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.
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.
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… 😀 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:
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. 😉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! 🙂
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 – and 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 – boom! We had a climbing team. Holy hell. That was quick.
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 – she 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.
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 – we 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.
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 – and 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 – stop 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! 🙂