‘Let’s bring 28 days of food,’ I said. ‘There’s no way we’ll need that many days, but if we have leftover stoke after the climb, we can do Foraker or some technical climbing around basecamp.’ It was April and Savannah and I were prepping for our upcoming trip to Denali. I should have known better, of course. As Mark Twight told my friends Gilbert and Chantel, one of many hardperson teams to get shut down by the weather this year despite valiant efforts, “The simple fact is this: When you go to Alaska, you get your ass kicked.’’ When planning, I’ve learned it’s most accurate to triple the expected effort/time an Alaska Range goal will take, and even then it’s a 50/50 chance everything will go smoothly.
I’d been wanting to do a Denali speed ascent for four years, since my first time on the mountain. I knew the process for training for a speed ascent from my former life as a cross country ski racer, but it had been five years since I’d done much cardio work. With a fairly packed life schedule, I realized I’d have to be pretty disciplined to get in the necessary training. I used a calendar and a pack of sparkly star stickers to make it happen: I got one star per day for getting my work done, and another star for getting my workout in. It turns out I’m a sucker for sparkly star stickers, and come May 18, I was headed to the Alaska Range with four months of solid training under my belt- not nearly as much as I’d wanted, but I hoped enough to make an attempt.
We were beset by storms from the start (the summit rate on Denali so far this season is the lowest it’s been in over 45 years), slowing acclimatization efforts. It was Savannah’s first time in the big mountains, and despite tipping the scales at 115 lbs, she was carrying 130 lbs of gear. I cut my hand badly at 14,000’. Our adopted team member Mik contracted appendicitis on our way down from 14,000’ to basecamp two days before my first attempt and the ski down turned into a 13-hour emergency evacuation (that was successful and incredibly lucky—a helicopter made it into the range despite bad weather and Mik had an emergency appendectomy the next day in Anchorage). Then, weather came in on my first attempt and I had to wait at basecamp for a week in the rain losing acclimatization for the next marginal weather window.
In the end, I had just enough food, just enough training, and most importantly, just enough of a suffer callus to make it happen. A suffer callus, developed over the years by riding out enough suffer-y situations, allows you to do things like pull an enormous sled uphill for hours in sub-zero temperatures or sit tentbound through days of snow camping in the rain without losing your mind. Sometimes it even gives you the ability to make mediocre humour about it (‘Haha, my hips have gone numb!’).
Predictably, the weather was terrible on my summit go—windy and far too cold for most climbers that day. I got frostbite on my face for the first time in my life, probably a result of being dehydrated out of my mind after dropping my water earlier in the day. On the way down though, the clouds parted and I got to witness the most magnificent sunset over Mts. Hunter and Foraker I had seen all trip, and the new snow I had had to break trail through that morning yielded soft powder turns for thousands of feet. After a month of solid callus-building, it all felt pretty amazing. I ended up setting the women’s speed record, and the 3rd-fastest time overall, at 21:06.