On Getting High

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On Getting High

What’s the highest you’ve ever been?  Altitude-wise I mean.  

For me it’s just a little bit shy of 7,000m or 23,000ft.  I grew up at a low elevation, in the middle of Germany, and even though I spent plenty of time in the foothills of the Alps as a kid hiking and skiing I never once approached the 14,000ft mark until shortly after my 25th birthday.  But that’s a different story (which you can read on REI’s Coop Journal here).  

The reason I want to talk about altitude is because of the experience that Kat and Tara and I had on our Mera Peak climb last month.  We had a fantastic expedition all in all, but our first summit attempt was cut short by an altitude scare.  Take a look below for the brief summary of what happened as I described it on Instagram a little while ago.  

The woman, the myth, the legend - Kathy Parsons aka @mountainkat10

Yes, altitude struck.  Kat knew what she might be in for, because she had had a similar experience in Ecuador on her 4-day Cotopaxi trip.  I knew what we might be in for, too, because Kat had told me of the Cotopaxi incident; and yet, after listening to her story and understanding the parameters of her Ecuador experience I still encouraged her to attempt Mera: because slow and gradual acclimatization can make all the difference.  

And it did: after ten days of gradual ascent Kat, 60 years old but in absolutely killer cardio shape, breezed through her Ecuadorian highpoint to upwards of 20,000ft.  Yet just a couple hundred feet shy of the summit - literally some 10 minutes below the top - things changed.  Within a matter of minutes Kat went from climbing strong to temporarily not being able to walk. Here are a few thoughts I want to share for all of us who spend time at altitude (or are planning to do so) to mull over: 

  • Fitness and training have very little, if any, impact on your susceptibility to altitude sickness. If they did, Kat would not have had to turn around at 21,000ft
  • Proper acclimatization does make a big difference: acclimatize slowly and thoroughly, and you may be able to climb safely to altitudes that may have seemed out of reach previously.  That said… this is very important:  
    • Acclimatization cannot be rushed. To acclimatize fully to extreme altitude (commonly thought of above 5,500m or 18,000ft) requires more than three weeks! Which is a much longer period of time than most climbers budget.  Expeditions with 10-14 days of trail time to 20,000ft are quite typical for Himalayan and Andean mountaineering. Seven-day trips up Kilimanjaro (19,341ft) are considered standard.  As such, even on trips with “relaxed” acclimatization schedules many of us will pursue high summits on suboptimal acclimatization.  Don’t short-change yourself by trying to save time and move up faster
    • Recognize that, unless you are spending months in the high mountains, you will not be fully acclimatized during most high altitude adventures.  Adjust your pace accordingly; don’t be tempted to push too hard  
  • Kat’s condition changed rapidly.  Leading up to 21,000ft she had - by her own account - no headache, no nausea, and only the occasional mild bout of dizziness.  Then, from one minute to the next, she was slurring her speech and had to sit down. She was lucid enough, and the whole team knew enough of her history with altitude, that we were all clear she had to descend immediately. Thanks to Kat’s tremendous physical and mental strength she managed to descend on her own to feet with assistance from her daughter Tara, Mingma Sherpa, and myself.  While fitness and training may not impact your susceptibility to altitude, they sure do help in extricating yourself from bad situations! 
  • As on all my high-altitude expeditions, I carried Diamox and Dexamethasone on Mera Peak
    • I typically advise against the prophylactic use of Diamox - as I did this time, counseling Kat to not take Diamox ahead of summit day.  My argument is that slow climbing and gradual acclimatization should enable your summit, rather than drug-altered chemistry.  In retrospect, and in a case like Kat’s (i.e. for someone with a history of issues at altitude) this may have been the wrong call; prophylactic Diamox for the final day or two to the summit might have helped prevent Kat’s symptoms at 21,000ft
    • Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid which can be used to reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, though it does not improve acclimatization. While in the mountains, I consider Dex a rescue drug: take in case of emergency, and descend immediately - which is how it was used on this climb
  • Be aware that everyone's symptoms of altitude sickness are different.  HAPE and HACE manifest themselves differently, and not everyone who develops HAPE or HACE may show all of the common symptoms.  Both conditions are extremely serious with fatal consequences if left untreated  
    • HACE symptoms: severe headache, vomiting, slurred speech, confusion, unsteadiness, drowsiness and loss of consciousness
    • HAPE symptoms: shortness of breath, headache, heart palpitations, difficulty walking uphill, cough potentially with frothy sputum tinged with blood, chest discomfort

Prior experiences with acute mountain sickness are the biggest predictor for future episodes; everyone’s ability to acclimatize and function at altitude is different, and seems to be largely driven by your DNA (Example: I have a super fit ultra-running friend who can run a hundred miler no problem, but develops acute mountain sickness as soon as he ascends above 10,000ft). There is only so much you can do in terms of acclimatization schedule, climbing strategy and emergency preparedness. 

Even if you haven’t yet found your limits at altitude, be aware that they do exist - be it at 14,000ft or at 20,000ft or maybe even at the summit of Everest, who knows.  But we all have a limit on how high we can go; if you find yours, make sure you and your team know how to respond - and get back down safely, quickly.  

Kat and myself at 15,000ft a few short days after our Mera Peak adventure.  Photo: @tarebear22

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The Case for Porter Support

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The Case for Porter Support

If you looked at my Instagram yesterday, you saw that I shared a few words about our porter team during the Mera Peak expedition.  The forced brevity of Instagram captions just doesn't do things justice, so here's a more in-depth introduction to our lovely support crew.  

Tara, Kat and I traveled with four locals: Mingma Sherpa, our climbing sirdar with whom I've been friends since I first started mountaineering in Nepal; Antarwu Sherpa, his brother; Geljin Sherpa, Mingma's nephew.  And Gishnagiri, a Chhetri from the Kathmandu Valley for whom our trek was his first foray into high altitude work.  

Kat (L) and Tara (R) with our three most excellent porters: Geljin in black, Antarwu in red and Gishnagiri in tan.  

I have an inkling that Gishnagiri may have signed on to the trek because he thought it would be an easy introduction - three women, taking the long way up the Hinku Valley towards Mera Peak.  Should be nice and mellow, right?  Not with Tara and Kat: these two ultra-running, peak-bagging powerhouses were moving so fast that we all had trouble keeping up with them - particularly on the longest approach days.  When I asked Mingma about the state of the crew after we had made it back to Lukla (our last long day of hiking on the way back towards civilization), he chuckled.  "Ma'am, for the team... Mera Peak climbing: easy.  Hiking days: HARD." 

We could tell that the guys worked hard.  Not only did we trek faster than your typical expedition (going from Karikhola to Tangnag in three days rather than the standard four, and crossing over mighty Zatr La Pass in two days rather than three) but we also brought gifts for the villagers as well as all our climbing gear and tents and food from the US, where many expeditions will only bring the bare necessities and rent crampons/axes/tents/group gear in Khare, the last settlement below the glaciated flanks of Mera.  So Antarwu, Geljin and Gishnagiri unsuspectingly ended up in the perfect storm: walking faster AND carrying more than on your standard Mera expedition - even though Tara, Kat and I also all deliberately carried between thirty and sixty pounds in our daypacks! The guys did very well in all regards, and we acknowledged their hard work and great performance in our collective tipping and with personal tokens of appreciation that were well received.  

We all carried pretty heavy.

Even with the fast pace it was impressive to see how 21-year-old Geljin would constantly run ahead, offer to take extra weight, and always be on the lookout for ways to help us.  He also made an additional 3,000ft ascent to high camp to help carry gear when Tara and I decided to return for a second summit bid after Kat's HACE scare at 21,000ft (more on that in my next post).  Antarwu, Mingma's brother, found great amusement in our initially desperate tries to remember and pronounce his name, and later turned out to be the natural-born dancer of the group.  Gishnagiri, one of Mingma's non-sherpa friends from Kathmandu Valley, was always ready with a smile and continuously pushing hard to keep up with his sherpa companions.  Rumor has it that he decided towards the end of our expedition that construction work, his year-round work, makes for an easier gig than high-altitude trekking - but he was a joy to have around and be part of our small multi-cultural team. 

Construction work in Nepal... which pays ~300Rs ($3) per day. 

At one of our early teahouse stops, day 2 on the trail in Nunthala, I spotted a sobering sign in the dining room.  It said: Porters: STRONG.  PROUD.  VULNERABLE.  Please provide your porter with necessary food, shelter and shoes. Yes, guys like Antarwu and Geljin and Gishnagiri may strike us as incredibly strong and fast and seemingly invincible - but they are not superhuman.  They may cheerily cross icy steeps without crampons, balance 65lbs+ loads on their backs with jerry-rigged carrying systems and dance up and down thousands of feet of snowed-in passes barehanded and in tennis shoes or even sandals... but just because they do it with a smile on their faces (or because the porter pay of ~$15/day is a high-earning gig compared to Nepal's average annual income of ~$700pp) doesn't mean that this is how it should be.  The often desperate state of warm weather and mountain gear available to the locals working to support high altitude expeditions is the reason why I am very excited about having been able to partner with CAMP USA to bring a few sets of cutting-edge, lightweight glacier travel gear into the country for our sherpa friends to use on future climbs.   

New CAMP glacier safety gear for our crew to keep! And these harnesses only weigh 3.2 ounces... 

Of course the collective high altitude workers' gear need is a lot greater than what can be covered by the harnesses and jumars and helmets and pulleys we gave to our crew... but it's a start. Passing on high quality personal gear - boots, crampons, gloves, hats, warm socks, insulated pants and the like - is another step that we, like hopefully most other Himalayan climbing expeditions, naturally incorporated into our giving at the end of the trek.  And then there's the ultimate engine to help alleviate the porters' and high altitude workers' plight: keep climbing in Nepal, spend the money to hire local support staff, compensate them fairly and make sure they're well taken care of.  The moments and friendships that you'll share during the trek will make it more than worth it.  And who knows, you might even learn some local dance moves along the way! 

The whole crew (minus Mingma and myself) once more. 

  

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Moving Up

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Moving Up

The team in front of Mera Peak (L-R Kat, Geljen, Antarwu, Gishnagiri, Tara; missing Sunny and Mingma)

The team has made it to Khare, our last teahouse settlement below Mera Peak.  From here on out it’s all tents and snow camping and brutally cold temperatures - the meat of high altitude mountaineering.  We had a wonderful acclimatization hike on our rest day in Tangang on Sunday, which offered fantastic views of Mera La (basecamp), Mera’s triple summits, and the surrounding peaks.  We also got to go over skills to practice basics of glacier travel and crevasse rescue, putting to use the awesome lightweight gear that CAMP USA set the team up with; life is good. 

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Mingma! This guy has stood atop Everest four times and also has summits of Manaslu, Makalu and K2 to his name. And he's stoked on his new CAMP crampons that we brought over from the US :) 

On Monday we hiked from Tangnag to Khare, a small hamlet with half a dozen tea houses nestled high in the Hinku Valley just about two hours below Mera’s glaciated north shoulder. At almost 16,000ft it’s a battle to stay warm and sleep well, but as of now everybody is handling the altitude well.  Today (Tuesday) saw us walk up to the glacier for more acclimatization and skills practice.  

Tomorrow we leave the comforts of teahouse lodging behind us and move onto the glacier.  Rather than staying at basecamp we’ll head straight to high camp at 19,000ft and launch or summit bid that same night after just a few hours of rest.  If all goes well and the weather remains stable we should be on the summit around sunrise on Thursday, and back down in Khare by dinner time! 

One last acclimatization session on the glacier - tomorrow the real climbing starts!

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Update from 12,000ft

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Update from 12,000ft

Day 5! The team is doing great.  We are currently in Kote, a small village in the Hinku Valley.  Yesterday was a long, long day - nearly nine hours of walking with 10,000ft of vert (6,000ft up & 4,000ft down).  Tara and Cat crushed it and were ahead of the group for a big part of the day. 

Tara and Cat during one of the trek's early days

In addition to enjoying beautiful (steep!) trails and a bit of wildlife - monkeys and a deadly snake - we also got to distribute a few small gifts to local families that we've met along the trail.  Cat and Tara have been carrying toys and coloring books to give to the kids, and I brought along a few solar lights from LuminAid - all of which have been a huge hit.  It's amazing to see the joy that these small gifts can bring, and a privilege being in a position to give.  

Mingma explaining how LuminAid's solar rechargable lanterns work

We are now about five days from being in position for a summit bid, and are enjoying our last couple days of teahouse lodging and home cooked meals before we move into our tents and break into the freeze dried rations from Backpacker's Pantry that we brought along.  If things continue as they started, we look all set for a smooth climb on summit day: everybody is moving well and excited to be out here.  The weather has been decent, and we're all keen to get on the mountain!

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Mera Peak: the route

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Mera Peak: the route

"Wow, really?  You are really going to climb MERA?" - that's a reaction that I get a lot these days.  Now I agree that Mera Peak is a big objective (it's 21,247ft tall after all!), but I also know that most folks hear Mera and think I am talking about Meru, subject of a powerful mountain film by the same name that came out in 2015 after Conrad, Jimmy and Renan completed their badass route up the Shark's Fin.  

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

So, yes, we're going to climb Mera and, no, it's not the same as Meru nor does it have anything to do with sleeping on a portaledge at 20,000ft or climbing terrifying mixed pitches that are disintegrating as you're moving up them.  

Mera Peak is a beautiful mountain with an imposing rock face on its east side which is how it first presents itself during the approach trek.  To climb Mera, however, we will pass under the steep East Face and access the mountain from Mera La on the glaciated and less forbidding north side. 

Below the east face

Below the east face

There are two common ways to start out the trek from Kathmandu: either by flying into Lukla and crossing a 14,000ft pass on the very next day, or by driving by jeep to Salleri and approaching on a more gradual, longer foot journey - which is what we are doing.  

The approach from Salleri to basecamp at Mera La meanders through valleys, across ridges and passes for roughly ten days, which allows plenty of time for acclimatization.  

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The last teahouse settlement below Mera La is Khare at ~16,000ft.  From there on out the route heads onto the glacier, with two camps established on the way to the summit.  All in all, the trek clocks in at somewhere around 50 miles (one way) with 30,000ft of ascent - though GPS in these mountains is notoriously unreliable, so everyone's measurements are different.  But that's part of the fun of being out here! 

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and we're off!

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and we're off!

Monday morning, 5:38am local time - Kathmandu hasn't woken up yet but Kathy, Tara and I are set to meet in 12 minutes and start the long jeep drive to Salleri, from where we'll start the long way to Mera Peak.  

Tara and Kathy arrived yesterday shortly after lunch, and we had a full afternoon with last minute gear prep, logistics, and the first dinner in Nepal.  Everyone is in good spirits and excited to head into the mountains today. The GPS will be live starting later today - check out where we are and feel free to send us messages on it, too! 

Once we're out there I'll do my best to share photos here and there.  Stay tuned.  

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'tis the season...

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'tis the season...

.... to go climb something!  It's October, and that means that this year's big mountain expeditions to Nepal and the Andes are about to kick off.  In just a couple days, we (myself, Tara Miranda and Kathy Parsons) are off for an all-female climb of 21,247ft Mera Peak in the Solokhumbu district of Nepal.  

Nepal is one of my favorite places in the world, and I can't wait to share it with Tara and Kathy, an ultra-running, peak-bagging mother-daughter team from California.  We're leaving the US later this week and are set to convene in Kathmandu on Sunday, October 22.   Per the usual, I'll be posting blog updates and photos here while there is connectivity, and also maintain our live GPS track once we're on the trail; in addition, my our lovely basecamp manager (aka boyfriend extraordinaire) Paul will keep my Instagram updated as regularly as is feasible.  

High up on Kusum Kangru, a technical peak just across the valley from Mera Peak

I'm particularly excited about this trip not just because it's Nepal and because I get to climb with two generations of the same family (which I just love: my own mom came to Kilimanjaro with me last year and it was a phenomenal experience for both of us), but also because we get to make a small contribution to the local Sherpa community as well: we've got two dozen solar lanterns from LuminAid and four sets of sweet glacier travel gear from CAMP USA on board, all of which we are going to gift to local climbing Sherpa and teahouse families out in the mountains. It may be a small gesture within the grand scheme of things but I'm super excited that we get to contribute beyond the dollars that we're spending as visitors in this amazing country. 

Now, if you're itching to get out there yourself... ;) How'd you like to go climb Aconcagua after Christmas! One spot is still open, just putting it out there.  In the meantime though, wish us good weather and happy trails - and I'll check in as I can.  

Kathmandu's Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple)

A little high altitude jog (ha...) in front of magnificent Mera Peak

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the cardiocrawl kit

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the cardiocrawl kit

Ever thought going off on some daring big mountain adventure and got overwhelmed by figuring out the right gear for it? 

I'm willing to bet that anybody who's gone off to a large scale adventure knows that feeling of "oh boy oh boy" as they're starting to get into the gear planning.  And unless you're Kilian Jornet, your favorite outdoor brand may not be bending over backwards to design custom solutions that are just right for your adventure - so figuring out the right mix of functionality, durability, warmth, and weight all comes down to creative problem solving, particularly when you're trying to go fast in extreme temperatures.  I was lucky enough to be be in a position where I could draw on cutting edge gear from a number of sponsors and supporters (thank you adidas Outdoor, Lenz, Backpackers Pantry, PowerBar, HyperliteCAMP USAPetzl, LuminAID and Goal Zero!) but I also had to get creative. I needed to keep everything as light, comfortable and breathable as possible - given that Libby and I were looking at a 20-30+ hour continuous push from 9,000ft up to almost 23,000ft and back down - but couldn't risk frostbite. Take a look below for how I put together my kit. 

  • Gloves. Lenz Heat Gloves 3.0 Women, with Outdoor Research Alti-Mitts (sans liner, since the Lenz gloves could double as a liner) for backup. Powered by a lightweight and rechargable lithium-ion battery pack, the heat gloves provide active warmth for up to ten hours - while providing a much higher level of dexterity than you'd find in any non-heated glove of similar warmth -  and are well worth the cost. 
     
  • Ice axe. The lightest out there, the Corsa from CAMP USA. We ended up not needing axes given the lack of snow, but this axe is my weapon of choice for any non-technical snow climb.
     
  • Trekking poles. I used and love the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles. They're super light, collapsible, and have skinny grips (which keep me from getting cramps).

Upper body.  Layers upon layers! A basic adidas Terrex tee, the awesome Terrex Skyclimb top, and a gaggle of jackets: the men's adidas Terrex Climaheat Agravic  together with the slightly lighter Women's Terrex Swift Climaheat Agravic jacket, plus the Terrex FastR Gore-Tex jacket.

Lower body. Again, layers. A pair of tights beneath the adidas Terrex Techrock Winter Pant, topped off with a custom GoreTex bib. 

Overall warmth. Lots of Grabber Warmer hand warmers, ultra warmers and foot warmers. Yes, that's in addition to all the down and heated gloves and heated socks... it does get that cold up there. 

Socks. I tried out the Lenz Heat Sock 5.0 Toecap for this project and was blown away by their performance.  Full review to come soon! 

  • Footwear. This was a bit of a homemade custom job, since I needed something light and runnable - meaning not the La Sportiva Olympus Mons that I would typically wear on a peak like Aconcagua - but warm enough to protect my feet from prolonged periods of subzero temperatures. I cut a set of supergaiters down to be just above-ankle high and glued them on to the Salomon S-Lab X ALP Carbon GTX to prevent the top from popping off (a common supergaiter issue). Combined with the Lenz Heatsock 5.0 and a set of Grabber Warmer foot warmers for backup, this custom setup did wonderfully well.
     
  • Crampons. The new Petzl Leopard FL crampons - light as a feather and super durable. I think they're actually lighter than YakTrax or MicroSpikes, which would have been the alternative. 
     
  • And finally, the last piece of the puzzle: Running Packs.  A big mountain run like Aconcagua requires a double-pack approach: an ultra-lightweight, skinny pack or vest to wear right on your baselayer (underneath all your other layers) in order to keep your hydration system from freezing, and a larger running pack to accommodate gear, food and layers. I used the Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race Vest as my base sleeve, and the Mountain Hardwear Fluid 12 Backpack as my outer running pack. 

The above kit is what I just about lived in for well over a month.  When we had periods of nice weather lower down in the valley, I would simply take off the outer layers and adjust some of the winter gear with less extreme substitutes - a pair of adidas Terrex liner gloves instead of the Lenz Heat Gloves, Injinji toe socks (a favorite of mine every since I started ultra running) to replace the Lenz Heat Sock, and the lightweight and grippy adidas Terrex X-King trailrunner instead of my homemade big mountain trail runner. 

Now, this is what I wore on my body; of course the gear requirements don't stop there... here's the rest of the setup. 

  • Camping. Libby and I had two tents on the mountain: the trusty Mountain Hardwear EV2 which I have used on multiple big mountain trips now and always was happy with, and the roomier The North Face Assault 3 which I have come to dislike thoroughly (full review coming eventually, if you're looking for details before I get around to it, email me with questions).  
  • Sleeping. We used an ultralight and highly comfortable Therm-a-Rest setup for sleeping pads, combining the classic Z Rest with the NeoAir XTherm (R Value of 5.7!) and a compatible chair kit for added comfort in camp.  Our sleeping bags were -20 to -40F bags from Mountain Hardwear and TNF. 
  • Food.  Nutrition is crucial on an expedition and all-too-often underestimated, which is the reason I include it in my gear list.  Our base nutrition consisted of Backpackers Pantry freeze dried meals for dinner, stout oatmeal - fortified with powdered milk, honey and dried fruit - for breakfast, and PowerBar gels and bars for fuel on the go as well as for sweet treats.  For me, this mix works great; others may need more variety to stay excited about food on a long trip.  
  • Kitchen.  I use and am a huge fan of the MSR Reactor stove system, which is more powerful and efficient than any other stove I have used.  For lightweight cook- and dinnerware, I switched to the Sea To Summit collapsible X Series a few years ago and have never looked back. 
  • Carrying.  For the approach to basecamp and carries on the mountain I rely on Hyperlite Mountain Gear's large all-rounder, the Southwest 4400. Beyond its durability and waterproofing, I love that the pack is ultralight and seamlessly adjusts from medium-size day pack to porter volumes.  That said, the pack isn't designed to carry super heavy (but I've been just fine with it carrying loads up to 65lbs). 

And that's just about it! Of course there are the lovable and sometimes indispensable luxuries like solar lighting (check out LuminAID) or solar power from Goal Zero, as well as important peripheral items like headlamps or water purification.  If you're looking for a comprehensive packing list to prepare your own climb, feel free to reach out to me and I'll be happy to share the detailed equipment run-down that I have used on past expeditions.  Climb on! 

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cardiocrawl no more: a review

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cardiocrawl no more: a review

"Keep going.  Seriously...  you totally got this. The summit is SO close!" 

Role reversal.  For the last ten hours, all through the night, I was repeating a variation of these lines to encourage Libby - but now it's Libby telling me that I need to keep moving.  We are just shy of 20,000ft; the air is thin, the cold brutal, and we have been moving for nineteen hours and change.  The summit is maybe a mile away, another 3,000ft higher up; we can almost see it from where we are - spitting distance.  Yet at this altitude and with our exhaustion level, spitting distance will translate into another 6-7 hours of strenuous climbing.  

"Sunny - do NOT turn around. Just go and get it done for us both." Libby is doubled over on her poles, fighting to catch her breath.  The moment I start walking towards her she lays down in the snow, her body an expression of fatigue and defeat.  I am struggling for air, too; my eyes are burning from a long sleepless night and climbing by the narrow beam of my headlamp for hour after hour.  Today, like on every other day, Aconcagua is refusing to go down easy. 

Teamwork on the mountain.  Photo: Julian Kusi

Teamwork on the mountain.  Photo: Julian Kusi

We've been here before. Literally, and figuratively.  This is Week Six on the mountain for Libby and me.  We are on our third 20-day climbing permit.  We have both summited once already, and today is our second go at climbing Aconcagua in a single push from the Horcones trailhead - some 20 miles down valley from here. Many women have tried this endeavor; to date, only one has succeeded. Fernanda Maciel, the Brazilian TNF & Red Bull ultra runner, took three attempts to become the first woman to complete the roundtrip in a single push not even a year ago.  

Libby and I are at a crossroad.  We’ve pushed so hard, and poured so much into this project.  A high altitude ultra run, that’s what it was supposed to be.  Libby, always tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating, dubbed our effort the Cardiocrawl.  When a “fast” ascent means that you’re taking over an hour per mile, it seems like a fitting moniker. Now here we are, at 20,000ft, and it looks like the final curtain is falling on Project Cardiocrawl.  We have tried and failed once already, and now we’re trying again… and failing, again.  

I walk back towards Libby and sit down in the snow next to her.  She’s been an inspiration to watch, pushing herself to continue on past exercise-induced narcolepsy and nausea that started early last night.  I know she has been fighting a monumental fight, and up until two hours ago I thought we would make it.  But now… now things are looking different. 


Decision time at 20,000ft.  At the time of the video, we still had plenty of daylight left to continue moving up and attempt the final mile that separated us from the summit.  Upper mountain wind speeds on this day were somewhere between 20 to 30mph; temps with wind chill were in the negative teens (Fahrenheit; negative twenties Celsius).


So, yeah: we’re going to call it again.  We’re going to call it, because no mountain is worth risking life and limb. We fought for as long as it was safe to fight, and we got farther than last time.  But no matter how badly we want this summit or how close we are to getting it done, the mountain doesn’t make exceptions; we need to, like everyone else, make good decisions.  The summit is not the ultimate goal - getting down safely is. And if getting down safely means to turn around after we have covered 95% of the distance and 81% of the ascent from trailhead to summit… so be it.  The mountain will always be there; if Libby and I keep our health and our stoke, we’ll be back one day too.   But first it's time get down and off this mountain, for this season anyway.  

What goes up must come down... Photo: Julian Kusi

What goes up must come down... Photo: Julian Kusi

Thanks everybody for all your support and encouragement along the way - I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much (and at certain times more, ha!) than Libby and I did. We of course did get safely off the mountain, and we even had enough stoke (stubbornness?) left after bailing that we pushed all the way back to the trailhead twenty miles down-valley, turning the roundtrip attempt into a mad 35 hour mission.  

There’ll be another field notes post soon to talk about the gear I used in setting the new Aconcagua basecamp-to-summit women’s record, as well as how Libby and I designed our kit to try for the full roundtrip; after that, this series will come to a close. If you’re enjoying following along on the adventure, subscribe to my main blog to have stories about non-Aconcagua outdoor pursuits delivered to your inbox.   

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cardiocrawl stage 5: the ultimate attempt

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cardiocrawl stage 5: the ultimate attempt

It's Sunday afternoon, and Libby and I are sitting in Penitentes yet again; I have lost count of how many days we've spent in this sleepy little ski station at the foot of the mountain since the start of our Aconcagua adventures over six weeks ago. 

Well.  This is bound to be one of the last times, because tomorrow afternoon we shall be on our way again to attempt the big push from the Horcones trailhead to the summit and back - the same mission that we failed on just over two weeks ago.  We're hoping that this time will be different: Libby and I are both healthy now, and we have an incredibly lean setup on the mountain.  The last go-around was designed as a supported push with photographer and ultarunner John Evans in position to assist us on the upper mountain, and fully equipped aid/sleeping station tents in place both at 14,500ft as well as at 18,300ft.  This time it's just Libby and me with a bit of coordination help from our local friend Juli who will ensure that we have potable water waiting for us at Camp II, where the only way to find drinking water is to melt snow.  We stashed warm clothes and extra food on the mountain, and we do have emergency sleeping bags... but no tents, and no pacer support for the upper mountain.    

You may wonder - why do we believe that we can pull off the 70km roundtrip climb now when we didn't manage to do it with higher levels of support the last time?  Here are the lessons that we internalized from the last attempt: 

  • This is a team effort.  We will support each other, encourage each other, not split up, and get it done together or not at all.  On the last go we knew from the start that I had very little chances of getting high on the mountain (due to my lingering respiratory infection) so it was going to be up to Libby to push through solo for big stretches of the run.
  • Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.  Our pace up to basecamp was stiff last time - likely a bit too stiff for the two of us.  We're planning to slow down the approach and save steam, our breath and strong legs for the upper mountain where they're needed most! 
  • PowerBar, Trail Butter and HalfPops have been awesome in keeping us fueled on the go, but we squarely did not take in enough calories early on the last go.  Yet another reason for us slow things down and make sure we're fueling frequently and sufficiently. 
  • We've got very little incentive to stop since we don't have tents set up on the mountain, and lots of incentive to keep going - there is a frenzy of record and big push activity on the mountain right now, which makes everything more exciting!  Ecuadorian Nicolas Miranda just set a new speed record on the 360 route (which traverses both the Vacas Valley and the Horcones Valley) yesterday, and his fifteen year old team mate Daniela Calapiña is vying to best my recent basecamp-summit women's FKT on the same day that Libby and I are planning to summit during the big push.  

The weather is looking good, we are rested and anxious to get moving, and now all there is to do is show up at the trailhead and get 'er done.  Let's do this!! 

PS - we'll have live GPS again if you want to see how we're faring this time, and Paul will keep my Instagram up-to-date on go day.  Thank you all for the amazing support and encouragement you've been giving us along the way!

Looking forward to running under these stars again! Though we will have close to a full moon this time, which should help us navigate the faint spur trails down in the lower Horcones valley.

Looking forward to running under these stars again! Though we will have close to a full moon this time, which should help us navigate the faint spur trails down in the lower Horcones valley.

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cardiocrawl stage 4: aaaand we're back

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cardiocrawl stage 4: aaaand we're back


“International Flight Number 8244 from Mendoza to Los Angeles, FINAL BOARDING. Paging customers Elizabeth Sauter and Suzanne Stroeer. We are now closing the boarding door.”

At least, I imagine that’s what they said when Sunny and I didn’t show up for our flights back home this morning.

Such much stoke... Libby and John at the trailhead after our most recent go (which we thought was going to be the last!) 

Such much stoke... Libby and John at the trailhead after our most recent go (which we thought was going to be the last!) 

The last few days in Mendoza have been tumultuous. Should we stay and give the mountain another go? The weather has been terrible up there. I (Libby) have a cold and cough. We’ve already spent so much time, money, sweat, tears and effort up there. But on the flip side, we’ve already spent weeks getting acclimated and familiar with the trails. The locals on the mountain have encouraged us to give it another go with their logistical help. Coming back next year would be even more expensive…

We agonized. We debated. One minute we were packing to go home. The next, we were definitely staying. Our decision flip flopped like a fish in a dried up stream.

But in the end, with the generous and unwavering support of adidas Outdoor, we realized the regret and the unexplored outcome of a team attempt would torment us more than the ensuing dent to our bank accounts.

So, there it is. We are going back in. Tomorrow (Sunday), we head back to the trailhead and will hike into Confluencia. Monday will have us at Base Camp. Tuesday and Wednesday will be spent setting up our aid station at Camp Two, Nido. From there, we come back out of the park to rest at the trailhead for a few days until we see a good weather window.

The #cardiocrawl effort continues!

This says it all. 

This says it all. 

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cradiocrawl stage 3: the intermission

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cradiocrawl stage 3: the intermission

Boy oh boy.  It is 6:30am on a Thursday morning, and I am tossing and turning on the top bunk in our $20/night hostel room in Mendoza.  Libby and John are still asleep, and I should be too - I only just went to bed a couple hours ago - but there is too much on my mind.  We're supposed to fly home in two days, but Libby and I have unfinished business.  

While we both tagged the summit - and pretty fast, too! he :) - we did not complete our main objective: the 70km roundtrip run from the Horcones trailhead to the summit and back.  We knew from the start that I probably wasn't going to be in shape for the long one, seeing how my lungs were still acting up after the quickie ascent from basecamp to the summit; our plan was to stick together for as long as possible, and for Libby to continue on and get it done once I had to tap out.   

100 yards down, 70km to go!

100 yards down, 70km to go!

We hit the trail at the park entrance right around 6pm, as the sun was starting to be low in the sky and the temperatures in the Lower Horcones valley were turning from scorching to tolerable. Everything went according to plan: we made it to Confluencia in just around 90 minutes, refueled on the go, and breezed through towards the long sandy slog from the confluence towards basecamp.  As day turned to night the wind picked up; we buttoned up and continued straight into the sandy blasts.  Shortly after nightfall and roughly 20km into the run, my energy ran out and I signaled to Libby that I wasn't going to be able to keep pace with her any longer.  I sat down by a rock and started munching on a PowerBar as Libby's headlamp trailed off into the moonless night. 

And that was the end of the story for me: I got myself to basecamp, checked Libby's position on GPS and fell into bed hoping for the best for Libby who now was facing a big, cold climb through the night - solo.  

Fast forward to a few hours later and Libby and I are both curled up in sleeping bags and trying to rest after the previous day's and night's effort; Libby up at 18,300ft and I at 14,400ft.  Going solo, the cold night and brisk pace had pushed Libby's caloric balance so far into the deficit zone that by the time she reached Nido she too tapped out. 

And now... here we are, back in Mendoza, thinking about what it would take to complete the mission and discussing options.  Aconcagua continues to call our name.  Can we build on the acclimatization of the last five weeks and head back out to the mountain for another try?  Or should we plan to come back next year?  With the time and money required for a project like this one, there's no easy answer.... just the climbing permits run $800 per person; then again, we've already put so much work and money into this goal that it seems foolish to walk away now.  

We've got just about forty hours until our flights are scheduled to depart - should we stay or should we go?? 

So close, and yet so far... 

So close, and yet so far... 

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cardiocrawl stage 2: go time

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cardiocrawl stage 2: go time

Sunday's wind speeds may be higher than later in the week, but they're still REALLY good for Aconcagua standards.  The upcoming colder temps convinced us to go now rather than wait. 

This is it: the weather is looking decent, our legs are semi recovered from the hike out, supplies are in position on the mountain, and Libby's stoke for getting the in-a-push done is high.  In other words, it's GAME ON.  

We'll be starting from the Horcones trailhead around 6pm this evening (Sat Jan 28), and I'll be doing what I can to pace and support Libby as she's pushing onwards and upwards to 22,838ft. Libby is hoping to summit mid-day Sunday and be back down and out by early Monday morning. My assumption at this point is that I'll be able to keep her company for the 50km roundtrip to and from Plaza de Mulas, but then leave her to her own devices for the crux 20km on the upper mountain.    

A few days ago at Nido (18,300ft) - Libby contemplating what's up ahead

A few days ago at Nido (18,300ft) - Libby contemplating what's up ahead

Flying down the scree slop between Nido and Plaza de Mulas

Flying down the scree slop between Nido and Plaza de Mulas

At basecamp - only 8,400ft of climbing from here to the top... 

At basecamp - only 8,400ft of climbing from here to the top... 

One way or the other - stoke is high, as is both our uncertainty about what the next 48 hours are going to bring.  The live GPS is set up to be showing close to real-time updates (in 10 minute intervals) on the big push and my favorite boyfriend and expedition manager Paul will be keeping my Instagram current while we're off, as it were.  Wish us luck, and send lots of strength and psych to Libby! 

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#cardiocrawl stage 1: mission accomplished!

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#cardiocrawl stage 1: mission accomplished!

Whew.  It's been just about eight days since Libby and I hiked back into Plaza de Mulas after our better half of Team Asquerosa left (hey Teresa, Kristina - we miss you!), and SO much has happened since then.  

After a slow start and some difficulty acclimatizing in the first weeks of January Libby tagged her first Aconcagua summit this past Saturday; she was moving at an excellent clip for it, too: the trek from Nido (18,300) to the summit took Libby 7h45, where most regular climbers take around 12 hours.

On radio duty at Nido, monitoring Libby's climb

On radio duty at Nido, monitoring Libby's climb

Libby at the summit - fittingly on Saturday Jan 21, the date of the Women's March

Libby at the summit - fittingly on Saturday Jan 21, the date of the Women's March

I accompanied Libby to Nido in advance of her summit push but decided to wait and acclimatize for a while longer since I was flirting with the thought of trying for the women's speed record from basecamp to the summit. The existing speed record was set by the local guide and strong woman Chabela Farias in March 2016, who summited in a blazing 9h16 from basecamp and managed the subsequent descent in a mere 3h24 for the roundtrip record of 12h40.  

My and Libby’s main focus has always been on the “long” speed ascent from the Horcones Valley trailhead to the summit and back, but when I saw how fast I was climbing during the early weeks in January - and despite a lingering respiratory infection that I was dealing with at the time - I started to hatch plans for a “quickie” from basecamp to the summit. 

Monday Jan 23 was my go day: I left Plaza de Mulas at 5:05am under perfectly calm and starry skies with mild temperatures and started the 8,400ft climb towards the top of the Americas, feeling strong. I only had a rough idea of the splits I’d need to hit in order to have a chance at Chabela’s 9h16 record, but when I reached Nido (18,300ft) just 2 hours and 44 minutes after leaving basecamp and then hit Camp Cholera another hour later I was starting to feel optimistic.  I kept climbing briskly - interspersed by a few short breaks to refuel and transition to crampons - and stood on the summit 8 hours and 47 minutes after leaving Plaza de Mulas.  

Summit!  I tagged the cross at 1:52pm and lingered a bit for photos & refueling before starting the long way down.    

Summit!  I tagged the cross at 1:52pm and lingered a bit for photos & refueling before starting the long way down.    

Even while taking summit photos and initiating radio contact with basecamp to confirm my ascent, I had already decided that I wasn’t going to try to break Chabela’s roundtrip record since I wanted to save my legs for Libby and my big trailhead - summit - trailhead speed attempt later in the week.  That said, as soon as I started descending it became very clear that I couldn’t have matched Chabela’s descent time even if I had wanted to: while I felt strong on the way up, on the way down my lungs decided to acutely remind me that I wasn’t fully healed from my chest infection yet.  Thankfully I had plenty of daylight left, as well as support along the way - first John Evans greeted me with coffee and a much appreciated hot meal at Nido, and later in the evening Libby trekked up to Conway Rocks to escort me back to basecamp at the end of a long day. 

Tired after a big day and stoked to be back within spitting distance of basecamp

Tired after a big day and stoked to be back within spitting distance of basecamp

At this point, Libby and I are back down in Penitentes (just outside the park) and resting up for the long attempt. While I feel a lot better now than I did right after my summit push, chances are I won’t be in shape to go high on the mountain again in the next few days - so now the two key questions are: what is the best weather window for Libby to launch the big one, and how far will I be able to run with her for support and company? 

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#cardiocrawl - the beginning

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#cardiocrawl - the beginning

It's official - Libby and I are back on the mountain. It's a bit of a different setup this time; rather than enjoying Inka Expediciones' comfortable (and quick!) all-in logistics support, we are now on a budget trying to cobble together this expedition at the lowest cost possible.  

goodbye Mendoza - man it was nice to feel clean for 2.5 days :) 

goodbye Mendoza - man it was nice to feel clean for 2.5 days :) 

We caught the bus from Mendoza to Penitentes, dropped our 65kg of mule freight in Penitentes, and spent the night at a small hostel before heading into the park for the long hike from Horcones to Plaza de Mulas.  Ultra runner and photographer John Evans was a day and a half ahead of us to acclimatize in Confluencia, and the three of us finally all converged upon basecamp on Tuesday evening. 

The weather forecast is looking promising for a good summit window at the end of the week - looks like we will be going for our first summit push on or near Friday.  It’ll be too early for John to go high on the mountain, but Libby and I should be well acclimatized thanks to the adventures of Team Asquerosa over the last several weeks.  But first it’ll be interesting to see how good (or bad!) the ascent back up to Camp Nido feels tomorrow, which will be a valuable indication of how well our bodies are dealing with the altitude.  FIngers crossed.... 

It’s a bit nerve wrecking to think about a big push as early as three days from now, but it’s also exciting - time to quit talking and start walking!

2/3rds the way up to Nido; if you look closely, you can see Polish endurance crusher Anna Figura (right most figure) who tried for a speed ascent on Jan 12 but had to abort due to dehydration

2/3rds the way up to Nido; if you look closely, you can see Polish endurance crusher Anna Figura (right most figure) who tried for a speed ascent on Jan 12 but had to abort due to dehydration

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Goodbye Team Asquerosa, hello #cardiocrawl!

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Goodbye Team Asquerosa, hello #cardiocrawl!

As of a few hours ago, Libby and I said goodbye to the better half of our team (Teresa, Kristina, we miss you already!!) and started the extensive unpack - pack - repack rhythm that will get us ready to return to the mountain in short order. 

The team in full force at Camp Canada (16,500ft) 

The team in full force at Camp Canada (16,500ft) 

Final dinner with Team Asquerosa & friends

Final dinner with Team Asquerosa & friends

Armed with two lightweight daypacks and roughly 130lbs in mule duffels, our plan is to head back to Penitentes on the morning bus in order to spend the night just outside the park and then start the 18 mile (and 4500ft ascent!) hike into basecamp on Tuesday morning.  Along the way we'll meet up with photographer extraordinaire John Evans, who is joining us on this next go around to document the beauty of the mountain as well as some of Libby and my cardiocrawl endeavors. 

Not having summitted this previous time, we are keen on pushing high quite quickly and seeing what our bodies can do after two weeks of acclimatization at up to 18,300ft.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the next two and a half weeks promise to be full of excitement, effort and uncertainty.  I personally am equally stoked and anxious to see what I can accomplish - the wild dream right now is to make it from Nido to the summit in 5-6 hours, which is roughly half the time that most "regular" climbers take for the same three mile distance (yes, at that altitude it really *does * take 10-12 hours to cover three miles, and it's hard enough for lots of well-trained people to turn around).  It'll be an adventure, and while I am in no way sure of the outcome I am excited to try and give it my best. 

Libby and Teresa a couple thousand feet above basecamp

Libby and Teresa a couple thousand feet above basecamp

As on the last climb, I'll post intermittent updates on the blog while we're at basecamp; I'll also try for the occasional photo upload though what comes through is highly dependent on bandwidth in Plaza de Mulas.  A more reliable way to follow along and/or stay in touch is the live GPS which will be fully operational for two-way messaging just as it was for the team climb; in addition, Paul will continue to post regular (where possible, daily) updates on my Instagram so you can hear what we're up to.  

I can't wait to get going and see how the mountain will receive us this time around. Vamos!! 

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Returning to normalcy

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Returning to normalcy

It’s been 15 days since we first entered the park and we are just back down at Plaza de Mulas - with the prospect of hiking 18 miles and returning to Mendoza (and hot showers!) tomorrow.  It’s been amazing to watch Team Asquerosa come together over the last two weeks - none of us four may have tagged the summit on this go around, but we laughed and learned so much together.  The team has been excellent, the mountains bold and beautiful; it’s been an incredible adventure. Take away the three cases of flu and bronchitis that kept us from going above 20,000ft and you’d pretty much be looking at a perfect big mountain trip. 

3am summit day preparations at Nido; Libby and Kristina set out together with Gavin Attwood's team from Colorado, but both turned around shortly out of camp. 

3am summit day preparations at Nido; Libby and Kristina set out together with Gavin Attwood's team from Colorado, but both turned around shortly out of camp. 

At this very moment Kristina, Libby and Sunny are at basecamp and enjoying the warmth of the sun after a couple very cold days and nights at 18,000ft.  Teresa is already back in Mendoza, due to a persistent case of bronchitis that earned her a free helicopter ride down to the road yesterday.  We are all looking forward to being back together as a full team in town tomorrow evening, and will be sharing a few more notes from the climb as well as photos over the next few days.  

Teresa in prime shape at Camp Canada a week ago; it was downhill from there. 

Teresa in prime shape at Camp Canada a week ago; it was downhill from there. 

Thanks for all the well wishes and support from y’all along the way, and stay tuned for pictures. Much love from Team Asquerosa! 

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Life at 18,000ft

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Life at 18,000ft

Why hello there world! We’re back at basecamp for a day or two, waiting out high winds and resting up to get ready for a summit attempt on the 11th or 12.  We’ve left all of our gear and tents up at Nido de Condores, which is the ultimate insurance to guarantee that we won’t just succumb to the luxuries of properly oxygenated air and hike out to Mendoza early to trade summit chances for a day of wine tasting.  

settling in for the night at Camp Canada 

settling in for the night at Camp Canada 

There have been varying degrees of suffering among the team: Libby is going strong all around and Kristina is finally on the mend, but Teresa and Sunny are now both dealing with congestion and nasty coughs.  The plan now is for Kristina and Libby to head back up to Nido tomorrow, take a rest day and then be in position for a summit bid on Jan 11. Teresa and Sunny are going to spend an extra night at basecamp, then join the team in Nido on Jan 10 and - depending on recovery and overall energy levels - potentially try for the summit on Jan 11 or Jan 12.  We’ve been making smart and conservative decisions all along and will continue to do so.  

Rest day living ain't so bad. (though this was "only" at 16,500ft)

Rest day living ain't so bad. (though this was "only" at 16,500ft)

In the meantime if you’re curious about what it feels like to camp at Nido (~18,200ft)… here’s how Kristina described it the other day:  

Plug your nose, wrap a pillow around your face, put on 3-4 layers of clothing, strap a fan, no 2-3 fans to your head so they blow directly in your face and then take a plastic bag and go shit by a rock in your yard.  

Seems like a pretty accurate assessment to me :) lotsa new experiences and type II fun for everyone, but we continue to have a blast together as a team. Wish us luck and send big energy for the next few days!  

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Onwards and upwards

Today is the day that we leave the luxuries of basecamp behind and move higher on the mountain. We already carried the first round of loads up to Camp Canada at 17,550ft and will be making camp there for the next 2-3 days. 

Its been windy for a few days now and is expected to stay like that, with the exception of Jan 6 where conditions look promising for a summit attempt - not for us though, as we won't be in position yet. We're hoping that there'll be another day of stable good weather and low wind speeds somewhere in the Jan 9-11 window.  

Kristina is still fighting the flu; we are hoping she'll be able to join the team at Camp Canada with a day or two delay, but will play it by ear.

This will be the last blog post for a while, as we are not expecting to have any connectivity (besides the DeLorme GPS) once we're above basecamp. Wish us luck and keep your fingers crossed for good weather starting on Jan 9! And in the meantime you can always check our progress via the GPS tracker or on Instagram, which Paul will keep current as much as possible. Up up we go! 

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