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Denali Dreaming

Hard Won Lessons on Logistics, Altitude, and Cold

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Been thinking about my upcoming Mt. McKinley climb. And since many of you readers will be headed to mountains or out on long trips soon, I’ve put together some thoughts on expedition logistics, acclimatization, and cold weather camping.

Despite being a cold wimp and a mediocre sea level athlete, I’ve found ways to stay comfortable in some pretty harsh weather, and I’ve had good luck at high altitude. Most of my lessons involved suffering though, so in the spirit of mercy, here are a few dingleberries of wisdom I’ve learned from my winterish decades on big bad mountains.


–For big expensive expeditions, allow extra time for weather and proper acclimatization. It’s safer than gaining altitude quickly, or being forced into an unwise summit attempt, and its cheaper than coming back.

–Do your research. Learn as much about weather and route specifics as you can. Read the experiences of others. Good beta isn’t cheating; It’s smart.

–Organize well in advance. Be anal about it. Sweat the organization details and gear prep when you’re warm in your house, not on some stormy glacier or rainy trailhead. Visualize worst case scenarios and arrive prepared for them.

–Go big on food, shelter, clothing, fuel and sunscreen. Go light on the sexy climbing doodads. They weigh a lot. You can’t eat ’em. And they won’t keep you warm.

–Pack food in Ziplocs as Day One, Day Two, etc. It’s easier to accurately determine the rations you’ll need, and you can tailor the daily menu for factors like heat or high altitude.


–Monitor your body. Take your resting pulse regularly. Be aware if you’re on an ‘off day’, or feeling ditzy. Do what your body tells you, not what other climbers do. There’s plenty of time to catch up when the jackrabbits start puking up high.

–“Light and fast” is the sexy mantra in today’s mountaineering world, but it rarely works for anyone but expert lifestyle climbers. If you’re Steve House or Kelly Cordes, go light and fast. If you’re merely mortal, go smart. Cordes doesn’t call it ‘disaster-style alpinism’ for nothing.

–Drink water like crazy, like 5 to 7 liquid quarts a day crazy. High altitude air is dry air, so you’re always fighting dehydration. Your body’s production of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin also requires lots of water, and blood becomes thicker as your red cell count increases. Dehydration combined with thicker blood leads to an increased risk of frostbite and blood clots. Dehydration also contributes to altitude sickness.

–Replace your electrolytes, both sodium and potassium. Pulmonary edema and cerebral edema are directly related to the ‘sodium-potassium pump’ that regulates how water passes through cellular walls. Potassium makes cells excrete water. Sodium makes cells retain water. Too much sodium leads to excess cellular fluid and swelling, aka edema. Sodium is easy to obtain in most foods, but potassium is a tougher call (no broccoli or bananas on McKinley). So watch the salt, and use electrolyte drinks to keep your K and Na balanced. Besides, stove-melted snow tastes gross. You’ll want to flavor it.

–Acute mountain sickness, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema are just differing severities of the same problem: Namely, too high too fast. Your best strategy for prevention is to climb high, sleep low, carrying loads up the mountain or doing training climbs, until your resting pulse rates come back to normal at a given altitude. Then move camp up. People nowadays pile on the drugs like Diamox in order to speed acclimatization, but they have side effects like dehydration. Once you’re experiencing serious altitude sickness, the only cure is rapid descent, and that may not be possible.

–Don’t get drawn into a race on popular peaks. The average time from base to summit on Denali is 18 days. I’ve watched uber-fit climbers summit on day 10 or 12, and pay for it with pounding headaches and disabled companions. Fitness is always beneficial, but it can also allow you to outclimb your acclimatization, since symptoms may not appear immediately. There is often a 24-hour lag time. This is a common problem on 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, where a complete lack of technical difficulty allows fit climbers to boogie to the high camps. Then they get trapped by weather and die.

–Experienced Himalayan mountaineers note that the altitude on Denali’s 20,320-foot summit seems higher, more like 24,000 feet. This is due to the centrifugal force of earth’s rotation flattening the atmosphere at high and low latitudes, while thickening the atmosphere along the equator. The assertion is controversial, but acute mountain sickness and pulmonary edema are surprisingly common at the 14,200-foot camp on Denali, so something’s going on.

Arctic Cold:

–Stay warm; don’t re-warm. It’s much easier to get a little overheated and strip down than it is to warm up after being chilled, particularly at altitude. Anticipate ridgetop winds, and the chill of shady spots, and make clothing adjustments before you hit those conditions.

–Go overboard on clothing, tent and sleeping bag. You’re living 24/7 in temperatures that most powder skiers and ice climbers would cringe at. High altitude also makes temperatures feel colder. The lack of oxygen is like damping the flue on a wood stove; your metabolism burns chillier.

–If you want to go on a space walk, you’ve got to wear your spacesuit. On a big mountain that means mittens, goggles, and a windproof face mask. Absolutely no exposed skin.

–Be afraid, be very afraid, of the weather on all high peaks, where slopes poke into the jet stream and there’s no place to hide. From Kahiltna Base, I once watched a lenticular cloud cap form on Denali. From sky blue to completely socked, it cloaked the entire mountain within ten minutes. Summit area winds were estimated at nearly 100mph. That’s scary stuff. Pay attention and be ready to scamper out of the way when nature throws a tantrum.

Sigh, back to last minute deadlines. More tomorrow.--Steve Howe

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