Vinson Pre Trip Information #2
As the days get shorter, we at Mountain Trip cannot help but think of heading south. Maybe we were some sort of migratory birds in our former lives? In any case, we’re really looking forward to seeing all of you down in Punta Arenas and sharing the wonders of the wildest continent on our planet.
This is the next installment in our series of emails that are designed to pass along additional information about climbing Mount Vinson and, hopefully, to help get you even more excited about your upcoming expedition (as if the prospect of going to ANTARCTICA isn’t pretty darn exciting unto itself!).
In this email, we’ll discuss movement on an expedition. This means how to move when on steep or crevassed terrain, and also how to move efficiently when in camp or at breaks during the day.
We’ve all heard the current sexy alpine aphorism “light and fast.” I suspect it is popular in certain coffee shops in places like Boulder, Colorado or even in Talkeetna, Alaska, where aspiring hardmen and women converse over their tall skinny hemp milk chai, choosing titles for their blogs and telling one another, “Dude–we fired that route because we were so light and fast!” Or, “Yeah, brah, the only way we sent that was ’cause we were so light and fast!”
Hmmm… Sometimes light and fast can mean cold and miserable (or worse). What it does not mean down in Antarctica is quickly walking or trotting up the trail. It does not mean skimping on layers that you might need if things go badly and you have to sit for hours with a sick team mate. It does not mean skipping up to the next camp because you made good time up from the camp below or cutting out acclimatization days. In a nutshell, there is rarely an occasion to feel “pressured” to move when climbing Mount Vinson.
There is nothing light and fast about climbing Mount Vinson, but by being somewhat efficient, we can get ourselves up and down the mountain in good style and minimize making our team mates stand around in the cold. This just means having your personal kit streamlined enough so that you have exactly what you need, and little more. It also means being as efficient as possible at specific junctures along the way.
Being “FAST,” While Stopping…
We try to maintain a pace of travel that everyone can sustain for an hour at a stretch. After each hour of climbing, we will take a break, and it is important that everyone capitalize on the break to hydrate, apply sunscreen and lip balm, and eat a snack. If it is cold, breaks can quickly start to feel too long, so it is helpful if everyone is as efficient as possible, helping ensure that team members don’t get unnecessarily cold.
I like to start unclipping my pack and taking the rope out of my chest harness as I slow down immediately before pulling off the trail to take our break (DON’T unclip from the rope!). This allows me to drop my pack straight away, getting it off my thighs and set up to pull a warm layer out of its top (which is stashed there for just this purpose!). I’ll next drop my pack on it’s back, so I can sit on it, further taking a load off, and start digging out my snacks, water, sunscreen and lip balm. This process takes a bit of discipline, because if I’m tired, I just want to sit and rest, but it is important that each break also puts fuel and fluids into my engine, and that I protect myself from those rays of sun in the thin atmosphere over the continent
Guide Tip! If you have triple boots like the La Sportiva Spantik, you can keep a small tube of sunscreen in the boot’s integrated gaiter, where it will be handy and also be protected from freezing. I like to carry several 1-ounce tubes, so that I can keep one thawed at all times.
Being “FAST” Getting Out Of Camp
You will quickly learn that heaps of time is spent just standing around, waiting for the team to be ready to move as a group. With some foresight and practice, you can make yourself “fast” and help minimize your personal contribution to this phenomenon.
Give some thought as to how you’ll pack your pack before you leave home. I pack my pack almost exactly the same way every time, so it becomes almost a rote exercise. I don’t use a lot of stuff sacks, because it is harder to fit firmly stuffed balls of “stuff” into my pack than it is to cram smaller things into it’s nooks and crannies. I’ll typically use a sil-nylon compression stuff sack for my sleeping bag, have one lightweight, large stuff sack for extra clothes (that doubles as my pillow), another smaller sack for my eating kit, and a small, sil-nylon zippered bag for my toiletries, earplugs, extra sunscreen, etc. I like the “Zip Sack” from Outdoor Research for this piece of kit.
When I wake up on a morning that we are going to move camp, it is time to pack, even before I fully get out of my sleeping bag! I’ll do a quick bit of organization in the tent, putting loose items in their appropriate stuff sacks and moving everything towards the door of the tent, where I can easily access it once my boots are on.
After dressing in whatever layers I suspect the day will require, I stuff my sleeping bag in its compression sack, crank it as small as possible, and roll up my inflatable sleeping pad. These also go near the door of the tent and then I hop out to start packing up.
My sleeping bag and some smaller items go in the very bottom, with my toiletry kit and some extra clothes comprising the next layer. Heavier items from the group loads will go in next, with the heaviest items stuffed close to my back. Extra clothing layers for changes in the weather and my puffy jacket or expedition parka either go on top or get shoved in last, jammed down the sides, but with an arm poking up at the top, so I can access it quickly when needed. My water bottles get placed close to my back (for warmth) at the top of my pack, in their insulated covers and further wrapped in my warm, extra layers.
My foam pad gets strapped along the bottom of my pack, or down one side, lunch goes in the lid, lip balm in my pocket, and I’m packed! By following the same technique each time, I don’t need to think much, and I know where every item is, should I need something. In a nutshell- it is efficient, and that helps me be quick.
Another time to be efficient is on the steeper uphill sections of the route. Maintaining a slow and steady pace is the most efficient manner to keeeeeeep going as the air gets more thin. It is the equivalent of being “fast” and will get you to the top feeling much better than someone employing what we call the “jack-rabbit pace” of moving at a quick pace for 20 steps and then stopping to catch his breath.
There are some skills that you should be familiar with, which will help you achieve the slow and steady goal, and one of the most senior guides in the industry has provided us his advice on one of these for our Denali climbers, but it certainly pertains to any big mountain: The Rest Step.
By Dave Staeheli, aka “Minister of Silly Walk”
My passion, my avocation, is mountain guiding. Specifically in this case, guiding people on Denali. I’ve guided a lot of clients to the Top of North America and one of the important tools I use to help get them there will inevitably be the rest step. Usually at least one, two or three clients per trip tell me at some point that they would not have made it if they hadn’t learned to use the rest step. Why this highly effective method of climbing isn’t better known is a mystery to me.
What is the rest step? Simply put, the rest step is speed control. While climbing at altitude, on steep slopes, with a baby whale strapped to the back, it is difficult to go slow enough to maintain an efficient and aerobic pace. At several points you will probably hear your guides put a lot of stress in going steady, keeping the breathing under control and maintaining that efficient mountaineers’ pace that makes it possible for us mere mortals to climb one of the world’s great mountains like Denali. And one of that keys of that efficient pace is the rest step.
“Go slow you say? Anyone can do that, right?” Well, there are a couple of bad ways to do that, and then there is the rest step. The worst way, and we see this quite often on Denali, is something we call “dash and crash,” or “jack-rabbiting.”
This is to move at a normal and natural pace, completely ignoring the oxygenation requirements until the climber is overcome by a lack of oxygen. The climber then has to stop to catch their breath. When they have their breath under control, they then start the process over. This is called going into an anaerobic state, where the muscles and other body tissues are starved of oxygen and lactic acid is produced. Is this climbing efficiently? I think not!
Another way to go slow enough to match your physical output to oxygenation needs is to take “baby steps.” This requires taking shorter and shorter steps in order to keep the pace down. Well this works, but is not the most efficient way to travel. In order to maintain such a slow pace, with small steps, the leg muscles need to keep working as the climber slowly passes one leg out in front of the other. There is a better way to climb, and that is, of course, the rest step. So what is it?
Simply put, the rest step is moving from one resting position to another. Imagine yourself standing on a steep slope and at rest. What is your body position? Probably you are standing with one leg downhill and balanced on the knee joint. Your other leg is uphill with a slightly bent knee and muscles relaxed. Your downhill leg, and consequently your bones, holds most of the weight and the uphill leg helps maintain balance. Now you take one step uphill to another resting position. Wow, you are already doing the rest step! Sounds easy right?
Unfortunately this is a lot harder to put in practice than it sounds. There is a whole lifetime of muscle memory to fight. The most natural thing to do once the leg moves forward, is to make a weight shift to the uphill leg and continue walking. In the rest step, we “rest” or pause between each step. There is a delayed weight shift. We hang out on that back leg for awhile, from a fraction of a second to time enough to take two, three or even four breaths as we grind our way up Profanity Hill to the Summit Ridge. This delayed weight shift, the “rest”, is the most difficult part of learning the rest step.
Where should you learn to rest step? The best place to learn is on a steepish slope or perhaps a set of stairs. This technique is difficult to learn on flat terrain. On the mountain I usually wait until we are on the slopes around Kahiltna Corner or up at the 11,200 camp (mostly because my clients think I’m nuts when I try to teach them a new way to walk at a lower elevation!). Even though I’ve been doing the rest step since Ski Hill, I usually have to wait until the mountain has spanked them a bit and are now receptive to a technique that will make their lives easier. The rest step can be learned on a flat slope, but it isn’t easy. When you get good, it is possible to rest step over flat ground. I can do it even downhill. Or backwards! One Mountain Trip guide says he uses it to get up the steps to the bar after a hard day of ski guiding. While I discourage this location to learn to rest step, I suppose it is possible.
We know that the rest step is moving from one resting position to another. I encourage you to start slow, going totally into the resting position before taking another step. As we pick up the pace, it becomes more dynamic, yet there is still that pause before we make the weight shift. Put that front leg out there. Slap it down, get a good crampon bite. This is not a slow motion walk. When you put the front leg out there, move it out at a good clip. Just don’t make the weight shift. After the pause, which as I said can be so short as to be nearly undetectable, make the weight shift. We are learning a whole new muscle memory now, so concentrate on what you are doing until the muscles begin to remember the sequence.
The rest step has some advantages to normal walking. First, it is often advantageous to lock the breathing in with the walking. This is a big help at altitude to keep properly oxygenated. On rough ground this may not be possible, but the rest step still works. We can take a longer pause before or after a big step, a shorter pause before or after an easy step. Working our way through variable terrain, our pace may not appear to be steady, but by adjusting our pauses to the terrain, our breathing stays steady and under control. In addition, the rest step really works well when trail breaking if you ever get stuck out at the sharp end in deep snow.
Some common mistakes are to take short steps like in “baby steps”, or to take the rest on the front leg. Once you practiced at the rest step, you may find your stride lengthens! This can help make up for the fact you are taking a tiny break between steps. The other common mistake is to stride out, weight the front leg, but leave the back leg behind, sort of standing on tip-toe on the back leg. Bones need little energy to carry weight, muscles need a lot. The whole point of resting on the back leg is to let the bones carry the weight. Rest on the back leg, not the front.
Pace, breathing, efficiency, rest step. In my mind these are the keys to making a successful Denali climb. Nowhere in this article have I said going fast is important. But with keeping the first factors working, we can’t help but move efficiently and smoothly, leaving other teams in our dust as they hack away with their inefficient techniques. The turtles win again!
One step at a time.
We’ll see you up high…
Climbing big, cold mountains is certainly serious business, but we can climb them in a spirit of levity, rather than one of being constantly stressed out. Enjoy the scenery, make friends with other climbers, stop and take photos of clouds, ice and snow. Make sure you have fun out there, too!
Inevitably, there will come a time on your trip where you’re going to need to buckle down and get serious, because serious consequences are at stake, but these times are relatively few and far between. Work hard at organizing yourself, so you can efficiently pack your pack and clear out your tent, making these daily tasks second nature. This will enable you to have more time to relax, instead of spending hours fiddling with your kit.
Your guides will work with you to help you develop efficient systems for your daily routines, so ask them for input and trust that all advice they provide is aimed at making your experience a fantastic one.
Thanks for choosing Mountain Trip for your adventure to Antarctica! Have fun getting ready and please contact us with any questions.
The Mountain Trip crew