101 Lessons: An Expert’s First Attempt At Mountaineering Dominic Douglas October 29, 2018 All Dom Douglas is a mountain athlete who never ceases to take on the world’s mountaineering or hiking challenges. Dom is currently globetrotting on of his adventure holidays in Europe, pushing his limits with expeditions such as a solo ascent of Mont Blanc – the ultimate mountain adventure. From here he writes to us recounting the early days of his climbing and mountaineering career as he takes on Denali, one of the most extreme North American adventure trips. When most people think about mountaineering, the common image that comes to mind is a picture of a climber standing on top of a snow capped snow-capped peak with a perfect bluebird sky as a back drop backdrop celebrating his or her achievement of reaching the top with their Ice Axe overhead, cheering for the photo. Truly, the picture of a perfect mountain adventure. This is an image that has become synonymous with not just mountaineering, but goal attainment in all its forms. It’s the image that was all the rage in 80’s & 90’s office decor, usually reading something cheesy along the lines of “make it happen” or “with hard work comes great reward”. The above image of mountaineering isn’t necessarily incorrect; it is however only a snapshot. Generally speaking, what people don’t see are the weeks, months and years that sometimes go into making a large expedition come to life. Mountaineering is also the type of pursuit that’s as much a psychological test as it is a physical one: fatigue and dehydration coupled with a continuous calorie deficit has a funny way of bringing who you are at your core to the surface. In case you were beginning to think that mountaineering was all doom and gloom, you were beginning to think right. Mountaineers look forward to living off a staple diet of dehydrated food, having uncomfortable sleeps (well, a little more comfy with awesome sleeping mats), and live through volatile weather conditions than can get as low as -50 degrees Celsius with the wind chill. If you weren’t already sold on taking up mountaineering… I should probably mention the ever-present dangers of things like crevasses, rock falls, avalanches, seracs and Yetis. Not to mention your tired, dehydrated and calorie deficient climbing partner (potentially the most hazardous of all) ……sounds fun, right? Health Conscious. One of the biggest things that I have taken out of this sport over the years is that anyone can work themselves into a position to physically be able to climb a big mountain. What you can’t prepare for is the psychological stresses associated with expedition climbing. We all think we know who we are and how we will react in a stressful situation, right? What happens when we fail in reaching our goal or when we are tired, cold, thirsty and hungry? This is the type of environment that forces you to dig deep and challenge who you think you are vs. who you really are. For me this became apparent during a Denali expedition (Mt McKinley) in 2017 during which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Denali is the tallest mountain in North America; it is located in Alaska and considered to be one of the coldest, biggest mountains in the world, a reputation that I can assure you it lives up to. This particular expedition was meant to last for around 4 weeks. In a nutshell, you fly into and land on the Kahiltna glacier in a really small plane with everything that you are going to need to survive for the duration of the expedition. From here you load everything into your pack and sleds and begin the process of making and stocking successive camps higher and higher up the mountain (old school mountaineering). In theory, this sounds really easy, right? World’s Smallest Plane Flight into Denali base camp on the Kahiltna glacier. Unfortunately for us, we managed to time our trip with the coldest weather in over a decade, which made slow going even slower. The weather got so bad that we spent 5 days at camp, 3 which we spent in our tents because of heavy snow and freezing temps that got as low as – 50 degrees Celsius. Views for days, camp 2 on Denali (no storm) 5 days of snow (snowed in) Even though the weather wasn’t forecasted to dramatically improve, we kept stubbornly pushing through, hoping to get a weather window that would allow us to attempt a summit. It wasn’t a great situation, and by this stage, everyone was deflated from having to carry all the weight and from their efforts to keep warm. I remember being on the head wall fixed ropes above camp 3 en route back from stashing gear on the top of the ridge when a climber sat down and refused to move (the head wall is a steep ice-covered face above camp 3). This created a bottleneck and a backlog of climbers which, at the best of time is not ideal. To make matters worse, the weather was also closing in. We spent the next hour and a half trying to get this guy to move. Meanwhile, we’re getting colder and colder to the point where I was beginning to have pains in my hands and some serious concerns (it is important to be moving to keep your body temperature up). Thankfully we managed to get said climber moving again and back to camp safely. After 4 weeks of nothing but snow and Arctic temperatures and no sign of improvement, the decision was made to call the expedition and head back to civilisation (in this case, civilisation qualifying as a seasonal town called Talkeetna in the north of Alaska). A lot of people would chalk the whole experience up as a failure, even some people on our team at the time. As strange as it might sound, for me the experience was one of my best experiences in the mountains to date. Why? Simply because of how bad it was. Since absolutely nothing went to plan, since it was insanely cold, since I was tired, hungry and physically strained: I learnt how I reacted under the worst circumstances, and for me, that was invaluable. Once we were back to civilisation (a relative term) my climbing partner and I decided to head back up in 2 weeks’ time to have another crack at reaching the summit. Everyone else thought that we were either mad or just blowing hot air and wouldn’t really follow through. Clipping into the headwall on Denali. While we were waiting for a weather window to head back up the mountain, we met another climber in town who was looking for people to climb with and take him to the top. It isn’t uncommon for climbers to look for other climbers and guides in the closest town to whatever mountain they want to climb. Once we had a better understanding of his climbing resume, motivations etc. we agreed to take him on and do our best to help him reach the top (within very specific pre-agreed safety guidelines). While it isn’t far-fetched for people to link up with other climbers and hire guides, the motivation behind our new friend wanting to climb Denali was quite unusual. Our new friend, Yuval, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years prior. At the time of our acquaintance, I knew next to nothing about this disease and its potentially debilitating effects. Yuval was an MS ambassador from Israel who wanted to climb the highest peak on every continent to showcase to people that each individual can set their own limitations on what is possible. A few days later we were back on the mountain and racing to the top with our new friend. We were incredibly lucky this time around avoiding the extreme weather that characterised our previous attempt. Breaking trail and hauling sleds on Denali During the climb, I noticed that Yuval was struggling with the weight of his pack and sled. I offered to help by putting some of his weight in my own sled but he declined and never once complained during the whole trip even though he was visibly struggling and in pain. We rounded out the second expedition with a successful summit on a perfect day followed by a single push from the summit to base camp, so that we could catch the last plane out before some approaching bad weather. Denali summit – Yuval in black on the left and me in green on the right (my other client in the middle who gave me all of his gear haha) All in all our summit day and race to base camp to avoid a storm was 34-hour non-stop grind, something that is incredibly taxing even for a physically fit climber. By the end of the push I was carrying more than 50% extra gear, and I can assure you none of that was Yuval’s. Despite having exerted himself past his limit, he was resiliently determined to finish this expedition entirely on his own merit. Aftermath of a 30+ hour day (not at my best) (1) For some reason this particular expedition among all others has stuck with me, it was pretty humbling to have an opportunity to accompany Yuval to the top. I have never seen anyone push themselves through so much pain without a single complaint. To put this in perspective, my other climbing readily offloaded his heaviest gear into my sled at the earliest opportunity, as the fatigue and altitude began to get in the way of his strength and determination. To see Yuval put his head down, stick to his goal and not make any excuse no matter what barriers he may face, was extremely inspirational for me as a climber. For me, meeting people like Yuval is what mountaineering is all about, to be a part of someone’s journey, being by their side breaking personal barriers and achieving goals that clearly mean so much to them is a pretty cool experience. The view coming back down into camp 3. The view from high camp. When I was starting out I viewed mountaineering as simply a physical challenge that I needed to work hard at to achieve. However, I have learned that it is far more encompassing than that. When I originally started this journey I realistically had no skills and no real idea as to what I took to be able to climb at high altitude. I still visibly remember my first multi-day hike and how miserable it was because I packed everything that I didn’t need and nothing that I did need, this was my first lesson in the importance of preparation and planning (it was also my first experience of being particularly cold and uncomfortable). Head to Paddy Pallin’s blog for backpacking tips and tricks where you’ll find a guide on how to pack for a 2 day hiking trip! It is incredibly important to build up your skill set and knowledge as you progress and set your sights on harder and higher objectives, with the right attitude and training anyone can achieve a big mountain. A big thing to remember is that everyone has to start somewhere. For me, once I knew this is what I wanted to do, it started with a technical mountaineering course in New Zealand and grew from there. Since then, it has provided me with an opportunity to travel the world and meet people from every walk of life. Along the way you gain new friends, new perspectives and learn more about yourself and what you are made of than almost any other pursuit. Stay tuned to learn more on how to get into mountaineering! Do you have a mountaineering experience worth sharing? 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