By Savannah Cummins
This spring I spent nearly a month on the flanks of Denali, supporting my friend Katie Bono as she successfully set the women’s ascent speed record at 21h 6m. As my first time on a big mountain, it was an unforgettable experience despite all the suffering involved. From carrying 130lbs of gear at once, to rain, snow, wind, -30 degree temps, and an emergency evacuation for our friend, I learned quite a bit and found a new appreciation for a few things that made glacier life better. I share some of the most important items from my Denali gear list here to help others embarking on their own first big-mountain pursuits.
5 things that made glacier living a little more tolerable (in no particular order):
- Extra-warm sleeping bag & extra pads
I carried a -40 degree sleeping bag, a Thermarest Zlite and a NeoAir Xtherm Max with me. I think most people go with a -20 degree bag, however I was pretty aware of how cold I sleep so the extra weight was worth it. I brought two sleeping pads for the extra insulation; this is common with snow camping, highly recommended!
- Pee bottle/freshette (female pee funnel)
In the middle of the night when it was -20 degrees I never wanted to get out of the tent! Most days were spent moving fast, which meant little time to hydrate. While we’d make dinner I’d usually use that time to hydrate (not what’s recommended, but what happens) which meant I’d have to pee in the middle of the night, often more than once. Also, during storms it’s much easier to motivate to drink water when you know you don’t have to go outside and get blasted by snow and wind.
- MSR WhisperLite Stove
I used this bad boy every single day to melt snow for water and cook breakfast and dinner. Its versatility and reliability make it a key survival piece.
- Cell phone/headphones
We spent about 10 days zipped inside our tents hiding from bad weather on the mountain. Only 36% of climbers reached the summit this year, an extremely low success rate for the mountain; it’s usually closer to 50%. Most of my self-entertainment was attached to my phone where I played a lot of solitaire and listened to countless podcasts and exhausted my music playlist. I have to admit, my phone helped keep me pretty sane.
- Baby wipes
I used at least one baby wipe each day. For me, these are the most important self-hygiene items to have. The weight is not ideal, and they freeze, so you have to sleep with them in your bag. But the feeling of somewhat cleanliness was totally worth it.
5 things I learned while living on the mountain
- When packing for a 28-day expedition, bring a serious variety of food
I wish I had brought a wider variety of food with me. After a few days I was sick of dried fruit, nuts and bars. It’s tough to imagine what you’d like to eat every day for 28 days, but next time I’ll bring a more diverse selection for the sake of my palate.
- Yes, alpine weather is very unpredictable
It’s still impressive to witness how fast the weather changes in the mountains. We’d listen to a weather report every night and make a tentative plan for the following day. But our plan would often need to be refined as the dawn of the new day brought with it constant and rapid changes in weather.
- Everything takes longer in the mountains
Blisters, adjusting your pack and sled, getting really hungry/thirsty, sweating one minute and freezing the next, sunscreen re-application, sunglasses/goggles fogging up ect. Dealing with everything takes longer than unexpected. Just know that. And know that it’s always worth the time to stop and make things more comfortable.
- Yes, sun protection is still most important
For nearly 24 hours a day, sunlight is blasting down from above and reflecting up from the bright white snow. Put sunscreen on and reapply constantly.
- Train harder before and during
I don’t think I’ve ever felt 100% mentally and physically ready and prepared for a trip. With hindsight, I would have trained carrying a heavy pack even more than I did. And during my days stuck in the tent due to bad weather, I wish I would have motivated for extra core workouts to stay warm and continue my active lifestyle. It’s very easy to become sedentary but in-tent workouts can alleviate boredom and help maintain an element of strength over the weeks.
Check out more of Savannah’s work at http://savannahcummins.com/