Perseverance Is the Only Way

Climbing at night on Denali/Mt McKinley

Climbing at night on Denali/Mt McKinley

When I decided to climb Denali, the highest mountain in North America, I knew I needed to train for more advanced mountaineering skills. I used cramp-ons and ice axes on Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe and Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. But, on Denali I was roped in from day one when we left base camp and everyday not just in certain places but all the time. I took six months of practicing skills to learn how to survive. I drove to Portland once a week to an indoor rock wall and practiced climbing; trying to get strong enough to pull myself up if I fell in a crevasse on the mountain. I also drove once a week in the winter to New Hampshire and practiced cravass rescue on slopes of ice with an experienced guide who had climbed some major summits including Everest.

At home I practiced tying knots and roping skills learning to go faster and doing it in the dark with winter gloves on. No matter how much I practiced I knew it would be so much more difficult in thin air, on glaciers with layers of clothing on, or in a blizzard with whiteout conditions.

When you are on the mountain there is so much to focus on. First, you have on layers of clothing with a harness on top and ropes attached to a backpack. On Denali I pulled a sled attached to the harness. The ropes are attached to a climber behind and a climber in front unless you are last in the line or in the lead. The ropes are 40-50 feet between climbers with no slack and not tight. Everyone walks at the same pace which is very difficult on uneven terrain. Because of hidden crevasses being roped in is very important. One false step can be fatal.

I also have on crampons, or snowshoes. Both require paying careful attention to every step. Because of sun blindness on glaciers I wear glacier glasses. No part of your skin can be exposed for long for the cold, sun, or wind is so severe at times that I had to wear a baklava, and then it is very confining. It is difficult enough to breath in thin air; it is harder when you are carrying so much weight. The boots are so heavy, the pack, sled full of food, tent, sleeping bag, caching poles and more. I carried trekking poles that acted like ski poles on the ice and other times on the wall I used an ice ax and carried my poles on my backpack. Sometimes I would be so warm that I would need to peel off a layer of clothing, other times it would be so cold that three pair of gloves and layers of clothing were not enough. On Denali which is in Alaska we climbed at night as the top layers of snow would freeze and it would be easier climbing. I did not need a head lamp on Denali as it was always light enough to see, day or night. Every day on Denali, I was sleeping on ice under my tent. Every day on a high mountain I persevered. Days when we had to cache food were especially tiring. We carried food higher and dug a huge hole and threw all the food into it and then covered it up and put tall poles with flags to identify the place. Then we descended to a lower camp. The next day we climbed again with packs and this time with tents and gear to a higher camp. Later we descended to get the extra food. Higher and higher, day after day, you work your way up a big mountain. This journey is definitely not for the faint at heart!

Another adventure took place closer to home, in the US. I hiked the Appalachian Trail. There were times during the four months that I was hiking that I had no choice but to persevere through tough conditions. Similarly, at every marathon there were times during the race that I worked my way through the race by sheer will when my body cried out for me to stop. Mind over matter is the key.

Using the 4-P’s

  • Plan
  • Prepare
  • Proceed
  • Pursue

For me, every challenge was worth the difficulty at times, yet I’m happy that I was able to persevere to achieve these goals.