How We Built Our Team

Climbing with girls is rad...because we're always stoked. :) Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

Climbing with girls is rad…because we’re always stoked. ūüôā Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

Despite the fact that lots (and lots, and lots) of teams fail to summit, or have a few party members fail to summit because of group dynamics, there isn’t a whole lot of guidance out there on how to build a really good, really strong expeditionary climbing team.

Knowing that I wanted to put together a team to attempt Denali, last summer I spent a good deal of time reading all the women’s climbing books I could get my hands on. I read them one after another, back-to-back, and fast, in the window that led up to and included the beginning of Washington’s climbing season (May and June, most years).

The books we’ve read and are reading are included under our resources tab, but the books that were most informative for me were Arlene Blum’s. Arlene is completely inadequately summed up by calling her amazing – I will write a post about her sometime soon, but I almost don’t want to get into it here for fear that I won’t do it justice, after 9 pm at night.

Suffice to say that Arlene was part of the generation of women that began pushing elevational (and latitudinal) limits of what was considered acceptable for women to climb in the 60s and 70s. She was part of the first group of women to summit Denali as a young twenty-something (in 1970), taking over for an older and more experienced climb leader when she succumbed to altitude sickness. From there she kept on climbing, despite an elevational ceiling imposed not by women’s abilities, but by the male-dominated climbing clubs of the time, and eventually organized the first successful all-woman climb over 8,000 meters (there are only 14 8,000m peaks in the world!), of Annapurna I. She is truly a foremother to modern women climbers, and, lest I make it totally obvious without admitting to it, she’s absolutely a role model for¬†me, personally. I see a lot of my character traits in Irene, and much of my current thinking on climbing overlaps significantly with the perspective she brought to climbing in her own early days.

So last summer I read Arlene’s¬†books, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, and Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, with keen interest, after one of the women who helped teach me to climb recommended them, some years ago. From there I read Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Women of K2, and then consumed Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top, whole, and fast. This on top of innumerable climbing tales featuring all-male climbing teams (of which there are, literally, millions), and any other climbing book I could find on Ed, my boyfriend’s, bookshelves – of which there are¬†many, for he is an accomplished¬†climber, himself.

I had known I wanted to climb Denali since the end of my first summer – the main question for me had always been with whom, and when.

Three summers of climbing sounded like not quite enough experience, so I settled on four. Four years of climbing experience at the rate I was climbing would include scores of climbs and attempted climbs, with dozens of climb leaders, and innumerable opportunities for appropriately challenging problems to arise, and for problem solving. Four years gave me time to progress into the Mountaineers Intermediate climbing program, to participate in the lectures and fieldtrips they offered, and then to teach them to the following year’s students, to really cement my knowledge. It gave me time to teach a Student Instructional Group or Basic Climbing “SIG” with Ed, and to learn with my students what hadn’t already sunk in – to really understand why we do what we do in the mountains, and to make my own choices about how to climb, what to bring, what to eat, and how to lead. Knowing that Blum’s group had summited¬†in 1970 added a nice, settled feeling to the decision – I would aim to organize a climb for 2015.

My two main climbing partners, and myself, headed to Spickard and Redoubt last summer. Photo Credit Rena Chinn.

My two main climbing partners, and myself, headed to Spickard and Redoubt last summer. Photo Credit Rena Chinn.

And so the main question became who to climb it with. I had long wanted to organize a women’s climb, but when Ed and I got together, my idea quickly evolved – he could join¬†us, and I would stick the idea of an all-woman climb on the backburner, for the moment – focusing on making an all-woman climb¬†happen for¬†the next big climb that comes¬†around, so that Ed would be included in this one. Ed has been one of my two primary climbing partners for the last two years, so it seemed only natural for us to do it together – until he decided he didn’t want to climb the mountain for what would be his second time, and I realized, again, how much it really meant to me to put together an all-woman team. And from there, I began to get really, really excited.

Leigh Ann was an obvious first choice, and someone who I had always imagined on Denali with me, whether with Ed as well, or with a group of women. We were in the same “Super SIG” (expanded instructional group) during our first year of climbing, and our friendship has grown as we’ve notched climbs together on our belts (or harnesses, as the case may be). Leigh Ann turned out to be the perfect climbing partner for Ed and I, as a couple – she’s fast, like Ed, so can keep up with him as needed, but is adaptable and easygoing, like me, and shares the same decision-making framework and limit for acceptable risk that I do – making for a very easy, fluid partnership in the mountains.

Leigh Ann and I relishing the "perfect" campsite in 2013. Photo Credit: Ed Ison

Leigh Ann and I relishing the “perfect” campsite in 2013. Photo Credit: Ed “Ison”

I first (very drunkenly) told Leigh Ann that I wanted us¬†to do Denali at a Halloween party a year and a half ago, but already knew she would be game for it. I’ve never known Leigh Ann to be anything but game when it comes to heading out for a climb – so we were on, in word, if not in deed.

I spent a lot of time this past summer thinking about how to identify the most appropriate partners to fill out the rest of our team, and trying to hold back on telling everyone I knew that we would be attempting Denali (and holding back is not my strong suit).

But I wanted to be close to the fall before we¬†started feeling people out so that we would know who was feeling strong, who was recovering from injuries, and who had a work situation in flux or otherwise didn’t have the finances to go for this mountain, this year. Embarking on a Denali climb is an expensive, expensive proposition, so our future climbing partners needed to both have the ability to self-finance the trip (or pay themselves back later), and also needed to have enough of their own initiative that this wouldn’t be something we tempted them into – the climb needed to be their own, belonging as much to each of us, and organized as much by all of us, as possible.

In August or September I reached out to Kat, a female climber I knew mostly by her reputation as a strong climber, who had been part of a team to attempt Denali the year before, to see whether I could sit down with her for a drink and some beta (another vocab word – beta is a climber term for advice, guidance, input – information about the climb itself), and to see whether she might be interested in joining us for the climb.

It was important to me at that point that we not decisively invite people to join us, off the bat, but rather get together with other women who were interested, to explore the possibilities. Everything I had read indicated that compatible personalities were a major determinant of a successful and perhaps more importantly enjoyable climbing experience, so I felt really cautious about not jumping in with both feet. Rather, I wanted to convene a meeting of interested climbers, and see where things took us from there. Perhaps we would become two all-woman teams attempting the mountain, as I later told the first group of girls that met, or perhaps there would be one group to emerge for this year, and one for next. I just wanted to get us all together, and talking.

Kat was wonderful, and provided tons of great beta, advice, and input, and let me know that although she didn’t know yet whether she was¬†interested for this year, she knew of two¬†women climbers who she believed most definitely were: Jenn, and another strong woman climber we know, Randi.

I tracked down my emails from last¬†fall tonight, and the first one went to Leigh Ann – yes, she was definitely, really, still in. We met over lunch, we schemed, we planned, we sent the email to Kat. Kat mentioned Jenn and Randi, and on the eleventh of September, I excitedly forwarded Kat’s email, and sent the following note (verbatim)¬†to Ed:

“I’m seeing the possibility of a great and powerful group of female Mounties getting their climb on… ūüėÄ You already know Jenn – Randi is the woman we always see at the gym in the morning. I just got even more excited(!)”

I think of climbers in the Mountaineers as members of a climbing “generation”: each generation of climbers goes through the Basic Class and is taught by Intermediate students who were Basics in the years prior. Those same Basic students then take the Intermediate course, are trained on how to teach their peers to climb, and then help more established leaders to teach the next Basic class, in turn. Above all of these folks are Climb Leaders, and SIG Leaders, and Mentor Group leaders, who are our most experienced climbers, and who are paying it back – or forward, really – in spades. It’s an apprenticeship model, and it works well, and creates micro-communities out of cohorts of Basic classes that turn into lots of things – some connect future climbing partners, many germinate romantic relationships, and a good number even turn into climber marriages (which occasionally yield¬†climber babies!) It’s a tight-knit community in part for this reason, and one through which information flows naturally.

So I knew of Jenn, even though I only knew her enough to say hi by name. I knew that she is an excellent rock and ice climber, that she is a Climb Leader within the Mounties, and that she is a volunteer with Seattle Mountain Rescue¬†(booooooonus!) Jenn was part of a preceding “generation” of climbers (she took the climbing courses a few years before me), but she’s part of Ed’s extended group of friends, and I like and trust the group of friends that likes and trusts Jenn!

I knew Randi even better. Randi was a part of the group of climbers that followed my cohort, and I had volunteered on her first-ever conditioner. I knew she shares my “women can do anything” mentality, and I knew how physically strong she is, and how hard she had worked in the two years since, and how actively she climbs.

This was sounding promising.

Here’s my first email to Jenn, misspelling of her name included:

Hey Jen,

I hope you’re well and having a great summer, and have been getting out to do lots of climbing!
Leigh Ann Wolfe (who is copied) and I are planning on attempting a climb of Denali next spring, and I wanted to get in touch because Katrina (who we’re also talking to) mentioned she was aware that both you and Randi¬†are also interested in attempting the mountain.
 
Leigh Ann and I are looking for ideally two but potentially three other climbers with whom to make the attempt, and are currently thinking it might be nice to climb with other women, provided we can identify other women climbers who are of similar mindsets and compatible demeanor(s) to our own. Is this something that might be of interest to you?
 
Please let me know your thoughts, and apologies if this is perhaps a bit out of the blue – we’re just putting out feelers to women that we think are interested and may be contemplating the climb already, and you were one of the women whose name surfaced. ūüėČ
 
I’m away without internet access next week for work, but if you are interested, it would be great if we could get together sometime during the first full week of October, with Leigh Ann and perhaps with Randi and Katrina, if they’re interested, to explore the possibilities and perhaps start making some plans…
 
Thanks! ūüôā

And yes, I’m a dork, and yes, that email was awkward and goofy and also brimming with excitement – but both girls wrote back to say yes(!) they were interested.

Suddenly, we were five maybe climbers Рand five is a decent-sized party. I was stoked to know of other women who were interested, excited about who the climbers in question were, and also slightly panicked, because if everyone wanted to go, then Рboom! We had a climbing team. Holy hell. That was quick.

For the record: we do sometimes climb with dudes. Me, Carolyn, Leigh Ann, and our friend Alexey on Shuksan... Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

For the record: we do sometimes climb with dudes. Me, Carolyn, Leigh Ann, and our friend Alexey on Shuksan…
Photo Credit: Bryn Fluharty

I had other female climbers (many other climbers) on the mental list of who I wanted to reach out to, or who I thought would both be a strong and complementary climber, but at that point I put on the brakes – I didn’t want things getting too big, too fast, and neither did Leigh Ann. This would be our first expeditionary climb – we were determined to do things carefully, and right.

Ed and I have chatted at length about optimal climbing team size, and over the last two years I’ve really come around to his “small is beautiful” approach. I wanted an even number of climbers, ideally – every climbing party I knew of out of Seattle had eventually split into two smaller parties (one that tired of the mountain or was due back at work or that got cold and sick of their team, or just sick in general, and headed home, and one that headed to the summit), so I wanted to ensure we had enough people to create flexibility there. I wanted to make sure we had the ability to divide into two rope teams as desired (you attach to your fellow climbers by tieing into a rope on these climbs), as climbing in pairs and on the rope often makes you safer on a glacier. But I didn’t want to get anywhere near more than six, and we already have five! And it was already the beginning of September! So I asked for a meeting, so that we could begin to figure this expedition team thing out.

One a rainy Seattle night in October we met at Randi’s place for what I can only describe as a bit of a climbing team “awkward first date” in only the girliest way possible – over tall glasses of wine, fancy cheese and bread, and olives (have I mentioned I love climbing with women?) We talked about our goals, our interests, our climbing styles, our risk tolerance, and our personalities. We talked about possible impediments to our participation, and we agreed to start conditioning as if we were going, and to confirm officially by December 1.

At this point we were right on track with what any Denali climbing guide will tell you is the standard timeline for this kind of thing. Spend the fall identifying and firming up your team, picking dates, etc. Spend the early winter getting your conditioning (cardio and strength training) into place, acquiring gear (because it’s expensive! Have I mentioned the gear is expensive?!), and setting up the logistics. Mid-to-late winter for pinning down food, timeline, reserving flights and such (and buying more gear). Late winter for the grown up stuff like putting one’s emergency notifications in place, packing up food and equipment (and buying even more gear).

So we were right on time, but I was nervous about waiting until December 1. Randi and Jenn had important decisions to make and approvals to get in their own lives – what if they both couldn’t make it? What if they both¬†could? Were we¬†the¬†team – our team? My team? The team I would climb Denali with?

I’m not going to tell you how many times I dreamt about Denali climbs in November – it was a lot. The part of the climb that failed (in my dreams) was always the leadership and logistics part – what I knew would likely be my piece of the pie, just based on my personality. I dreamt of failing my team, while I waited, tortuously, for the team itself to be finalized.

Jenn responded on the 24th of November, and her energy was electric:

My boss just approved my vacation for Denali!!! I’m in!!!¬† YAHOOO!!!

Randi responded on December first, much more subdued Рshe was unable to commit at that time, and would take herself out of the process in order to enable us to go forward and set a definitive team in place for the spring.

So we were three. Three people can reasonably (perhaps arguably?) climb a mountain like Denali, no problem. Some people would even argue that a three person team is best – one less personality to work into the mix, but enough people to do a traditional crevasse rescue, were someone in the party to fall in.

So once the base of our team became me, Jenn, and Leigh Ann, the decision became about a fourth – did we want a fourth? Did we need a fourth? In a climbing club full of awesome women, how the hell were we going to figure out which one person we wanted to ask?

So at our meeting on December 1st, we settled on two. We asked Miho, a climber from my cohort of Basic students, and we asked Carolyn, the only person we discussed that each of us had climbed with, with a clear understanding that if both said yes, we might in fact become five!

Both Miho and Carolyn would be excellent choices for our team, and both fit what we needed – we had sought from the beginning to only ask women who had themselves talked about big mountain climbing, including on Denali specifically, before, and women who really independently push themselves to go out and¬†get after it – who get themselves out there, day after day, because that’s where they want to be.

My first climb with Carolyn was a single-day push up Mt Baker's Coleman Glacier, some ...three and a half years ago. Photo Credit: Meredith Trainor

My first climb with Carolyn was a single-day push up Mt Baker’s Coleman Glacier, some …three and a half years ago. Photo Credit: Meredith Trainor

We also were realizing, I think, that we would benefit from another introvert, or at least another quasi-introvert. Jenn and I are big, energetic talkers (imagine if I would have talked you through this blog post – it would have been¬†exhausting¬† (but fascinating…right?)), and Leigh Ann is more of an introvert – she’ll stay quiet unless she disagrees with someone, and she is someone who values her down time. We needed someone else who tended toward this vein, to balance us out. And we wanted someone strong. And skilled. And determined. Both Carolyn and Miho fit the bill.

I emailed both women towards the end of the first week of December, and by the 8th we had our answer: Miho was out due to family obligations; Carolyn was freshly back from a month trekking in Nepal, knew each of us and what she was getting into, checked her vacation time availability, and was in!

And so we were a team. Suddenly, really, a real team. A¬†Denali Team. This was really happening! And I walked around the house for a night, shaking my head, staring slightly dazedly at Ed, and repeating: “We’re really going!”

And so we are.

But before we finalized our commitment, we had another meeting – and it was an awesome meeting. More wine. More hummus, more cheese. Some fruit. Many more hours. I think there were even olives. (Lady climbers FTW, right?) And we went through it all again.

Leigh Ann, Jenn, Carolyn and I built our team, slowly and deliberately, by learning about ourselves, and about our teammates.

Over several hours we talked about our personalities Рwe shared our Meyers-Briggs personality types, reviewing and even citing the parts of the descriptions that we felt most demonstrated who we are and how we think. We talked about what we do in the mountains that can be annoying, and we talked about what others do in the mountains that annoys us. And we found we shared a good amount of overlap.

Spoiler Alert – the Denali Girls is:

  • one ENTJ: The Field Marshal, or the Executive. Really. That’s me. And Hilary Clinton. And Napoleon, for crissakes.
  • one ENFP: The Inspirer, or the Champion. That’s Jenn.
  • one INFJ: The Protector, or the Counselor. That’s Leigh Ann.
  • one INTJ: The Scientist, or the Mastermind. That’s Carolyn.

In doing all this extra legwork to describe who we are, we had the opportunity to learn more about one another as climbers, but also to begin to bond. It’s a strange thing to tell people you don’t yet know very well about the ways in which you’ve realized you can be annoying on climbs. It feels cheesy to talk about your personality type, and how you feel it, but in some ways that was the point – actively bringing down the walls that we keep up around people we don’t know well, and beginning to build relationships. To laugh about our failings. To acknowledge our weaknesses. To tell others, in advance, and when there was no risk of failure, how to tell¬†us if we need to simmer down, or go take a breather, or rally and just get it done. We were giving each other the beta on how we could interact successfully as a team, and we were building camaraderie in the process.

My first Mentored Lead, with Carolyn's support Photo Credit: Carolyn Graham

My first Mentored Lead, with Carolyn’s support
Photo Credit: Carolyn Graham

And that’s how we built our team. Carolyn joined us, and became our perfect fourth – strong, capable, experienced, and wayyyy more patient with¬†navigation than I am. Suddenly we weren’t just “a” Denali team – we were a¬†strong Denali Team – something we each saw reflected back from our peers when we told others of our intention, as well as amongst ourselves.

And a last note, about building a team. Right before we decided to go for it, we had a conversation in which everyone admitted to at least a bit of doubt about whether we could do Denali, about whether this was the right year, we were fit enough, etc. But then we asked ourselves whether there is ever a time where people feel completely ready, completely sure of themselves,completely confident, and perfectly fit Рand we all said no. The thing I learned while building our team this fall is that the difference between being a Denali Team, and talking about climbing Denali, is just the decision to put your cards on the table and do the thing Рstop procrastinating, stop wondering, and do it. Try it. Risk failure. Commit to the expense and the training and the risk of injury and the time. Make up your mind.

Just go for it.

And so we will! ūüôā

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. ūüôā

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! ūüėõ (you so busted) ūüôā

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.

Dwell in Gratitude

There is a beautiful turn of phrase that I’ve come across over the the last few years, one that is very much with me these days, as we endeavor before and after and around the edges of our work lives to prepare for the Denali climb. I’m not sure where I first heard it, but I think it was somewhere amid the intersection of yoga classes, those sometimes cheesy inspirational social media posts, and perhaps a former rooommate-turned-yogini.

That phrase is “dwell in gratitude.”

Often aspirational – I can’t count the number of times I’ve said “I’m trying to dwell in gratitude” teary-eyed, over a glass of red wine with a close friend, when life seemed to be going sideways – dwell in gratitude sums up the way I want to look at the world for the rest of my life: I want to live in, and experience my life from a place that starts by recognizing how much I have to be thankful for.

Since the first time I heard the phrase I’ve sought to apply it to the way I live my own life, and to “dwell in gratitude” not only for what I’ve been given, but for the community of people who support my dreams and ideas of myself, and in so doing help make them real.

In few things is this more true than in my lived experience of climbing.

I dwell in gratitude daily for the Mountaineers, an organization without which I might still be fumbling around the many bases of our jaw-droppingly beautiful northwestern peaks, wistfully gazing towards the summit, wondering what it would take to get up there (and down) safely. I dwell in gratitude for the structure of the organization, the people who stand behind it, and work for it, and volunteer for it, and for the facility that supports our training. But more so than just the organization itself, I am oh, so, so grateful for the community it has given me, and how the people in that community have and continue to inform and enrich my life.

The support we have been given, and have felt, from our friends in¬†the Seattle mountaineering community has been very humbling, even though in many ways we’re just getting started. When we began telling people beyond our closest friends that we would be attempting Denali, I felt unusually shy about doing so- I believe in my abilities and those of my friends, and we are doing the “homework:” the prep, the training, and the research, but I still wasn’t entirely confident about how people we knew would respond to four women – we four women – heading off to do Denali ourselves. Not in the way of “without men,” per se, but simply as a private, non-guided, self-led climb.

The reaction however, and of course, has been wonderful, and oh so supportive. We have benefitted from gifts of loaned gear, advice, and the kindness and time of our friends and community members as they have sat with us over a glass of wine or a beer, and shared the stories of their own attempts on the mountain, answering questions about what gear choices worked, what didn’t, and why they did or didn’t succeed in reaching the summit.

Every time I’ve sat or chatted with these many genuine and inspiring friends, I’m struck by how much climbing is a collaborative and self-compounding activity – each climber passing on anecdotes of hard-earned experience to the next, in many ways “breaking trail” for the climbers that will attempt the same summits, sometimes long after they have headed home. I am wordless, literally, at how much gratitude I feel for their time, thoughtfulness, and many offers of support, or loaner gear. Their many kindnesses go beyond what anyone could reasonably expect, and do so time and again.

And I dwell in gratitude for the other Denali Girls – such strong, capable, smart, powerful, bold and inspiring women – I am so grateful to be in a place, both geographical and metaphorical, where I have a community of these and other strong, confident mountain women – it’s such an incredible sisterhood. So tonight as I share our nascent blog efforts with my larger community for the first time, please know how grateful I am, and dare I say we are, for the many people who are and have supported us along the way. I am so proud to be a part of this community of climbers, and thinkers and doers, riskers and achievers – I am so grateful for the support and guidance of each of you, every single day.