My previous mountaineering experiences helped me predict what to expect on Denali, but as with anything, you really don't know how it's really going to be until you are wearing the boots yourself. And since I received lots of questions about life on the mountain, especially where we went to the bathroom, I thought I'd share my top 10 list of things that may make you go, "what, huh, no way!" Be prepared for A LOT of photos.
Sunscreen is your most valuable piece of gear.
When temperatures drop to NEGATIVE 40, it seems weird to think about using sunscreen. Even in whiteout conditions, you need to apply. The sun is ALWAYS out in Alaska in the summer. We had dusk between midnight and 3am, but the sun would barely dip behind the surrounding mountains. I brought my headlight to Alaska, but I didn't bring it on the mountain. I also brought an eye mask, but I didn't find I needed that (our sleeping schedule was so odd--there was a lot of napping).
Not only is the sun always out, but it is very strong being so high up. And, it reflects on the snow. So you need to put sunscreen on every piece of exposed skin--up your nostrils, in your ears. Sometimes the roof of your mouth can get burnt. Believe it or not, the sun reflecting off the glacier can bring the mountain temps up to 40 degrees.
The only color is in your dreams.
The views are white mountains and white ground on blue sky, with the exception of camps, where multi-colored tents dot the landscape like flowers. It is a very sterile environment without many places for germs and allergens to live. The views were still unbelievable, but just colorless. When we flew back to Talkeetna on June 3, the snowy peaks gave way to a sea of pines and I immediately smelled it: Earth. It was an amazing smell.
Not only is your tent crowded, so is your sleeping bag.
I sure wish I was snuggling up to Patrice every night, but instead, I was snuggling with my pee bottle, water bottles, batteries, all electronics, sunscreen, boot liners, any clothes I wasn't wearing and some food. If not, you would be sorry. One time, I left my sunblock out and woke up to it being frozen solid.
Building camp is sometimes harder work than trekking to camp.
We slept in 5 places on the mountain--Base Camp (7,200 feet), Camp 1 (7,600 feet), Camp 2 (11,200 feet), Camp 3 (14,200 feet) and High Camp (17,200 feet). When Patrice and I are backpacking, getting to camp is a huge relief. We have to cook dinner and fetch water, but the hardest work is done.
This is not true for mountaineering. You first have to build camp for your own tent, the cooking tent (called the "posh") and the bathroom.
This is the "posh" where the team ate together.
You first level out a "platform," using shovels, snowshoes and your hands, then you use ice saws to cut cinderblock ice blocks. You stack the blocks to build walls around your tent and camp to protect your home from the winds. These walls need to be built like you are a mason, filling in every crack. Every camp is different, but it would normally take us at least 2 hours to do this task. At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we probably cut well over 100 blocks to set up camp and many more in the days that followed to reinforce.
On Day 9 at Camp 3, I started feeling extreme pain in my left hand and attributed it to chopping ice. It grew to the size of a grapefruit over the next few days, but at least I had plenty of ice to treat it and the swelling went down eventually.
Over time, the ice blocks melt a bit and you have to keep making sure that wall is strong and dig out the area around the tent. You don't want to subject your tent to the winds. One time, I was standing outside and saw a huge tent flying toward me in the air. I jumped and grabbed it, but it dragged me down. The tent owners were very grateful I saved their expedition because their tent would have otherwise blown off the mountain.
Climbers make runways too.
K2 is one of the companies that flies climbers on and off Kahiltna Glacier. Their "Otter" planes have wheels to land in Talkeetna on a normal runway, and skis to land on the glacier. The problem with the icy glacier runway is sometimes snow covers it. The new snow is too soft for the planes to land; they will sink.
Base camp from above
When our team climbed down the mountain to Base Camp (7,200 feet) on June 3, the basecamp director made an announcement for all climbers to strap on their skis and snowshoes. It must have been quite a site to see a hundred of us stomping along the glacier in unison!
You eat really well on the mountain.
Believe it or not, climbers eat really well on the mountain. Of course, you are still trying to still to the lighter weight foods, since you are hauling 22 days of food via sled and backpack, but still. Consider that the surrounding environment is a great refrigerator, though sometimes the setting is too cold and can freeze. I slept with my honey sometimes to keep it from freezing. My hummus froze, but it was in individual packs, so it was easy to defrost.
Part of my package deal with RMI Expeditions is they provide breakfast and dinner. For breakfast, we had bagels with cream cheese, smoked salmon, bacon, oatmeal. My favorite breakfast was on Day 15--pancakes with chocolate chips and peanut butter and pancakes with blueberries. The guides always had hot water for us but you have to bring your own coffee.
Inside the "posh"
For lunch, I brought guacamole and hummus, but often I was just grazing and snacking all day, eating a lot of Honey Stinger bars and waffles. My favorite snack was vanilla wafers with honey and Pringles, but I didn't bring nearly enough of those. I brought 2 cans of Pringles, and cached one can at Camp 2 (11,200 feet). I was dreaming about them when I finished my other can at Camp 3 (14,200 feet).
For dinner, the guides made some great creations. My favorites were mac and cheese with bacon and quesadilla with cheese and veggies. We always had a nightcap of "hots" (hot tea, hot chocolate or cider) as well and enjoyed a choice of 3 types of cookies about every other night--I always chose nutter butters.
Inside the posh with snow seats and tables!
Two months prior to leaving, I changed my diet to eliminate dairy. Some of you know I have a stomach condition that I've had since I was a teenager. In the past year, it has worsened and I have been experimenting with different dietary restrictions. Going dairy-free seemed to help. Well, cheese and hiking/mountaineering go hand in hand. I brought dairy-free cheese on the mountain and the guides substituted it in my meals. It was an okay, but man did I miss real cheese.
We were on the mountain for 23 days. We probably could have lasted another few days because 3 people left the expedition and had their food. But, no one really spends that long on the mountain and we were jonesing for some real grub by that point.
You have to make water.
When Patrice and I are backpacking, we can usually find a stream, puddle, pump, etc.
But on Denali, there is nothing running. Everything is frozen. You have to make your own water by melting snow. And this is no easy task, especially when you are providing water for an entire team. The higher you go in altitude, the longer it takes to melt snow into water. At High Camp (17,200 feet), it took well over an hour to boil a pot of snow into water.
Also, finding snow is difficult. Yes, it is all around you, but you have to dig deep to find good, clean snow. Never touch the yellow snow.
Every single thing (except poop bags) you bring on the mountain, comes off.
It is amazing how much garbage you create in 23 days.
Flying on and off the mountain is almost as dangerous as climbing.
Our team got really lucky flying onto the mountain. We were right on RMI's intended schedule when we woke up on May 12 to see blue skies. We flew onto the mountain at 9am, sorted our gear and started the 5-mile/6-hour trek to Camp 1 (7,800 feet).
Flying off the mountain, however, was a different story. We got down to Base Camp (7,200 feet) early on Friday, June 3 and heard the news that no one had flown on or off the mountain for 2 days and there was a storm upon us, so it would probably be another 2-5 days. Not the news I wanted to hear since I knew Patrice was waiting for me at the K2 Airport Hanger in Talkeetna. Of course everyone on my team wanted to get off the mountain after 23 days. There were about 100 climbers waiting to get off, and probably 50 waiting to get on. Our guides told us to set up our tents and sit tight. The base camp director still had us stomp out the runway, just in case.
I didn't even unpack my bag because I was hopeful we would leave!
At about 7pm, the skies cleared a bit. Our guides reminded us not to get our hopes up high. But, minutes later, I heard the base camp director yell, "RMI, K2 is sending 4 planes. Pack up now, you have 10 minutes!"
It was very chaotic, and the 45-minute flight back to Talkeetna was extremely turbulent, with the pilots dodging storms. But, we made it and I was reunited with my love.
If you'd like a "tour" of all my different camps on the mountain, check out the video I just uploaded on YouTube