Call Me Crazy

Denali, rising 20,320 feet (6,194m) above sea level, is one of the coldest places on earth and it is the mountain that draws me in the most (Mt Vincent is not far behind and that is found in one of the most inhospitable places on earth!)

I don’t know what it is about Denali that makes the pull so strong, but out of the Seven Summits, this is the one that gets my heart racing and me longing to get out onto the mountains again.

It might not be the highest of the Seven Summits but it is certainly one of the challenging ones. Dropped off in a propeller plane in the middle of a glacier, the plane doesn’t bother switching off its engines. They merely drop you off and head out into the sky again, leaving you and your team standing alone, desolate in the Alaskan Mountain Range. Because of the arctic conditions you are hiking in, the weather is extreme and severe and as the plane fades away into the blue sky, it’s just your team, you and your heavy backpack and the sled you will be pulling behind you as you make your way towards the summit.

Source: adventure.nationalgeographic.com

Credit: adventure.nationalgeographic.com

A year ago, after climbing Aconcagua, I was already dreaming of this mountain. It’s not my next mountain to climb but it is on my list of seven that I’m climbing for a cure for Cystic Fibrosis. Like most other high altitude mountains to climb, it is an expensive extreme sport and as always I have to factor in leave from work. But I have no limits to the dreams I have. All that matters is that it is my dream and without any doubt in my mind, I know one day, whether it is in two years’ time or ten years’ time, I will climb her slopes. That’s the amazing thing about dreams. You can dream as big and expansive as you want and by believing in your dreams, that is how they become possible.

A year ago, I already started researching to find the perfect training I could do to prepare myself for a mountain like this. Training that will strengthen my body, not only to carry 20 kg’s on my back as I climb at altitude, but to pull a 40 kg sled behind me at the same time.
Since my climbing expedition began, I have become the fittest I have ever been in my life and this mountain will be no different, my fitness level will probably be at its highest by the time I head out to her slopes. I am not delusional in any way, it will be hard and probably one of the toughest mountains I have yet to climb but the dream of one day waking up to the news that a cure has been found for Cystic Fibrosis spurs me on. When the air near the top gets thin and the slopes get steep and my breathing becomes laboured, I am reminded of what each and every person with Cystic Fibrosis will at some time of their encounter; shortness of breath and difficulty just doing the simplest of things like getting dressed in the morning or even just getting up. The higher I climb at altitude the harder it gets to breathe and to do even the simplest of tasks.

This has always been my mission: To climb for a cure.

I have climbed two of the Seven Summits already. One will be a redo as we had to turn back 400 metres shy of the summit due to the high risk of avalanches due to the severe weather that had hit us on summit night/morning. This is life on the mountain, there are no guarantees.

Mountain climbing has always been a love for me and now climbing at altitude has become a passion. This morning as I woke long before my alarm sounded, I lay in bed reading Will Cockrell’s account of his journey to summit Denali. Reading the words of his experience, my heart raced a little faster as I read faster, taking in his experience. When I read of others experiences on the mountain, I am transported back to mountains slopes I have walked myself. It’s hard to explain completely what happens on a mountain to those who haven’t been before, it’s a shared experience with those who have had the privilege of being out there too. Words can hardly ever describe the extreme mental and physical things you endure while out on the mountain and yet the pure ecstasy of what you are doing makes it worth every single step.

Want to know more of what Denali holds for me in the future? Keep reading…

Denali, also known as Mt McKinley, is North America’s highest mountain. The Denali climb begins deep in the heart of the Alaska Mountain Range on the Kahiltna Glacier. The climb takes approximately 17-18 days round trip from Base and usually additional days (about four) are added to allow for inclement weather, acclimatization and optimal summit attempts.

Located just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, Denali’s environment is an eternal winter. It is a mountain of extreme conditions where a climber may encounter 100-mph (160km) winds and temperatures can range anywhere from-30F to -70F (-36 to -56˚C). Alternately, some days on the lower slopes are quite hot with sunshine lasting up to 20 hours. The best snow and weather conditions for climbing in the Alaskan Range are usually best from May through July. Colder minimum temperatures and strong northwest winds commonly occur in May. Late June and July are warmer but more unsettled. By late July, travel on the lower glaciers is made difficult by melting snow bridges over crevasses and by more inclement weather with heavier snowfall and increased avalanche danger. The highest success rates occur in June. April is an excellent month for many of the lower peaks with conditions often cold and clear while the winter extremes still linger on Denali. The coldest weather on Denali is found from November through April with average temperatures ranging from -30F to -70F (-36 to -56˚C). It is not uncommon to find it -50F (-56˚C) at the 17,200 foot camp in early May.

Something to keep in mind when choosing the month to climb, going really late in the season will probably mean that you won’t be able to get picked up again as the planes won’t be able to land on the exposed glaciers; this means a 10 day walk through the forest! *Grin* Well I do like a challenge!

To add more of a challenge while climbing Denali, there are no porters available to cut some slack for us climbers. All expedition members carry their own gear and a month’s worth of food, usually around 300lbs (136kg’s) between a climber and his/her partner. The gear is split up between your backpack and a sled is pulled behind you.

While climbing Denali, the low camps are by far the warmest parts of the mountain. Deep snow and climbing gentle slopes, but with lots of distance to cover can be expected. No doubt the sled pulling combined with heavy backpacks will help balance the challenge while on this expedition! Reaching Advanced Base Camp is similar to travel through the low camps. Heavy backpacks combined with the use of sleds is still the method of travel. Although the distance between the camps is shorter, the terrain becomes much steeper. Advanced Base Camp is where climbers will spend the majority of their time, hoping they get that window of opportunity to move on the high camp and later summit.

Credit: alaskamountaineeringschool.blogspot.com -  16K ridge, moving to high camp

Credit: alaskamountaineeringschool.blogspot.com –
16K ridge, moving to high camp

Due to the troposphere being thinner around the arctic, the barometric pressure on the mountain is significantly low, making it “feel like” you are at a higher altitude. This is said to be a major reason why an unusual amount of climbers succumb to altitude problems.
With spectacular views and intense weather, high camp is said to be beautiful but brutal. Reaching high camp is apparently the most technical part of climbing Denali. The ascent begins with fixed ropes up 50 degrees of ice right outside Advanced Base Camp. Then the wait begins for the perfect weather break to head out to the summit.

Credit: www.alpineinstitute.com - Climbers approaching the summit of Denali

Credit: http://www.alpineinstitute.com – Climbers approaching the summit of Denali

Reaching Denali’s summit includes several technical challenges and difficult terrain and it is likely to be the coldest and riskiest day of the entire climb. But I can only imagine, after weeks of excitement and boredom, hard work and anxiety, the final push to the summit is what makes it all worthwhile. For me, on summit day, my body finds new strength with my goal and dream at the forefront of my mind. I become more focused that I have ever been. While it may be true that the Alaska Range has a reputation for poor weather and brutal storms, I know from past experience, when the weather is good, the rewards of being there are immeasurable and on a mountain like Denali I can already imagine that the expansive glaciers and the rugged summits will be forever impressed in my memory.

Alpine Ascents describes Denali like this “There are certain mountains that need no explanation as to why climb. Denali is such a mountain. Its tremendous size and beauty generate a magnetism that continually draws climbers from around the world. An ascent of Denali touches the psyche of all Alpinist, and for those who have undertaken its challenges, it rewards them with an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

In 2015 I will begin training for my third of the Seven mountain summit I hope to climb, which will be in Russia. I’m excited at what lies ahead. I’m excited at the thought that Denali lies beyond my Russian climb. The call is the strongest one yet and as I journey every day closer to my dreams, my heart continues to beat a little faster as I rub my hands in glee at all that lies ahead.

Call me crazy but I dream of sitting in the vestibule of my tent, breathing hard as I try to take in as much air into my lungs as humanly possible. I long to struggle with ice-cold fingers to snap on my crampons over my big and bulky snow boots, something that is impossible to do with thick gloves on, hence the ice-cold fingers. It may not be everyone’s idea of a cool way to spend a holiday, but this is my dream. I long to glance out at the mountain ranges before me as the snow crunches beneath my boots and to breathe in the crisp, ice-cold air. I long for the struggle, the agony and ultimately the ecstasy of realising another dream and once again to be a part of the elite few that get to experience the true magic of life on the mountain. The mountains will always call, and I will always go.

I am a simple girl with BIG dreams.

I say, bring it on!

~ Walking 4 Air for all those with Cystic Fibrosis and in memory of my best friend, Emma. ~

I Dared to Dream a Dream

As we began our journey through the rain forests, we caught a glimpse of the prize!

As we began our journey through the rain forests, we caught a glimpse of our ultimate destination!

It was the final push to the top. We all knew we were close now and with every agonising step we dug deeper into our souls to find the strength to keep going.

My legs felt like I had led stuffed into my hiking boots as I tried hard to lift my feet up to take another step but only managing to drag my feet mere millimetres above the grounds surface. If only I could muster up the energy to laugh I would have for there in that moment I was doing the “Kili shuffle” but with each step I knew it was bringing me closer to my dream.

One moment I’m walking and the next moment in my mindless state of following my team-mate in front of me I had failed to notice that he had stopped and almost bumped into him.  We had finally reached Stella Point and crested the steep ridge overlooking the crater. We weren’t there yet. It would take us about 45 minutes to an hour to get there. So close yet still so far…

One of our lead guides who had raced ahead to Stella Point, was there pouring us a warm cup of tea. Along with my team, I sat down at Stella Point for a moments rest as we sipped on our tea. The goal was not yet in sight, but I knew it was close. Soon we were on our way again. The air was really thin and your body and mind are beyond exhausted. Knowing I was near the summit somehow spurred me on. The walk was slow but so much easier with a gentle climb up and nowhere near as steep as before, and the views of the Southern Icefields were out of this world beautiful.

Stunning views of the Southern Icefield glaciers with clouds at the back covering the world below.

Stunning views of the Southern Icefield glaciers with clouds at the back covering the world below.

The final steps to the summit. I was so close now!

The final steps to the summit. I was so close now!

The ice path we walked on narrowed even more and I began tripping over my own feet, stumbling around like I was drunk. The wind was howling and despite the sun rising in the blue sky above, it was still bitterly cold. All of a sudden Donna stopped abruptly in front of me. Again, my head down and not noticing she had stopped I almost bumped into her.  She turned around and looked me straight in the eye. She was crying. She said between the tears “Lara, look over there, up ahead.” I leaned to my right to look around her and for the first time I saw it. There not too far off in the distance was the sign we had longed to see all night. The sign that said “Congratulations” the sign that said you have arrived at the summit of Kilimanjaro. I started crying too and in that moment we hugged each other, both of us crying. I hugged Donna tight and told her “We gonna make it!” As we broke apart, I started laughing. Well, more like chuckling really as that was about all I could manage. I wanted to run but my body could only take one small step at a time. I wanted to scream and shout. I wanted to jump with pure joy. But what the mind wanted, the body was unable to do. Inside I was dancing! As I systematically put one foot in front of the other, taking my final steps to the summit, my mind was filled with giddy displays of images and emotions.  The most predominant presence was Emma, my best friend who had succumbed to complications from Cystic Fibrosis 14 years ago. I thought of all the people who had contributed towards my fundraising for CF in order to help find a cure for this disease and to support those living with it. I thought of my family and friends back home.  I remembered the first night on the mountain, standing in our campsite just above the rain forests when we saw the peak and how far out of reach it looked. Now I was about to stand on top of that peak. I had almost arrived.

As we approach my heart was beating so fast and hard I was sure that everyone on top could hear it. Our fellow team members spotted us coming up and came rushing towards us. Between laughing and crying there was a frenzy of hugs and congratulations going around. The emotions finally spilled over, each one fuelled by so much emotion that we had carried along throughout the night. There was such joy in the air as we congratulated each other.

We had arrived. On the roof of Africa.  The entire continent lay at our feet. The joy spilled over. Finally, we had made it! It was 8:45am on Friday, the 13th July 2012.

Before you reach the summit you imagine all the photos you are going to take and how amazing it’s going to be. Truth is, you stand there and all you want to do it take the required photos and make your way down to Base Camp again. The cold is all-consuming and the exhaustion and lack of air is all too real.

Physically I felt weak by pure exhaustion, while mentally I was ecstatic. Our turn at the sign came quickly and we posed for the obligatory photos. I pulled my banner out of my backpack, the one I had carried on me from Day One. The time had finally come to show the world.  It is really not as glamorous as everyone thinks. The wind was so strong that all my team mates had to help me hold the banner. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  Except for Donna and I, we had all started as strangers and as we climbed we became friends. Friends who will forever share the incredible bond that we formed on that mountain. As the wind gusted we each grabbed a corner or edge of the banner and there in that moment my message to Emma unfolded at the summit along with my Thank You to each one who had helped me raise R20 000 for Cystic Fibrosis.

IN MEMORY OF EMMA WALKER

I Climbed This Mountain For You My Friend!

Until We Meet Again, May God Hold You In The Palm Of His Hand

I MISS YOU EVERY SINGLE DAY

Last Count U Helped Me Raise R19 641 For Cystic Fibrosis

 All around the message I had written the names of each person who had donated to my charity, The South African Cystic Fibrosis Trust.  Just one donor was missing. The final donation that helped me reach R20 000. Unfortunately, I had received this information too late last night to add it to the sign.

The team with my banner at the summit.

The team with my banner at the summit.

557427_10150947616971050_1094910707_n-7-on-the-morning-of-friday-13th-july-2012-i-summited-kilimanjaro

We did it! Donna and I standing on top of Kilimanjaro, summiting together at 08h45 on Friday, 13 July 2012 ~ What a great moment!

After our photos I stepped aside and took a moment to be alone. I had surprisingly remembered something Thomas had said months ago when Donna and I had attended one of his presentations on climbing Kilimanjaro. He said that it’s cold on top and you can’t stop for too long as it will be hard to get moving again due to the cold and fatigue. But he added that’s it’s nice to go and find a place at the summit and just spend a moment acknowledging your achievement.  I stood there alone on the summit for what felt like a very long time. I thought of Emma and felt so close to her in those moments. I knew she would proud of me. I thought of Sean and Barry, our team mates who had turned back the day we left for base camp due to illness. I stood there, watching in awe, the people, the sights and listening to the sounds. The immensity of the open space that lay before me, totally uninhabited and although I was not alone, it was incredibly still. It was liberating and at the same time overwhelming. I look over at the summit sign and read it again

Congratulations!

You are now at Uhuru Peak 5895 m A.M.S.L.

Tanzania

African’s Highest Point

World’s highest free-standing mountain.

The emotions washed over me as I stood there taking it all in.  I had reached the top of Kilimanjaro and my body silently screamed in triumph. I stood there knowing that something significant had changed inside of me forever.  All my fears and uncertainties dissipated in that moment, leaving something new and untouched.

The events of the past 24 hours had proven to me that I was wholly alive, and no matter what transpired from there on out, I had truly lived!

“…by bringing myself over the edge and back, I discovered a passion to live my days fully, a conviction that will sustain me like sweet water on the periodically barren plain of our short lives.” ~ Jonathan Waterman

So much gratitude goes out to our amazing porters and guides who supported our incredible journey to the top.

So much gratitude goes out to our amazing porters and guides who supported our incredible journey to the top.

Happy 2 year anniversary to my amazing Kilimanjaro team. Thanks for the most incredible memories and for inspiring my dream to grow even bigger.  My Seven Summit journey had begun…!

Kilimanjaro Team, July  2012

Kilimanjaro Team, July 2012

~ I climb these mountains for you Emma, and will keep doing so in your memory until a cure is found. I miss you every single day! ~

As the great mountaineer Alan Arnette says, “Memories are everything, climb on!”

I dared to dream a dream and it was more unbelievably incredible than I could have ever imagined!

This blog piece is an excerpt from the chronicles of my journey to summit Kilimanjaro, where I wrote a day-by-day journal of my experience as I journeyed to the roof top of Africa. Since I wrote it, I have had many new blog followers so if you haven’t yet read the laughs, the tears, the agony and the ecstasy that was my journey, you can click on the link below and it will give you the full story to my days on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, plus all the photos.

The Kilimanjaro Chronicles, A Journey to the Top of Kilimanjaro.

 

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