10 Questions with: Meredith!

As we wind our way into April (crazy!), there’s a lot on our minds and several items on our to-do lists, although each of us is focused on and working hard to address different things. Over the next few days each of us will post a “10 Questions With:” blog entry, to each answer the same 10 overall questions and ¬†share what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, and where our head is at with regards to the rapidly approaching Denali climb.
First up? Yours truly.
1. What has been the biggest change in your day-to-day life since beginning to train for this climb? What are you doing this spring that you wouldn’t normally be doing, at this time?
Can I say “spraining my stupid ankle” without sounding like a petulant seven year old? Because spraining my stupid ankle definitely became a defining experience in this training period. It was frustrating (and somewhat agonizing) to get super amped up to really get started and put in the training time with the rest of the girls, then go out on our first all day conditioning hike, and slip on ice …while standing still looking at the view. And it sucked to stay home while they went out to train, a few of those earliest weekends. It made me feel 100 years old. 100, and seven, apparently.
My sister during a recent visit, "helping" me with my ankle physical therapy the way she would have when we were little - by mimicking me, like a dork. :)

My sister during a recent visit, “helping” me with my ankle physical therapy the way she would have when we were little – by mimicking me, like a dork. ūüôā

The biggest change post ankle, though, has been the addition of actual weight training (weight lifting) to my weekly workout routine, and that of ramping up that routine much earlier than usual (early January versus late February). I’m carrying 45 lbs, as of this week, and would normally be at about 35 right now.
Jenn pulling weights around back in February

Jenn pulling weights around back in February

In terms of weight-training – in early February we got together at Leigh Ann’s gym, Level 4 Crossfit, to talk about specific training movements to focus on, and pull sleds loaded with weight. Leigh Ann made a list of upper body and core workouts to focus on, and rather than keep track of them individually, I took a photo of the wipeboard, and then turned them into a checklist in my Droid’s ‘Keep’ app that I run through every single time I’m at the Y, checking them off as I go (very satisfying, psychologically). I do all the upper body and core stuff twice a week for about an hour and a half, and afterwards, I’m totally wiped – to the point where my arms tremble while I open my gym locker. Weight-lifting is hard (and a bit intellectually un-engaging) but I have the core (back and waist-area) resilience, and hunky new biceps, to prove it’s worth it!
2. We’ve each purchased or borrowed a ton of gear for the trip – what two or three Denali-specific new items are you absolutely loving right now, and is there anything that simply didn’t work for you, and that you returned right away?
Some of my favorite gear I’m taking on this trip is old gear: circa 2011 Patagonia Expedition 4 black long underwear pants (the newer Exped 4s are¬†really thin!), and a pair of white Elita long underwear that I got way back when I first started¬†backpacking, from my parents. There’s nothing like the old standbys.
Me in my "new" Elita long underwear, a thousand years and a lifetime ago, in an Appalachian Trail hut back during college, in 2006. This may be the coolest I've ever looked in an outdoors photo (because it's fuzzy).

Me in my “new” Elita long underwear, a thousand years and a lifetime ago, in an Appalachian Trail hut back during college, in 2006. This may be the coolest I’ve ever looked in an outdoors photo (because it’s fuzzy).

In terms of new gear: I bought a new hardshell jacket (hardshell = plastic-like wind-blocking external layer) from Patagonia, sized bigger than I normally would so that it can cover all my layers, and I took it out for a test-drive this weekend and kinda love it. It’s their Patagonia Alpine Houdini, and it’s a super stripped down, super lightweight layer, complete with tiiiiny zippers! Although I admit, I wish it had pockets! (They left ’em off because it’s supposed to be super light – hence the “Houdini”). Plus, I like it because mine is purple. And that’s not because I’m a girl – it’s because I like purple!
Putting hard-earned knitting skills to use unsnaggling well-snaggled tent cords for the new Trango! Check out that awesome purple hardshell and those sweet, expensive Spantiks!

Putting hard-earned knitting skills to use unsnaggling well-snaggled tent cords for the new Trango! Check out that awesome purple hardshell and those sweet, expensive as all get-out Spantiks!

I also love (love, love, love) my La Sportiva Spantik (Carolyn rather adorably calls them “Sputniks”) boots, which look like moonshoes. The Spantiks are double boots (so there are two individual lace-up boots you wear on each foot – one nests inside the other), as opposed to plastics (which have a hard plastic shell, like ski boots). The Spantiks were my biggest, splurgiest purchase – they cost more than I have ever paid in monthly rent, to put it in perspective. I really wrestled with whether I should get those, or the Koflach Artis Expe plastic boots, which are about $300 cheaper (I actually bought and took home both, and then stared at the two pairs obsessively for most of February before making a decision), but I realized that most of the time when faced with a decision like this, I go for pragmatism and choose the cheaper option, and I’ve been known to suffer for that in the past. But my feet are literally what’s going to carry me up the mountain – so I went for the fancy option, this time, and haven’t regretted it whatsoever. And to quote the MountainTrip gear list¬†– what’s $750 divided by 10 toes? $75 a toe? The most expensive boots of my life, for sure, but keeping toes is worth at least that much. (Don’t worry mom and dad – losing toes is extremely unlikely!)
Other goodies I’m loving – the Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero parka I bought with a killer deal (in bright orange, no less), even though it’s sized for a dude with a barrel chest and I’m pretty sure I could fit Jenn in there with me(!), and Leigh Ann’s super sweet new Mountain Hardwear Trango 3 tent! So sweet! So much internal storage! Such bright colors!
Maiden tent erection. Hmmm, that's not quite what I meant. But I like it, so let's leave that here...

Maiden tent erection. Hmmm, that¬†didn’t quite come out how I meant it… But, whatever. ūüėČ

Finally, can I cast a “cool gear” vote for Leigh Ann’s sweet new climbing bibs, which I can’t seem to find in my size anywhere, for the absolute life of me,¬†but¬†I’m sure she’ll tell you about?
3. Which logistical or planning-related decision are you feeling most thoughtful about, or has you worried?
I’m not worried about much, to be honest – I’m a pretty level-headed, logical task manager, and that trait has been very much present these last two months. I think the main thing I’m¬†worried about is what you might call the “controversial leave-behinds” – the question of how many shovels to bring, how many probes, whether to bring our avalanche beacons, and whether to bring helmets. (I’d be interested in the perspective of other people on this issue, I should note). A lot of the rescue gear we carry in the Cascades is more disproportionately useful in the Cascades, and so some climbers leave it behind for trips like Denali, but having been trained to compulsively wear one’s beacon…it’s really hard to contemplate leaving it behind, ever.
4. What’s your go-to snack for food on the mountain? The Denali Girls are planning for hot breakfasts and hot dinners – what will you be eating the rest of the time?
I can’t do bars or oatmeal, and I don’t eat meat, so no jerky, which pretty much makes me the most difficult mountain eater imaginable. I would rather do raw, unadulterated nuts (of almost any kind), straight up chocolate, or absolute crap candy (hello, gummy bears!) than anything else. Normally I’d carry raw almonds, dried apricots, Stretch Island, single serving fruit leather things that were all the rage a few years back, and Primal Strips –¬†pseudo-paleo vegetarian snack strips, as well as a few pieces of honest-to-god candy, around here. I also regularly steal dried mango from Trader Joe’s and peanut M&Ms from my boyfriend, here in Washington. In Alaska I’m anticipating a lot of fruit chews and some gels (consistency is a hang up of mine – I think oatmeal has the consistency of that which shall not be named, and some of those gels – don’t even get me started). So I’m experimenting a lot with what snacky foods to bring, and would very much welcome creative suggestions!
5. What new food or drink products have you added to your daily life since starting preparations for the climb? What do you like the best?
This is one of my favorite questions, because I’m so pleasantly surprised by my answer. Coco Libre, a company that makes coconut water fortified with added protein, agreed to sponsor us by providing product (a few boxes full of single-serving, to-go containers of coconut milk) and I felt a little gun-shy at first, because the last time I tried coconut water that wasn’t straight from a coconut, I didn’t like it. The Coco Libre stuff is¬†awesome,¬†thought, and I’m completely addicted. Current training philosophy suggests that consuming additional protein after a work out aids in muscle recovery, so for awhile my fridge was totally stocked with the squeezable containers of it, and I’d grab one and throw it in my workout bag before heading to the gym. The chocolate one and the vanilla one are particuarly awesome, and both have additional protein added.
Breakfast of (pescetarian) champions: egg on a real east coast bagel, and a Coco Libre. Add a greek yogurt (Tillamook is my go-to) and I'm ahead of the protein curve before the day has even started!

Breakfast of (pescetarian) champions: egg on a real east coast bagel, and a Coco Libre. Add a greek yogurt (Tillamook is my go-to) and I’m ahead of the protein curve before the day has even started!

I’ve also added a fish oil supplement, whey protein shakes, and other healthy bits (plus more eggs for breakfast: protein source), but don’t have much more to say about that beyond – yeah – I’m doing it. Those whey protein shakes are pretty good – that BCAA-G stuff in “Lemonade” is headed back to the store as soon as I have a minute. The Omega-3 vitamins are the size of horse pills. Gulp.
6. What’s the most interesting, most complicated, or most useful skill or technique you’ve learned or perfected over the last few months?
Working with the sleds is pretty interested, pretty challenging, and just kinda cool. Probably just that experience, of wearing a huge backpack while towing a full-loaded sled last weekend. I felt so super strong (and so super wiped out afterwards!)
7. What’s still on your Denali to-do list? Give us a sample of the things you’re about to get to, or make decisions about, this week.
So. many. things. The most obvious are filling my gear holes (which are somehow more glaring than those of the other girls) – I still need a new pair of crampons, insulated overboots (which are like a wetsuit that covers your entire boot and lower leg), a bigger harness (sized to go over all the new clothes I’ll be wearing), an extra pair of long underwear, new glacier glasses (SO over my old ones!) and down booties. Like I said, I’m a little behind. Eeek. Other things – confirming our flight date and travel plans, ride information, etc. The biggest single thing we’re still working with as a group is our food planning – that’s a whole other challenge, with our varied diets and desire to travel light (freeze-dry allll the things…)
[Editor’s Note: writing this entry induced enough panic that as of yesterday I now have the overboots, long underwear, and down booties. I also don’t have $600 that I did yesterday…]
8. What does your training or conditioning schedule look like this week, for example? Is there any one part of your physical conditioning that has most noticeably changed your physique?
In a nutshell: two days outside last weekend – Saturday: sled work and snow camping, Sunday, hiking the big slope on the approach to Rock Lake. Monday: wasn’t feeling so hot – too much business travel wedged between a lot of climbing training. Tuesday: got stuck in traffic-pocalypse and missed my stair climbing plans (please see “Overturned fish truck on Viaduct ruined everyone’s day” – because, yep, thanks for that, Seattle). Tonight I’m working around social plans (with climbers – ha!) to hit up the West Seattle Y, first, and get my core and upper body workout in. Thursday I’m hoping to swim in the morning (for some active recovery and additional cardio),and then do our night hike with 45 lbs. I’m angling¬†to take Friday off from work so that Jenn and I can head to the Mountaineers, hang off the roof, and give me a chance to practice escaping the crevasse by passing a sled, which the other girls practiced back when my ankle was still too messed up to bear weight. Then Saturday we condition again (45 lbs), and Saturday night we’re doing a “sleepover” at Jenn’s down to enjoy some downtime together but also get a bunch of small to-dos done! Sunday afternoon is real downtime, and then Monday it all starts over, again. The pace, at this point, is a little bit unrelenting.
And yes, on the physique – my core feels totally strong (which I partially attribute to the swimming I did most days in February!) and my biceps and shoulders could give Popeye a run for his money. ūüėČ
9. What are you reading or listening to right now? Denali books, or training books, or books to give you a break from all of the above?
I’m trying to concurrently finish Steve House’s book ‘Training for the New Alpinism,’ and Colby Coombs’ ‘Denali: The West Buttress,’ which is a matter of fact treatment of what the climb entails. I had dropped both when we got really busy training, so that’s the goal for early April.
10. What, to you, would make for a successful climb? Is there one moment or experience you are most looking forward to?
I’m most looking forward to landing on the glacier – I think that’s going to be a bit mind-blowing – like whoa – we’re really doing this, we’re really here. To me a successful climb is everyone going up and coming down friends, and each woman feeling empowered to speak her mind about what we do from day to day, and feeling heard, and engaged in the decision-making. I’m less attached to the summit (to all summits, really) than a lot of people – for me it’s all about the adventure, and always has been. Even if something happens and I end up sitting down at basecamp, waiting for the other girls to come back – it will be an adventure, an experience, a great story. I just realized as I typed this that I have the perfect fortune cookie taped to my computer monitor, to sum it up:
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
I’ll take a bit of daring, please!

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.