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My Denali Experience

Pulling Sleds to camp – Denali Mountain

“Dream Big, work hard and live like Giants”…. my own experience and take of climbing Denali Mountain.

I love this quote, I heard it years ago while out mountain biking in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland and I try to live up to it with every adventure or challenge I take on. Dreaming big is a huge part of it for me, and then the challenge to make it a reality, I love every part of putting together an adventure.  Of course achieving this takes hard work also and drive, commitment and lots of passion. I may have been late to the outdoors adventure life, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work and from my very first hike I’ve never lacked passion. 

In mid-2019 I dreamed up my biggest challenge to date, I dreamed of climbing Denali in Alaska. At 6,190 metres or 20,310 feet above sea level, it is the highest peak on the North American continent. Climbing Denali would require a true expedition style of climbing. Unlike an Alpine style of climbing where you travel light and climb fast the expedition style is almost like laying siege on the mountain. You and your army of climbers and guides start with a basecamp and slowly move the whole team up the mountain. This style is normally reserved for the highest peaks where the altitude and thin air dictates how you climb the mountain.

Island Peak in the Himalayas is one such mountain at 6,160 and having climbed this I am all too familiar with the expedition style of climbing. Denali however is slightly different, yes we would be tackling it like you would all the highest Peaks but we would just be a small team with no porters or extra support, we would have to be totally self-sufficient taking everything we need with us every step into the mountain. To carry enough gear, food and regular supplies we would have to pull sleds behind us as well as carrying a fully loaded backpack. We would be on the mountain for two weeks minimum so all told, I was carrying and dragging north of 50kg, more than my own bodyweight.  This is what makes Denali such a brute to Climb. No allowance would be made for my being a five ft tall woman (it turned out the rest were all six foot plus guys).  This was a commercial trip and each one of us clients had to be equally capable at gear carrying and quite literally pulling their own weight.

My training for this type of challenge was planned in great detail six months out. I knew I needed this amount of time to do this right, to build a core strength and endurance that was different than previous climbs, I had to get my whole body used to carrying the extra weight Id constantly have during the Climb. I’d also have to be flexible so I could train around my work life which wasn’t always easy. At the time I was working as a Senior Recruitment & Business Manager for Osborne, http://www.osborne.ie, I am always busy and I had to travel overseas quite a lot too. However my CEO was extremely supportive and we made it work. Many a time while abroad after a long day’s work I could be found running up and down the stairs of a hotel I was staying at.

Technically I was confident with where my training was at, roping up, using crampons, so it was mostly fitness and nutrition that I focused on. I purchased a kids sled and every chance I got I was on the local hills dragging this thing loaded with weights. I got quite a few funny looks that’s for sure. Everything else I did involved me wearing a weighted vest, every opportunity I could I had the vest on, in the gym, on the Stairmaster, even in the mountains, just getting my body used to carrying and pulling extra weight. Every week that passed I got stronger so I increased the weight, I trained very hard for this, every free moment I had was consumed by my training programme in one way or another.

After adjusting to our new schedule we started to cache the gear up the mountain the very next evening and you could notice the drop in temperature straight away with it hitting -10 at times with wind-chill. I actually really enjoyed this. This year the glazier was just too hot during the day, so our guides decided for us to cache and climb at night. Because of nearly 24 hour day light, this was feasible. Our process was to bring supplies and gear up to higher camps and then coming back down to sleep in the lower camp. This works to set up the higher camps as we gradually climb the mountain but it’s also the perfect way to acclimatise to the altitude, climb high, sleep low. It was full on days and nights, climbing for 7-8 hours daily carrying and pulling loads, then setting up each camp as we go along. The target was camp four where we would tackle the summit from there and hopefully summit but everything was step by step, camp by camp and the summit was maybe ten days away still. The climbing was relentless and yes the days were long but I really was living it. Denali is such a beautiful mountain, harsh and wild weather at times but stunning. The expedition was very different to the way I had climbed Island Peak, I seemed so much more involved, I was solely responsible for myself but also part of the team that had to be self-reliant and yes that brings its own stress and pressures but I was loving every minute of it.

Every evening after we were settled back in the little sanctuary of our tents I would check my gear and then give myself the once over for any cuts or bruises and of course any sign of frostbite. Thankfully that never became an issue but I was quickly developing a problem with some serious blisters on my feet and this was a new experience for me. I never suffered from blisters or any kind of foot damage before and I had spent a long time selecting my footwear and breaking them in without any issues, but here I was administrating first aid so it was a real concern. Every night now I was cleaning and rewrapping the damage but it was clearly a losing battle and after eight days of this I had a decision to make. I now had two open wound holes in my heels and I had pushed them as far as I could go, any further was dangerous. I was aware that I still had to get off the Mountain back to base camp and bring all my gear with me. So just shy of camp four I pulled the plug and decided to leave, there would be no summit for me. Yes, it was a tough decision and I was so disappointed at that moment but I was being physically and mentally drained from the injury and the eleven-hour trek back to Base Camp proved that to me, I was completely spent when we got back and I knew I’d made the right decision.

Back at base camp I had a couple of days to rest and recover and go through everything as we were stranded due to bad weather, no flights were getting in. As you can imagine I went over everything in my head to see if I could have done anything different. Despite not summiting I felt this trip had been a huge achievement for me. Everything from the planning to the training and all my preparation, this was a huge success and I was more than happy with how Id performed on the mountain. I was part of a good team and helped move them up the mountain and prepare the team for a successful summit attempt. Unfortunately, my feet didn’t react like previous climbs so that’s ok, that’s something for me to learn from and figure out but this was all a learning experience and one I feel I embraced and enjoyed. If this trip had taught me anything it was that I felt well and truly at home in this environment and I should have no doubts moving forward, challenging myself again. No matter how well you prepare there can be doubt or the fear of the unknown and how you might react to different circumstances and this trip showed me that I can overcome these challenges. So while we were waiting for the weather to clear so we could fly home I was already planning further training trips to Scotland and making notes of gear adjustments and of course the inquiry into what caused so much damage on my feet. Lots to learn and areas to improve and I was already eager to do both.

As soon as I returned home I was putting into plan a new schedule of training programs in Scotland, both technical and endurance climbing. I also had reached out to friends to help me test new gear including different boots, basically everything that was within my power to address and improve my climbing I was planning.  So much was on the cards for the coming year and then something I couldn’t control stopped everything in its tracks as Covid hit the world. Like everyone else I’m sure, it took me a while to accept our new reality and then adapt to it. A home gym was invested in and an unknown passion for gardening and growing fruit and veg was discovered, a blessing amongst the negativity that seemed to engulf the world during this time and something which is now part of my daily life. As for the mountains, as the months passed plans were made and cancelled and dreams were had in hope more so than anything else.

 However finally in early 2022 restrictions eased and the world opened up again, the time had come to get myself back into the hills again. A weekend course in Scotland was booked and away I went unsure how I would get on, unsure but not undaunted.

Myself and my climbing friend Suzanne headed off to Scotland that March to meet up with Adele Pennington Mountaineering. I’m a big fan of Adele, she’s incredible and her training programs are amazing and every time we climb with her we come out of it feeling we’ve learned something new. For this trip it was hard to know what to expect from yourself because of the time away but this is where making good decisions and being prepared come in, having chosen Adele I knew she would push me out of my comfort zone, dust off any cobwebs but also only when she felt you were ready and able so you see it as a vote of confidence which helps you focus and helps you move to that next level. We met Adele in Fort William and after an overall briefing on what to expect over the weekend we had an early night to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning after two and a half years since Denali I was finally back in the hills as we set off trekking into the Three Sisters Mountains Range in Glencoe.  A few hours of rock climbing to get us up the steep sides of the mountain, I am pulling my crampons out of my bag and getting ready for the summit push ahead. The snowy ridge above leads us to the summit, a technical level of a climb that previously we would have roped up for but after assessing our progress over the last couple of days our guide Adele told us to focus and continue up without the ropes. We had previously climbed similar routes roped together however now that safety net was gone, this was another level up another skillset. It was steep and slow but it wasn’t long before we were up on the final ridge and the summit soon came into sight. The last push wasn’t at all technical, although the exposure, the wind and the fear were ever constant. The fear is always with me, I’m not one for bravado, the fear is very real, it’s just never been something to stop me, I use it to sharpen the senses and hopefully make good decisions. I focus, concentrate on my footing, one step at a time over rock and snow and sure enough before long I was on the summit. We get lucky today with the weather and the views were stunning. Like many others I have previously stopped at the viewing point along the road to Fort William and looked up at the Three Sisters and here I was today on that very summit looking back down wondering who was down there looking up at me right now and were they dreaming big dreams of climbing these beautiful mountains like I did. I hope so, it’s been worth every step!

Now many people will climb these and other mountains quite easily and that’s fine because we all have our own level, this was just another big step in the development of my skills and my experience on the hills, my own journey. I would also have to admit that I love climbing in Scotland, these mountains may not be the highest but they are so beautiful and can present so many different challenges, it’s such a wonderful place to climb and improve your skills and of course just have some fun. I’ve shared previously experiences from some of my many trips to Scotland. Check it out here.

It certainly won’t be the last climbing trip I take here, I have already my next training session booked in with Adele for this year before heading into the Alps later this year and who knows maybe aim at Denali again in the very near future.

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