initiating emergency procedures, because most of the time that group will trudge on out by itself, a bit wet, or with a sprained ankle in the midst, but none the worse for wear. So we normally give our emergency contacts a specific time at which “to worry,” when they should take action to make sure we’re ok, but are unlikely to accidentaly trigger, oh, I dunno, a full Search & Rescue response when the climbers in question are ok. 🙂

So on Sunday early afternoon, a bit  after Paul’s call, and without having heard from the Girls when I expected, I was surprised at myself, and shot off a text to the Girls:

Hi ladies! Just wanted to text and make sure you got off Mt Rainier ok! Hope you had fun – please let me know if you are out/down – I got a concerned call from Ms Carter’s eastside crew today because they didn’t know you were staying out overnight! 😛 (you so busted) 🙂

The ladies had planned on being back to Leigh Ann’s truck at Paradise by about 11:15, which we had discussed in advance, so that they could be back to the Park & Ride by 1:45pm, so that Jenn could be at work by 3pm – for which she’d mentioned she couldn’t be late.

At 1pm when I sent my text, I wasn’t that worried. Paradise has notoriously spotty cell coverage, and I figured if the Girls got out late they wouldn’t stop to send text messages, but would drive straight back to Renton to get Jenn on her way. I was mostly annoyed at myself for not having thought to ask more about their “worry time.”

After I didn’t hear back from the Girls by 2pm I began to assume they were delayed, and I realized that if I didn’t hear from them in the next few hours, it would mean they were spending the night on the mountain, because it gets dark at about 5:30 right now. Paul and I were in periodic and increasingly frequent text and phone contact, comparing notes on what we thought the story might be, and as the afternoon wore on I slowly began to be a bit more concerned about the team. I ran through their gear in my head: super bomber (very warm) sleeping bags and parkas, two 4-season tents, first aid gear because they’re all thorough like that, and a Denali-rated stove that I had personally tested in my driveway on Friday night before handing it off on Saturday morning. I didn’t really need to be worried, and I mostly wasn’t, yet.

The thing about worry (which I just explained to my still-concerned mother tonight), is that it’s contagious. When someone asks “Are you worried?” it seems to trigger more concern. Having climbed fairly extensively with Leigh Ann and a good bit with Carolyn, I know a lot about their decision-making, reaction to stressful situations, and tolerance for risk – in a vacuum, I wasn’t worried, and I probably wouldn’t have normally become so until heading to bed on Sunday night, because not having heard from them by bed on Sunday would mean needing to watch carefully for a message or signal for them on Monday. But having someone else (who was themselves concerned) ask the question, begged another: should I be?

And so I gradually became increasingly worried over Sunday afternoon. We had known that the weather was going to get blustery Sunday afternoon, but we’d assumed the Girls would definitely be off the mountain and back in Seattle by then – we didn’t even come up with a contingency plan for if they did get stuck, because (say it with me now) it was just Camp Muir. The forecast for Saturday called for new precipitation (several inches of snow) and blowing winds which could get up to 40-50 mph, up high. I’ve slept out in 30+ mph winds, and they’re loud, and feel violent, and eat lower quality 3-season tents for breakfast. So as everyone around me watched the Superbowl, I periodically checked my phone, and when no messages appeared, I became more worried.

Before the game started, Paul, myself, and Bree, Jenn’s primary emergency contact, had decided on a bit of a gameplan for what to do if we didn’t hear from the Girls as the hours passed. We knew our friends well enough that we felt confident they wouldn’t walk out mostly in the dark – for a little while, yes, but not at, say, 10 at night. So if we didn’t hear from them at 6 or 7 or so, we’d know they were overnighting, and would have a decision to make about whether to call the Park and let the staff there know that the ladies were overdue, or to wait till Monday morning, see if they walked out, and if not, then make the call. There are upsides and downsides to each option – the downside to calling on Sunday night was that it was really too early to call, given typical climbing conventions (that next day walk-out possibility) but then again, if the ladies hadn’t walked out already then Jenn was missing work at a job she loves, and nobody thought she’d be ok with doing that unless she absolutely had to – so were they all ok? The upside to calling was that Jenn was missing work, so we knew she was at least a little bit stuck in some way, and that if we called on Sunday night the Park would have more time to come up with a better plan in case a rescue really was needed, and they’d be ready to go sooner. Plus with that weather coming in…

It would be tedious to even begin to try to recount how 4 to 6pm on Sunday played out, but it would be accurate to say it was completely surreal. As the one person who knew everyone involved, their plan, and all of their emergency contacts (plus their gear and had a sense for their decision-making), a lot of the decision-making ultimately fell to me. Checking now, my phone records show that I made my first call to Leigh Ann’s emergency contact at 4:17pm on Sunday (as I watched the sky grow dark through the windows – that I clearly remember), that I followed it up with calls to Jenn’s emergency contact Bree, to Paul, then back to Bree, and so on, until we finally had a sense for a bit of a decision to call the Park, and I tracked down a phone number for and called Carolyn’s partner Jack at 5:57pm, explained the situation (which he, as a climber, had already anticipated) and he agreed that given the forecast, it might be appropriate to call the Park. In that window, between 4:17 and 6:06, I made and received twenty-five phone calls to four people, not counting the calls I made to the Girls themselves.

And so it happened that at a few minutes after 6, as the house at which I was a guest roared with the ebbs and flows of the Superbowl, I called 911, and asked to be connected to the Mt Rainier Ranger Station, because I wanted to report a climbing party that was overdue.

Condition ALL the Things!

Condition all the things

All of them. (Meme generated from the desperately awesome hyperbole and a half post, “this is why I’ll never be an adult:” http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html

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.