The 7 Summits Blog - Denali Jun '15 (4th '7 summit')

Climbing Denali / Mt. McKinley, la Preparation
01st July 2015
In January this year I knew I had to make up my mind and decide which company I wanted to climb with and book it as all groups were filling up quickly. I had four months to train, which seemed long at the time.

To keep myself busy in the meantime I entered various half marathons and a 10K to keep the legs warm. My enthusiasm for running was tested in early February when I started developing pain in my right knee.



It was a typical runner’s mistake: doing a 10km pb one day and “accidently” running a half marathon distance training two days later. My glutes said no. After battling through the races in March, April and May with an excruciating pain I finally gave in and went to see a physio. He confirmed it was IT band related problem and had to work on strengthening the glutes. And strictly no running. I couldn’t possible cancel the half marathon in Geneva could I?! I was doing lots of exercises leading up to the Swiss trip but you never know how much progress you’ve done until the run. It wasn’t my greatest half marathon (a sluggish 2h00) but the pain under the knee was still there the whole time and suffered with diarrhoea on race morning. One thing motivated me though, once the run was over I was heading down to Zermatt to spend a couple of days training (carrying an 18kg backpack 4-6hours every day) in the Alps. After the trip I knew I had a lot more glute strengthening and stretching to do and couldn’t let this injury jeopardising the Denali climb.

But there were fun times too during the training.. The Ironman 70.3 Austria is fast approaching (end of August 2015) so I knew it was time to upgrade my road bike and invest in something a wee lighter. When I read about the BMC teammachine I felt I found the one but when I tested it at the local Evans shop I fell in love!
Having had old and rusty second hand bikes in the past to get me from A to B I found myself flying on these two wheels. Her name is 'Rocket' and it was only fair to enter a sportive in April - Wiggle Ups and Downs (you guessed, a hilly course with approx 4000ft elevation in the Surrey Hills and North Downs). Got a silver awards and found out I was the 3rd fastest woman.



For my 31st birthday in May, I decided to head up to Scotland and do some more weight carrying training in the Highlands. My love of Scotland meant it was the perfect getaway! Once back from Scotland, I purely focused on cycling (to and from work on the hybrid and longer rides on 'Rocket') and carrying a heavy backpack in the evening.
This is probably the best time to mention, that as a result of the Dailymail website article about my photography and climbing project featured on their website on 19 Feb ( if you haven’t read it: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2959818/Beautiful-climber-tackles-world-s-dangerous-mountain-peaks-captures-spectacular-landscapes.html ) I finally had the guts to write to local business with my story and sponsorship. To my surprise I had many responses but most of the companies had already spent their allocated funds. I was very excited when I heard that independent estate agent Robert Holmes, Park Accounts and private GP and consultant medical practice Alexander House were keen to get on board! All I had to do before the trip was to arrange their logos embroided on my jackets, buy last minute munchies, say goodbyes and get myself mentally ready… and the next thing I realised I was off to the States!
Climbing Denali/ McKinley 9-23 June, la Expedition
30th June 2015
The highest mountain in North America with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet/ 6,186m, Denali or Mt McKinley in Alaska was going to be my highest mountain of the 7 summits. It is the third most prominent peak after Everest and Aconcagua (lowest point to summit) from the Kahiltna Base Camp it’s 13,000 vertical feet and 18 miles to the summit.
Denali, as the indigenous people named it, means ‘the high one’ or ‘the great one’. Even the Russians named it ‘big’ while they owned Alaska.
In 1896 a gold prospector named it McKinley after president William McKinley.

Most of my teammates on Vinson had climbed Denali, many said they found it harder than Everest. Some of the reasons why Denali is so brutal:
- extreme weather
- high altitude
- crevasses
- heavy load carrying

Our team was due to leave for Base Camp on Tuesday the 9th but due to snowing and clouds at BC didn’t get out of Talkeetna until Thursday evening. We didn’t expect to fly out that day; it was raining heavily when we were loading the two small otter planes. Despite being two days behind schedule already and having read about the low summit rates and unsuccessful teams we were still very keen to get going!

I could write a novel about what happened next but here are some extracts from from my trip notes. .

"Monday 15 June, 7.44pm, 11,000’, Day 5 on the mountain
Finally at Base Camp Friday evening! After landing we established our camp site (although we only stayed for the night) and had dinner in the mid tent. Felt like a kid when I crawled into my sleeping bag! We didn’t leave till 10am in the morning; backpack full, sled full, snowshoes on and left for Camp 1 at 7,800ft.


(building camp at Camp 1, 7,800ft)

(view of Mt. McKinley from our cosy tent at Camp 1)

Saturday was ‘carry’ day, which meant we took half of our gear (group gear, food, personal lunch and high altitude clothes) to just below 11,000ft camp. You have to negotiate Ski Hill first, which looks intimidating from Camp 1. These are HOT glacier travel days and what I noticed is that our team (6 climbers + 2 guides in 2 rope teams of 4) somehow doesn’t like to be left behind and our guides have the urge to catch up with other teams on the mountain. As much fun as it sounds, I don’t want to burn out during the first couple of days…
We moved up to 11,000’ camp on Sunday passing our cashed gear marching up the mountain in our snowshoes. When I removed my boots I found the biggest and nastiest looking blood blister I’ve seen (new boots plus snowshoes without risers!) Not good but didn’t panic.
Had it popped this morning and swapped snowshoes with the main guide so picking up cache and hiking back up the hill to Camp 2 felt like walking on soft cushions! ☺
"


(snack break)

(the ugly beast popped and treated)

Tuesday – carry and cache at 13,500’


(snack break around Windy Corner)

Wednesday – move to 14,200’


(drying socks and gloves.. learnt my lesson after Vinson not to dry socks on my bear tummy.. things can get stinky..)

"Thursday 18 June, 6.35pm, 14,200’, Day 8 on the mountain (or is it?!)
We had a relatively easy day today; a two hour round trip first thing in the morning to collect cache we left below two days ago. After the yammy egg& bacon breakfast I decided it was time to go for a walk on my own. This is the only camp site where you can walk around and meet people from other teams without the danger of falling into a crevasse. Headed up to the rangers quarter where they update the weather board and had a quick chat with one of the guys working there. Superb feeling walking around freely without being roped to someone!


(weather board at the entrance of the rangers' tent)

The other reason I wanted to get away from our tents was because almost all my teammates had mobiles with them and believe or not, at 14,200 feet they had phone signal! We were asked not to bring our mobiles but seemingly I was the only one who read that section of the notes. It’s not a big deal of course, but when you’re on an expedition the last thing you want to hear is your teammate chatting to their family/ girlfriend/ wife... it takes away the whole beauty of ‘wilderness expedition’ and it is hugely distractive.
I love it at 14 camp though. The views are just breathtaking; I can see Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker in the distance. Sometimes they have clouds wrapped around them other times you can admire both mountains glowing and alive in dawn. It’s white everywhere except where it’s shiny light blue, a sign for open crevasse, and the sky changes every second. Photographer’s paradise! Until of course you turn around and look at Motorcycle Hill and the fixed line section where climbers are a size of a dot. We’re going up there tomorrow to carry so an early night is a must.


(Foraker from my tent at 14 camp)

(Foraker in the middle of the "night".. I knew it was worth getting out of the tent for a pee)

(practising opening and closing the ascender with one thumb only on our day off)

Saturday 20 June, REST DAY at 14,200 Day 10 on the mountain
I’m in my warm sleeping bag as I’m writing this, listening to music and the watching the snow building up on our tent walls.. Despite the good and positive weather forecast, the camp had a lot of snow yesterday and scary looking low clouds moved in. In three words, total white out.


(Foraker was playing hide and seek today!)

Carried to 16,200’ yesterday starting on Motorcycle Hill followed by some juicy 45 degree walls. As always, we were marching up after other teams as if it was a competition. The cold didn’t help either, had to put my mitts on during the first break (well, I spent the entire 5 minute break trying to peel off my fleece gloves and force my numb hands into the mittens) and kept them on until the sun hit the bottom of the fixed lines where we stopped again to put our helmet on. As soon as I attached my ascender to the fixed line, I was in my element again!


(some of the group gear)

(bottom of the fixed lines)

(back at 14,200' camp I asked one of my tent mates to join me for a photoshoot)

Glad we’re having a “day off” today, needed. The weather is not ideal but not bad enough to stop us so fingers crossed we’ll move tomorrow. The plan is to pick up our cache on the way and carry everything up to the last camp also known as the high camp at 17,200. From there, it’s a return ticket to the top!
"
Climbing Denali / Mt. McKinley la Summit and Death March
29th June 2015
"Monday 22 June SUMMITED!!!! Day ‘who knows and counts anymore’ on the mountain
We moved to High Camp 17,200’ yesterday.. as I suspected the fixed lines were my favourite parts and boy we had two long sections of them. The move goes like this; attach your heather with an unlocking carabiner to the fixed line and click your ascender behind. Now all you have to do is move up slowly; placing your feet slightly outwards and with every other step push the ascender further up on the fixed rope. When you get to the picket (where a new fixed line is installed) stop climbing and shout ‘aaaanchoooooooor’ (=anchor) or ‘staaaaapp’ (=stop) so all your team members can hear you’re about to get off the fixed line you were climbing on. You unclick your unclocking carabiner first, place it on the next rope, unclick the ascender and secure it on the rope then shout ‘cliiiiiiiiiiiiiiimb’ or ‘gooooooo’ signalling you’re ready to continue to climb. It’s quite vital so your team mates are aware (as they also have to stop every time someone has to anchor) I found that not everyone on my team did this so you had to watch the person in front (on a 45 degree slope with a tall and heavy backpack plus helmet& sun cap blocking your vision it is not easy) and if the team rope suddenly pulls you back, it means the person behind forgot to shout and about to anchor.
"


(that tiny snowy bit, right from the middle is 17,200' camp from the distance)


(not the best place to get your GoPro out but couldn't resist)


(after the first long fixed line section things got even more fun!)


(second fixed line section)

We arrived at 17,200 feet pretty broken. I remember sitting down on my backback waiting for our guides to find us a safe spot to build camp. Some teams move into other teams (who already left of course) camp sites, not us. New campsite at every Camp meant grabbing the shovels, stomping the snow, more digging, setting up tents and the midi, building ice walls. No rest for the wicked! Same happened this time.
So there I was sat on my backpack, huge smile on my face for making it to the highest camp on the mountain but I was seriously low on energy. Waiting for our guides to come back, next minute I realised I was half asleep sliding off the sled. Looked up and around, my teammates were already marking our campsite so I got up, pulled my belongings to their and started with the stomping. Due to the lower oxygen level, at the camp everything felt harder and took longer. If one person doesn't contribute (or not as much as others) to establishing camp, it takes even longer. It wasn't my place to tell anyone off for being lazy, as our guides said at the beginning, everyone will have bad days..
By the time tents were up, soup was almost ready and to my complete surprise, I was hungry! This is unusual for me in high altitude but I thought better eat more than nothing. After dinner we were told that there was a chance we would head to the summit the following day but we'll see in the morning.
I didn't like that. Being quite anal when it comes to organising and planning, I like to know what to prepare for. Needless to say I didn't sleep that night. We were woken at 6.15am and heard our guides telling the other tent to get ready, we were going for the summit!
My body just wanted to stay in the tent, sleep and sleep. I didn't want to be the last to get ready so got out of bed, shoved down some breakfast, had my waterbottles filled up (one with water, the other with my favourite tea - strawberry & vanilla) and got myself ready.
Like every morning, you had to guess what the weather was going to be like so I had longjohns + soft shell climbing pants and wore a long sleeve merino wool baselayer with a fleece top and a thin jacket. We all had to pack survival kits (thermos, sleeping bag, sleeping mat) and our warmest down pants, down jacket and expedition mitts.
Rolled out of camp around 9.30am, the last but one team.


I am not fan of long boring hills but this is what was awaiting, it's called the Autobahn. I knew there will be fixed lines near the top (only for protection so clip in and out this time, didn't use the ascender) but it was going to be hard work.


(the route out of 17,200' camp went all the way to the top rocks)

Once negotiated this lengthy section we had a quick break, the guides checked if everyone was doing well, forced some munchies and water down and carried on.

The next thing I remember is when we got to The Football Field. One giant hill to climb but we could see the summit ridge from here!


(it's called the...... 'Big Hill' of course!)

We regrouped here, last break before the summit - we were told. I felt great, probably thanks to vanilla GU I wolfed down earlier, as a non coffee drinker it did give me the boost I needed!

We took off and soon met the other teams who were heading off the summit. I said my congrats to them but secretly wishing it was us. About 3/4 up 'Big Hill' our guide turned around and said: "Guys, there are clouds and possibly storm coming in, if we don't make it to the top in 20minutes we'll have to turn around." A serious kick up the arse, exactly what we needed, we changed into higher gear and literally flew up. NO WAY I would turn around near the summit!
We made it to the top at 6pm, sky still blue and everyone in great spirit.

There's something euphoric, emotional and satisfying being on the summit. You simply forget about all your pain, the knots in your back&shoulder from the heavy pack, the unwashed hair, the blister feet and soon on. The feeling is pure and indescribable.



(for HUNGARY & GREAT BRITAIN)


(for my sponsors and family who supported me every step of the way)


(carrying some special and personal items to the top)


(my backpack carried more than it was designed for, never let me down)


(in North America, you can't get any higher!)


(view from the summit, looking back the summit ridge)

We got back to High Camp after 11pm. I am exhausted! Just had some dinner and sleeping bag calling!

The following pictures were taken from the summit descent back to High Camp.







"Tuesday 23 & Wednesday 24 June 'March of the climbers'
For once during the expedition, we were treated to a well deserved lie-in and was woken up by our guides around 9am, time to get up. At that point we thought we would take the descend in 2 sections; head down to 11'000 camp from High Camp, sleep for a while then carry on to Base Camp where a plane was supposedly coming in just for us. It didn't quite happen that way.
We had a small break at 14,200' camp where we dug out the rest of the group and personal gear we left there, had some dinner and carried on. When we left visibility was bad but when we got around Windy Corner I could hardly see the person in front of me. We kept going until a deep and throbbing sound when we all stopped to turn. Our guides were shouting keep going from the back, it was no place to wait and see what the sound was but we all knew, an avalanche or rock fall. We skipped the break at the Polo Field and arrived back at the top of Motorcyle Hill where we stopped briefly. Going down this hill I noticed how much the snow conditions and terrain have changed since we were last there; crevasses got even larger and snow became mushy. Difficult going down in crampons and still carrying a heavy bag.
Upon arrival at 11,000ft we grabbed everything we buried there a week before, loaded our sleds, packed away the crampons and hello snowshoes again!



(ready to crack on!)

All I remember from here on is that I was thinking.. someone is going to break an ankle. The end, it was the teeth on my right snowshoe, just disappeared and due to lack of grip and nearly flew. One of our guides very kindly gave me his but at that point I couldn't care and would have walked (run) in my boots.
After skiing down Ski Hill, to 7,800ft Camp 1, we pulled over to have a break. Everyone was sat on their sleds munching on leftover lunch. Looked at my watch, 3am. We had been walking since 11am the day before and it looked like we weren't going to stop for long!

This was the point when I though finding my shuffle and playing some songs would probably get me through the next 4-5 hours to Base Camp. It was still in my sports bra where I left it on the summit day (we were not allowed to listen to music on the way up from this point so I kept it there the whole time to save battery life for the rainy days..)


(stunning views and light around 5am that morning)


(snowshoes..love & hate relationship)

The last hill to climb before arriving at Base Camp is called Heartbreak Hill, for a good reason. By the time we got to the bottom of it I had an out of body experience, fatigue kicked in but I still stayed strong. No point moaning now about the pace or why we didn't stop to sleep way earlier. Just head down and bring home the bacon.

The first sight of Base Camp was the icing on the cake. We had an incredible trip, no weather days, perfect summit, healthy team, exciting descent and now back at Base Camp. There were 2 or 3 teams there waiting for their flights already so we got in the queue. About 3 more hours waiting (too excited to sleep!) when a BC staff came up to our guides to let us know we were the next to fly out.







We dragged out tired bodies, group gear, backpacks and sleds down to the plane and boarded. Nobody said a thing but we all felt the same way. "
Climbing Mt. McKinley/ Denali Afterthoughts..
28th June 2015
To sum up the whole trip would take me as much time as writing the trip notes, by now the reader must be Denali-ed out so I'll keep this short message and sweet.
I knew when I signed up for this trip that I had to train harder than ever before, have a positive attitude on the mountain and dig deep when needed. I left London thinking, am I going to be back in 3 weeks? Or 4? Am I going to summit? There are no answers as you can never ever predict what happens during the Denali expedition. My blood blister could have gone worse stopping me to get higher (thanks to my fab guide, he looked after me and the blister so well for about a week every morning), altitude or my heart condition could have broken my dream to summit or weather could have stopped us all (as it did to many teams). Experienced neither of these and I feel incredibly fortunate.
Yes climbing with 7 men and sharing a tent with 2 for 2 weeks was challenging but again I am lucky to say I had a great team with 2 very strong and experienced guides. There were low points and hard times but I shall learn from these and remember the good moments only.

This trip, my 4th of the '7 summits' was also self funded but my amazing sponsors made it possible for me to book the next - Aconcagua in December.
It's not just the fund they helped me with, but they gave me a huge mental boost before I left. Every time I looked down and saw their logos on my jacket or packed and re-packed the banner I knew they were there with me in spirit.
My boss Chris at Canvas Gallery for letting me follow my dream and keep my position at the gallery, Robin, Lesley and Helen at Alexander House Wimbledon, Chris at Park Accounts, everyone at Robert Holmes, my family and my dearest friends - this summit was for you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in me, your generous support and unconditional love.

Alex
xx