Viewing entries tagged
mountaineering

Why I Love to Climb with Women

1 Comment

Why I Love to Climb with Women

22,838ft.  That’s the summit elevation of Aconcagua, the second highest of the Seven Summits and the highest mountain not just in Argentina but in all of the Americas - in fact the highest mountain anywhere in the western and southern hemispheres.

I’ve summited Aconcagua not once, not twice, but four times by now - and still the mountain keeps calling me back: a few weeks after Christmas I am going to embark on on yet another big mountain season in Argentina. I first climbed Aconcagua when I was still a weekend warrior, an eager high-altitude rookie wanting to cut her teeth above 20,000ft.  Back then I was one of just a handful of women on the mountain that season, and one of only a handful of women ever to climb the White Sentinel solo and without mules or porters.  

Happiness is only real when shared - particularly during a sufferfest mission in the mountains.  (Aconcagua Ruta Normal, Camp I)

Happiness is only real when shared - particularly during a sufferfest mission in the mountains. (Aconcagua Ruta Normal, Camp I)

It’s a pattern that I was well familiar with from my professional life, having spent my twenties working in investment management and as a strategy consultant.  Yes, there are plenty of women in business just as there are ever more women in mountaineering. And yet - just think of the numbers that have become familiar over the last several years (the career progression gender gapwomen in C-suite roles, or pay statistics); the short story is the same across disciplines: women end up doing less.  We end up doing less not necessarily because of systematic discrimination but because of a subtle but pervasive gap in (self-)perceived capabilities and confidence. 

Aconcagua team photo

Aconcagua team photo

I have been lucky to experience first-hand the confidence that outdoor adventures can build.  You know that feeling when you’ve completed a big hike or finished a trail race or descended a canyon or climbed a mountain - the moment you start thinking “Wait a second; if I could do THIS, what else might I be able to do?” This is the kind of confidence-building and and tangible empowerment that sticks.  When we go out and try hard on big adventures, we walk away stronger and with a more refined sense of self than we had before.  And it’s these kind of experiences that transcend boundaries; they carry over from the mountains to the cubicle and eventually to the boardroom. 

That’s why I resolved to do my part in bringing more women into the high mountains.  I want to see more women out and up there - both because it’s just plain FUN to have kickass women partners on a mountaineering expedition and also because I believe that more women mountaineers and the advancement of gender equality more broadly go hand in hand. Creating opportunities for women to adventure and explore - and have fun! - in the backcountry without feeling scrutinized or judged by men can go a long way in counteracting those engrained perceptions, be it others’ or our own perceptions, that tell us that women should or can do less than men.  

By now I have led all-female teams on Aconcagua’s Normal Route and on Mera Peak in Nepal; I am excited to have more Andean climbs on the on the schedule for 2019 and 2020 (with both mixed-gender and all-women teams), as well as bigger long-term plans in the 8000m realm. It may be a long journey towards shattering what Masha Gordon calls the ice ceiling, but every step of the way counts. 

Acclimatization hike on the approach to Aconcagua’s basecamp

Acclimatization hike on the approach to Aconcagua’s basecamp

1 Comment

#EneroDeEnduro - The Final Countdown

1 Comment

#EneroDeEnduro - The Final Countdown

January 2018 is coming to a close, and so is my time on Aconcagua.  Wait, no, before you stop reading - I'm not quite done yet.  I have a few days left, and I am fully planning on utilizing the time remaining on my climbing permit to its fullest.  

Current mountain forecast

I've been on Aconcagua for more than a month now, and I feel well-acclimatized and set-up to attempt a big run along the 360* route. The weather is looking decent, I have supplies in place along the route, and I've got ranger permission to run from the road straight to basecamp (rather than breaking up the 40km trail into the typical three day approach which is standard). With that, there's only one thing left to do: get a good night's rest and hit the trail in the morning!  

You can follow my progress (starting Thursday Feb 1 at ~8am Argentina time) via live GPS.  I'm hoping to be back out in the valley before Saturday morning.  Wish me luck... 

In related news - this just in, and what an amazing accomplishment it is: Dani Sandoval of Ecuador just broke the long women's speed record on the normal route (Horcones - Summit - Horcones) by over two hours.  She managed to run the ~60+ kilometer route in 20 hours and 17 minutes, compared to Fernanda Maciel's previous record of 22 hours and 50 minutes.  I'm curious to see Dani's GPS track to see if she also broke my basecamp-summit ascent record in the process of her kickass run! Massive congratulations Dani, you've managed to succeed in what many others had tried unsuccessfully.  

As as of now all the long distance records on Aconcagua are held by Ecuadorians: Dani for the women's normal route record, Karl Egloff for the men's normal route, and Nicolas Miranda for the men's 360 record.  But there isn't a women's 360 record... yet? 

MHW-7547.jpg

1 Comment

The Case for Porter Support

Comment

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. 

  

Comment

Moving Up

Comment

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!

Comment

Update from 12,000ft

Comment

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!

Comment

Mera Peak: the route

Comment

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! 

Comment

#cardiocrawl stage 1: mission accomplished!

3 Comments

#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? 

3 Comments

Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

Comment

Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak: even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.  

OK - if you do the math it doesn't actually sound that bad, does it? Fourteen days for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day.  Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days, load carries, rest days.  And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.  

Where every step is a battle...

Where every step is a battle...

So how do you prepare for a climb like this?  Here's what I told the team as they signed on to the mission: 

The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit.  A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off a super strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’re going to collapse at the end of it.

In addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key.  Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly on the question of how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course). 

Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

If you're not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, I'm a big fan of overnight training sessions: start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain and carrying weight.  When a 12 hours overnight hike like that doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine. 

Now this is all preparation for a "typical" climb.  You may know that I (together with Libby) am planning to head back up on the mountain for a one-day speed ascent in January, after the team expedition is complete.  Here's where the need for specialized training kicks in.

I was lucky to be able to use Globetrotter's hypoxic chamber at their Munich, Germany, store for several weeks of altitude training; the altitude chamber helped me further build my mountain running base after I had already spent time training in the Himalayas and on Kilimanjaro in October and November. 

And even though I have plenty of experience running big mountain trails, I will be the first to profess that my training tends to be largely unstructured and from the hip; for this project, tailored coaching from an elite triathlete and experienced ultra runner brought discipline into my approach and was just what I needed to optimize my time in the Globetrotter altitude chamber - thank you Stefani for sharing your expertise with me and holding me accountable! 

Interval sessions and tempo runs, core and quad exercises as well as lots of cross training; some of it at a simulated 17,000ft, and other parts near sea level. I'm excited to have seen major improvements over the course of my training and feel better prepared than ever to push hard.  But first I can't wait to get out there with the team and climb the mountain in proper style, and in the company of not one but three badass ladies. Wish us luck!!


PS - If you want more concrete tips on how to train for the kind of non-technical endurofest that Aconcagua is just holler at me. I've got the original team welcome & training emails saved and am always happy to share :) I'm also available for coaching and guiding. 

Comment

T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

Comment

T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

It's the middle of December and I'll be arriving in Mendoza exactly two weeks from today - a couple days ahead of the rest of the team so that I have time to put the finishing touches on our logistics. 

Thanks to regular updates from our Argentinian logistics provider Inka Expediciones we already have a good picture of what the mountain looks like this year, and it ain't all that pretty... okay, well - it's pretty to look at, but promises to be challenging as far as the climbing conditions go.  Take a look for yourself.  

To put these photos into context here's what basecamp looked like when I was there two seasons ago, which is much more typical for this side of the mountain. 

Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

The current snow conditions should make for an interesting climb; where two years ago I could have tagged the summit entirely without crampons or ice axe (though I did carry them, as is required by the park administration) there won't be much of a question about gear requirements this time around.  And the ramifications extend below basecamp, too: the 25km approach to Plaza de Mulas follows the Horcones Valley which has a river flowing along it - in low snow years it is possible to crisscross back and forth without having to get your feet wet; in a season like the current one we are certain to have multiple river crossings that'll get us soaked.  

At least we won't have to worry about procuring drinking water above basecamp; there's plenty of snow to melt everywhere! 

Comment