Only Half Done

My wife, Kristina, repacking gear from pack to duffel in the parking lot of Mount Rainier (14,410’). July, 2012.
My wife, Kristina, repacking gear from pack to duffel in the parking lot of Mount Rainier (14,410’). July, 2012.

Another Quote from Aristotle: “Well begun is half done.”

It’s been a busy two-to-three weeks for team Rocky Mountain Sourdoughs, as we prepare for Denali. The bulk of the team has been out on a few hut trips. I have yet to recover from my knee injury enough to join them. However, I have been able to get deeper into logistics and planning. This may not be the fun stuff, but it sets the foundation for a successful climb.

The logistics we’ve been considering of late center on gear and food, and each one takes considerable planning. I firmly believe that just planning to bring “about” this much food and “a few” of these pieces of gear does your team an incredible disservice. They need specifics in order to plan their own packs and – therefore – understand what level of fitness they will need to carry the weight. Beginning to process of planning food and gear is wonderful, but getting to complete gear lists and complete menus gets you beyond the “half done” trap.

I’m a project, program, and portfolio manager by training, so I take a fairly analytical approach to my climbing plans… particularly for a three week, self-supported expedition. As such, I tend to think of work flows and decision paths. For example, my decision path for Denali is:

  • What route? This needs to appeal to our goals, climbing ethic, and abilities
  • Route defines climbing season, this creates a window on the calendar for the climb; when is the route most free of objective hazards (or at least, has the type of objective hazards you want to face – classic example: later in the season means wider crevasses while earlier in the season means colder and more storms)
  • Climbing window defines weather and therefore many of your gear needs
  • Your route choice also defines much of your gear, particularly technical gear
  • Combine the above, and you can set a day-to-day itinerary; how much gear being carried how high/how many miles on which day by whom? When do we need rest days? Etc.
  • That itinerary defines food and water needs; how much food and fuel to see us through the trip?
  • Food, fuel, and gear define weight. How much can I carry on my pack? What needs to go in the sled? Is that too much?

Identify the above, and you can start imagining the climb. I’ll be carrying ‘x’ weight on my back for how many days? Can I do that? What about the sled weight? Where can I cut down on luxury items? What luxury items are necessary for my sanity? This “imaging the climb’ is – for me – a significant step in getting myself psychologically and emotionally ready for the climb.

Most importantly from a logistical standpoint, you start to get truly integrated team planning. How many tents are we brining? They weigh how much? How do we spread that weight out across the team so that we “share the load”? What about food? Which meals should we cook together? Etc.

After getting to a day-to-day itinerary, I identify all of the “common” or shared gear needs. Categories typically include:

  • Tents
  • Shovels
  • Snow Saws
  • Stoves and Fuel
  • Probes and Wands
  • Climbing Protection (rock, ice, and snow)
  • Ropes
  • First Aid Kit
  • GPS
  • Communication (radios, satellite phones, etc.)
  • Power (batteries, solar chargers, charging cables, etc.)

I make a list of who is supplying which piece of gear and also who is carrying that piece of gear on the mountain. Certain pieces of gears need to be carried by the lead climbers on each rope team, such as probes and wands. The rest of the common gear I then try to spread out to make sure everyone is carrying as close as possible to an equal share with some limitations (for example, I never split stoves from at least some of the fuel).

That “common” gear list becomes the backbone of individual gear planning. The team can then start to add in their own personal gear and figure out how much they will be carrying and fine tune their pack and sled weights. It also leads to great conversations across the team: ‘How many stoves do we need?’ Can we make due with two-person tents or do we want the extra space by sleeping two in a three person?’ This is when it starts to feel real to the entire team, and I find this process incredibly helpful in developing team chemistry.

A couple tangential thoughts about gear planning: 1) I have the whole team share their complete gear list with an assigned “buddy,” to help ensure that another set of eyes can question the list and provide a perspective on missing items or possible over-kill; 2) I usually have a “gear day” close to the departure date, where everyone brings their gear, packed in their packs and sleds, and we all examine it. This “gear day” event makes sure that a) each individual can actually fit their gear in the packs they are brining, and b) we can see everything we are bringing as a team and identify misses. I HIGHLY recommend the gear day. Every time I do it, I find something we’ve forgotten.

Finally, the meal planning. Yes, it factors into the weight which is important unto itself. But meal planning also is another important consideration for its impacts to team chemistry. How many days do you want to cook together? I try to make sure there is at least one group meal a day so that we have time to check in with each other and assess the day and the days to come. I also try to be purposeful about giving people alone time with some meals where eating as a group is optional; for these meals, people are responsible for their own food. Other considerations include travel times on the itinerary. At what times do you plan on being on the move? These meals can’t be cooked. What about early start times, do you want to fire up the stoves on those mornings, or do we eat cold foods, again? How many “fancy” morale boosting meals do we want on which rest days? These can go a long way to raising up team spirit but they are heavy to carry?

The itinerary gets broken down into three meals a day with a two-fold distinction for each meal: a) cooked or not cooked, and b) eat as a group or group optional.

The “eat as a group” meals become “common gear,” and factor into the considerations of who is carrying how much weight. It also lets the team know what meals on which days they will be responsible for as far as brining their own menus of food. This is essential for food planning. The individual team members now have something to go off of for deciding how many gels to bring (when are we eating while on the move?), how many hot breakfasts to bring (when are we not eating a breakfast together because we are allowed to sleep in as long as we want?), how many various snacks and desserts and any other food stuffs they want to supplement the group meals. No they can plan their caloric intake and total carrying weight.

New cooking techniques at Glacier Basin on Mount Rainier (14,410’). July, 2012. Photo courtesy of Dave Mattingly.
New cooking techniques at Glacier Basin on Mount Rainier (14,410’). July, 2012. Photo courtesy of Dave Mattingly.

This type of planning – while certainly burdensome – accomplishes a few very important goals. First, it makes you less likely to end up on the mountain short of supplies or missing gear. Second, and probably more importantly, it starts to make the climb feel less like an idea and more like a pending event. I find once the gear and food plans are laid out, the team starts to get much more focused, the conversations become more productive, and the commitment displayed by each team member increases. The climb becomes something pending that demand attention rather than something so far in the future that it cannot yet be focused on. My personal belief is that the value of that focus and commitment cannot be undersold or overstated.

Until next time, climb high and climb safely,


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