100 Shades of White…
Terrence and Philip – my climbing partners, not the flatulent Canadians from South Park – knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the Denali prep course. Me? I just figured I’d show up fit and take it one step at a time. They knew how to pack their backpacks. Squish the sleeping bag up into a ball. Cram crampons into the right pocket. Pinch and pull those little black clips that seem to be on everything. They had their own gear, knew where it all went, and were relaxed. As if they had climbed ice walls in Colorado and volcanos in Ecuador. Oh, wait. They had. And that gave them a bucket full of confidence I lacked.
Our guides, Dallas and Sarah, were oh so patient with me. It took until day three for me to figure out how to get my ice ax attached to my backpack so it wouldn’t slip out. Maybe day six.
Kind of a key thing to have, that ice ax.
After a night sleeping in the bunk house of International Mountain Guides’ headquarters (a thrill for a groupie like me), we packed a van with our gear and made our way out of the rain and into the snow. It was clear from the start that we were going to be doing all our own heavy lifting. And pulling. And sweating. A guided trip doesn’t mean one with a butler. Dallas and Sarah were charged with keeping us alive, teaching us mountaineering skills and feeding us breakfast and dinner. (We’ll get to the food later, but I have never eaten so much in 7 days.) They kept an eye on us, but they were not there to make our lives easier. Quite the opposite, actually.
If we stepped totally outside of our comfort zone they were doing their job.
A few times I needed an extra push.
On the drive to the mountain I was distracted by the GoPro camera gifted to me by my Mom and brother. I purchased a heavy duty battery pack to extend its life, but I couldn’t get the protective case to play nice with the chest harness. For an hour I futzed with screws and packs, cases and belts, demonstrating mere moments before leaving civilization that gear and gadgets are things other people handle naturally. I fumble, furrow my brow, turn them this way and that and then call for help.
Always good to know what you don’t know.
We all figured out pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be much of a sightseeing trip. Being a rookie on an extreme mountaineering adventure was no time to pull out a GoPro. I had visions of filming my slide off a cornice as I adjusted the chest harness to capture the light at just the right angle…before I zoomed off the lip of glacial water, sliding into the mouth of a waiting crevasse, plummeting to the center of hell frozen over.
Upon arrival in the parking lot named Paradise (if you love twenty five foot walls of snow) the GoPro got shelved in favor of gear and gadgets that would keep me alive. Most of which I didn’t know how to use properly. If a person shoved a microphone in my face after I ditched my rain boots and slid into double plastic mountaineering boots and snowshoes and asked me what I was most looking forward to, my thoughtful answer would have been:
I have no idea.
Because I had no idea what to expect.
That’s one way to avoid fear.
It’s been years since I’ve played in the snow. It’s been never since I donned a 45 pound backpack, buckled on snowshoes and started up a trail taking us from blacktop to 8 feet of snow – powdery at the top and various shades of frozen as our feet plunged through it. T & P had sleds attached to their waists as they set off with Dallas in the lead. Sarah, on SKIS!, stayed to help me adjust the backpack. More futzing with belts and those evil black clips.
It was just before noon.
No more than fifteen minutes uphill, after we passed the last of the sledders and snowshoers who knew we were not coming down anytime soon, I felt all alone in the place that invented the phrase Winter Wonderland. It is here that they grow the trees for gingerbread houses. Tall and narrow evergreens, each branch frosted with a huge dollop of snow as if Martha Stewart herself came with a pastry bag full of it. They gathered around the meadow that was well over a hundred inches below our feet, looking rather short until you realize that they are tucked in to the snow like a child in bed – only their heads were visible. Maybe they weren’t so narrow after all.
I’ll have to come back in the summer. Which means late August.
The snowshoes felt natural on my Piscean feet. Without them I would have been stuck up to my waist like the trees I passed on our way to Panarama, our destination on Day One. It needs to be stated that distance climbing with a backpack full of kitty liter does not in any way compare to ascending the world’s largest stair climber in snowshoes. It felt like Jack Frost and all his besties were hanging off my feet like dead weight as I lifted each foot, careful not to let the shoes collide.
There’s a certain gait, a waddle if you will, that insures one doesn’t bite it in snowshoes. Surprisingly, it’s not hard to pick up. It’s also not hard to screw up if you take a moment to see the beauty around you. My knees being as delicate as they are, and knowing that I had days of this ahead of me, I kept my eyes on the next step, my back straight and emptied my mind.
Eventually our team regrouped. It was then that Philip graciously offered me the opportunity to experience sled-pulling. I felt like a Malamute. A one-legged Malamute raised in Miami. It wasn’t pretty. Hard work pulling and hauling two-thirds of my body weight. Along with my body weight. Sweat poured down my back. My mouth was bone dry. I didn’t dare ask how much further.
When we pulled into camp, a snow-covered plateau that surely had a view if we weren’t socked in by clouds and weather, I was relieved. Half of the first day was complete without a major blunder. Like the climb of Whitney or the swim of the San Francisco Bay, it all came down to sending the mind on holiday and getting in a zone. I’ve got that skill down. Still elusive is the ability to enjoy the view, however.
It wouldn’t be until the next morning that the view would come out from hiding.
We unpacked our sleds and began digging out a platform upon which we would erect our tents. I had assumed Sarah was sent to be my ‘chaperone’. Another silly idea held over from grade school. Guides don’t sleep in the tent with clients. It was to be T & P and me. We discovered early on that we could make each other cry from laughing. I appreciated their tips and techniques and stories. And they didn’t complain when I forgot how to tie the clove hitch or double fisherman’s knot seconds after it being demonstrated…for the tenth time. Eventually I could prusik with the masters, but it was painful getting to eventually.
It may not be the French Laundry, but what this kitchen turned out was delicious.
Dallas and Sarah dug out a kitchen. Basically, it was a rounded bench of snow with some shelving for stoves and a pole in the middle holding up a circus-like tent just big enough to shelter us if we hunched over and cuddled up. T & P and I unpacked our backpacks into our tent. I picked up and put down each piece of gear and clothing incapable of organizing all the pieces. P slid his avalanche transceiver into a pocket on the tent wall. I wouldn’t have taken notice of those until Day 6. The pockets, not the avalanche transceiver. I practically mated with it.
I grabbed my flattened bowl and titanium spork, the water bottles I emptied in an effort to hydrate on the climb, and my mug and joined the guys in the kitchen tent. The scent of hot food bear hugged me upon arrival. Already that day I ate cereal, a bag of trail mix, two Lara bars and a quinoa bar (Outrageously good protein laden, gluten free things I bake – you would fall in love with me upon eating one. They are my secret weapon.). After Dallas took pity on me for struggling to snap my bowl together – I had it inside out – he origomied it and filled it with sausage and kale and polenta. I scarfed the first bowl. The second one had a bit more of a fighting chance, but I took it down like a starved marmot.
After a brief preview of the tasks for the next day, I piped up with a crucial question:
How the hell am I supposed to balance in snowshoes, my bum exposed to the elements and hold a blue bag in such a way that I’m not pulling a Fido?
Dallas reminded me that by now, at age 48, I ought to know my way around my privates.
Sarah said she dug a latrine. With cubby holes.
When I returned from the edge of land, having visited her latrine, I wanted to advise her that a latrine has a door.
I blew off brushing my teeth. Mainly because they wouldn’t stop chattering and I didn’t want to splinter my toothbrush. T and I sandwiched P in the tent. I took my phone out of the pocket of my jacket (which I was wearing along with every other piece of clothing I packed) and scrolled through to the photos. The last thing Mr. Perfect Timing did before walking to his car after depositing my bag and me at the airport curb was take my phone and turn the camera on us. I was just as excited for my adventure as I was to be held tight by him. Only two weeks prior he was that guy from the gym.
Remain grounded, Cleo. Stay centered. Don’t slow it down. Don’t speed it up. Just be.
The zipper on my sleeping bag preferred tug of war to the smooth joining of teeth and my sleeping pad wouldn’t inflate. It would be a miracle to snatch a good night’s sleep from the clutches of insomnia. I tossed and turned. Well, it was more like wiggling like a worm in a too small snow suit, one stuck zipper away from a claustrophobia induced panic attack. But when I stuck my head out of the tent in the morning every minute of the long night vaporized.
Dallas stared at me from the kitchen tent laughing.
“Not much to see here, right? Man, I wish I had a camera. Your face…”
This is why I came.
She had other ideas though. She wanted me there so she could change my views. On trust. Fear. And climbing the world’s most dangerous peaks.