Big Mountain Balance

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-by Uphill Athlete Olga Dobranowski

I’m always dreaming of the next trip and the next big mountain. The way I usually choose mountains to climb is by how they look in photographs. That aesthetic aspect of alpinism is evidently very important to me. If it’s a beautiful line on a beautiful mountain, I’m drawn to climbing it.

But as a full-time physician and mother of two boys, I can’t always take a full month off to climb a big peak. Or if I can, then that may be the only trip I will be able to do in a year. That’s where the idea of trying to do shorter, faster trips was born. If I can climb a mountain in one week, then multiple trips all of a sudden become more feasible.

First up this year was Aconcagua, which I set out to do solo and unsupported, no animals. My philosophy going in was that if I could get in the best possible physical shape, and arrive at the mountain already pre-acclimated, the only objective hazard beyond my control would be the weather.  If that ended up being the limiting factor, I knew I would be perfectly comfortable not summiting.

I have a special interest and additional training in mountain, expedition, and wilderness medicine. I study and teach high-altitude medicine, and in my studies I have been especially inspired by newer technologies such as the hypoxic tent. We are beginning to see a growing body of research supporting the use of artificial hypoxia in assisting the acclimatization process before a high-altitude climb. So far we have learned that these methods decrease the prevalence and severity of acute mountain sickness. I had to try it on myself. I live in Colorado, so between hiking fourteeners and sleeping in my Hypoxico tent, I believed I could get my body very well pre-acclimated for Aconcagua.

I read Training for the New Alpinism and decided to go through a round of Uphill Athlete’s 16-Week Big Mountain Training Plan. Both the program and the book were exactly what I was looking for: building aerobic capacity on the one hand, but also power and core strength—very specific for climbers and mountaineers, very specific for my goals.

It helps, too, that my boys, who are 11 and 14, love everything outdoors: rock climbing, downhill skiing, backcountry skiing, ice climbing, mountain biking. I really enjoy doing those activities with them, watching them grow and learn and become more proficient. Any time I have off that I can spend with them, we usually do something fun in the mountains or at the crag.  It’s a whole different aspect of being outside. In the winter, we often go to Winter Park, where I will skin a few laps in the morning and then ski the rest of the day with my boys. Perhaps less than an ideal training day, but a perfect balance between training and family.

On my workdays, when I have to fit my training in on top of the long shifts, it’s more challenging. As much as I don’t like indoor training, that becomes the only way to do it: a step-up box with mountaineering boots and a heavy backpack, a bunch of sandbag get-ups, or ice tool dead hangs. It’s not as exciting, it’s not as pretty, and it’s not inspiring, but it gets the work done. In the end, it comes down to discipline. Having that goal in mind—that specific trip, that specific mountain—is a huge motivation.

I felt strong and well prepared by the time I left for Aconcagua in February. I ended up climbing the mountain in six days, trailhead to trailhead. I did single carries in three consecutive days—first to Base Camp, then Camp 1, then Camp 2. I was constantly monitoring for symptoms of altitude sickness, checking my pulse ox and heart rate, fully aware of the precariousness of being solo at high elevation. I always carry altitude medications in my first-aid kit—Diamox and dexamethasone—but fortunately I never had to use them.

I had been planning on taking a rest day at Camp 2 (Nido de Cóndores), at 18,000 feet, before moving to Camp 3, but then the weather moved faster than expected and my window of opportunity came the next day. I opted to skip Camp 3 and push for the 22,800-foot summit from Nido de Cóndores. A few Argentinian guides had warned me it would be a big day, maybe 14 hours to the summit. I ended up summiting in 7 hours, 25 minutes, and then it took me about 3 hours to go down back to Camp 2. Even though it was cold and very windy, I felt great moving. The following day, I descended from Camp 2 to Base Camp and then hiked all the way out to the trailhead. By the time I got to the trailhead, 17 miles from Base Camp, it was almost 11 p.m. Everything but my beat-up feet felt surprisingly good. Six days to climb Aconcagua was faster than I’d anticipated, so I returned home with few days to spare. We celebrated with a family cheese fondue dinner, and I was able to go skiing with my boys before returning to work.

Denali hadn’t been on my radar, but after doing Aconcagua in one week, the idea of climbing the West Buttress grew more appealing. I had no desire to spend three and a half weeks shuttling heavy loads in a cold environment: it would be too much time to sacrifice—time away from family, away from work, away from home. But I thought if I were to apply the same approach I’d taken for Aconcagua, I might be able to summit Denali on a much shorter schedule, especially if I went solo and unguided. I added an extra challenge: Why not ski off the summit? I applied for my solo permit with two months to prepare.

 

Denali Base Camp and landing strip, Mount Hunter in the background

I arrived on Denali at the end of May. When I told a mountaineering ranger my plan to advance to 14K Camp in three days, he stopped me midsentence. “Whoa, whoa, that’s really fast,” he said. “If we ever see people moving to 14K Camp within five or six days we’re very concerned.”  I completed my plan and arrived at 14K Camp after only three days feeling strong and happy. However, those were three very heavy days of single carries without a sled. I am not the biggest person, and at one point I collapsed into soft snow during a kick turn on a steep section of Motorcycle Hill under the weight of my 73-pound pack. I struggled to get out, almost tearing up I felt so weak and defeated and helpless. That battle with my pack inspired me to rig a sled out of my skis at the top of the hill. It took about 20 pounds off my back, and suddenly I felt like I could run. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Looking down at 14K Camp, alpenglow on Mount Foraker in the background

I was hoping to do just one rest day at 14K Camp, but a weather system moved in and I had to stay put for two days. On the very first day of better conditions, I skipped the move to 17K Camp and went straight for the summit from 14K Camp. In order to mitigate the glacier travel hazard as a solo climber, I chose to go early in the climbing season. The lower mountain yielded a safe passage, but the upper mountain was very cold and icy and not terribly skiing- or skinning-friendly—especially the Autobahn, a dangerous traverse high on the West Buttress route. I managed to click into my skis on the summit, despite temperatures of -35 degrees F, and skied down to my tent at 14K Camp.

Skinning up Pig Hill on Denali’s West Buttress route, the last uphill before the summit ridge

On my descent, I stopped and got involved in a rescue of a Korean climber who had developed HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema); confused and unable to walk or even stand, he required an immediate helicopter evacuation. I made the call, and he was flown from the Football Field at 19,000 feet to the hospital in Talkeetna, where thankfully he made a full recovery. I spent the night at 14K Camp, then in the morning I packed all my gear and skied out to Base Camp and the airstrip in less than 4 hours. I had skinned up and skied down Denali, solo, in just seven days.

Two months later, I left for Bolivia for a ten-day trip with a climbing partner, an adventure that had been on the calendar since the previous year. Our goal was to explore several of the classic mountains there, especially La Cabeza de Condor, a spectacular, striking climbing line. Unfortunately, my partner developed altitude sickness after that ascent, and his condition worsened in the highest hut on Huayna Potosí. He wisely opted to cut his trip short and return to Colorado. Solo and with little time remaining, I set my sights on Illimani, at 21,125 feet the second-tallest mountain in Bolivia. I had to wait out a snowstorm, which left me just two days to climb the mountain before my flight home. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

Illimani, the second-highest peak in Bolivia at 21,122 feet / 6,438 meters

The storm cleared up, but it was desperately cold high on the peak. I was shivering even with face protection, summit mitts with handwarmers, and 6,000-meter boots with toewarmers. As I soloed steep alpine ice on the headwall just below the summit, I grew so miserably cold that I was ready to turn around. I stuck with it, and just one hour later I was sipping hot tea on the summit in the sun, the brutal cold and dicey headwall already fading in memory. What was my issue? I wondered. It’s beautiful here and so warm.That’s how the cycle of mountaineering goes: one moment you’re miserable and hating the situation you’re in, the next you’re comfortable and reveling in the beauty of it all.

I picked up my tent at High Camp, continued down to the trailhead, drove back to La Paz, collected the rest of my luggage from the hotel, went straight to the airport, and jumped on my plane back to the States. At sunrise I was standing on the summit of Illimani; that evening I was flying back home. It wasn’t planned that way, but that’s what the weather and the situation dictated. Ultimately, I climbed four of the most classic and beautiful Bolivian peaks in just ten days. The combination of dedicated training and arriving pre-acclimatized made it possible—just as on Aconcagua and Denali.

Immediately after returning home I began dreaming of my next big mountain. I wonder whether it would even be possible to safely climb a 7,000- or 8,000-meter peak in less than two weeks. Also, will I have enough discipline, strength, and passion to continue balancing work, family, teaching, and training for my next big climbing objective? The answer to that lives somewhere on a distant summit. The answer to that lives in me.

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