Three summits. Four and a half years almost to the day. Nearly 25,000 meters of elevation gain. Mountains of learning in each step.
Summiting North America June 26, 2005
The alarm went at 6. All quiet outside. A good sign. Pulled on my upper layers. Pulled on my Gortex pants. Pulled on my inner boots. Tied them with extra special care. Hat. Three pairs of gloves. Neck gaiter. Gortex shell. Many more clothes than usual. Boots on. Unzipped the tent. Clear, blue skies. Mike’s cooking breakfast next door. I say, “So?” He smiles and says, “It’s a go.” I gave my tent a big shake and announce the decision and my tent mates scream in protest as I’ve showered them with frost. In this cold weather, our breath condenses on the inside of the tent as frost and it “snows” whenever the tent moves.
The usual routine unfolded. Made water. Tried to decide what the big breakfast was going to be. Opted for another rendition of the chicken noodle soup since it offered lots of carbs and hydration. Made a double round of hot drinks. Packed my pack with all clothing I had left. I was on AJ’s rope team for the day. We were last. Our rope name was Nyama Choma, a name from Kenya. It translates to “Roasted Meat,” what we feel like on the glacier when the sun is out. AJ’s hurting from the altitude so we started out slow. Found my rhythm and felt great as we made the relatively gentle climb to Denali Pass. The sun was out so I began to get hot and sweaty so I started to disrobe some. By the time we hit the 5500 meter pass, I was climbing in only my midweight base layer.
We stopped at the pass for a break and I started layering back up immediately because the wind came up again. From Denali Pass, we could look down and see all the tents on the south side of the mountain. I was so glad to have had the solitude and isolation and wilderness of the North side rather than the veritable “urban” environment on the West Buttress route. After the break, my rope team moved into the second position and we started climbing steeply towards the Archdeacon’s tower. I gave thanks again and again for my climbing rhythm. We stopped just shy of the football field for our next break and the moment we stopped moving, the wind instantly stole the heat from our bodies. I donned my parka and determinedly started eating and drinking. I didn’t want to bonk and run out of groceries on summit day. I saved a chocolate bar for summit day and quickly demolished it. All were eager to start moving again as it was just too cold to sit around.
AJ took the lead and we climbed a short hill and dropped onto the football field. What a joy to traverse a flat, or almost flat, piece of ground. Beyond the football field was Pig Hill. Aptly named. It was a pig to climb. The route went straight up its flank. No switchbacks. No relief. Just straight up. For about two hours. Until my legs felt like rancid bacon. At first, it appeared impossibly long to me. How would we ever get up it? Then I began to take delight in small measures of progress in this white steep world. My inner dialogue went something like this:
”Wow, we just passed a route wand.”
“Oh shit! That next wand looks far away”
“Just keep stepping.”
“Don’t look up yet, the wand won’t be close enough yet.”
“Wow-it’s another wand-we’ve gone another 150 feet.”
“Are we getting anywhere?”
“Stay in your rhythm-just keep stepping.”
I climbed Pig Hill one step at a time and celebrated the passing of each rope length. It’s hard to imagine how slowly we were moving. I liken it to climbing the stairs of a skyscraper in the following way. Take one step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step, then take one deep breath in, then one deep breath out, then take another step…for 4 hours at a stretch.
The route steepened even more as we neared the top of the ridge, it got decidedly icier, and each step was measured carefully. The summit ridge seemed to stretch all the way to Russia and there were many false summits along the way. Then suddenly there was no more. AJ crested the summit. There were prayer flags. This was the top. No higher ground could be found. The whole world lay at our feet. As I took the last steps to the summit, I raised my ice axe above my head in celebration and felt a wave of exultation and relief rise from deep within me. A moment I’d worked so hard for…a moment I’d dreamed about…a moment I’d hoped dearly for…a moment I never counted on…a moment of 6130 moments that came before it. Tears sprung to my eyes and the emotion threatened to spill over but I feared the tears freezing on my cheeks so I transformed the emotional energy into a celebratory yelp and climbed to a safer spot to welcome the rope team members behind me to the summit.
We unroped and took summit photos. I posed with the Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canadian and AppleCore flags on the summit, a veritable National Geographic Moment. The last two teams were about 30 minutes behind us because Andy and Tom were really hurting from the altitude. They dug very deeply to find the courage to take each step while feeling so poorly. In the end, I felt like I was cheating on summit day because I was feeling so good. We called the NOLS base from the summit on the satellite phone. The visibility lifted so we caught glimpses of the surrounding Alaska Range and we could see that we towered above everything else. We were the cherry on the sundae, the biggest thing going, and the Kings and Queens of the blue-white ocean flanking us in all directions. A view and a moment that is hard to give words to….
We could not stay on the summit forever and after about 45 minutes it was time to descend. A storm was brewing on the horizon and no one wanted to face it at high elevation. Two climbers making their way up slowed our downward progress. They’d come from the south side and were moving very slowly; uphill climbers traditionally have the right of way. I actually didn’t mind spending the extra 30 minutes with the view.
Pig Hill was a steep descent. When we reached the football field, I asked to take a quick break to eat and hydrate because I knew I was running low and we still had a very long way to go. I threw back my last half-liter of water and ate a bit of trail mix and we were off again. The wind began to blow harder and the visibility dropped. The storm was hitting. I pulled on my shell hood and tried to get my down parka hood to stay up. The Velcro on the hood was hard to work with wearing big mitts. Snow dropped from the sky in increasingly ferocious bursts and the wind whipped it around us. We could no longer see the leading two rope teams, just the one immediately in front. Fear started to inch its way in.
Brad, now at the front of my rope team, was running low and feeling quite shaky. Mike kept a close eye on him and gave him lots of support through some of the trickier descents. The wind blew harder. We had to get down. This was no place to be in a storm. Mike implored us to move faster. I was thankful that I’d always been comfortable descending. My focus narrowed and I blocked the fear by concentrating on the immediate tasks at hand. Finally, we reached Denali Pass and caught up with the first two rope teams. The wind stung all exposed skin. The snow found it’s way into every nook of my clothes. “Would we get down in time?” I wondered.
The terrain was much easier below the pass and we picked up the pace some but we were also so very tired at this point. Suddenly it got quiet. The wind stopped. The visibility started to lift. We’d made it below the storm. We would be OK. Soon, the tents came into view and another wave of relief crashed over me as I passed into the camp perimeter. We made it back to high camp safely and it was time to eat. Given exhaustion, we opted for a simple dinner of couscous and brown sugar. It was actually awful and I choked it down because I had to and then headed for bed, too tired to do much else including recording the day in my journal.
Summiting South America December 28, 2006
Altitude is the ultimate humbler. It stripes away speed and replaces it with a necessity for slow movement. Any rapid action results in severe panting or lightheadedness. Slow. Steady. Rhythmic breathing. One step, one breath. Even after days. Even after coming down from high. Slow is the way. The only way. It’s hard to imagine at sea level just how slowly we move at altitude. The memory is short. Try it sometime. Breathe. Take a step. Breathe again. Take another step. Imagine a slow moving sloth in the zoo. Move like him. Deliberate. Overcome the lack of oxygen with deliberate movement and deliberate thought. It’s like being drunk for weeks without the buzz just the intense need for mindfulness and focus.
When venturing into environs where the body isn’t designed to go, the mind needs to make up the difference by being even stronger. You must will yourself to eat. You must will yourself to drink. And drink. And drink. One liter for every 1000 meters of elevation…so near the top we are drinking close to two gallons each per day. What goes in must come out and sleep is always interrupted by both the altitude and the need to “dehydrate.” The 12 hours nights become a series of cat naps interrupted by high risk adventures with the pee bottle. Indeed, a urinary “incident” almost cost me my summit attempt by dampening my only set of long underwear but I managed to get them dried in time. The smallest of details can stand in the way of the summit.
Hardship. That’s life at altitude. Vision. Views from high places. Stark understanding. Rising above. Seeing nothing higher. Seeing in new ways. This is what makes the hardship both bearable and worth it. Seeing and then coming down having seen. Pushing through. Giving up comfort. Working with my mind. Finding small pockets of fun and absurdity and laughter and connection. Seeing the morning light dance circles. Watching the evening sun drain from the hills. Sinking into a rich rhythm of physical exertion. Learning the lessons that come from days and days of outdoor living, the whispers of the stars, and the drone of the wind. All are my teachers and the mountains exact deep lessons.
Rocks. Aconcagua is a mountain of many rocks. Small rocks. Big rocks. Brown rocks. Dusty rocks. My new boots are beaten to a pulp, they prefer snow but I was glad to get to know them. The Stone Sentinel is an apt name. Talus. Scree. Gravel. Everywhere. Erosion lives. Both externally and within. New layers are constantly revealed. The mountain falls from the top. It’s not the prettiest mountain but there is rugged beauty in its failing flanks like the wisdom bore witness by wrinkles in the face of a Navaho elder. There is solidity in standing when all else is falling.
Groceries. Don’t run out of these. We talk of food being our gasoline and water being our oil. We need both to run. The trick is when it is too cold to stop for long. Breaks must be rushed to keep blood in toes and fingers. Eating, drinking, peeing, and sunscreen must be squished into mere minutes of inactivity. Keep the engine revved or motivation wanes.
The Windy Traverse. Cold. Windy. In the shade. Early morning. Rising gently then much more abruptly. Wonder if I’ve got the climb in me. Have a discussion with myself about the potential of stopping. Of turning around. Of failing in one definition. Realizing it would be OK to stop. Folks would understand. Then thinking of all of the children I’ve talked to over the past year, remember my friend Deb who got through the rigorous and dangerous journey of chemotherapy and realize I can’t stop just yet. We take a break. I feed. I water. My steps become lighter and easier. I was out of groceries. Decide to never make a “go down” decision without oil and gasoline. This lesson will serve me well.
Alone. I alone must take the steps up the mountain. It is my will that makes the boots rise to meet the challenge. It is my heart that hangs in…in the face of doubt, in the face of huge avalanches of doubt, in the cold dark sleepless hours of a high altitude night…but it is the love and care and support of those who have gathered me in their collective arms from afar that keeps me stepping. I’ve come to count on the support circle that collects me in, celebrates with me, commiserates with me, and fills me with inspiration when my tank is empty. Alone and together. That’s what we are in this life and on the mountains and while at sea and at home. Both alone and together.
Summit. Can go no higher. Smile. Big smile. Amazed that I am standing at the top. As I flew into St. John’s, the pilot announces that we just passed through 23,000 feet. I look out the window amazed that I stood at that elevation just days before. Imagine. Standing where planes fly. And imaginations run wild. And dreams come true.
Summiting Central America December 28, 2010
It was a long drive to the trailhead which was actually a road; a long, dusty and hot road that led through several gauntlets of children asking for Quetzals, cookies, and pen as we passed through their village. Locals roared by us, packed 10 to the back of each Toyota 4 by 4, ready to enjoy a day out on Tajumulco as well. They appeared to laugh at us as we winded our way up the dusty road to the trailhead. We chimed in that perhaps we needed to have the local experience of riding in the back of a pick up.
It was tough going, very tough going. I think I was a bit low on groceries and climbing in the heat of the day is never my favourite. I picked up a bit after we paused for lunch but it was definitely a mental and physical slog until we reached our campsite at the base of the rocky section of the volcano. We put up camp quickly, grabbed our warm gear, and began to climb slowly towards 4220 meters. We contoured up to the saddle and looked down on a sea of white clouds mixed in with smoke rising from the forest fire burning on the south side of Tajumulco (thank goodness it didn’t close the volcano). The usual view back to Santa Maria, Acatenango and Fuego was occluded by the mass of white.
We turned up from the saddle and climbed more steeply through and around rocks and scree on our way to the crater. Given the toughness of the climb earlier, I found a nice rhythm that carried me up and up. Our first look into the crater was thrilling! We circled the up around the crater to the highest point on the volcano!
Wahoo! Another summit for the trip and completion of the triad of high points of the Americas. We celebrated with high fives and summit photos. I donned by hockey helmet toque and raised my hockey stick to the sky. In a moment of jubilance, I threw the toque in the air! I only wished I’d remembered to bring my Canadian National Hockey Team Jersey to the summit too! It was the second country high point I shared with Marian and I hope she’s willing to do a few more!
We enjoyed the views in all directions tinged with a bit of sadness that we couldn’t see our other five volcanoes. We saw Tajumulco’s shadow falling on the village of Tajumulco and decided to watch the sunset as we climbed down. The descent was super steep and slippery so we were all glad for the decision to use the last bit of daylight for the down climb. We returned to camp just as darkness enveloped the peak. A yummy dinner of Pepian and rice (a Guatemalan speciality) topped off a very special day.