Jul 9, 2018

INTERVIEW with ILIVEXTREME.COM "Climbing Denali"

TAKING THE FIRST STEPS... A series of events that kicked-off a roller-coaster 10-years of adventure..! Just before I left for Denali last month, I shared a few candid insights into the literal (and proverbial) highs and lows of a life in the mountains, why I love my (desk) day-job, the "fun scale", my mountain-inspirations, failings in the kitchen and how I redeem myself through mean bloody-marys.... 

Thanks to ILIVEXTREME for the opportunity to share my story...! It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed your questions..! 

The full interview with pictures can be found via: http://ilivextreme.com/climbing-denali/

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It’s a Sunday morning in early June and I’m catching up with friend and mountaineer Heather Geluk as she sits in an airy Scandinavian-themed coffee shop in Toronto’s east side.  Born in Ridgetown, a small town in Ontario Canada, Heather and I first met a couple of years ago when I was giving a talk at the Adventure Travel Show in London and we were introduced by a mutual friend. After living in the UK for many years, she’s now back living in Canada, but not one to sit still for very long, we talk about her latest trip to climb the highest mountain peak in North America – Denali. I will be attempting Denali in 2020 after harbouring the desire to do so for the past 4 or 5 years and I’m stockpiling all of the tips in the following interview.

When and how did you first become interested in mountaineering?

Just over 10 years ago in 2008. I needed some “space” to make some big life decisions – job, boyfriend, where to live – all that chunky stuff that life throws at us from time to time! I booked a very last minute trip to Nepal to climb Mera Peak, a 6300m mountain in the Everest region. I knew very little, practically nothing about mountaineering, had zero experience, and was woefully unprepared but was fortunate to have joined an amazing team with a very patient guide. Three challenging weeks later we reached the summit of Mera Peak and I looked out and over the panorama of Himalayan giants framed against a cloudless blue sky. It was absolutely breathtaking. Looking out at Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga – I knew that despite everything that I’d gone through to get there, there was no place on Earth I’d rather be. And that was the beginning of a whirlwind 10 years of climbing some of the world’s highest mountains. The boyfriend was quickly forgotten, the job sorted itself out, and a new passion for seeing the world from a different perspective had taken hold.

Since that happened how has your life changed?

It has changed in countless ways. Since that trip to Mera Peak in 2008, I’ve been on over 25 significant expeditions to the highest mountains on earth including Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, others in the high Himalaya, Andes and Alps. On these expeditions I’ve learned to ‘dig deep’, tapping into reserves of strength, determination and the knowledge that simply putting one foot in front of the other can achieve so much. But even before that, I’ve learned to manage training and extensive preparation around the commitments of a demanding job by honing skills in discipline, commitment, courage and creativity.

Climbing’s helped me connect to an incredible global community of people passionate about the outdoors – it’s given me a tribe and a vibe. Climbing’s been a vehicle for me to visit countries I may not otherwise have experienced – Iran, Peru, Argentina, Iceland, Morocco, Tanzania, Nepal, India, Bhutan- through interaction with people at the local level. Climbing’s also helped me to find a purpose. I feel incredibly fortunate to travel to these far-flung places. I feel a strong sense of purpose and responsibility to share this with others – either through storytelling, writing, photography, and, most importantly, for raising money for good causes. It’s my hope that in some small way my actions will help make the lives of others’ better, easier or that they’ll encourage people to step outside of their own comfort zones and achieve more than they ever dreamed possible.

Tell me about Your plan for Denali this year…

Liv! On your birthday (June 8th) I’m heading to Alaska to climb Denali. I’ve had Denali on my ‘bucket list’ for ages and knew that when I moved back to Canada I’d make it happen. And here we are. Denali will be a tough expedition – the mountain rises an icy 6,190m (20,310 feet) out of a sea of glaciers and other peaks that comprise the Alaska Range. High altitude, sub-Arctic conditions, fickle weather, unpredictable storms, steep slopes, and deep crevasses combine to make Denali one of the most difficult and severe mountains in the world. The climb will involve relaying loads of equipment over 66 kilometers (41 miles) over the course of 22 days, establishing camps and climbing slowly enough for proper acclimatization. In addition, I’ll be carrying 60 pound pack and pulling a 40 pound sled, loaded with gear to establish camps on the mountain as I prepare to get into position to summit in late June. Oh, and did I mention that the temperature will be a balmy –minus-30 degrees?


Holy crap it’s just going to be incredible isn’t it. I’m so excited for you and to hear all about it when you get back! You often embark upon these trips representing a charity..

My passion for adventure is the by-product of a love for the outdoors instilled by rural roots and an inherent sense of ‘wanderlust.’  As a kid I spent a lot of time playing outside with my brothers, getting up to all sorts of trouble. These same rural roots instilled in me the importance of community and the responsibility of playing a part to make it better. I try and use my experiences climbing the highest mountains as opportunities to inspire others and to give back to the community by raising funds and awareness to support health and wellbeing of women and babies. I organise regular treks to Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp to support women’s health charities. The awesome thing about these trips is that not only have we been able to raise heaps of money and awareness about the critical need for research into women’s health, they’ve also helped colleagues become friends and individuals to push themselves well and truly beyond their comfort zones.

In 2015, I was on a 8,000m mountain in a very remote part of Nepal during the devastating earthquake that killed over 9,000 people and injured over 25,000. It was an extremely challenging time physically and emotionally. I was fortunate to have survived the earthquake and subsequently spent two months in Nepal providing humanitarian support – working with local charities to support all those who had lost virtually everything.  It was my purpose to be there and help especially after the Nepalese community had shown me endless hospitality during previous trips. I helped to channel funds from the international community to local, grassroots charities and also relayed money and supplies into communities in remote mountainous regions. The memories from those months will stay with me forever and have fundamentally changed the way that I approach my life. Life is wickedly, preciously short and each and every moment should be savoured and cherished.

Who are your mountaineering idols?

Lakpa Rita Sherpa is one of the incredible people that I’ve been fortunate enough to call a friend – I’d definitely put him up there as one of my idols. Raised in Everest region of Nepal in the picturesque village of Thame, Lakpa has been professionally guiding and climbing around the world for nearly two decades. His mountaineering achievements are significant, with an astonishing 17 summits of Mt. Everest plus 22 summits of Cho-Oyu and numerous other peaks in Nepal. Lakpa was the first Sherpa and first Nepali to climb the Seven Summits and he regularly leads teams on mountains including Aconcagua, Denali and of Mount Vinson in Antarctica. He has summited Mount Rainier over 200 times and in 2013 was named one of Outside Magazine’s “Adventurers of The Year”.  He has been a friend and a constant presence for me during my many visits to Nepal, I cherish his warmth, grace and good humour. I’d put Lakpa up there on my top 5 list of the most selfless, humble, kind and softly-spoken people that I’ve ever met. Not only that but he balances this by being an incredible husband and father to his family and an active member of the Sherpa community both in his home in Seattle as well as in Nepal. In two words – Lakpa rocks.

A fellow Canadian, Isabelle Santoire is another inspirational person. She’s an inspiring athlete, ambassador and incredible teacher. On skis, on a rock face, or when meeting to discuss ambitions over a coffee in her current home in sunny Chamonix, France. She’s passionate about sharing the experiences in the mountains. Her goals are to encourage others to experience the same and go beyond their perceived physical and mental limits. It’s no surprise that Isabelle has become a local icon with her contagious smile and warm personality. But what makes her even more amazing is that not only is she a kick-ass guide (among the first female UIAGM guides), she’s also a proud mother to 2 gorgeous young children. She continues to live in the constant search for perfect balance enabling others to achieve their alpine dreams safely and spending time with her family.

Why do you think we’re so obsessed with mountaineering?

Well, it has given me purpose. Ten years ago I found myself selfishly asking, “Seriously? Is this it? Isn’t there more to life than this..?” In my heart, I knew something was missing but I didn’t know exactly what it was or what I was supposed to do to find it. Over the course of the ten years that followed – from that initial summit of Mera Peak through to today, I do my best to create and live a life filled with a deep sense of purpose, happiness whilst getting paid to do work I enjoy – and yes, I have a normal desk job and spend more hours than I care to admit doing powerpoint presentations and spread-sheets (powerpoint has become a form of self-expression!) BUT I’ve used the skills learned inside and outside of the office to attempt to make a meaningful impact in the world.

I also truly believe that everything we do and everyone we meet along this life-journey is put in our path for a reason. I know that sounds a bit ‘whimsical’ but I genuinely believe it. There are no accidents; we’re all teachers – if we’re willing to pay attention to the lessons and trust our instincts, we learn. This means not being afraid to take risks and not wait for some miracle to come knocking.  It’s hard work and can be scary at times but this perspective has given me the most tremendous appreciation for life and has helped to turn moments of uncertainty, confusion and discomfort into opportunity.

When do you get up to when you’re not at altitude?

When I’m not climbing a mountains, I’m helping organisations climb proverbial mountains.  My “day job” is as a communications and change management consultant in downtown Toronto. I love the contrast between life as a consultant and the mountains. I’ve realised that I can’t do one without the other – I’m a better consultant because I climb. I’m a better climber because I’m a consultant.

How have you been training for Denali?

I grew up playing team sports and have always had a good level of fitness. Having said that, I’m terrible at motivating myself and can usually find about 10 different things on my never-ending-procrastination-to-do-list as an excuse to avoid going to the gym – washing the dishes, doing laundry, ironing suddenly seem so much more appealing!

Unfortunately, I do need to be fit both mentally and physically travel to and survive  and most importantly ENJOY climbing in these far-flung and remote environments. Interestingly, boxing has been a fantastic fitness vehicle for me to prepare to head into the mountains. The training sessions that I’ve been involved in between the UK and Canada have provided a group-environment that is individual (yet team) oriented, intense, and affordable, under the guidance of amazing instructors and surrounded by a fantastic network of support.

There have been thick books written about training for climbs. Above and beyond the fitness aspects covered in these books, it’s also important to mention the importance of taking time out give yourself some TLC – your body is your most important tool so nurture it. Eat good, healthy and non-processed foods, eat 3 meals per day, get enough sleep and take time out away from the devices to relax your mind, listen to some music, go for a walk in a forest, listen to the birds, read a book… and… just… chill.

Other than Alaska, where else is on your destination list?

I’d love to travel to see the fjords of Norway and also to see the granite towers and icebergs of Patagonia.  Both appeal for the jaw-dropping beauty and the fragility of their environments.

What would you say to someone getting into climbing?

Climbing is fun. And fun, like anything, can be nuanced; not all fun is created equal.

I learned about the ‘fun scale’ from a guide and friend Zac whilst climbing in Scotland about 10 years ago and it’s helped me to rationalise climbing and the  ‘pain caves’ I find myself in from time to time. Anyone I’ve met and spoken to about climbing will know my views on the fun scale….

Type I Fun – It’s enjoyable while it’s happening and elicits an immediate reaction from endorphins. Quite simply, it’s fun. Good fun doing things we love to do. Scrumptious food, meaty red wine, powder skiing, sex (sometimes!), margaritas beside the pool with friends, happy hours on the dock….

Type II Fun – It’s miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect – I call it the ‘rose tinted glasses’ effect. When you look back at the misery and discomfort, and forget how truly awful it was and you want to go through the ‘fun’ again.  Type II fun generally starts with the best of intentions and then things go sideways. You go from a scale of, ‘This is awesome and fun!’ and eventually get to the point of, “WTF. I’m SO over this”. Examples include doing an ironman, setting out on a long bike-ride, working out till you puke, and, usually, ice and alpine climbing.

When Zac told me about Type II fun we were on Ben Nevis doing  winter skills training. It was getting dark and we were due back at our refuge for dinner. I was stuck on a precariously exposed ledge with about 200m of air below my frozen feet, my goggles were fogging up, I’d lost feeling in my fingers about an hour before, visibility was zero, winds were howling around us and spindrift was pouring down from the upper reaches of the mountain and into my jacket. I can’t put into words how cold, awful and uncomfortable and stressed I was. On a scale of 1 – 10 I was deep in the negative digits. “Why on earth would anyone in their right mind EVER want to do this” is pretty much how I felt (insert expletives as appropriate!!).

By the time we reached the refuge and two bites into the world’s best lasagne drinking the worlds best wine, my tune had changed: “Ya know, that wasn’t so bad. What are we doing tomorrow?”

Type III Fun – this type of fun is not fun at all. Not even in retrospect. Afterward, you think, “What in the hell was I doing / thinking? If I ever come up with another idea that stupid, somebody shake some sense into me.”  Fortunately I don’t have too many of these experiences – and when I do I like to think of them as ‘character building’. Examples include one or two work-related projects I’ve been on, moving house, a failed relationship that lacked Type I fun. Shudder!

If you could choose one moment from your life to go back and re-experience, which would it be?

The moment I’d love to re-experience is coming down into Everest Base Camp after summiting Lhotse, an 8516m mountain in Nepal in late May, 2013. This was a ‘Type 2 fun’ experience. The descent from Lhotse was hard and scary. The extreme altitude, cold, rock-fall and exhaustion all contributed to a precarious and dangerous descent down the steep and icy Lhotse Face into Camp 2 at 6300m. My legs were so tired they felt detached from my body. I remember literally crawling into my tent and being so tired that I couldn’t sleep. But I was alive. And I’d summited. And so did my entire team. But none of that had really sunk in yet.

The next morning I summoned all of my strength and we made our way the final 700m down into Everest Base Camp.  I was climbing with a fabulous team from Adventure Consultants and as we rounded one of the final corners coming into camp we were met by a ‘Welcome Party’ made up of some of the incredible team of guides, base-camp managers and Sherpas. They were ringing bells, beating kitchen-pans with wooden spoons, singing, dancing with the HUGEST smiles on their faces. And cold beers. It was incredible. We totally partied. I struggle to even describe how my heart was filled with gratitude and happiness that day (and ‘great’ is SUCH an understatement). I get emotional just thinking about it. Definitely one of the best days of my life shared with an incredible group of friends. I’d do anything to relive that day.

What do you wish you could do better?

I wish I could cook. I’m terrible. But I make a mean Bloody Mary.

What’s the most ‘extreme’ thing you’ve ever done?

The most extreme thing I’ve ever done – that’s a tough one! My mind initially goes to the Himalayas but I think that the most extreme thing I’ve ever done is cycle 7500 across Canada over the course of 72 days – on a whim and without training… It was nuts (on hindsight and a good example of Type 2 fun) but awesome beyond words.  Definitely one of the best but maddest experiences of my life.

After that I’d have to say ‘online dating’. I’m still trying to determine what kind of fun that is..!!

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You can follow Heather and her Denali climb progress on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – She’s climbing Denali for the follow charities Wellbeing of Women (UK) and Women’s College hospital (Canada) she has also been sponsored on this particular summit attempt by Black Diamond Equipment, Arc’teryx and SUUNTO Fitness.

Jun 25, 2018

The Denali Diaries: WEEK 3

Day 15: 25 June 2018

A 'Rest Day' at 14,000ft in preparation for our anticipated move to 17,000ft tomorrow. The weather forecast is correct in its prediction of 80% chance of snow as we wake to snow but relatively mild temperatures hovering around -10 (ish). Whilst the forecast was 'sketchy' (at best) for tomorrow, there's a small, short high pressure system (aka better weather) rolling through in 2 days - so it's important that we get up to 17,000ft tomorrow to put us in position for the 20,000 ft summit on the 27th.

There's a lot to do around camp today in preparation for our move. The Seals and I dig out the tent we've been using as a kitchen-area and set it up so that it can be quickly dismantled early tomorrow morning. I'm happy to be shoveling again. @prddraper & @mountainclimbgrace get our tent ready for quick disassembly (e.g. digging up frozen chutes buried in the snow for any winter-camping keenos out there). We then dig a deep hole (yes, more digging) in which we'll bury all of our extra food, gear and our sleds before we head up in the morning. .

Monopoly Deal isn't on the cards for today. Instead, we spend the time drinking tea, eating more burritos, discussing our layers for 'higher up', the forecast, and the cold. Whilst spirits are high, we're all keen to get up and get going. If the forecast is correct, we could realistically be drinking margaritas in Talkeetna by Saturday. The prospect of that is appealing....

We crawl into our sleeping bags tonight to a poor forecast and more snow. Am keeping my fingers (and toes) crossed for a move tomorrow..!
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MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE MOVE TO 17,000FT WITH HEAVY LOADS - WHILST DENALI UNLEASHES HER GUSTY WRATH... .

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Day 16: 26 June 2018

4.45am and I'm awake. It's snowing outside and visibility is poor BUT I know today's move is critical if we want to be in position at 17,000 for the 1-day weather window. In mountaineering terms it's called, 'threading the needle'. .

After a tense 6am breakfast we return to our tents in an 'aggressive holding pattern' in the hope that the weather improves. We've all packed our sleeping bags in our heavy packs so end up playing Monopoly Deal. At around 9am we get the shout from Wes. We're on the move!!!

We quickly fall into a rhythm for the move up the hill and onto the fixed lines. Whilst the wind is "breezy", looking up I can tell that above the ridge the winds are full-on with spin drift funneling high into the sky. In weather terms it's called, 'blowing a hoolie'. This is definitely not going to be fun. And it definitely isn't. .

The wind gusts are strong, aggressive, painful and cold - and combined with a heavy pack it makes moving over the exposed ridge challenging. I definitely don't have as much fun as I normally would on this terrain. We move efficiently and I’m SO HAPPY when we pass the final exposed section of the ridge and roll into Camp 17,000ft. Stunning camp. Blue skies. No wind. Heaven. 

After a character-building tent-platform building session (which ends with an intervention by a Seal) we pile in 4 people into our 3-person tent. It's 'snug' but the warmth is welcome and we settle in for our night at 17,000ft. Tomorrow's the day we've all been working for and, to be perfectly honest, I couldn't be more ready!!

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE HEAD FOR THE 20,000ft SUMMIT OF DENALI!!!!!

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Day 17: 27 June 2018 - Part 1 of 2

SUMMIT DAY!! I wake to shouts of exuberation (e.g. expletives) about the blue-bird sky & perfect conditions & it's the day that doesn't stop giving. Over a leisurely & sunny breakast we assess our first objective - 'The Autobahn' rising steeply to the Denali Pass at 18,200ft. It's an exposed traverse - today's stellar conditions make it a bit more comfortable. An insightful pep-talk from the Seals sets the tone for the day. Along with a lot of high-fives.

The weather’s beyond what we could’ve hoped. After reaching Denali Pass we traverse across a long flat-ish section - the "Football Field" - & ascend the final slope, "Pig Hill", below the incredible summit ridge. Climbing Pig Hill is definitely not fun. I've renamed it 'Profanity Hill'. BUT reaching the top is 120% worth the boiling hot slog.

And BOOM!!! Oh. Those. Views. No. Words. .
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I see the summit beyond the final super, SUPER exposed ridge. This is when I know we've made it - and as a solid, awesome powerhouse of a team. I'm SO incredibly proud of our team & every person that has contributed to our joint success. It's one of those moments I know I'll consciously hang-on to forever - the way we did it & the fun we had will encapsulate every memory I’ll have of this incredible expedition. .

Our final few feet along the ridge are a blur. I can see the familiar curvature of the earth. The sky is bluer-than blue. We put our arms around each other and walk to the summit together. We. Have. Done. It. We've reached the summit of Denali at 20,310ft / 6190m. .

MORE TO COME AS WE'RE ONLY 1/2 WAY THERE & DESCEND TO 17,000FT.

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Day 17: 27 June 2018 - Part 2 of 2

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Our summit celebration draws to a close as the -25 degree temperatures & tingling fingers & toes remind us that we still have a long afternoon & evening ahead. The summit is only halfway there. We rope back up & return along the ridge to the top of Pig Hill & commence our descent.
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As the day began, so it ends. In absolutely stellar conditions. I can, without a doubt, say it’s the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen in my life - even though the sun never truly sets. .

Eric, @runsmilebreathe leads & our rope team follows. We stop regularly for breaks, pictures... and high fives (x 10). We’re all in awe at the conditions & our incredible good fortune. As with all Type 2 Fun, our previous shovelling anxiety, weather uncertainty, the damp, cold and general worries are forgotten. We live in the moment soaking up every single breathless breath. Bliss.
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We roll into Camp 17,000 at 12.45 am - it’s still light but the moon is out. Falling into the cozy comfort of the tent with a bowl of Raman noodles is the perfect end to what has been a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Massive thanks to our incredible guide, Wes Bunch (legend!!), co-guide, @runsmilebreathe & the team at @alaskamountaineeringschool And, of course, @mountainclimbgrace @prddraper & the Seals. Thank you. ❤️
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WILL WE MAKE BASECAMP? CHECK IN TOMORROW AS THE LURE OF THICK AIR INSPIRES A BIG DAY...AND A BIVVY.

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Day 18: 28 June 2018

A short night. We're up at 7am packing our sleds. Following yesterday's summit success we're keen to descend to Basecamp - the forecast calls for snow & the last thing we want is to be stuck at 11,000ft in a cycle of shoveling. There's added motivation of burgers, mojitos and moscow mules in Talkeetna... as well as a shower. It's been 18 days. Yikes.

The descent to 17,000 goes fairly smoothly. There are teams heading up the fixed lines & I'm happy to be going down. I'm knackered - I power-nap whilst an early dinner is prepared (thx @runsmilebreathe ) at 14,000ft. We agree to go as far as we can tonight to push hard to get to Basecamp. I'm not convinced & set a personal target of 7,000ft deciding to take things one step at a time. .
As we descend I develop a love-hate relationship with my sled. It runs into my heels & accelerates downhill until the tension in the rope grinds it to a halt & drags beside me like I'm 'walking a 50lb dog'. I'm comforted by the fact that we're all in our personal 'pain caves' & developing our own coping mechanisms. @mountainclimbgrace provides the entertainment while Wes is the voice of experience.

By 3am we reach 7,000ft. By now we've been awake for nearly 24h & visibility isn't great. We call it a day throw, our sleeping bags onto the snow & dive in for the 'night' (until 5.30am). It's a beautiful, magical, surreal experience... Combined with the tiredness & adrenaline the only emotion I can feel is sheer contentment. A sleeping bag hasn't ever been so comfortable. I wake at 5am and it's snowing on my face... .

WILL WE MAKE BASECAMP? CHECK IN TOMORROW TO FIND OUT WHETHER WE CAN NAVIGATE THE CREVASSES WITH THE INCENTIVE OF FOOD, DRINKS AND SHOWERS!

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Day 19: 29 June 2018 (finale)


I pull a jacket over my head & fall into a deep sleep for our 2.5hour bivvy at 7000ft. I wake to a layer of snow being dusted off me by the Seals who are up & ready. I get the sense that they're used to little sleep and 48-hour days. It's 5.30am & although I'm feeling absolutely wiped, I am SO excited. Today we'll reach basecamp - and, weather dependent, Talkeetna! Whoop! Whoop!

We rope up for the final time & plod out the final 4 hours into basecamp. I get my final views of the incredible Alaska range. Mt. Foraker with an ominous lenticular cloud, an endless landscape of snow, pockets of blue sky above. I remind myself to live in the moment - to soak up this incredible environment. I feel so tremendously lucky to be here in the middle of one of the most stunning amphitheaters on earth & to be sharing it with this team.

Things happen quickly in Basecamp. The plane is called, we sort gear separating sharps & sleds. Then just like that the plane lands on the snow & we're boarding. It's bitter sweet... I'm excited for a shower but sad that this experience is drawing to a close. I feel so incredibly lucky - a theme that's been omnipresent through this expedition. Months of planning, 19 days of execution. And just like that, it's done. We achieved our goal, we summited Denali. And, more importantly, we summited in good-style, as a team, and had FUN. All the hallmarks of a successful expedition.

When friends become family. None of this would’ve been possible without our guide Wes. An amazing, highly experienced & guide & leader. Even through some challenging days, he kept our spirits up & made tough decisions that proved to be the right decisions. Also a massive thanks to my amazing tentmates @mountainclimbgrace & @prddraper . And of course @runsmilebreathe and the Seals. All I can say is, "HIGH FIVE". 🙌❤️
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THAT'S IT FOR THE DENALI DIARIES! Until next time & the next adventure! Thanks for following, your kind messages & do please stay tuned for occasional out-takes, highlights & lessons learned.... 🙄



Jun 18, 2018

The Denali Diaries: WEEK 2

Day 8: 18 June 2018 (Day 5 of shovelling/ riding out the storm at 11,000ft)

Every now and then I need some “me time” - and I found that “me-time” today in a major 7-hour therapeutic shovelling session... clarity: hole / cave digging session. I felt I needed a new goal for the expedition (given our Denali summit was looking less and less promising) so I decided to dig to China.

The wind gusts remain fierce. There are moments I turn to face into the wind just for the opportunity to feel the power of Mother Nature and it’s derma-abrasion effects. Over the course of the 7-hour shovelling frenzy I put my jacket to the test (thanks Arc’teryx!). All is running smoothly until I try and escape from my Gore-Tex ...

The hole to China soon turns into a cave. Given the tent is smelly, soggy, and damp, the prospect of debunking there is tempting. The sun appears for about 30 seconds today (progress) so I feel slightly optimistic and hold off on the move for one more day... Our Alaskan Colosseum walls are now nearing 7 ft in height.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS THE CAVE DIGGING DEVELOPMENT SKILLS CONTINUE AND A FORECAST BRINGS HOPE... ☀️🤞

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Day 9: 19 June 2018 (Day 6 of shovelling/ riding out the storm at 11,000ft))

A BREAK IN THE STORM! 🙌 We wake up to “no new snow” and the wind in camp has died down to “occasional gusts”. Looking up at our prospective route it’s clear that whilst it’s decent at 11,000ft it’s still super windy up high. We take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce the wall around The Colosseum and semi-dry out our tent which now has a small lake inside of it.

The storm’s left us a winter wonderland ... I’m reminded of how jaw-droppingly beautiful this wild, raw and fragile environment is - and how powerless we are.

Cave construction continues today with the addition of a west wing. It’s nearly big enough for me to stand in.

We get our 8pm forecast and it’s looking promising!! A potential clearing in 2 days time - an opportunity to cache at 14,000ft and then move up the following day. We’re definitely behind schedule but are taking the “don’t stress over things you can’t control “ and “go with the flow” attitude. We’re all in more positive spirits as a result...

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS THE SUN COMES OUT & WE PREPARE TO MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND...

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Day 10: 20 June 2018 (Day 7 of shovelling/ riding out the storm at 11,000ft))

“How glorious the greeting the sun gives the mountains”, writes author John Muir. And I can’t agree more. The sun comes out this afternoon - and the effect on morale is huge. We dry out our tent and its contents - sleeping bags, clothes, bags, boots, gear... and organise kit to take up tomorrow (yes we have a plan to move!!) to cache just past, “Windy Corner” at 13,000ft. It’s wonderful to finally not be shovelling and damp.

Work on the Tunnel to China / Cave / CMC Spa has stalled due to the renewed focus on moving up. It proves to be a perfect place for the team loo.

The terrain tomorrow is straight up a feature known as Motorcycle Hill - we’ve been staring at it for the past week. A few ambitious teams brave the weather (winds still appear fierce up high) and break trail in deep snow going up or coming down. Just seeing people move reinvigorates the soul.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS (MIRACLE of MIRACLES) WE LEAVE 11,000ft to CACHE AT 14,000ft - GET A LESSON in ALASKAN WHITE OUTS, BREAKING TRAIL & CREVASSES.

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Day 11: 21 June 2018

Yes!!! We’re moving up!!!! Well, moving up(ish) in sub-optimal conditions... We wake to fog & snow. Not ideal given our plan is to “gear carry” up to 14,000ft after being stuck for 7 days at 11,000ft. We decide to go for it regardless - for sanity if anything else.

Our guide, Wes (superstar) does the recce & breaks deep trail up “Motorcycle Hill”. The snow is deep, visibility is poor, but spirits are high. I love the steep terrain and I’m in my element. For the first time in a very long time I feel we’re truly climbing ❤️⛰. We continue up “Squirrel Hill” to “Windy Corner” - which isn’t windy today (the only positive weather update).

The terrain is VERY heavily crevassed. Many crevasses are covered by the recent snow so we’re especially slow & vigilant. Visibility reduces to a completely disorienting white out. It’s an unnerving experience. Everything - literally everything - is white and we struggle to see & find our way.

Eventually we get back on track & break trail to reach Camp 14,000ft!!! Epic effort on an epic day in epic conditions.

Cache completed, we head back down to our camp at 11,000ft with the plan to return (for good) to 14,000 tomorrow with the remainder of our kit.

BUT it isn’t quite that simple. We return to 11,000 to find that in our 8hr absence it’s snowed another 2ft - and our tent is COMPLETELY covered with snow again. It’s so frustrating it becomes pure comedy as we pick up our shovels and get back to shovelling, back to reality. We’re exhausted & fall asleep thinking there’s no way we’re going up to 14,000 again tomorrow given the current weather conditions.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS OUR TEAM OF 4 GROWS TO 7 AND WE GET SOME VERY GOOD NEWS...

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Day 12: 22 June 2018

Snow. Poor visibility. Not the conditions we want to move up to 14,000ft today. Guide Wes comes into our tent for a debrief. He’s been hard at work all morning organising logistics. Tension is in the air.

Thanks to the weather we’re in an “aggressive holding pattern” (aka hold tight and wait) but learn that through a stroke of logistical karma we’ll move to 14,000 with lighter loads by doing a tent-swap with a descending team (meaning we don’t have to take down our wet tent). OH, but that’s NOT the only good news...

We’re “merging” with a team of US Navy Seals for the rest of the expedition. Seals - as in awesome big strong dudes. I’m sure they’re equally as excited to be joining us.🙄

The move to 14,000 is mega. Deep snow on Motorcycle Hill and then SO MUCH wind up Squirrel Hill up to Windy Corner. Visibility is sketchy but as soon as we pass Windy Corner it’s as if Denali FINALLY gives us a break (for now anyway!)

We get the awesome views we’ve been dreaming about for the past 12 days. Hunter & Foraker stand strong against a cloudless sky and a clear view of our route to 17,000ft. I swear, it’s heaven.

Arriving at 14,000 in perfect conditions, the views, our amazing & super strong expanded team, a fab dinner thanks to @runsmilebreathe & a whole lotta stoke. I couldn’t be more excited. Today was an awesome day despite the dramatic start. We are so happy to FINALLY be on the move and fall asleep in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE START TO STRATEGIZE OUR MOVE TO 17,000 & LEARN A FEW NEW TRICKS FROM THE SEALS.

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Day 13: 23 June 2018

We're all feeling super hardcore this morning as the Navy Seals applaud us for our tenacity for weathering out the storm at 11,000ft. .

The Seals have been stuck at 14,000ft for over a week due to the same weather-front that grounded us at 11,000ft. We instantly bond over the experience and I know that our newly formed team is going to get on just fine. .

It feels amazing to be dry, warm(ish) and immersed in the mountain-views and positive vibes at 14,000ft. Our new co-guide @runsmilebreathe cooks up a fantastic breakfast and we get on with our day (drying out gear, organising the tent).

Camp-chores completed we settle in for an epic afternoon of playing Monopoly Deal, listening (and singing) 80s hits thanks to an old transister radio, and eating pretty much anything that we can get our hands on. We ascertain that perhaps Monopoly Deal isn't my strong-point.

Today was SUCH a great day and I am SO happy. I don't know if it's the weather, the team, the views, the extra calories, the 80s hits, the belly-aching laughs, the high-fives, the solid nights sleep, or all of the above but for the first time in a long time I'm genuinely feeling optimistic. Whatever happens on this mountain over the coming week, all I know is that we've given it a good shot and had a great time in the process.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE HEAD UP THE FIXED LINES TO CACHE FOOD AND GEAR IN PREPARATION FOR OUR (EVENTUAL) MOVE TO 17,000FT...

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Day 14: 24 June 2018

Restless nights sleep. Awake at 3am to sunlight & all I can think about is Monopoly Deal & outplaying the Seals. What I should’ve been thinking about was that we're MOVING again today! Plan is to do a cache to 16,500ft. This means that we're moving straight up the steep hill flanking the camp & onto the fixed lines to cache.

We're eating breakfast thanks to @runsmilebreathe at 7.30am and the weather is perfect - sun hasn't hit the hill yet and we're looking to move before it does. The sun can quickly turn ‘comfortable' terrain into an energy-sucking frying pan. We fill our packs with food supplies and warmer gear that we'll need up high for our move to 17,000ft.

I love steep uphill terrain (Type 2 fun) and today is no different. I quickly find my stride and move into plodding mode, enjoying the spectacular views and banter between our rope teams. Our rope team is led by Wes and the other rope team is led by Eric. We've been nicknamed 'Peanut Butter' and 'Jelly', respectively. The fixed lines are sketchy and it takes me a while to adjust. We bury our gear in the cache and descend back to 14,000ft via the fixed lines and a fun arm-wrap.

Back in Camp I test whether my 3am Monopoly Deal strategy session was worthwhile. Turns out I'm still rubbish at Monopoly Deal. But I'm getting better at my poker face (or not). The afternoon consists of: Play Monopoly Deal. Eat burritos. Sing 70s hits. Discuss the weather. Discuss clothing layers. High fives. Repeat. Awesome day.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE LEARN ABOUT A POTENTIAL HIGH PRESSURE SYSTEM ROLLING IN - COULD THE MUCH ANTICIPATED WEATHER WINDOW BE IN SIGHT FOR A MOVE TO 17,000FT...?



Jun 11, 2018

The Denali Diaries: WEEK 1

DAY 0:
Starting today, @mountainclimbgrace and I will be sharing a day-by-day account of our Denali expedition - the snows, slopes, storms, shovelling, smiles, shuffles up the hill - and everything in between! .

We took heaps of pics & video and are psyched to share with anyone who either enjoys our antics, loves the outdoors as much as we do, or just wants to get a feel for what a big mountain expedition is like.

Swipe left for a recap of where we started on 10 June, as we finalised our mountain preparations (packing, permits, ponderings) and prepared to leave the comforts of Talkeetna, Alaska and head to the mountain. Little did we fully appreciate the adventure was about to unfold....


MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE GET OUR 1st taste of DENALI...!

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Day 1: 11 June 2018

Escaping the grey Talkeena skies we boarded our small plane captained by the inspiring pilot / guide / climber / mother Leighan Falley, better known as "The Denali Raven" @leighanfalley. .

@mountainclimbgrace & I had a 'fan-girl' moment as we'd seen Leighan's amazing film, “The Denali Raven” at the Banff Mountain Film Festival earlier this year (a film which had prompted us to head to the Alaska Range!). .

The views as we flew into basecamp were absolutely breathtaking. Our flight was approx. 45 mins and covered approx. 75 miles as we left the lush green of the Alaskan Tundra and entered the granite and ice-filled gorges of the Alaska Range.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE GET OUR 1st taste of DENALI...!

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Day 2: 12 June 2018

Today's learning curve was steeper than the terrain as we moved from Basecamp at 7200ft up to Camp 1 at 7800ft over the course of about 5.5 miles / 8.8kms. Up until this point I don't think I fully appreciated how much was involved in preparing to leave Basecamp..! .

We buried a 'cache' of emergency food in a 6-foot deep snow-hole (in the event that we were stuck in basecamp upon our return in 3 weeks time) and spent another 45 mins rigging our packs and sleds..! @alaskamountaineeringschool Guide Wes Bunch and @mountainclimbgrace helped to prepare me for my first few steps onto the glacier carrying my 50lb pack and 40lb sled. The first few steps were easy but after a long day moving to Camp 1, the pack and sled seemed to get heavier with every step! .

We were lucky to get some mixed-weather today. The views were obscured by white-out conditions - a blessing in disguise... If it had been a sunny day the glacier would basically have become a frying-pan as the sun's rays reflected off its surface.

Spirits are high as our little rope-team cross this incredibly wild, raw and rugged environment. There are crevasse hazards with every step but worth it for views of the spectacular range. We're already falling comfortably into 'expedition mode' and soaking up every moment of the steady rhythm of life in the mountains.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE COMPLETE OUR FIRST 'CARRY' UP TO OUR CACHE AT 9700ft.

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Day 3: 13 June 2018

Blue skies & ☀️ . Officially in mountain-mode - I've lost track of what day of the week it is. All I know is that we're moving some food-supplies and gear up to a 'cache' today at 9,700ft just below Camp 2 at 11,200ft. .

What's a cache you ask (don't worry, I didn't know either). Well, it involves digging a 6 ft deep hole & burying supplies under the snow. The advantage is that it helps manage the size of the loads we're carrying up high - rather than carry 1 gargantuan road, we carry 2 smaller loads and will double-back to unbury it after reaching Camp 2 at 11,200ft. Simples.

We're getting better at rigging up to the sled (hurrah) although I’m not calling it love yet. About 10-minutes into the slog up “Ski Hill”' realised that my ipod was on repeat of the “Flight of the Bumblebee” - FML. 1.5 hours later I'm happy for a break to reset the ipod, rehydrate and refuel. I keep going on about the views but they are simply breathtaking... .

With our cache buried and upon our return to Camp 1 after our 8h round-trip we wait patiently for our daily 8pm weather forecast. All’s 🙌🤟 until the last 20 seconds of the forecast... 

SOOO apparently there's a MAJOR STORM WARNING in effect as a cyclone is building and the weather for the next 4 - 5 days is predicted to be ROUGH. Well, that's certainly thrown a spanner into our plans!! Something tells me that I'm not going to be drinking margaritas in Talkeetna in the next 10 days and that Denali is going to start throwing her weight around. Brace, brace...

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE MOVE TO CAMP 2 at 11,200ft - and brace for the tail end of a CYCLONE.
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Day 4: 14 June 2018

A 6am wake up & slow start packing up Camp at 7000ft to head up to 11,200ft. Last nights weather forecast courtesy of the Denali National Park Service has us on edge. I wish I had Google to confirm what “major storm warning in effect” actually means on a notoriously weather-fickle mountain like Denali. Our ballpark range is 50 - 70kph gusts and HEAVY snow. As a farmers daughter I know all too well there’s little one can do about the weather... rather than worry about it, you prepare best you can and get on with it. And so we do. 😳

We slowly head up the mountain in variable conditions (fog) with our forever faithful loaded sleds in tow. I moved well today & loved the pace - today finding it easier to get into my groove. It was AMAZING to see Camp 2 ⛰ after about 5h as we crest over the final hill. Bright yellow tents dot a landscape of white with flags marking caches and crevasses. And the views...!! 😊

Teamwork is key on a mountain. We’re a great team but haven’t fully mastered tent-platform building - it’s early days. There’s something about the size, shape, degree of flatness, location, and snow levelling technique that throws us into disarray with various personal “time-outs” being self enforced. But we get the job done 🙌 & our tent is AWESOME. We’ve included a 4-ft perimeter around the tent as a precautionary measure against the predicted storm.🤔 . Let’s hope it’s enough.

Spirits high we collapse into our new home away from home (for at least 2 nights) and anticipate what adventures tomorrow will bring... Will the storm materialise....??

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS WE RETURN TO THE CACHE TO COLLECT SUPPLIES & BRACE FOR THE CYCLONE at 11,200ft.

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Day 5: 15 June 2018

The weather - it's on everyone's mind this morning as we 'pop down' to the cache we buried two days ago at 10,000ft. Retrieving the cache is high priority as it has some of the food, gas and kit that we'll potentially need to wait out the impending storm. It's clear that the weather has already started to change with the wind picking up to 'breezy gusts', snow starting to fall and visibility becoming increasingly poor.

Digging out the cache feels a bit like unwrapping presents at Christmas. Only it's not... Perhaps a better analogy is that we're like squirrels unburying our food after a long winter. Anyway, we make the regrettable decision NOT to use our sleds and I realise that I've vastly underestimated the amount of stuff we've buried in the cache. My pack feels like it weighs a tonne and as we slowly plod our way back to Camp at 11,000ft the wind picks up and my face gets a good sandblasting.

The afternoon brings our first true taste of shoveling. The 4-foot perimeter we've carefully manicured is quickly eroded and we struggle to maintain it. Despite prayers to the weather gods it seems that we are definitely going to be hit by this storm. As we settle in for the night we're all on edge. The long daylight hours has us all staring up at the ceiling of the tent as it's buffeted by wind 🌬 and the snow-shadows creep up on the flanks.

We begin shoveling rotations and bunker down for the night... We're all in good spirits and remain optimistic that the storm will be over in 2 days, allowing us to move higher up the mountain.😳

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS THE SHOVELING FRENZY CONTINUES AND THE STORM STARTS TO DAMPEN OUR SPIRITS...

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Day 6: 16 June 2018

Despite our advanced proficiency in shovelling and fortification techniques, the novelty of shovelling our way out of the cyclone is rapidly wearing off. And, the storm isn’t showing any early indications of abating. We pass the time shovelling, shaking snow off the tent & managing an ever increasing condensation problem inside the tent. The Denali River seems to have appeared between my sleeping bag and Porters. Grace has escaped to high ground...

Shovelling is an excellent opportunity for an “au natural” facial, courtesy of Mother Nature. The wind gusts are so intense there’s little you can do to protect extremities from the wrath of the storm. Every time you think it’s over another gust sends you bracing against the elements.

We’re on hourly shovelling rotation now until the storm dies down. Somehow we’re still finding plenty of ways to keep ourselves occupied- through reading, analysing @mountainclimbgrace ‘s dream about @justinpjtrudeau , hanging laundry in the tent, taking selfies and playing with phone filters...

We’re all hoping tonight’s weather forecast brings good news & sanity to our tent.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS THE SHOVELING FRENZY CONTINUES AND HEATHER SUFFERS A WARDROBE MALFUNCTION ...

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Day 7: 17 June 2018

During my 5am shovelling shift this morning reality strikes. We've been on expedition for a week now and have done much more shovelling than climbing. In fact, there's a distinct possibility that we'll never leave Camp 11,000ft and that this just might be our summit. I can't lament on this too long as the wind gusts are FIERCE today. Hard, vicious gusts every 10 - 15 seconds and about 60 kph with pelting snow that actually makes you wince in pain.

Accumulation on the tent forces us all to our battlestations - spending the day digging out our tent as well as Wes'. As we dig the walled perimeter around our tent gets higher and higher. It's starting to look like we camped in the Alaskan version of the colosseum.

Despite our potential fate at 11,000 ft we remain optimistic. We all find ways of dealing with the monotony of shovelling. @prddraper is an expert wall-builder, @mountainclimbgrace has an efficient and consistent snow clearing technique and I contribute to the early morning shifts which I am finding strangely therapeutic. To be honest, it feels good just to get out of the damp, wet, and increasingly smelly tent. .

In the mid-afternoon Grace sees the sun. Our spirits are lifted for one brief moment and then get back to our shovelling as we brace for the next soul-destroying stormy gust. Tonight's forecast says there *might* be a very small high pressure window in 2 days time. We aren't able to get more details as our radio cuts out.

MORE TO COME TOMORROW AS THE SHOVELING FRENZY CONTINUES AND HEATHER SUFFERS A WARDROBE MALFUNCTION ...

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