I am at home, and today is my last day of quarantine. All my Covid tests have been negative. I am still feeling tired – sleeping during the day comes easily these days, as if my body wants to shut off my brain, as it drifts to the “what if’s. Not being able to leave the house also has taken a toll in my self-esteem and mental health. I feel like I am a criminal.
I consulted with my family Dr and the question was raised if I had been suffering from altitude sickness, and no one caught it. But I can’t live in the “what if”.
My stomach still hurts when I eat, so not completely healed. I have slowly introduced it to coffee again – even though I can’t finish a full cup. I had taken so many of the Starbucks instant coffee because I thought I would drink it in Everest. I did leave it for the rest of the team though!
Since I left Everest one other team member was evacuated from camp 2, because of altitude sickness. He too has returned home to the US.
It has been reported that Nepal has issued 408 climbing permits this season, which is a record high number of permits since permits have been issued to climb Everest, I need to believe that my getting sick was a blessing. We had opted to switch to the South side because this season originally promised to be one of the lowest number of people climbing and it would afford us the luxury of enjoying the mountain. Crowds in 2019 lead to fatalities and the now famous photos of the line up to the summit of hundreds of climbers – all on oxygen.
The Power of Nature
Climbing mountains, or even hills, is therapeutic, liberating, does wonders for your mental health and its great exercise. Reaching the Summit of any peak is breath-taking. The views it can afford you are for ever sketched in your mind. But climbing to reach the summit in a line-up around the ‘block’ loses its appeal, its purpose. In my humble opinion. After so much waiting in line, when you reach the top, will you think it was worth it? I know that when I climbed Elbrus in Russian, the high winds and the crowds made it anti-climactic for me. I barely had time to take a photo, when I had to leave the summit space. I still want to climb Everest – on the North side of course!
But all these questions play on my mind.
But for now, I am trying to deal with being tired, sick and springing out of house jail from the Public Health wardens! LOL
Being alone when you are sick, sad, and hurt is scary. Even when one commits a crime, our society does not isolate us. Covid has brought such an enormous harm on our mental health, that I wonder if we can recuperate one day. Those of us that already suffer from a Mental Health disorder, are more than ever neglected. May is #MentalHealth month, and it’s ironic how even now that we are so #CaseNumbers focused, we cannot start showing all the numbers of all of us affected by this disease.
If we had those numbers as well, how staggering would they be? What would be the daily death toll of those of us that have decided to give up? And would we rally as a human race to do everything in our power to work around the clock for an antidote?
When we are left alone to think about all the ‘what if’s’, our demons come to torture us.
Mount Kosciuszko is mainland Australia’s highest mountain at 2,228 meters (7,310 ft) above sea level. It’s located within the Kosciuszko National Park, and from the ski town in Thredbo Village it’s only a 13 km return walk to the summit.
I say “walk” because it cannot really be considered a hike. There is a really nice path and a great summit rock at the top.
It’s on the Bass version of the 7 Summits list, therefore I had to do it.
My husband Steve and I combined it with a short visit to Australia. We first stopped in Sydney, took in the sites, and explored the city. We then drove to Thredbo where we stayed a night in the ski village, so I could “climb” Kosciuszko.
Early on November 16, 2019, local time, I got ready. I prepared my water bottle, snack, camera, phone, and my flags, and headed up the empty ski hill.
You can also take the chairlift, making the summit day even shorter but the lift didn’t start operating until 8:30 am and I honestly wanted to hike/walk all of Kosciuszko. Afterall, it’s the only peak in the 7 Summits series you can do within a few short hours, and without the need for acclimatization!
On my way to the Summit, I could see no one was on the peak. It felt great. It is not everyday that you can have a Summit peak to yourself or can complete a solo “climb” of one of the 7 Summits!
When I reached the top, I set-up my tripod, took selfies and then facetimed my grandkids – Ethan and Julia. Again, it’s not everyday you can facetime your grandkids from the summit of one of the 7 Summits.
Twenty (20) minutes later, on my way down, Steve was coming up and he too went for his solo summit of Kosciuszko. Steve had taken the chairlift up and then, since he was there, decided to go to the Summit on his own as well!
This was my 7th Summit. Mr. Bass believes this is one of the 7 Summits in the 7 Summits of the World. Mr. Messner on the other hand, believes it’s the Carstensz Pyramid.
To avoid any question that I completed the 7 Summits, I have done both versions. For the record though, Carstensz and Kosciuszko do not have similarities!
Well on to Everest now for my last Peak. At least everyone agrees about Everest.
We climb from our 14,000 feet camp up to 17,000 feet.
I can’t lie… it was hard. The fixed lines were surprisingly the easiest to do, but there were high stretches and really thin walking sections along the ridges.
Luckily I felt Jesus had me through this climb. My lead guide had a rope closer to me and brought it in closer on more exposed sections to help me out. Bless him. Made all the difference in the world with my anxiety.
I will have to go back down though, a fact that has not escaped me.
Once we reach the 17,000 feet camp, or camp 4, it’s like a scene from a movie in the wild snowy dessert. There are ice walls everywhere and very few tents.
It’s cold (colder) up here.
There is no kitchen tent here. Ryan and Jason bring us hot water in thermoses to make our food-hydrated meals, noodles and oatmeal.
I have been peeing in my pee bottle and going out to empty it or using the big green bucket.
Summit morning we get up, get ready and are on our way at about 8:30 A.M. The sky is blue with not a cloud in sight.
I am wearing my puffy pants, but I have my parka in my backpack, along with snacks, my thermos of hot water, my inReach, my cell phone in the pocket of my light weight puffy jacket, and of course mittens, goggles, and sunscreen to re-apply constantly.
We set out towards the Autobahn and no, it is not the German highway – it is a steep climb on the side of a mountain, which is slow going. So slow it took us about 2 hours, and my lead guide, Jason was not too happy about it.
I found this section hard. The ingrained steps on the snow, set from the hundreds of climbers throughout the season, were big “risers” in certain sections for my short legs. When I took a higher, longer step, I felt out of breath. I felt we were moving fast, which did not allow me to breath properly during my rest steps. The harder I breathed, the harder it became to climb and thus I became slower.
“Well, let’s continue and re-evaluate at top of Zebra rocks, and we can go from there. We evaluate at every point.” Jason says.
I say nothing and just move. I self talk to myself to pick up my pace, as I do not want to come back here. The huge expense is one thing, but I know mentally I cannot repeat this challenge.
I concentrate on my deep breathing, and keep focus. I beg Jesus to stay with me and push me up, with each step.
When we reach Zebra rocks, Jason announces, “Great push guys. We made great time. Ema, great work. We are back on track.”
I respond with “Ok.”
I know I am the client and I can push back if I wanted to, but I don’t. I hired them to help me and guide me. I am more determined than ever to reach the Summit.
We continue to the next stage, then the next, until we are at the Summit Ridge. Its tall, well obviously – but it is also thin and exposed.
Jason reassures me that Ryan has my rope closer to him and if I feel unsure to let him know and Ryan will guide me. I am not going to sugar coat it – I am anxious. Ryan is a wonderful guide and he constantly reassures me that I am ok and that I am not going to fall. I finally start believing him.
I take a deep breath. I feel as if I am having an out of body experience.
As we are on the summit ridge a couple of other groups are coming down. One is a large group from Alpine Ascents and the other is an RMI group. We stop, and let them pass us on the left hand side. Ryan tries to talk to me about trivial things to distract me as the other climbers pass us.
One of the groups has a female guide among them and she looks at me as she passes, with annoyance and superiority. I don’t care. I am a few feet away from the Summit of Denali and she is inconsequential.
When we reach the summit, the area itself is larger than I anticipated. I take my cell phone out of my pocket to tell the world that I am at the summit. I am so excited and I want it documented. My InReach message is sent with a GPS recorded location. I just became the first Portuguese woman to have summited Denali. I am also the first Portuguese-Canadian woman to have done so.
We have time to take group pictures, individual pictures and with my 6 flags. We are allowed to attempt to call from the satellite phone 3 times, as the call keeps dropping.
Kaylee does a short run and jumps over the summit marker. It’s fun at the Summit!
There is no wind. It’s sunny and so clear you can see all the smaller mountains below you. I was elated. It’s time to descend, as we need to make our way back down.
Jason explains that I am going to be in front, with the 3 of them behind me. His rational and assurance is that if I were to fall, I would have 3 guides holding me and I would not go anywhere. I understand his reasoning and begin to descend.
Ryan is directly behind me and talks to me, “Slowly Ema. Take your time. You got this!” I walk slowly, but somehow confident. I stop when Ryan tells me, so he can secure his share of the rope to the fixed anchors. Then as he shouts back, “Climbing”, we continue.
Before I know it, we are out of the ridge and are making our way down. Amazingly we are going at a pretty good pace. So good in fact, that even with our generous standard breaks, we reach high camp at about 7:00 P.M. This signifies we took about 10.5 hours to summit and back.
I overhear Jason’s delight in his voice, “10.5 hours puts us on the top 30% of top ascents. This is nuts!”
Kaylee giggles, but in a humble voice, says,” Well yeah, but these are abnormal conditions. Usually the weather isn’t this great!”
I think to myself, “Yeah, so?” We did it, regardless of the weather.
The next morning, we start our decent back to basecamp.
We leave early morning to get to 14,000 feet before it’s too hot. We take a long rest at 14,000 feet until the temperature cools down, making easier to walk on the snow.
At camp 2 or 11,000 feet, we put our snowshoes back on replacing our crampons. The descent from here on is not easy. It is about 11:00 P.M. or just passed it.
The snow in some areas is mushy still, even though it’s in the middle of the night. I trip several times. Jason is leading; I am in second position, with Kaylee behind me and Ryan in the back. He has the hardest job, trying to keep all our slides inline.
I keep stumbling, and take a few falls, especially when Jason’s sled pulls me forward. Each stumble I shout. “Stop.” Everyone does. And each time as gracefully as possible, I get up again and we all continue.
Ski Hill is especially hard, as the snow feels slippery. During one of our brief breaks, I ask what time it is, and when Jason says, “It’s 1:30 A.M.” I say to Kaylee, “ It’s your birthday already – Happy Birthday!” The 3 of us make a small attempt to sing Happy Birthday to Kaylee. The sun is rising again behind us, even though it had only set a couple of hours before.
When we finally reach camp one there are several tents set-up, another set of Mountain Trip guides are escorting a group of several Russian climbers.
Jason says, “We are going to take a longer break here, once they retrieved the cache that we had left on the way up.” Ryan asks “Why?” and Jason replies with, “Let’s take our time. We are an hour ahead of schedule.”
I am silently happy we are moving fast, and think that falling so many times is not embarrassing. I actually take it as symbolism of why I am even climbing– you can fall, but you just need to get back up on your feet and keep moving. Is that not what we deal everyday with mental health?
And so we do. The walk out from camp 1 towards basecamp seems endless.
I tried to recall in my memory of walking up 12 days ago, and can’t remember. I know I made it, but with all the snow, I don’t remember the route.
I am careful to keep following Jason’s footsteps, as we walk around crevasses. I pull my trekking poles up, careful not to stab the snow where Jason has just walked over a crevasse wall and move as quickly as a can past it, until the next one.
I kept thinking of Richard Parks, when he was doing a 737 Challenge, and was on Denali in 2011, about the same time of year, when he punched through a crevasse and fell really deep. He had to use his ice axe on the lip of the crevasse to get himself out. So, stabbing the snow was out of the question.
We were back at basecamp at about 5:30 A.M on June 30, hoping to get on a plane to fly out back to Talkheeta, 12 days after we had arrived.
I arrived in Anchorage in the evening and checked into the hotel.
I arrived with a very heavy heart. My mother in law, Bonnie, has been diagnosed as ‘failure to thrive’ and moved to a hospice room for the family to say goodbye. I’m not there. I need to be. I want to be.
She passed away Monday June 17th, my day two of this trip; Day 1 of this climb. Heavy sigh.
I feel so conflicted, because I know Steve is dealing with it by himself and I know he is stressed. I pray for him.
In the morning, I met my 3 guides and did my gear check.
I was feeling a little sick – I ate some vegetarian tacos at the hotel’s restaurant and they did not agree with me at all. In the middle of the night I managed to throw up, and then start hydrating myself. I can’t be sick for my first day – this is Denali and I feel enough pressure as it is.
Tuesday, June 18 2019
We fly to basecamp. This was after an approximately 2 or 3 hour drive from Anchorage to Talkheeta. Then we take an Air Taxi. It was a short flight, just 20 minutes., with amazing scenery.
Once we arrive, we take all our gear off the runway and set up our first ‘camp’.
Kaylee gives me my first lesson, with Jason giving his stamp of approval and further suggestions, on how to set-up our tent in our first ‘camp”.
As we enjoy dinner, sitting on the snow, I marvel on how much snow there is – and take a few deep breaths and silently pray to God that He guide me and ask Him to have my back, because I am scared about what is ahead of me. Every so often you hear avalanches in the distance. I have butterflies in my stomach, as stories and previous videos I watched in YouTube about climbing Denali weigh heavy in my mind. Not to mentioned the anxiety I am feeling about wanting and needing to Summit, so I can become the first Portuguese/Canadian woman to Summit Denali.
I remind myself – this is Denali. I am on the ‘big leagues’ mountain. I never imagined in my wildest dream I would here. But I am. I am here.
After our tents are made, we take some supplies out to sleep, since we are going to move during the night when the snow is more cold and compact… It’s mushy right now… packing snow.
Then it started snowing.
Hmmmmm……what does that mean …..
Wednesday, June 19 2019
We woke up early, 2 am and got ready to start hiking. Kaylee was like a tornado! Within seconds, she had her sleeping bag in its pack and she was ready to head out. All the while I was trying to stuff my mammoth sleeping bag in the compression bag. I step out and she has her harness on.
Yes, she is a supposed to be a guide in training, climbing to make my climb easier, but I am surprised and very impressed. That was fast!
I was thrown off a little by how fast things were moving. I felt agitated. I needed the bathroom and there was someone in the green bucket. I waited.
When we finally got going, pulling the sled was not that challenging, but stepping over a crack (crevasse) that would be wider when we return, was a little unsettling.
We made it to camp one in 4 hours and 30 minutes. Jason our lead guide said it was good time. I am glad. It was 8:30am local time.
After tents are up, there was nothing else to do, but lay down and try to sleep or just rest. These forced rests are the not so easy part of climbing. I texted Steve and the kids and felt better.
Steve is making funeral arrangements and it’s hard.
Part of me wishes I was there to help, but I know I would not be able to in terms of arrangements. Seems they have it covered, even though Steve says everyone seems angry and upset at the moment. I know that’s normal in these difficult circumstances.
Suddenly, the sun came out and we got a great view of Denali. Wow! It’s a very impressive and majestic mountain. In fact, it’s a giant!
Then a cloud goes over the sun; the temperature drops considerably.
As we climb, there is nothing much to do other than count numbers in your head and think. Here life seems surreal, easy. But in the back of my mind is a mild, gnawing tension about what my family is going through without me.
But I’m here to climb the highest mountain in the northern hemisphere. I need to concentrate. The plan is to move to camp 2 tomorrow, same time – leave around 2 am.
Thursday, June 20 2019
We did not move to camp 2 as we woke up as planned at 2 am, and Kaylee tells us she had been feeling sick all night and had thrown up a couple of times.
I knew it was our dinner from last night – it had been the pre-made salad we had bought at our last grocery/supply stop we made before arriving in Talkheeta – it had mayonnaise -I had passed on mine.
She says we will have to go slowly and well … slow to me is good! She tells her colleagues and the decision was made to stay put and let her sleep and feel better. Reaching a higher camp not feeling well, will drain her and limit her ability to acclimatize and be strong enough to summit. And we may need to turn around.
I hate just waiting around and doing nothing, but there is nothing we can do. I trust Jesus has a reason for it.
I advise the kids and Steve, even though he has his hands full. Today is his Mom’s viewing and I know it’s taking a toll on him. Tomorrow is the funeral and I wish I could be there to support him.
Again, I make myself concentrate on the mountain. When the sun is out, it’s hot. Sun and snow is like sand and sun. I had to understand how to use the solar panel, since it has a built in battery. it cannot take a lot of heat.
Sebastian and his client, Aparna, the Indian lady that is trying to climb Denali for the 3rd time, arrived in camp. She has done all the mountains, including Everest and she did the North side. I’m in awe!
Friday, June 21 2019
This is my official day 5. Seems longer – the climb portion.
I don’t know why. It was a long day. It started with getting up at 1:00am… actually I was up a little earlier. Days and nights are stretched and shortened. It’s difficult …
We packed everything and backpacks and with sleds loaded, about two hours later, we started climbing towards camp 2.
Some teams take caches to about 11,000 feet and then go back to camp one, then the following day go up to camp two with a lesser load. We climbed with our complete loads and honestly I am glad, I was not looking forward to going up and down the steep hill, when it really was unnecessary.
We are doing this tomorrow – moving to the next camp, We plan to take a cache, leave it and then the following day, move up to camp 3 , at 14,000 feet. Then the following day come down to where we cached and pick up the rest of our supplies. Apparently it’s good for acclimatization.
But It’s hard work!
Overall, today was a hard day. It was also Mrs. Beattie’s funeral and I am really sad that I was not there for Steve. I miss him.
Camp 2 is set in a small plateau and we are not allowed to walk very far, because there is a huge crevasse (Crack as they call it).
It is colder here, even with the sun shining full blast.
It is very pretty! We are surrounded by smaller peaks with Denali imposing itself in one corner. It’s a breathtaking sight.
The white of the snow and blue skies make it extra magical.
Saturday, June 22 2019
Ryan, our assistant guide and Kaylee went up to camp 14, which is how everyone refers to it, but really it’s camp 3. They took a cache, which should be called stash instead. It holds some of our supplies and keeps them ‘stashed ‘ so that we don’t have to carry them all at once. I thought I was supposed to go, but then only Kaylee and Ryan went. I stay behind to go over some skills with Jason my lead guide.
After breakfast, I put my crampons on and harness, got my ice axe, and we went through a couple of basics: foot work on crampons, proper ice arrest, how to hold the ice axe, and we were done. The repetition of basic but necessary skills calms me.
So many people here are attempting it for the 2nd and 3rd time. I really hope I can do this!
I have been silently praying to Jesus, but I need to pray out loud and beg him for his hand holding and good weather!
Tuesday, June 25 2019
We are at the 14,000 ft. camp and the weather has been ok, but colder.
We had moved Sunday up here and when the inReach froze, I had a panic attack because I could no longer communicate with the kids and Steve. It was hard.
It was a tough push up motorcycle hill, then squirrel hill and on windy corner, we had to put our helmets on, I think this time it did not go sideways. My helmet tends to sit on me sideways. Thank you Lord!
If you are asking yourself what do all these names of the hills mean or who gave the names, I don’t have the answer. I asked a few people and no one really seemed to know. Its not like there are motorcycles or squirrels up here!
Anyways, on windy corner (which this name I can understand), Jason said we could not stop at all, as it is always windy. Hummm, there is a small ledge on the snow to walk on, but I barely thought about it. There was no wind. None. And that was unusual. Why? My theory is of course that Jesus is next to me holding my hand; is guiding me and taking care of the weather? He Rocks!
When we finally got to camp 2, or as they call it, 14,000… it was cloudy and the clouds kept rolling by me. To be high in the sky with clouds rolling past you is an experience that is indescribable. You are in the heavens – above the clouds…To my great surprise I meet the Thai lady here that I saw in Vinson. She was climbing with another Mountain Trip team. It was only her and a German male climber. It is a small world.
I am happy I am doing a private trip, since they are sharing a tent. The group that started when we did, Kristen’s, also share a tent with male/female combination. I don’t know if I agree with it. I certainly know I would not feel ok sharing a tent with a stranger of the opposite sex.
Once the battery from the inReach died, I was able to restart it and charge it. I had BEGGED Jesus during my hike for a couple of hours. I think I got on His nerves and He just gave in.
Yesterday we went to get the cache back after windy corner and came back to camp. Today it was a rest day. It was nice spending the morning relaxing, since I had time to change clothes and just relax. I learned that relaxing is part of acclimatization, an important mountaineering life lesson. ☺
It’s February 15th, the day after Valentine’s day.
I remember yesterday that the Canuck Matt had a large selection of Toblerone chocolate bars, which I found ironic, since a) they are quite heavy to carry, each bar weighs 360g, and b) the logo is a mountain. Maybe that is why he had them. Anyhow, on Valentine’s Day morning, he went to Sequioa’s tent and said “Happy Valentine’s day” and gave her a large chocolate bar. That was nice I thought
Today we moved to Camp 2, Nido de Condores, which stands at 5560 metres. There are mountains all around us, yet it seems we are above them all.
Unfortunately we are down one team member – Sequoia, reported a bad headache on the way down yesterday after our carry to Nido, and once we reached Plaza Canada again to sleep low again, since her headache was not better, Carole, one of our guides, accompanied her back to basecamp.
But today, our porters once again set-up our tents, and my personal porter brought my stuff up. I thought I had been over my weight but I was not – all my stuff was less then 12 kilos. My allotment is 20kg. I was very proud of myself. I am learning weight management.
When we arrived at camp, with Vern guiding us alone at this point, there was a group coming down with a person on a stretcher. I did not take any pictures; it simply seemed bad taste. The person was clearly in distress and very sick. Shortly after the yellow park helicopter hovered over us, landed and took the individual away. He looked gravely ill.
We learned after that the person had fallen ill the day before at 7:00pm…. And was only rescued today…. About 3:00pm. He had to be brought up from higher than high camp. I guess attempting to Summit. My heart went out to him.
Today we woke up to cold, frigid cold, until the sun hit the mountain. I regretted that I had not brought my other sleeping bag with me. The plan for today was to do a group carry to the 3rd and final camp, Camp Colera. It was high. We reached an altitude of 19,580 feet and we are planning to move there tomorrow.
I got really cold in the early hours of the morning. So I put my red Canada Goose jacket on. I also used the #coldavenger mask over my face to be able to be breathe more easily. The air is so dry here – feels like a desert, but a cold desert.
We made the move to Camp Colera, or camp 3. It was a long way up. One of our teammates had diarrhoea and was really slow and tired.
Camp Colera was given the name by the guides because people vomit so much and ‘poop’ so much. An ugly fact, but true.
The camp is on an enclave of a huge rock, with a view of the Aconcagua Summit. Usually people just stay here no more than a couple of nights, but it seems we will spend 3 in total, as we will have a rest day tomorrow and then attempt the Summit on Tuesday the 19th.
Today I had a really hard time sleeping for the first time in the mountain. It’s very high to sleep here; we are at 5851 meters in altitude.
It was not just the cold. Around 1:45am I woke-up as I could not breathe. I was gasping for air. I peed in my pee bottle, drank some hot drink from my Thermos to try and sort myself out. I lay down again and I still could not breathe. My nose was stuffy and I could not catch my breath. I began pressure breathing, and it helped, but I still could not get enough breath. Then I put on my #coldavenger mask and I took another quarter of my Diamox pill. After a little bit, I was finally able to feel some relief.
It was the scariest experience I have had thus far. I did not understand what was going on. I really thought I might suffocate.
Later in the morning I was surprised to receive a text message from Emmanuel, that simply read: “How did you sleep?”. Tears filled my eyes as I responded. “Ok, but I woke up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I mean really couldn’t breathe. I took more Diamox”.
Emmanuel reassured me when he said, “It’s normal. You are up high. It’s sleep apnea. Try sleeping more upright; put all your clothes’ under your sleeping pad to sleep more upright.”
“Ok.” I typed back. But I felt emotional and scared from remembering I had been gasping for air the night before. I felt so alone.
“It’s the altitude.” “You are doing great!” “And you will be ok,” he responded. He is a man of few words, but surprised me that he knew how I may be feeling – I guess having been there himself several times helped. Thank you Emmanuel; I needed to hear that!
Then, I also decided to lay in my parka inside my sleeping bag – huge difference in warmth!
Feb 18th We did have the day as a rest day. It is cold. Early this morning we heard another group get up for their summit bid. They were a little noisy. A couple of hours later, I heard a guide bring back one of their clients. I guess she had turned around. I could only imagine her disappointment.
We start our Summit bid at 6:00am. It is freezing. But we are ready. Lynn, one of our teammates whom is 70 – which is a perfect example that age is only relative of how you feel, is ready and we start our summit bid, when all I hear is something about sunglasses and then he is no longer going up with us. I was confused but just kept moving.
We go up slowly, and it takes us about 9 and a half hours to reach the Summit. The last 30 minutes are hard. Every step I take it seams harder to breathe.
I am puffing my cheeks out (like a chipmunk, live Vern had taught us) and exhaling. I am also straightening my body in combination with my rest step, to allow more air to fill my lungs. But I still struggle.
Vern climbs in front of me and says: “You can do this Ema. We are almost there”. I simply reply. “These rocks are hard; there are so many rocks”. To which Vern says in a very Vern like tone of voice: “No shit, you are climbing a mountain!” It made me laugh.
I had read that to reach the Summit, we had to go through the ‘La Canaleta’ which is a scramble up some rocks. I think that would be more true if we could truly scramble up rock, but since there was enough snow to wear crampons on certain sections, I am not sure if this qualifies as a scramble.
To the base of the so-called “La Canaleta”, there is a rocky, concave-base wall somewhat in the shape of a cave, “La Cueva”. Here we are at 6650m.
We Summited at 3:40pm local time.
It is windy up at the summit, and in my first couple of pictures, my flag is upside down. Then I correct it, but the wind makes it hard. Vern offers to hold the flag on one of the corners. It works – kinda.
Then it is time to come down – just like that. All that effort and strain and it’s over in a few minutes. But I did it. I did it.
It was a long way down. It took us maybe close to 5 hours. I was so tired, that I kept slipping and falling on my behind. There is a ridge right after Independencia Refuge… which is the world’s tallest refuge. One must make it across this ridge to make it to the La Canaleta section and then back.
The wind is generally very high here, since it’s exposed. A slip here could mean you fall thousands of meters down the face of the mountain. It is here that many expeditions turn around on the way to the Summit and do not proceed to the summit when the weather is bad. We were told it is usually very windy and on previous days Carole had even showed us how we should climb and brace ourselves when we came to this point on Summit day. However, we had great weather. Hardly any wind in this section. Unusual. I know Jesus had me.
About an hour left in our descent I started seeing what I thought was a fly, or a flying spider on the right hand side of my eye. Because I was wearing my goggles, I thought there were bugs outside, since the sun was also starting to set. But the site of this ‘bug’ was actually something I was only seeing on my right eye. I continued to see the ‘bug’ until the day after we left the mountain. I know now according to my daughter Nicole, an RN, that they are “floaters”, and I am fortunate that they have since disappeared.
We make our descent from camp 3 all the way to basecamp. It was a long day.
When we reached basecamp we are treated to hamburgers. I had a veggie burger. The team shared a bottle of champagne, courtesy of Alpine Ascents, and our generous guides Vern, Carole and Diego. It was a much needed celebration!
A couple of our teammates, including our Canuck friend has a few beers. I no longer have of an interest in drinking at high altitude and it still amazes me how some can. But I am me and everyone is different.
We take the long journey trek from basecamp, to exit the park.
This in itself was a wonderful experience – because how often can one say they trekked on a riverbed?
After we exit the Park, we pick up our stuff we had left in storage, and then proceed to continue by bus to Mendoza.
That evening I took my “first” shower in 3 weeks. I had never been so dirty in my 51 years of my life! Kudos to the Hyatt staff that checked me in and never showed in their expression how dirty my face was – which shocked me when I looked at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. No, I had not looked at my face in the mirror while in the mountain! ☺
Back to hygiene. Back to cleanliness. I’m going home!
Only two (well 3) more to go… 7 (8) Summits for Mental Health.
After dinner at Union Glacier, there was talk about the possibility to have us flown to base camp that evening, there was even a person from ALE walking around with a flight scheduled. But the weather did not co-operate, and we spent the night at Union Glacier.
However the next morning though, On November 27, after breakfast, we boarded one of the twin otter planes, which are planes operated by Ken Borek Air, a Calgary based airline, on service for the season for ALE in Antarctica. I was on the first flight. Lakpa and Sebastian also flew with us to base camp, as we were the first group of the season.
ALE ultra-qualified guides are assigned a rotation schedule of working as guides and rangers. Rangers are ALE guides available to assist other climbers with their expeditions in case of an emergency.
Our flight to base camp was about 20 minutes, and all we can see out the frosted windows is snow-covered peaks. Of course, we are in Antarctica.
Once we land, we are greeted by a smiling, happy head guide name Tre-C (pronounced Tracy). She knew our names, greeted us all like old friends and then proceeded to give us the most important tour – how to pee in Antarctica.
Number “2” is flown out of Antarctica, back to Chile, but ‘pee’ remains in Antarctica and as per the Antarctic Treaty, its Environmental Protocol has set guidelines to deal with Waste Disposal and Management, which essentially directs that “ as far as practicable so as to minimize impacts on the Antarctic environment and to minimize interference with the natural values of Antarctica”, read more about it (https://www.ats.aq/e/ep_waste.htm).
Our sleeping quarters here at base camp are huge dome shape tents, that could accommodated at least 4 people inside each, and which I was able to stand in. Yes, I am a short person. But even my friend Emmanuel when he refuted at my comment, that he could “not relate” to standing up inside the tent – just assuming I could because I was short, had to say to me: “ I stand corrected, I CAN relate”. This only after I politely had asked him to stand in the middle of the tent himself, and he obliged cynically. ☺
Our group tent, which was also ALE’s basecamp office and the kitchen was heated, had chairs and tables for all of us to hang out at, with hot water at our disposal for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served here, along with an array of soft drinks, beer, red and white wine, as well as champagne for celebrations and sangria for treats.
This was just for ALE’s clients.
At base camp, there were other groups from different companies. They set-up their own tents, including their own kitchen and dining tents, etc. I realize there is an argument to be made for those that call themselves “purists” that this is the best way to experience the mountains and its true mountaineering. That the comforts and attention to detail and may I venture to say, the touch of luxury (in the mountaineering realm) that ALE provides in Vinson is not true mountaineering, then I argue to disagree.
In Everest no one complains for using the services of Sherpas, and in Killimanjaro the use of porters. Well, in Vinson, I am of the opinion, one should climb directly with ALE.Why can’t one enjoy climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica in more comfort? I see no reason.
We still carried our own personal equipment to the other two camps. We still climbed up the same fixed rope from low to high camp. We still ‘trekked’ the same distance from high camp to the Summit. But we enjoyed a little more comfort. I know some of the other mountaineering companies and they are wonderful of course, but I am just saying, ALE has the right idea. I want to climb the 7 Summits, but I do not see any reason why I can’t enjoy it as much as possible. After all is ‘mountaineering’ not just the act of climbing mountains?
The next day, on November 28th, 2018, our three assigned guides, Lakpa, Seba and Tre-C divided our team of nine, into three rope teams, randomly selected. Each rope team has three climbers and one guide. At all times when outside the camps areas, we are roped in together, because of the existence of crevasses.
Myself, Emmanuel and Christian are in Seba’s rope team.
On Lakpa’s team is David, Matt, and Nicolas, and Tre-C has Jenny, her husband Matt and Steve. This last one became the British connection rope team!
We practiced putting our crampons on. And we go for a small acclimatization hike, training, to get used to being roped in, the team’s pace, the weather and of course ensuring our crampons are working well in our boots and also our clothing layering system is working for us.
The next day, the weather reports are not favorable for the next few days, and our guides explain to us, that we will continue to acclimatize in base camp.
However, to keep us ‘prepared’ we get a lesson on how to rig and attach the sleds to our backpacks. We will use the sleds to take supplies to low camp. In each rope team, only three sleds will be used, meaning the last person on the rope team will not have a sled.
November 30th, 2018, we are still hanging out at base camp, but we get our food planned for when we start to move to the low and high camps. We get to select breakfasts, dinners, and snacks from the ALE supply store. These are all meals that can be made by only adding hot water. We also have a going to the ‘bathroom’ lecture for low and high camps.
Here we will be using the disposal toilet method, which we will use with the help of a empty bucket for our seating comfort. The ‘portable’ toilets are personal of course and we will need to carry them with us, until our return to base camp, so they can be ‘packaged’ with the other entire bathroom ‘matters’.
We also do ‘arts and crafts’ and build the VINSON sign from snow. The sign is created once every season. Our lead guide Tre-C and I spearhead the undertaking of this task. Some of my teammates also got some exercise filling the hole of the previous seasons’ ‘freezer’ tent. Every year when ALE staff opens the camp, the location of the tent needs to move back a few feet. The old hole then needs to be filled again with snow, and because we were the first group of the season, and weather kept us just lazing around and enjoying great food, we needed to burn some calories!
December 1st, 2018, the weather became promising and our guides make the decision for us to move to low camp. We pack our gear into our backpacks, and some supplies get on the sleds. The suggested ratio was 70/30, on backpacks to sleds.
The hiking time from base camp to low camp was about 5-6 hours. We took a break about every 60 to 90 minutes. Breaks are used to catch our breath, eat a couple of snacks, drink some water and pee.
Once we got to low camp, the area is more rudimentary. We have to set-up our own tents, which ALE maintains stored on-site, but due to high winds, they cannot be left up when not in use, like in base camp.
The kitchen tent is also more basic. It is not artificially heated, but with 2 separated seating areas, with benches carved out of snow and a middle section for the cooking area, the double wall clam tent is pretty nice!
From here we can see the ridge of where the ropes start and go as high as 1200m (close to 4000 feet) that we will have to climb to move to low camp. We can also see Vinson Summit peak and we can see the wind blowing the snow, at the top of the ropes and on the Summit. We need to wait for a break in the weather to move to high camp.
Two other groups are also here, having moved from base camp to low camp with us.
The next day, we do a small hike to the start of the fixed ropes and we practice ascending the rope until about the third switch and then practice our descending.
December 2nd, 2018, weather is still bad up at high camp, however, because we are also a little restless of not doing much, except eating great food and sleeping, some of us go on a hike to nearby peaks.
Steve and Seba go on their own. Tre-C and Lakpa take five of us for a view of the pyramid. Three of our colleagues had decided that they prefer to stay back at camp and “chill”.
It was a 2 to 3-hour return hike but what can I say, the view was amazing. The Pyramid was the actual location of the old base camp. At the top of the small peak that we climbed to, we took a break, ate a snack and took pictures. Tre-C had some dress-up articles in her backpack, which give us the opportunity to take funny pics! Purple was Emmanuel’s color!
December 3rd, 2018; winds still prevailed up top. We rest, read, sleep.
December 4th, 2018; and our guides rally our team up to move up to high camp, as they are confident with a predicted 2 day window break in the weather.
We only pack our sleeping bags, water bottles, food, snacks, medication, and our clothing layers necessary into our backpacks. Our sleds also stay behind. We take down our tents. We leave any supplies and any equipment that we do not need up in high camp inside our duffle bags, and ALE stores them by the kitchen tent.
Another advantage of climbing with ALE in Vinson, is that the group does not have to carry up group gear, like fuel, tents, and even sleeping pads. ALE has all that at each camp. Each season ALE’s guides and rangers, in anticipation of the climbing season, for each team, restock supplies. Other companies must do “carries” and “cache” supplies. All climber teams with these other companies do this by taking supplies to a camp one-day and returning to the previous camp. They then move up to the next camp the following day.
The climb up to high camp includes a climb of about 1,200 meters, with an approximately 45 degree angle on the side of a mountain, aided by fixed ropes. We had to use our ascenders’ and cows’ tails to move on the fixed ropes and for safety. We took breaks, some just beside rocks but still roped in together.
I found the climb ok, with the exemption of the last transfer point. I had looked up and had seen Seba, our guide, positioning his feet, with each step on a very narrow part of the terrain. My fear of heights rose immediately with my heart rate threatening to deafen me, but I tried to concentrate in following his footsteps, completely aware I would have to climb down. I forced those thoughts out of my mind and concentrated in continuing the ascent. I would deal with descending another day.
When we reached high camp, both Wes and Nate, two of ALE’s rangers that had gone up ahead of us, to “open” camp”, had our tents set-up and ready for us to go inside and rest, after we removed our crampons of course and made sure that our other ‘sharpies’ were a safe distance from our tents.
We were the Vinson 1 team, and therefore the first set of climbers of the season, so the pee hole was still being done, as was the placement of the ‘toilet’ bucket.
We were able to admire the surroundings and the view from this height. Dinner was served inside our tents, after our guides’ boiled water for our drinking pleasure and our dehydrated food preparation. I enjoyed my oatmeal. Emmanuel complained about his Spicy Pad Thai and repeated a few times to me how he hated dehydrated meals; this after he had lectured me previously that I needed to eat more than just oatmeal. But my oatmeal looked pretty good now!
Personally I don’t like dehydrated food! It upsets my stomach. I have tried it and tasted various commercially available brands. I don’t like any of them. And I was not going to risk an upset stomach in a continent made of white snow! Even energy bars cause me issues. That is why I had only chosen oatmeal for breakfast and dinners and for snacks I stuck with my Suzie’s Good Fats Peanut Butter Chocolate Snack Bars.
Other teams shortly arrived after us and got busy setting up their own camp. Although, one of the teams had just come up to drop a cache and then they went back down to low camp. They would not be attempting the summit with us, and I personally found this to be a mistake since the weather was predicted to change shortly.
After ‘dinner’, Tre-C discussed with us our plan for the next day and suggested we go to sleep as the next day we were hoping it to be our Summit day, as we only had a two day of predicted good weather, so we would not be spending the following day acclimatizing and resting in high camp, as sometimes happens. I was honestly rested enough I must admit. Aside from 7 blisters total on both my feet, I was fine and looking forward to moving.
The next morning, we would have an early start – before 10:00 am. So, as usual, I pulled my hat around my ears and over my eyes to ‘shut the blinds’ form the Sun and I went to sleep. The next day was the Summit day.
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It is Sunday, July 29th, 2018 and to the ‘Putin on the Ritz’ team, day 9 of our adventure.
My alarm is set for 2:00am for breakfast, but I, like several of my teammates, was already up. Vern turns on the electrical kettle for hot water, to warm our first batch of water bottles, and we are ready to go.
Our plan was to be ready and mobile at 3:00am and be by the ‘cats’ to put our crampons on at 3:30am. Plan accomplished. Yes! Off to a good start.
We have a large group and need two ‘snow cats’ and awkwardly get on board, with all our equipment. We sit excitedly, knowing what’s to come and hold on tight as it brings us up to just past the Provesky Rocks on Mount Elbrus. We all jump off. The moment has come. At last, we are about to attempt to summit Mount Elbrus. For me, mountain number three!
We remove our down jackets, because we always ‘start cold’; our bodies start heating up fast. Snow googles on next, with our face buffs securely underneath its strap, so we don’t have any of our face exposed. My buff has a Canadian flag print. Yes, I am proud to be Canadian!
It’s windy and cold as we start out. And we all knew that as we gained altitude, the temperature would decrease and the winds would increase. The clear blue skies we had been seeing the previous days as we glanced up the mountain from base camp were merely a rouse. Clearly, this is NOT going to be easy.
The previous day, when we were informed by Vern that we would attempt our Summit today, it was with the expectation that the weather would be similar to the previous day. The report brought back from the climbers that had reached the Summit, was that they had to literally ‘crawl’ to the Peak. I had visualized the ‘crawling’ action myself and yet only believed Vern 50%. I thought he was simply exaggerating. In a few short hours, I learned first hand, that ‘crawling’ was the right adjective. A daunting exercise; but the only way…
However, with our backpacks securely buckled on our backs, our headlamps turned on, we get to business. We ensure our ice axe is deployable and both our trekking poles are at the appropriate climbing length. These two skills we learned and reviewed with Carole and Vern until we were proficient.
In a single file, one step at a time, practicing both our rest-step and pressure breathing, we start to climb. I concentrate on both, and at the same time, ensure each of my steps are careful ones, so as to not get my crampons tangled on each other. I try to only concentrate on my rhythm and nothing else. ‘One, two, whooof…. one, two, whooof…’
I know to others looking at us from below or even from behind, we look like fireflies, slowly moving up the mountain, as only the light from our headlamps is visible. Fireflies in a string, moving upward in the extreme cold and wind.
Daylight is breaking and we reach our first stop. Vern directs us, “Keep warm people.” “Ten minute break.” “Remember to pee, drink and eat – in that order.” “You do not want to be caught with your pants down when we are ready to go!” His sense of humor lifts our spirits. We need to smile.
This first rest stop is by a broke -down, red, snow caterpillar. It is now a fixture on its ridge, and I doubt it will ever be removed. Just another piece of ‘garbage’ on Elbrus. I wonder how long it will remain here.
Modesty in the mountain does not exist. Men and women simply accept our basic nature needs, and simply that. And all are respectful. We ‘go’ when told, like in grade school.
“Two minutes people!” Vern commands and we know its time to rap it up and get going. We all respond as quickly as possible.
We continue our ascent as the sun slowly slides past the fluffy white clouds, painting a a golden hallow around them, as it rises to set its place against the blue sky. For a brief moment, both sun and moon share the same space. It’s magical what God has created. And from this vantage point, even more so.
Anatoli, the ‘official’ mountain photographer is going around from group to group, capturing special moments, which he will sell to us in a couple of days. Vern tells us at one point to simply pull our buffs down for a brief smile into the camera as we pass him at a certain point and time. We do. It records our red, frost faces that are hiding under our buffs. And also relieves us. There are some civilized moments up here! Plus we are not alone. We are having this adventure together.
Our second break is on the vertical face of the mountain, just off the narrow trekking path. As we follow our break routine I try not to think of the height which we are at, and also the fact that one slip, would have any one of us demonstrating our ice axe arrest techniques. Better not to think of that possibility. None of us wants to practice that. I try not to look back because of my fear of heights and simply tell myself I am on solid footing. It helps.
As we continue in single file, we come upon another group, which after a few moments, our guides and theirs, negotiate our passing ahead of them. All of our group secretly feels good about this maneuver. We seem to be moving at a decent pace!
I can see that we are entering ‘the saddle’. The saddle is termed as such because it’s a ‘dip’ between both mountain peaks, resembling an actual saddle.
While we enter the saddle, the wind is not prevalent and I foolishly think that Vern was exaggerating about the wind speed we were to expect. Never doubt Vern!
As I look ahead I can see snow blowing and creating dust clouds against and around other fellow climbers, already at the base of the saddle and also making their way up the other side towards the Summit. The brief stillness we feel was very much like the proverbial ‘calm before the storm’. Brace yourself Ema.
As we reach the saddle base, the wind is demonstrating its superiority. It pushes us like a bully, demanding we push back and fight to keep ourselves vertical.
Vern commands and guides us efficiently to get our down jackets on. We need to pee, drink and eat like on any other break, plus we need to put our harnesses on. We are securing all our backpacks and trekking poles in a pile and leaving them behind here. This is both to facilitate our final push up to the Summit, but also to save space – there is not much room up there!
Our guides help us with getting our harnesses on, without taking our crampons off. As Irina and ‘Jason’ (nicknamed by us, because of his white mask) help us, I make a mental note that I need to get a better harness for when I repeat this task in a future climb. It’s just not smooth enough for crucial times like this.
And we are off, for the final leg.
Again, we are soon feeling the wind’s defiant tease to ‘take him on’ with only our ice axe in hand as if to threaten the wind to ‘back off’. Just as we clip on the static line, the wind retreats teasingly, giving us a false sense of hope. Then it comes gusting against us with speeds of about 50km an hour. At moments, it takes a deep breath and then when it exhales, it spits out ice pellets that hit our faces and bodies, with demanding threats against us. I have never experienced wind like this. Truly, if we break our attention from it, it will and can toss us into the abyss. I briefly wonder if this is what Denali or Vinson will feel like, but I don’t have much time to ponder this thought, as all my energy is spent concentrating on each step, bracing myself with my ice axe and also guiding my leach on the fixed rope.
And suddenly it dawns on me, we ARE ‘crawling’ up to the Peak. The roar of the wind, the stinging of the ice, and the concentration required, are all very real. We are indeed crawling to the top.
Then as we leave the fixed rope section, we continue slowly, hunched down, up the glacier ridge towards the summit point. It’s in sight and that encourages us. But we move very slowly and carefully, because even though wind has given up throwing snow dust at us, it continues to push us defiantly.
And then suddenly – we are there! We are at the top of Mount Elbrus! We did it!
The Summit space is maybe a 10×12 foot small, cramped space. Our group alone fills it, as others also compete to share it.
At the same time, I realize and feel like, the wind is going to blow me away. This is not a good feeling; despite the relief at being successful, I still need to concentrate. I hunch down and secure my axe ice on its floor. I start to pull out my first flag, the Portuguese and Canada flags. I have sewn them together and realize the wind is blowing it like an out of control boat sail. Another climber sees me struggle and helps me hold an end, while Andrey, takes a picture. I know that it will not be possible to take pics of all my flags: the Language Marketplace flag, the Peaks for Change flag, CAMH, and why I climb. I will also not be able to take a pic of #JesusRocks flag and my heart tugs in sadness. However, I quickly stuff the flag into my jacket and try to hold up my ‘Julia and Ethan’ flag, for my beloved grandchildren. Unfortunately, the wind crumples it in response as Andrey snaps a quick picture for me.
Then I join the rest of the group for a group summit photo and just like that, it’s over.
It reminds me of a wedding – it takes so much time and preparation and you look forward to it with great anticipation, then it’s over so quickly. And today, there is no time to savor the moment.
It’s time to move on. Others are waiting to take our place and want us to move along.
However, I do have time to take a deep breath and look around in a 360 degree motion and memorize the true beauty that scourged us below. Peaks adoring the horizon around us, like a crown, as we stand on the top of Europe. Thank you God for allowing me to see this; to have this moment. Your mountain tops are truly awesome and You brought me here safely.
As we start our decent from the peak I feel disappointed I was not able to take more pictures and fly all my flags in celebration. But the goal of my trip was realized. I summited Mount Elbrus. Another successful climb and a resounding exclamation to the world that the stigma of mental health must change. That brings a smile. Now comes a well needed rest with my family before starting to prepare for Antarctica.
I left Toronto on Friday July 20th early in the evening. That was day 1 and a necessary part of this adventure – long flights! I arrived at Moscow Airport late on Saturday afternoon, July 21st and instantly marveled at the sight of Russia. It didn’t look at all like it’s portrayed in the movies. It just looks like any other country. Clearly, the stereo type is not very correct. Incorrect stereotypes; hmm … where have I heard that concern before?
Having said that, the people DO seem different. They don’t smile a lot. They are polite and do their jobs, but there are no smiles offered.
As I met the group, I was relieved that everyone seems nice. Another part of this adventure – you have to make friends with and rely on all sorts of people. I am happy to see two other females in the group in addition to our guide Carole. She and her husband Vern are highly experienced and rank among the best in the mountaineering circles. Yet they exude politeness and happiness – like they really like their jobs.
The hotel is OK. It has a bed and a bathroom – just a functional space. No smiles here either.
Day 3. Sunday July 22nd. Heavy sigh. The jet-lag is affecting me. I had a very hard time sleeping beyond the hour I slept around 11:30pm local time. I fell asleep again around 3:30am, but it was not deep, just resting in a semi aware state.
Still, I was excited to be here. I am actually in Russia! The day was spent touring Moscow: Red Square, the Kremlin and the cemetery where politicians and famous Russian socialites are buried. I found the tombstones fascinating and disturbing, as well as quite pretentious. Statues serve as headstones for the deceased, for example Boris Yeltsin’s is an abstract piece of art.
The architecture is wonderful and fascinating. The details that show Persian, Portuguese and even Spanish influences were wonderful to see. The city is extremely clean, perhaps the cleanest city I have ever visited. Certainly, Moscow puts to shame the dirty, smelling streets of New York City.
I enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard, an English monarchy influence.
Still, the lack of smiles of Russian residents is something that I kept noticing. There was an emptiness to it. Though never rude to anyone, their presence is never inviting, warm or happy. It seems strange to me …
We believe that if one smiles to another person, and are polite and cheerful, it will evoke similar feelings in return. Not here. I have tried, but to no avail. No response. None.
Our team of fellow climbers seem like a wonderful group and we have been easily bonding. Our #AlpineAscents guides, Carole and Vern, are not only professional, but warm, caring and so far excellent hosts and guides. They share not only their guidance and leadership, but their own friendship and love for mountaineering.
I was privileged to learn from Carole that she and Vern actually got married on the summit of Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Vern proposed on their way to the summit, as they both were climbing alone, roped together, him shouting down to her – “So, do you want to get married?” and Carole simply answering back, “Sure!” Vern is not a man that waits to get things done. He saw another guide on his way down from the summit, guiding a client, that he knew was licensed to officiate marriages. On the spot he asked if he could marry him and Carole.
And so it was, with the other client in tow, the officiant guide turned around and married Vern and Carole at the top of the Summit. Both bride and groom wearing climate warming outfits and with routes and carrabiners hanging from their harnesses. Now THAT was a mountain top marriage! Haha.
That was a decade ago. However, as Carole told me the story, I can see in her eyes the love and romance of the gesture her husband made. Not many people can say they got proposed to and married in Antarctica and on the highest mountain of that continent! #Priceless.
For what would be our day 4, again, I managed to sleep only an hour and then around 1:30am I am wide awake. Not a problem if I didn’t have to wake up at 5:00am, shower, and get ready to get myself checked out to be ready in the hotel lobby at 5:50am, so we could head out to the airport. Some how I made it.
We were finally headed to Mineralyne Vody, on our way to Elbrus. The highest peak of Europe.
The flight was about 2 hours and then we a had a bus ride of over 3 ahead of us. Shortly after we landed, my first real test and my fear of huge bags and weight was presented to me. “Ok team!” Vern states. “We have about a kilometer to walk over to where our ride is. Put your duffels on your back and carry your backpacks on the front.” Easy. No really Ema, easy. I was trying to talk myself into it. I was quite nervous. There were 12 other team mates, 10 of them guys and let’s be realistic, even cutting down, my duffel still weighed 55 pounds! Fortunately, one of the guys helped me just with securing one of the straps as it slid down my arm. I walked awkwardly – mainly because the duffel bag was ¾ of my size – the weight did not bother me very much. ‘I can do this’, I kept silently telling myself. After about 100 meters we arrived at our location. I was happy! Phew. Test one – check.
After a few minutes we stopped for lunch and the group had chicken, lamb and beef. Myself, I had some salad, grilled vegetables, fresh bread with butter and tea. I learned that this part of Russia enjoys lots of Persian influences and the restaurant where we ate lunch reflected it.
After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Tersol, which is at the base of Mt Elbrus. Here we are at last. The lodge where we stayed, was not luxurious, but clean and we were the only residents. There are 15 of us in total. Vern and Carole introduce us to two Angelas, who would be taking care of us during our stay.
The following day, which is day 5 in the itinerary, was our first acclimatization day. We hiked for about 5 to 6 hours. We hike up tall grass and a steep hill towards the Observatory.
It was on this first day that Vern and Carole taught us about pressure breathing. Some of my teammates seemed to have theirs already down pat, but I am always out of breath. When I had learned it in Mt Rainier, I found it complicated and it made me light headed and actually short of breath more. Breathing should not be complicated. And it isn’t. Their method was to blow the stale air out of your lungs, by filling your mouth with air until you get cheeks like a chipmunk and blow it out like to are exasperated with someone. Bingo! Feels great.
On day 6 we climbed a different side of the valley. We went very close to the Georgian border and the majority of my team joke about crossing the border illegally- like the fact we were all going to attempt to climb Elbrus was not dangerous enough! We still needed the prospect of getting shot or detained either by Georgian authorities or the Russia police to be added in to the mix?! Fortunately, no casualties to report.
Each day we climbed up to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. We also learned to pace ourselves and I kept practicing my new breathing technique.
Both days we saw Mount Elbrus towering over the valley. Spectacular sight.
Day 7. We repack our duffel bags, leave what is not necessary in the mountain in our second small duffle bag, and lock it. It will be stored for us in a room, and will await our descent from the mountain.
We load our duffel bags, our backpacks and 40 litres of water – 4 bottles of 5 litres each per climber. From the van, which brings us to the tram, we go up to the last stop. Its official, there is no turning back and I am nervous. Again.
Basecamp at Mount Elbrus is a dirty place. Let me explain. There is garbage everywhere, the toilets are 3 walls and a door and a hole in the bottom, which means that each time anyone goes to use the ‘facilities’, urine and feces just free fall in the air and lands on rocks that lie underneath. Yuck.
Our accommodation is one of the nicer ones. Inside accommodation was hostel style – 8 of us shared one room, with 4 pairs of bunk beds. The staff was always washing the floors and our hiking boots were always contained to a designated area. But it is hard to clean inside, when no one cleans outside.
We were not there for a vacation and I set aside my dismissal of my surroundings and concentrate on training as directed. Vern and Carole don’t let us waste any time and right after lunch we go on a short hike on the glacier. They take the opportunity to teach us hiking roped as a group, as a review. Even though we would not be roped into to each other on summit day, this exercise is great to practice.
On day seven we take a longer hike, in altitude. We climb up to the
Pastukhov rocks area, even though on summit day, we take a ‘Cat’ up to this point and start our accent here. We use our crampons for the first time, get them properly fitted to our boots and I was pleased that Vern helped fit mine flawlessly, his experienced hands helping me with a couple of adjustments (stretching and bending). They now fit my #SportivaSpantik boots like a glove! Thank you Vern.
Our altitude gain was about 15,000 feet.
Later in the afternoon, we review the intricacies of anchor building. There are crevasses on the glacier and being armed with more knowledge and skills is nothing but a benefit.
Day 8. July 28th. This is supposed to be a rest day, as the following day we will attempt to summit the tallest Peak in Europe. However, we are athletes. We can’t just laze around all day and we need to practice our ice axe skills. Self confidence and readiness for emergencies, in case of an accidental fall or slip is crucial.
Therefore, we spend a couple of hours in the morning practicing just that. We replicate, on purpose, several ways we can fall and how to use our iced axe, to stop us from sliding down the glacier from the possible reach of our teammates. This is a potential life saving maneuver. Very important.
Although we did not anticipate traversing over any crevasses during our summit accent, Vern and Carole generously set up a couple of stations for self-extraction out of a crevasse, so we can refresh the theory and practice the skill, for other mountains. Learning from the man that currently holds the title of 70 Summits, meaning, he has climbed all 7 Summits, 10 times each, is a privilege and treat.
And we are then instructed to rest for the next day.
Rest is not easy. Several of our teammates are suffering from intestinal problems and lots of trips to the “facilities” are necessary. We all worry about what we are eating. The last thing we need on Summit day is to need to run to the bathroom with diarrhea or vomiting.
And as is the normal routine, we each take turns for privacy during the afternoon and put on our Summit day clothes we have packed for the occasion, and get our backpacks ready. The time has come. Here we go …
Create a World in which everyone believes life is worth living.
These powerful words where part of the last sentence Mr Chown, the Director of Events for CAMH wrote in a thank you letter addressed to Peaks for Change in reference to our fundraising gala event we had on April 27 2018.
As I prepare to leave to Russia to climb Mt Elbrus, these words are hitting hard at home : ‘ A world in which everyone believes life is worth living.’ As I think of my Mom, Susan’s son Reid, and all those that just recently did not believe their life was worth living.
Yesterday, I had been speaking to my insurance advisor for our company benefits at Language Marketplace, and she mentioned that insurance companies have seen a rise in claims for anti-depression medications.
Are we as a society becoming more hopeless as we isolate ourselves more and more behind our social media profiles?
How can we tell if our friend, family member or neighbor is debating if ‘life is worth living’?
Openness. Understanding . Speaking out. Listening. Seeking help. That is what we all have to do when we feel or someone else is feeling that life is not worth living.
And this is the aspiration I will take with me as I try to summit Mt Elbrus in a few days. One step at a time. Together, we can ‘create a World in which everyone believes life is worth living’.
I had lost track of what day of the week it was – the sense of which only returned a couple of days after I arrived back home.
It was the day after we arrived at Williams’ farm. Even though we got up at 7:00am local time, we only started hiking around 11:00am. It took several hours for the bidding and organization of the porter team to be organized. I am told we have 19 porters – it’s hard to say, because the whole family comes … husband, wife and children.
The head of the Dani tribe, William stood in the middle of his farm, and after having an argument in public with one of his 7 wives, he started selecting porters. Once selected, each was given a blue pouch, which I assume had some information of what they were carrying and whom it belonged to and a bag to carry. The porters each carried one of our duffle bags, our supplies and our tents.
William also put out a ‘work order’, to the villagers that attended this ‘work’ assignment meeting, for those selected members of the tribe to go ahead of us and repair some sections of our trail that had been affected by a recent mudslide. This I was told by Raymond, our local head guide, was to have cost us the equivalent of $400.00 US dollars.
I actually had a two person tent to myself which I had chosen specifically to have more room so that I wouldn’t feel so claustrophobic. It was a luxury to be alone; it gave me the opportunity to journal, to write this! J
Raymond, our local lead guide led a prayer before we left. This would be a daily ritual, which I appreciated. Raymond back home is a non-practicing Pastor. However, his wife is the lead Pastor of their local church.
The trail was demanding, as we had to navigate up and down wet, rocky terrain, tree stumps and even rushing rivers. At one point, as we are walking along the river bank I could hear the raging waters and I started to feel anxious, as the previous crossing had been scary. But then I was presented with a bridge – what a beautiful sight! I was so happy and relieved, I got giddy!
The trail demands your complete attention, one distraction and you fall. I tripped once- the first day! Many more would follow….
One of our fellow climbers decided one day was enough, and would be returning the next morning with one of the guides, Hata. He opted to fly again to Timika and would take the helicopter option to base camp. The cost of this choice was $6,000.00 US, pretty steep! His plan was to meet us at base camp and then attempt to Summit with us. He planned to return to Timika via helicopter as well. I secretly envied him on day ‘One’ of trekking. It was daunting and exhausting. But I was pleased to experience that, because I had trained hard, I was up for the challenge!
I had to keep reminding myself that I was doing this, both to accomplish something very challenging and also, to be the first Portuguese woman to climb Carstensz Pyramid. This climb was primarily for my Mom and to raise money for mental health. These goals kept me going.
Several times, during my hike and when certain sections were scary, I knew Jesus had me in His care, and I felt secure. Thank you!
At the end of the day when I reaching camp and being able to contact my family was an incentive and a huge comfort. I missed them, especially my husband. I was the only woman on the expedition and even though my tent was always erected first and all the guys were great— attentive, helpful and true gentlemen, I still felt at the end of the day that I could have used a hug, the kind of hug only Steve could give.
The next day promised to be an especially hard one. Juan, another one of our local guides who was leading us, kept saying, “Hard.” “Lots of mud!”. He was not kidding.
One never expects to eat gourmet meals while trekking. However, there are several options of freeze dry foods, such as those by Mountain House. And there are other lighter weight options of certain foods that make long expeditions nutrition reasonable.
I am still not certain why, if it was the remoteness of Carstensz Pyramid, the harsh condition of trekking in, or the necessity of using local porters all the way, but nutrition was a HUGE issue, especially for me as a vegetarian. This had not been an issue when I climbed Mt Rainier in July. I feasted with my various Mountain House meals.
Here, the first day of trekking when we set out from the Dani tribe camp, we were handed a box of chocolate cookies and a smaller box of another variety of cookies – I thought it was a joke. But no! It was our lunch. The remaining lunches throughout the expedition would vary from the type of cookie box and then we graduated to a chocolate bar to accompany it. “Are you kidding me?” “We are hard core trekking people!” “We need better nutrition than average, not ridiculously less!”
For breakfast we had a slice of white bread and a one egg omelet. There is a jar of Nutella on the table from one of our expedition members and I offered a jar of dehydrated peanut butter I also had brought, in spite of weight limitations. That was it. Nothing else.
We also warmed ourselves with ready mixes of flavored cappuccinos! Load up on the sugar!
Rice and ramen noodles were our daily staple for dinner. The guys had fried spam with some dinners, canned fish and at base camp chicken wings and one night prawns – I saw an ice box and it was below 0 in temperature there – and the supplies come via helicopter, so it is possible! I had some of the corn and beans that had been bought in Timika – the times when the beans were not mixed in with meat! At base camp I did have steamed green vegetables added to my rice on a couple of occasions, and noodles. A massive treat!
I had packed some granola bars, which I had been advised against because of the extra weight – but I put some in my backpack, since a porter carried the duffle bag to the next camp. I’m so glad I did!
The following morning, which would be our 2nd day of trekking, once again even though we got up for breakfast at 7, we only hit the ‘trail’ at 9 or so. There were more negotiations with the porters some of whom was going to take Philippe back, because of this turning back and taking the helicopter meant the loss of payment for a couple of the porters. Afterwards more arguments on load allocations occurred, so we had to remove some stuff from all our bags, so more porters could carry stuff. It’s all about the money wherever you go in the world folks!
The trail was truly difficult. There were so many roots on the trees that it was similar to rock climbing, but on trees. At one point I got my UGG’s rain boot stuck in the mud and my foot came right out. I knew some days would be hard. This was one of them.
We reached camp late that day. It was about 6:35pm and I was finally in my tent. It was raining – it had been the pattern every evening; cold and tired and just craving to cuddle up in my sleeping bag.
I started to think about taking the helicopter option to return after we summit. I can’t imagine retracing my steps on the return and having to walk on the treacherous terrain. Just thinking about it was a comforting thought!
My stomach started to hurt a little; it seems I am starting to feel the affects of all the sugar I am consuming. Our bodies just aren’t built to survive on cookies and chocolate bars. Duh!
Raymond and Juan, said that today was the hardest part of climbing Carstensz. But warned us that tomorrow would be involve lots of mud. “Really?” “More than today?” I silently ask myself.
Many times today I had shed tears, but mercifully no one saw. About midway we got hit with a storm and climbing in the rain was really hard. My rain boots got completed soaked, so I knew the next day I would start my day with wet feet. Ugh.
There were so many fallen trees and roots, that constantly climbing them felt like rock climbing, but on trees! And twhen you add in the rain, it becomes a really hard trek. I kept thinking about Steve telling me he read online of people crawling to climb through certain jungle areas due to its density and overgrowth – that was an accurate account. There is no graceful way of climbing over and under all the roots!
I had to remind myself several times that Jesus had me in the palm of His hand and that I would display the flag I had made when I went to Mt Rainier. I would take His flag to the Summit, and have a picture with it saying: “Jesus Rocks!”
And with that came the peace and willpower to continue towards reaching the basecamp of Carstensz Pyramid, and then to climb to its summit. With perseverance came the opportunity to also marvel at the beautiful landscape that surrounded us. Along with the rainforest and muddy trails, I had the opportunity to see gold dust that just flows freely from the Freeport mine, sparkling in the rivers. The landscape itself seemed to be basically non-existing of wild life (at least we didn’t run into any)– we saw or heard the occasional bird – which was still impressive. I do feel privileged and certainly blessed to have seen it and have trekked through it. It was exhausting, and yet, on some level, exhilarating. My excitement was fueled by what was to come.
We are a volunteer organization of individuals who want to have an impact on mental health by providing funds to specialized organizations with expertise in the mental health area, with an aim for permanent change.