Denali Prep Top 10: The Best (and the Worst) of Preparing for Denali


Every part of preparing for our Denali climb has been a revelation, and some of those revelations have been more satisfying (or more aggravating) than others. As I ran past my still-not-yet-unpacked gear piles (from Sunday night – eek) on the way to work this morning, I ruminated on the highs and the lows of a big project like Denali.

My Top Ten Highs (“…these are a few of my favorite things!”)

1. Feeling, getting, and being stronger. Exercise is such a funny thing in our society – if you chalk it up to “work,” or pick something tedious (cough, stationary bike, cough), exercise can be so unbelievably unpleasant. Just another thing to do, like cleaning the toilet or unclogging a shower drain, and anticipated about as much. But if you can re-frame exercise, view it as part of your life, relish the endorphins (that happy little post-exercise buzz it generates), and can dwell on what it gives you (a bit more definition in the shoulder and bicep, more visible musculature around the neck, or the slight ripple of muscle in your thigh as you take a confident step uphill) it can bring you so much joy. I get such pleasure out of feeling strong.

2. Simple movements. My sprained ankle was a liability this month, but it also opened up a whole new range of movement, and a long list of ways to expand on the movements I would otherwise be doing. Swimming for cardio when my ankle couldn’t bear weight turned out to be an unanticipated adventure, and the movement a pleasure – the long stretch to reach as far as possible forward and then push the water behind me, the zen of stroke, stroke, breath. I’ve decided to keep a short swimming workout in the mix and have been doing it after my upper body workout, and relishing that movement.

And it turns out that this simple pleasure in movement is not unique to me – the New York Times carried a recent feature on how mindfulness – finding and focusing on simple movements can help people get more out of their workouts, and enjoy them more. You can read more here.

3. Discovering (and rediscovering) new ways to train. Both lifting and stair-climbing come to mind. I have never relished traditional weight training and lifting, but our team spent a long Sunday at Leigh Ann’s Crossfit gym, dragging “sleds” with weight around and practicing safe lifting movement, and it has become fun (and a good test of my commitment) to build that into my workouts (pairing it with swimming helps!)

Stair-climbing has been much the same. We have a notably lengthy set of stairs near our house, and it is a small joy to get out there in the early morning and walk the stairs for an hour. Part meditation, part pilgrimage.

4. Teamwork. Like exercise, there is so much work, and as a result so much joy, to be found in working together to become a team. We spent last weekend in the mountains and took a break on Sunday to work through a bunch of possible scenarios that could arise and present challenges on the mountain, and although those conversations will often be hard, the satisfaction in reaching a mutually agreeable consensus is perhaps unrivaled.

5. Friendship. I have plans to write a post on what actually happened on the day the other Girls walked down from Rainier after Search and Rescue had been called, but there’s a lot to be said and I am still sorting through how best to write it. But when the Ranger was interviewing me about the other girls he said something like “I understand you’re friends with one of the missing climbers?” and I bristled. “I’m friends with all of them!”

I think we four lady climbers have been friends from the start in part because we knew one another through being a part of the same community (and deeply appreciating what it has given us), but friendship grows through shared experiences, trials and tribulations.

Around 3pm on Saturday we realized the snow platform we had built for our tents wasn’t adequate for the sizeable footprint of the Hilleberg Keron 3 tent we are bringing, and would need to quickly build a second platform to fit both. Tones began to change slightly, and each of us got perhaps a bit more short in our utterances, when Jenn suddenly pivoted and headed toward her backpack. “I am feeling a little bit cranky and am realizing I need to have a snack and drink some water!” she announced, and then offered some of her snack up so that we all would do the same. I wanted to hug her, because that was exactly what was needed by all, and she demonstrated both friendship and leadership in that moment.

Friendship, and teamwork, and lifting, and strength, and movement (sing with me: "These are a few of my favorite things!" :)

Friendship, and teamwork, and lifting, and strength, and movement (sing with me: “These are a few of my favorite things!” 🙂

6. Community. I’ve said this before and I will say it again (and again, and again) but I love being a part of the climbing community here in Seattle,and have relished the way we have felt supported by our peers. I don’t know if we will succeed in reaching the summit on Denali, but if we do it will be because of the assistance, support, and guidance of dozens of big-hearted, bad-ass, and totally rad people.

7. Recovery. Good god am I proud of my ankle recovery! This past Sunday was 4 weeks since I wiped out on the ice at Denny Creek, and the weekend was the first time I have been outside, climbing, with a pack on in as long, and it felt pretty darn good! This is the first time I have ever followed my PT and doctor’s counsel to the letter, and doing the physical therapy movements on a daily basis, and stretching and icing and not overdoing it once I started to feel better, has been satisfying. It’s not 100% yet, but it took a pounding this weekend, and hung in there. Being an active participant in and taking responsibility for my ankle recovery has been gratifying.

8. The joy of being intensely busy. Having an all-consuming, life-shaping side project has been a revelation. All of my time outside of work (and during my lunch break) is informed by our Denali climb, and the things we need to do to be prepared. I do logistics over lunch, make phone calls before heading for the bus, read about training and the climb itself on my commute, do PT on and against and using the couch when I get home. All (and I do mean allof my disposable income (and some of my non-disposable income, aka credit) is dedicated to the climb right now. Anytime I have $50 extra in my week, it goes towards a gear purchase, as I lump together lists of the little things we need and buy them all at once to get free shipping! Anytime I sell a piece of clothing or jewelry through consignment, I do the same. I’m working every pro-deal that is accessible to me, and we as a group are reaching out to everyone we know in the outdoor industry for help and support. Before and after work I work out, and when I leave work I take the shipped items that have arrived back home with me. Even my relationship is structured around the climb – Tuesday and Thursday nights (and a long list of weekends) are devoted to group trainings, and Ed knows those are the most ideal days to go off and do his Ed things, while I sweat my way up stairs, or a mountain. Everything is about the climb, and that’s both a good and a bad thing – but the good part is about staying busy, and creating something together with my team.

9. Kitchen Cabinet-ing with Ed. A long time ago I came across a story about Andrew Jackson, who for reasons of political infighting eventually stopped relying on his official Cabinet for support and counsel, and began instead relying on an informal one, made up of trusted advisors and friends. Since Ed is also a climber and has himself climbed Denali, it has been a lot of fun (and oftentimes quite reassuring) to be able to head home at the end of a long weekend and talk through some of the challenges and questions that have arisen, and have him act as a sounding board and provide his own input as we Girls work towards a solution that is appropriate for our team. Each of us has our own Kitchen Cabinet in our lives – whether best friends, partners, or other climbing partners – and sharing the experience of preparing for the Denali climb with someone who cares about you and is rooting for your success is an immensely satisfying experience.

10. The Satisfaction of Working Towards Big Goals. This one is self-explanatory. You know all those cheesy “live your life” type adages and inspirational quotes that get circulated on Facebook (including by yours truly?) One of my very favorite parts of this, is that we’re actually doing it. We set a really high (truly, elevationally, high!) goal, a high bar for success, and are working towards it. And our goal is to accomplish something that not many people ever do. And that even fewer women do. And that even fewer women do without the participation of men on their team! How cool is that?! When I tire of planning or training or reading or worrying about what we’ll eat on the mountain, I think about that. And then I wonder about what will make for a suitable next big goal. If we can do this, what else might we be capable of?

…Tomorrow – My Top Ten Kinda Sorta Really Not My Most Favorite Things…!

What Kind of Week Has it Been (Part I: Swelling & Swimsuits)

This week has felt a lot like this...

This week has felt a lot like this…

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 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.

CAUTION. No, seriously. Caution.

No, seriously. Caution. (Photo courtesy Rob Busack)

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.


Normal ankle, meet super-swollen-swallowed-a-baseball sized ankle. From the next morning at the doctor’s office.

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.

Hello, I am a swimmer. File this one under: Denali Gear I didn't count on...

Hello, I am a swimmer. File this one under: Denali Gear I didn’t plan for…

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…

Double Days, Not to be Confused with Double Downs

Double DownFor expedition training we need to schedule the occasional double day. Yes, that’s two workouts in one day. It’s usually comprised of one longer strength session and one conditioning session. This is not a foreign concept for me, I generally have two a week, but it is pretty uncommon for most. Some people can’t fathom working out once a day consistently let alone TWICE a day. Some may say that working out twice a day is a bit extreme. Well, yes and no. It all depends on your goal and whether it’s necessary. For us, it’s necessary. A huge factor in successfully training twice a day is making recovery a priority, but that’s a whole other blog post (stay tuned!).

Training twice a day takes some adjusting. One, it’s simply a lot of time to be training. If you’ve ever trained for an endurance sport you know there is just a certain amount of time you have to spend doing that sport or closely mimicking that sport in order to be successful on summit/game/race day. In the end, you can’t escape the fact that you need to train your body to handle your sport over a long period of time.

 Two, training multiple times a day is physically and mentally demanding. It’s really easy to get your morning workout done, go to work, get tired and not want to hit the gym or trail for your second workout. The fatigue that sets in after you’ve cooled down, refueled, and been at work for a few hours is hard to shake. This is where mental toughness comes in (and maybe another cup of coffee).

Physically, you have to ease into training multiple times a day, being careful not to overtax your system too soon. Mentally, you have fight the urge to go home and relax or go to happy hour with your friends. If it’s on your training schedule (which you should have!), then you should be doing it (sans poor recovery or being too sick to workout).

 On top of the endurance training (conditioning), we need to build and maintain strength. Since mountaineering is a very lower body demanding sport, it’s easy to ignore upper body strength training. Ladies, this is even more important for us since we tend to lack this type of strength in the first place. No matter female or male, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you leave it out of your training program. Think of all the things we do in mountaineering that require upper body strength – hoisting of heavy packs, climbing steep snow/ice, scrambling/rock climbing, crevasse rescue, self-arrest, etc. Adequate upper body strength will not only make climbing more pleasurable, but it will literally save your life, so you need to make time for it.

 Below are a few pictures from one of my morning upper body training sessions. It takes about 45-55 min to complete and consists of three series of exercises. One series is comprised of two opposing movements that are complementary, such as a push-pull combination. Your training goals will determine how many series you have in a workout, which will then determine how much time you will spend training. My upper body training consists of three series, A1 and A2, B1 and B2, and then C1, all with specific tempo and rest intervals. Right now I’m in a structural balance phase (trying to close the gaps between strength differences on either side of the body), which means a lot of unilateral work and a LOT of reps at a grueling tempo. I know that was nerdy, but stay with me!

A1) Seated dumbbell press with back support

 Without a back support, this movement is a little more challenging for the core muscles. Since I have a relatively strong core and need to focus more on shoulder health and strength, I use an upright back support.

FullSizeRender (3)

A2) Landmine row with supinated grip (chin up grip)

These pictures are for your entertainment value. I do NOT normally take selfies at the gym, so appreciate the fact that I am willing to look silly by taking photos of myself for the sake of your entertainment!

As mentioned in previous posts, The Denali Girls meet at least once a week at a dark trailhead for an evening training hike. This serves two purposes. One, it gets us out on the trail during the week and two, it serves as a team building exercise that we practice every week. Not all The Girls can make every weekday hike, but we all try to. Team dynamics is a huge part of success or failure on long climbs. Just think about it, we’ll be with the same three people for four weeks, sharing just about everything. I mean EVERYTHING. So, we better learn how to communicate and work well together and a good way to do that is to train together. However, in the end, you have to train and this is one of the few things well within your control.

On to the second workout of the day… My afternoon or evening workout may be a long gym session (low intensity), shorter gym session (medium or high intensity) or weighted hike (low intensity). For example, yesterday was a double day for me, but I couldn’t make it to the trail so my conditioning consisted of the shorter conditioning session in the gym (short from an endurance standpoint):

30 minute around the world circuit of:

  • 3x sled drag back and forth across the gym with 35kg, back and forth = 1x, fast but not running
    • Using a belt around your waist instead of pulling with your arms forces core engagement and mimics a sled being attached to your harness
    • Walking forward and backward is ideal for training more muscle groups
  • 1 mile on an Assault Bike @ 80-85% effort
  • 4x 16kg farmer carry (1 KB in each hand) across the gym, down and back = 1x

No rest other than quickly moving from one station to the next. Sounds fun, huh!

After a double day, a Double Down might actually sound pretty good! Just kidding, I don’t eat that shit and neither should you. However, on double days you do need to consume more calories. Don’t turn big training days into weight loss attempts, you’ll just set yourself up for disaster! This is a part of your recovery, so treat your body well by feeding it well. Injury prevention is especially important in our case since we have a very specific goal the requires a lot of smart training. None of us can afford to have a major injury setback leading up to the expedition. One way to help prevent injury is to ensure you’re fueling it well!