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denali

A DAY ON DENALI

A DAY ON DENALI

Below is one of my more memorable days on Denali. It definitely qualified as one of the most rewarding and challenging days on the mountain and I wanted to share it with you along with some chilly pictures. Step into the world that is Alaska... 

The snow had finally melted and the water trying to boil. Once poured into the food bag we’d have 10 more minutes and then fuel to feed the furnace that is our tummies.

It had been a long and exhausting day on Denali. The mountain was starting to show it’s menacing side.

With the temperature below -40C, things were serious. I hold the bag waiting for the food to hydrate. I can tell the food is losing it’s heat already. I’m cold, tired and clumsy. I caress the food bag in my lap but don’t realise my grip is too tight. The bag opens and water spills out into my sleeping bag. The food is now losing it’s heat rapidly. I give it a try anyway in the hope for some much needed calories. Cold. Crunchy. Inedible. I look over at Tim. He is having the same problem. We have our toes in the same sleeping bag trying to share what little heat we have. Our full down jackets are on and never have I worn so many clothes and still be the coldest I’ve ever been.   

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My Top Kit Picks for the Cold

My Top Kit Picks for the Cold

We spend so much money and time trying to get the perfect kit to try and make a hard expedition that little bit easier or those photos a little more trendier.

Here's a couple of my top picks from my recent Denali expedition. 

Rab 1200 Expedition Sleeping Bag. Rating: -35C (RRP: £770)

A pretty penny indeed but this bag became my safety net. At first glance it seems over bulky but this is a brilliantly thought about feature. It's not heavy for the warmth it provides; weighing in at 1850g. 

Made for cold weather, it works best when wearing clothes otherwise there is too much empty space and in those temperatures you simply can't warm up. It has enough space for a full down suit just in case the temperatures get wildly life threatening. On a few EXTREMELY COLD nights on Denali and when up in the high Arctic in January, I had to wear my Rab Expedition down jacket inside it for the entire night. The combo worked together brilliantly and probably saved my life. The foot compartment is spacious enough to not only allow for big down booties to be worn inside but also so that you are able to fit the many objects you need to stop from freezing during the night. I put gas canisters, my liner boots, socks, gloves, water bottle, suncream, toothpaste, batteries and pee bottle inside. Somehow the bag's space means that you can still sleep comfortable even when sleeping amongst so many uncomfortable objects!! Other great features include the awesome hood (you can pull the cord so that only your mouth is exposed to the cold air) and the fact that because it is hydrophobic down, it drys quickly.

Every morning on Denali I would wake up with ice all over the area around my mouth on the bag and once the cooker is on this ice melts and wets the bag. However time has gone by and you've packed up for the day ahead the bag has pretty much dried itself so thankfully no packing away wet. Pretty neat. 

Páramo Torres Medio Insulated Jacket (RRP: £210)

For temperatures as cold as the Arctic or high altitude mountains, this jacket acted more of a mid layer than an outer layer which is what it is ultimately designer for. I didn't take this jacket off on Denali. I slept and climbed in it. It is surprisingly breathable considering it only has the main front zip for venting. At first I wasn't sure on the fit of it as it isn't exactly athletically fitted like it's competitor jackets but instead has a long, wider cut. This actually proved very practical because when climbing with hands above my head or pulling my sled, it wouldn't ride up meaning my torso was always kept warm. The hood is great at keeping the elements out and the feel of the jacket is very cosy and comfortable providing a little bit of luxury for hard environments.

I definitely recommend this jacket but just remember to take extra layers if you are going in temperatures below -5C and for temperatures lower than -15C never forget your expedition down jacket as that is when they come into their own.

Note: It looks like the women's version of this is no longer available.

Lowe Alpine Cerro Torre 65:85 (or 75:100) Rucksack (RRP: £200)

On cold expeditions your bag needs to be able to fit a lot inside it. Usually if you're in the Arctic, Antarctic or on an Alaskan expedition you'll also have a sled behind you too but the bag will be just as important. I use this bag because of it's simplicity and comfort. It's heavier than some bags of the same size (the 65:85 comes in at 2.75kg) but this weight is due to the structure it provides. When packed well the weight is piled high rather than side to side making for more balanced weight distribution. It has a useful extendable front lid for when you are filling it to it's max but will also pack down small for lighter trips. It has two sizeable side pockets, a hip pocket on both hip straps and a front pocket which is big enough to put a map in. 

MSR Reactor with 2.5L Pot (RRP: £180)

Everyone thinks that gas doesn't work in cold temperatures and high altitudes. However if it is looked after it can out perform liquid fuel. The Reactor is so efficient that no heat is lost (a down side if you are looking to heat up the tent whilst cooking but great for saving fuel). You do need to keep the current gas warm when you are not using it so that would mean keeping it in your sleeping bag at night and wrapping it in a jumper in your bag during the day. It's a fragile stove so when not using always pack away. Even though this sounds like a lot of faff compared to liquid fuel it really isn't when you consider with liquid fuel you have to pump it, clean it and avoid getting fuel all over the tent and fingers. The Reactor us so light and fits easily in a pot. As a back up, always take another stove e.g a Pocket Rocket. 

Holiday? What holiday?!

Holiday? What holiday?!

“Going on another holiday again?”

People often think I’m off on another holiday when I commit myself to another expedition.

Truth is, I haven’t been on a holiday since 2011. Expeditions of my type are not a holiday. They are everything but. Yes, I look forward to them and get a sense of escapism from city life, but those are the only comparisons. They are hard going, they take grit and determination to get to the other side and a lot of questioning on why I’m doing it. They are often uncomfortable, scary, exhausting, make me hurt in ways I didn’t know could hurt, involve lack of sleep, (lack of oxygen a lot of the time too), are too hot or too cold, take a lot of brain power worrying and then there’s the making of quick life determining decisions. I cannot say enough how far away from a holiday they are.

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

The last time I went on a holiday! The difference!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

Not looking my best! Sunburn, no shower, cold!!!!!

On Denali, myself and Tim swore to each other that our next trip would be a beach holiday with no bag carrying. I can’t see that beach holiday happening anytime soon but I must say I do long to be by the Mediterranean! Of course at the same time I look forward to getting my teeth well and truly into the next big trip. It’s what I live for and I’m not complaining in any way about the toughness of them... The tougher the better!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

Coughing my way up! Feeling pretty exhausted on this photo. Not a holiday but a test!

The feeling of vulnerability and having to roll with whatever nature throws at you is a humbling experience. You have to know what you're doing otherwise things can easily get out of hand. Knowing you have a situation under control is a rewarding experience however, if anything goes wrong it's easy for that rewarding experience to turn nasty and life threatening. 

I know it’s a privilege to be able to actively put myself into such a challenging and extraordinary position but it is something I work hard for in order to make happen. I thrive on the better person I become after each trip and I am addicted to making wonderful, proud, incredible memories and addicted to the bonds I make with teammates that go on to become the closest friends life can give.

So next time someone uses the word holiday to describe one of my expeditions I’m going to crack down on them. I came back from Denali and it took me over a month before I had caught up on sleep and recovered. A month of bad sleep, lack of oxygen and being cold does that to you. I could not keep my eyes open after 12 noon and had to retreat to bed for 4 hours! Thankfully, I’m over that now and I’m now back after that hardship again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

This is what we woke up to every morning. We breathe in the night, our breath freezes to the tent, it snows on us in the morning. Not a pleasant start to the day and I'll never complain about getting out of bed again.

Having hardship means that you appreciate everything again which is another addiction of mine. One moment that sticks with me after Denali was when we flew out from the glacier. A very short plane ride from the bottom of the mountain back to Talkeetna was out of this world. We went from full expedition mode in freezing temperatures on a barren mountainous landscape to landing in Talkeetna to their summer.

Leaving the mountain behind!

Leaving the mountain behind!

It was full of greenery, the smell of flowers was in the air, warmth on our skin and we were met by Sheldon Air Service crew who carried a plate full of fresh fruit all cut ready to eat! I’ve never felt so high in my life! If ever I’ve felt immensely happy to be alive, that was it!! That’s the closest that came to a holiday! (And knowing a shower could finally be had!)

The world's coldest mountain

The world's coldest mountain

Denali lived up to every expectation. The first word that springs to mind is COLD. Bloody frickin cold. After the freezing temperatures came stunning scenery. It was beautiful, mind blowing. The most unimaginable beauty I have ever seen. Finally it was hard work. All of it was hard work even the rest / weather days. 

So to summarise: COLD. STUNNING. HARD WORK.

This May saw the coldest temperatures for decades and the rangers compared them more like early April conditions. You’d think this would make the crevasses safer - for those who don’t know what crevasses are, they are deep cracks in the glacier that move everyday. They can be tiny slits in the ground or they can be as big as a house and as deep at 70ft. They are not so dangerous when you can see them (although they are incredibly intimidating to look down into the abyss) but the danger falls when snow covers them up.

Now on Denali we were always walking over them. You have to as there are so many you’d get no where if you didn’t. But you walk over them in the hope that the snow bridges that have formed are thick enough to hold your weight. You could see a safe place to cross that looked like a decent snow bridge from first look but actually be only a few centimetres of snow and if you step on it, you fall straight down. Thats why we rope up and have crevasse rescue ingrained into our head. If one or two or three fall in, the other can set up a standard pulley system to get them out.

The temperature was cold from the get go except from when in the midday sun.

On the first day we each carried loads of about 200lbs. This is more than the average person but we took extra food and fuel in order to wait out any storm that came our way and boy were we right to take that extra weight!

It was hard going with that load but the training I'd done really prepared me for it. I felt so ready for taking on Denali. I never felt out of control of a situation neither did I feel it was too much. This is a testament to my training and our small little team of four. Looking back the conditions we faced were brutal.

To give you a taster, once we got to 14,200ft camp we were stuck in our tent for two weeks solid because of temperatures of -40C and a hard hitting storm making it too dangerous to go up or down. After two weeks of inactivity and when it warmed up to a balmy -35C we ascended up the mountain.

I'll go more into detail on the different aspects of the expedition over the next month but here are some photos to start.

 

Making decisions!

Making decisions!

Descending the fixed lines

Descending the fixed lines

Getting some fresh air at camp 14,200ft during the 2 week storm.

Getting some fresh air at camp 14,200ft during the 2 week storm.

My Training for Denali

My Training for Denali

Training/workouts/exercise/session/thrashing/beasting/gymming … Whatever term you use it all comes down to one focus – improving yourself physically and mentally.

I feel I can write a post about training now. I’ve been seeing real improvements over the last 3 months on the run up to my Denali expedition. It’s a real relief to see clear results of my developments because in the last year or so, moving forward with training was going at a real slow rate and injuries kept reoccurring. A few years ago I was fit as a fiddle, some may even say too fit/did too much as it later developed to injury (and when I say injury I mean running so much that I broke the bones in my feet.) Being injured really knocked me off guard and I lost my focus a little in the fear of injuring myself again.

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