Ambassador Angela VanWiemeersch talks about success, failure and alpine climbing expeditions.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador and well-known ice and alpine climber Angela VanWiemeersch recently visited the Hayes Range, Alaska, in order to put up a couple new “lines” (i.e. alpine climbing routes). She had previously visited the area in 2014, where she spied the two formations. “I was blown away by their beauty and steepness—blue ice drooling from the magnificent faces.” She decided then I would come back for these peaks. She and Anna Pfaff spent a month there, but got denied by snow and bad weather. But, as she says, a failed expedition is just another learning experience. We recently chatted with her about what she learned from her third big adventure up north.
How do you choose your partners for big adventures?
I had been climbing all summer in Colorado with Anna, building a relationship while getting out lots and trying hard. Anna is a very experienced climber; she’s spent time in the great ranges. And she’s so much fun to climb with. It seemed natural that I would invite her to come to Alaska with me. Believe it or not, it was this alpinistas first time to Alaska! So it was fun to show her around the great white north.
What is prep time like for you for a big Alaska expedition?
It didn’t take very long to prep because this was my third climbing trip to Alaska and my second time in the Hayes range. I knew the lay of the land and the logistics of getting in there. I also have a dear friend and climbing partner Jason Stuckey, from Fairbanks, who let us use his truck and housed us while in Fairbanks. The only real logistical fear was finding a Pilot who was capable and available to fly us into this tiny gorge. Through the awesome Alaskan climbing community though I was able to get hooked up with the incredible Zak Keenebel, of Tok. And we were set. Anna took care of the extensive base camp and climbing list, making sure we were not forgetting anything. She assigned responsible parties for each and every item of expedition gear.
Do you like expedition planning?
Planning for a trip is so very exciting, although it’s always a headache. Between what seems like endless work shifts, I’m always struggling to make each bag only weigh 50 pounds. You can’t forget anything, but you also can’t overpack. It’s a never-ending Tetris game of expedition climbing that tons of climbers struggle with. You need the essentials, but when out there for a month, it seems like a lot is necessary. For a big expedition I try to always keep the weight under 100 pounds, not including fuel and non-dehydrated food. It seems like this would be easy, but we eat a lot of food in one month. And, of course, we always have back-up gear—ropes, crampons, etc—so nothing can shut us down.
What was your biggest learning experience you had on this trip?
The most significant thing I learned during my trip to Alaska is that, it’s only climbing. I spent every dollar I had and expended what seemed like all of my energy on this trip. However, in the end (despite not being able to climb our objectives) we made good choices. On that trip we had extraordinarily bad avalanche conditions that threatened both routes at some point or another. It snowed every day at some point on our three-week trip, leaving us no real safe window. We were so determined to climb we almost lost sight of the most important goal: coming home safe. Climbing is an incredible activity, but for us it’s never worth dying for. We had endless conversations on how to make a “safe attempt” or what aspects would be less dangerous. But in the end we knew it wasn’t the time and if we tried too hard we might regret our decision. So instead we came home to plan again, to climb and continue to dream big.
What do you recommend to people going on a big trip like this?
Bring plenty of chocolate, turkey, dried coconut milk and decaf chai.
What’s your definition of success in the mountains?
What I’m learning about alpine climbing, after my two (highly unsuccessful in terms of summits) most recent trips, is that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s not easy. The choices, the endurance, the remoteness, the climbing: it’s all hard. And that’s why when you do summit it’s that all-encompassing feeling of beauty. That wow, it was all worth it. The endless 80-hour work weeks, the weight lifting, the grueling trail runs… the more you give, the more you get out of it. So I guess when my day comes (hopefully) to stand atop something I’ve dreamed of climbing, it will feel that much better. As far as my definition of success, I really think if you put in everything you got and you had a good time, what more can you ask for. Anna and I laughed more than I ever though two girls alone on a glacier in the middle of Alaska could. It was a blast, even without the summit hi-five.
Check out more on Angela VanWieemeersch elsewhere on our blog.