Alternate title: A day full of skills training, high heart rate, and a late-day freak out.
After packing up all our gear Sunday, and a smooth day 1 on Monday, going from Paradise Visitors Center parking lot up to Camp Muir, I woke up on Tuesday, May 11th feeling surprisingly refreshed (thanks to hand warmers on my feet, ear plugs, and wearing lots of layers to bed).
Here’s my thoughts upon waking up at 10,000 feet:
I headed over to the toilet huts to do my business, and found… only 1 hut of the 5-6 huts was open, and there was a line!? Thankfully only 2 guys in front of me, and both were quick.
The toilet hut was gross–you can imagine–and in need of servicing, but I’m sure it’s not any park ranger’s favorite job.
Feeling much better, I walked over to the ridge to call Javi. I felt so grateful to have signal and be able to call him, otherwise it would have been a long 3 days without speaking to my family! I told him I slept well, then sent him a few pics of the morning:
A park ranger came up to me to say that a helicopter would be landing here (a small flat area on the edge of Camp Muir, where I had cell reception) around 8:30. We would see it later, very cool!
I headed back to the tent to grab my water, oatmeal, bowl and spork, and make sure Joel was awake–he was. We walked up the hill to our dining area–steps carved into the snow. The guides had our hot water ready, and I enjoyed breakfast with a view!
As we ate, Peter (our lead guide; not his real name–I changed all names to protect their privacy) went over the plan for the day:
- Pack up all our stuff
- Skills training in the morning (glacier travel techniques, walking uphill and downhill with crampons, how to use an ice ax, how to use our avalanche beacons)
- Snack, sunscreen, water before departing around noon for high camp (Ingraham Flats)
- About one hour walk, roped up and with crampons and ice ax, to high camp
- Once there, repack for summit (only bringing essential items) and have early dinner
- Early to bed, and very early to get up for summit day (an “alpine start”)
With not much gear to pack, I was ready to go in a few minutes. I took plenty of opportunities to rehydrate (using my Nuun electrolytes) and snacked often, to keep my energy up.
We started in on our classes–I wanted to make videos, but also wanted to pay close attention, and not be distracting, so I left the GoPro in my bag.
Here’s a summary of what we learned:
- Glacier travel techniques
- Short rope intervals–used on steeper terrain
- Long rope intervals–used for mitigating crevasse falls
- Using a running belay–an anchor in the snow with a carabiner, where you clip into (usually on steep or tricky terrain; these were pre-placed by our guides)
- When clipping into it, yell “Anchor!” so your team members know
- When ready to keep moving, yell “Climbing!”
- It took me about 5-7 seconds to unclip my front rope, and clip in with my rear rope
- Walking uphill and downhill with crampons
- Crampons are a tripping hazard, so walk with feet further apart
- Jam your feet into the snow to get good purchase
- French-stepping–turning sideways to walk up steep terrain
- Don’t fall!
- Ensure they are fitted very tightly to boots, and straps are secured (otherwise, a trip hazard)
- Downhill walking techniques: “Monster walk” and another one that I can’t remember the name 🙂
- This video shows some crampon skills and lessons
- How to use an ice axe
- Walk with it in uphill hand, pick end facing behind
- The 3 C’s of falling, and how to self-arrest (stop your fall) from different positions–we each practiced this on a somewhat steep slope several times
- Communicate by yelling “Falling!” immediately
- Control your fall by using other hand to grip the shaft of the ice axe
- Catch your fall by driving the pick end of the axe into the snow, and kicking your feet into the snow to stop your movement
- Excellent article and videos on this here.
We learned how to use our avalanche beacons (basically, keep them on above Camp Muir). They go over one shoulder, and have a strap that goes around the body. They are put on over the base layer (see photos below). These emit a sound that helps others find you in the case of an avalanche.
We also received our helmets and harnesses (those of us who rented them).
We completed our training around noon. The guides told us we had about 15 minutes to go to the bathroom, have a snack, fill up water, reapply sunscreen, turn in one trekking pole (we could only use 1, as the ice axe would be in the other hand), and get all our gear on (harness, helmet, crampons, gaiters) so that we could make the ~1 hour walk up to Ingraham Flats.
This was one of only a few times that I got annoyed with a teammate. Jim was staying back at Camp Muir, due to his hip injury, but his girlfriend Cathy-Anne was continuing up to high camp with the team. When I heard we had 15 minutes to get ready, I hustled. Food and water down the hatch, gear on, sunscreen on–ready to go.
Unfortunately about 45 minutes later, we were still somehow waiting on Cathy-Anne to get ready! She didn’t have her gear on, and she walked all the way over to the pit toilets to use the bathroom.
I had already made up my mind that I would not make anyone wait on me, if I could absolutely help it, and this just reinforced that goal for me. After we had all hurried up to get ready, then we had to sit… and wait for one person. A little frustrating, but no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It just delayed our arrival at high camp.
Finally, we were all ready, roped up, and started the short (compared to yesterday) hike up to Ingraham Flats. I was on a rope team with guide Brandon, and my brother Joel, with me in the middle.
The first portion, maybe half a mile, had barely an incline, but then it got steep quickly, with switchbacks and a rocky section. By the time we reached the top, I was feeling very winded and somewhat tired (the training had tired me out a bit that morning… lots of going up and down a steep slope, with the sun beating down, and at 10,000 feet).
Thankfully we took a break around the halfway point, and I had some Honey Stinger chews that revived me 🙂
The next section was not fun–steep, and moving quicker than I’d like. I just felt tired and ready to rest. Thankfully it didn’t last long!
The guides gave us a quick orientation to Ingraham Flats: “bathroom” on the far end, guide tents on the near end. “Kitchen” tent uphill, with water coolers. Little flags marked the perimeter of camp.
“Don’t go past those flags!” Peter warned.
We saw a huge crevasse just downhill from us, so clearly, we would all respect the boundaries of our camp.
We chose tents, removed our crampons (they need to stay outside the tents or they can do damage), and had several hours to chill. Amazingly, I had 2 bars of signal, so I called Javi and my mom and chatted for awhile. I also had time to post on social media, get my stuff somewhat organized, and take a little nap again.
Dinner with a side of “freak out”
We met up at 4 for (very) early dinner.
The guides again had hot water for us, but this time they didn’t measure it for us. At my request, because I had no idea how to estimate the amount of water needed to rehydrate my meal, they put out a liquid measuring cup.
The following moment is when I realized I didn’t have full brain function, at 11,000 feet elevation 😛
My Mountain House chicken and mashed potatoes meal needed 1 3/4 cups of hot water. My oxygen-deprived brain couldn’t comprehend how many ounces of water that would be… I actually added 16 oz + 12 oz and was about to add 28 ounces of water to my meal, when I realized that I had doubled it, and there are only 8 ounces in a cup.
Whew, that was rough! I laughed at myself.
With our meals rehydrating, Peter (our lead guide; again, not his real name) got in front of the group and gave us a pre-summit night briefing.
Part lecture, part pep talk, Peter began by telling us that the risk of avalanche was very low (and he actually said “We have a low risk tolerance at IMG“) which made me feel better.
However, he said if the conditions were too dangerous, we would turn around before the summit. Disappointing to hear, but understandable.
Then his tone got very serious.
He went on to explain that on summit night, he would go the pace we needed to go to reach the summit and come back safely. If we couldn’t keep up, or if we were tripping or otherwise being a hazard to the team, he would give us a warning (as in, if you continue to do this you’re going to have to turn back), and if we didn’t improve, he would send us back down the mountain with one of the guides. He also said our route was the “sporty route” though I wouldn’t fully understand what he meant until tomorrow. I took it to mean challenging.
I started to feel the anxiety creeping into my oxygen-deprived brain. All the doubts that I had been quelling for the past few weeks, suddenly bubbled up right to the surface.
What if I can’t keep up?
What if I trip and fall, and bring down my rope team with me?
What if I fall into a crevasse?
What if I feel nauseous and weak?
What if I’m just not fit enough to make it?
The very worst “what if” of all, which had lurked in the far recesses of my mind the past few months, and now came squarely to the forefront:
What if I don’t make it back?
My brain took that little bit of doubt, introduced by Peter’s essential safety briefing, and just…. ran with it.
Yikes… this got really bad, really fast.
Roman made a joke, to try to lighten the mood, but for me, the damage was done. My anxiety monster had woken from its slumber, and it shocked me how quickly I went from being more excited than anything, to playing the dreaded “what if” game, an internal battle with my confidence. I tried to take a deep breath, put it out of my mind for the time being, and just finish my chicken and mashed potatoes.
A momentary distraction: I could tell I was going to need to use a blue bag soon.
We finished eating and went back to our tents.
I did my blue bag business, and it wasn’t so bad. I felt a tiny bit better.
Back in the tent, I packed what I needed for the summit, and did my best to put those insidious doubts out of my mind. I didn’t want to talk to Joel about it, as I know he battles his own doubts, and I didn’t want to make anything worse for him.
Around 5 PM, I put my buff over my eyes to block the daylight pouring in (but forgot to put my earplugs in), and tried to go to sleep.
A very rough “night”
I don’t have much experience trying to sleep in broad daylight, but this wasn’t a good time to try it, while at 11,000 ft elevation, and with an enormous summit bid looming over me.
My resting heart rate, normally 60 BPM at sea level, on a normal day, was around 80 BPM that evening.
My thoughts, like my heart beats, raced quicker and heavier than normal.
I felt tired physically, but mentally my brain would not be quiet.
I had another brain SNAFU, this time with my sleeping bag. It had been turned partially inside-out when I packed earlier that day, and I couldn’t figure out which way was the right side out. I looked at the labels and tags, which confused me even more. I deliberated for several minutes and finally just made a decision (which turned out to be the wrong one!)
Before I left on the trip, my friend Crit told me about pressure breathing, so I tried to slow my heart rate by doing a deep inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 sec, big release for 8 seconds.
That helped a little, but the anxious thoughts continued to ping around my head.
Finally, I gave myself a pep talk:
Vanessa, you have trained for this for months. You’ve made it this far. Heck, you’re about 90% of the way there! You can do this physically, but right now you are struggling mentally with your own thoughts. Just go out there tomorrow, take it one step at a time, just focus on getting to the next break, and you got this. If you’re meant to get to the summit, you will get to the summit. Your family and friends believe in you, now it’s time for you to believe in yourself.
God has a plan for you.
You can choose to rise to this challenge in front of you.
Tomorrow, you will put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, until you make it (or need to turn back).
You got this!
With that, I finally had enough of my own self-doubts. I had laid there for approximately two hours already, facing my own negative thoughts. I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
Oh what a night!
I awoke and knew I had several issues to deal with, as much as I didn’t want to crawl out of my sleeping bad into the cold night air:
I didn’t have ear plugs in, and could hear too much noise (snoring, footsteps crunching in the snow). My toes were cold again. And I needed to pee.
Unlike my lovely night’s sleep the night prior, this one… it all seemed to go wrong.
I got into a kneeling position to use my pee funnel, and wasn’t leaning forward far enough, so I felt the liquid running down my leg. Nooooooo!
I caught it quickly, but still had a wet spot on my pants. Great… now I’m going to be wet, and going to smell. I felt very embarrassed, but then realized that no one needed to know.
I didn’t have any more hand or foot warmers, as I was saving the foot warmers for morning, so I got out yesterday’s warmers–they somehow still had a touch of warmth.
Then I realized that my sleeping bag was inside out, so I turned it the other way.
Goodness… what a night!
I knew that our wake up would come in just a few hours, but somehow I managed to sleep for a few more hours.
Our wake up came at 12:20 AM, so I will leave that for Day 3’s post.
Suzie Haley says
Your anxiety was understandable, but not justified. You likely were readier than any of the others.
if Javi or your mom ever miss your call, call me. i will pump you up – you were meant to climb mountains
(and volcanos). The guides should have warned you about the altitude playing tricks with your brain.
Your videos certainly add to the drama, as we share your thoughts and fears, and number of “blue bags” left!
May you never want for hand/feet warmers ever again.
Day #3 will be epic.
Vanessa Vila says
I will definitely call you if they don’t answer 🙂
Day 3’s post is nearly done! Thank you for your comments, and support!
Andrew Ranson says
I love your detailed account of your climb. Having been on climbs myself, I find myself being taken back to memories of my climbs through your words and photos.
One question: at Camp Muir, did the guides say anything about the flamingo outside the tan tent?
Vanessa Vila says
I don’t remember anything said about the flamingo… I’ll ask my brother to see if he remembers.