From the Top of the World

Temperatures hovering around zero degrees during the daylight and minus forty after dark. Winds that are constantly blowing at 40-50 mph, and snowfall piling up to ten feet within 24 hours. Sound like a perfect getaway spot? It does if you’re Edmond resident, Valari Wedel and your passion is mountaineering and vertical ice climbing all over the globe.

Gaining experience and altitude.

Not long ago, Wedel and a few friends decided they were going to actually pursue a dream of climbing to a mountain summit. Together, the group decided that Mount Rainier, in the state of Washington, would be a great first climb. They hired a guide and began to learn the proper skills in ice and snow travel. They learned some rescue techniques and the proper way to tie a climbing team to a rope.

The 14,410-foot peak provided many obstacles, yet the new adventurers persevered through extreme weather and tiredness. “We thought that we were really ready,” said Wedel. “As I look back it’s funny, but we were really inexperienced.”

The team fought harsh winds, snow and a time in which to turnaround to come back down the mountain, they came up 300 feet short of the peak. The weather would not allow for climbing any higher on their day to reach the summit and the team had to turn around and get off the mountain.

However, upon returning home, Wedel admits that while she was on Mt. Rainier, she caught the “climbing bug” and immediately began planning her next adventure.

Mount Pica de Orizaba in Mexico, with an elevation of 18,900 feet, would be Wedel’s next destination. “It’s a great beginner’s climb. We should have made it a ten-day climb, but we did it in six,” she said. “This is just not advisable. When you’re moving that quick for that altitude, this is when injuries can occur.”

Yet her team made the summit and once there, Wedel discovered the thrill of achievement and a desire to face another challenge. “I immediately began to think about Mount Baker and Mount Hood (in Washington). I knew that there was so much more to learn before facing what would become one of the ultimate challenges, and that is Denali, in Alaska.”

She conquered both Mt. Baker (10,778 ft) and Mt. Hood (11,249 ft.) in just under a week. During the expedition, Wedel was introduced to vertical ice climbing, another one of the many assets required in taming Denali.

Overcoming mental and physical barriers.

“When I’m ice climbing, I am focused on every step and every swing of the ax. It is all about control,” she said. “I must have focused movements. If you don’t let your mind get a hold of fear, it can shut you down. For me, this is why I climb. It’s the true mind-over-matter. You must manage that fear to accomplish goals and not let it get the best of you.”

Wedel takes a self-help attitude towards her sport. She witnesses the fulfillment of setting and accomplishing goals. This approach helps her maintain an optimistic approach when faced with opposition, as was the case with her rope team during the three grueling weeks of reaching the summit of Denali.

Denali is notorious for developing what is known as crevasses—cracks in a glacier surface. Crevasses vary in width and depth and are often concealed by surface snow, creating an obvious hazard in climbing.

In different places, ice bridges form, providing a route over these large cracks in the glacier. There is always a risk of an ice bridge collapsing, further upping the ante of mountaineering.

Another potential threat is the length that the climbers are on the mountainside. Wedel and her rope team climbed to the summit and back down over three weeks. The snow on the side of the mountain had warmed up to a point that fracturing occurred, making for dangerous footing.

Facing all these barriers and harsh weather, Wedel never let it compromise the team’s goal of reaching the summit. “For the full three weeks, we were fighting blizzard conditions. The snow actually fell sideways, and the winds were in excess of 80 mph,” she said. “There are many reasons for not being able to reach the top of Denali, and we encountered many of them. But sometimes I have the best weather luck and the day for our group to get to the summit, it cleared and we had good weather all day.”

The team reached the summit.

An interesting point, Wedel explained, is that Mt. Denali and Mt. McKinley (20,320 ft.) are the same peak. McKinley is the American name and Denali, which is the name currently recognized by the State of Alaska, was given to the peak by local Indians.

Have the right gear.

No matter what type of outdoor adventure you plan, the proper gear will better assist you in a comfortable and safe trek. Mountaineering and ice climbing are no exception.

The first and perhaps most important item to use for safe footing on ice and on firm snow slopes are “crampons.” These are spiked, metal devices that attach firmly to climbing boots to provide reliable footing. “I use 12 point crampons,” Wedel said. “These have ten spikes on the bottom for secure footing on glaciers, and two spikes on the front for vertical climbing.”

Solid shank boots are recommended for comfort and support. Always have layers of breathable clothing that will whisk away moisture from your skin. Dress up and dress down accordingly, and never let yourself sweat. Sweating during the day will invite hypothermia during the cold of the night. Avoid using cotton clothing because once wet, it conducts heat away from the body, and keeps moisture next to the skin.

A belay jacket, filled with down, that is water and wind proof will prove to be a valuable asset. Today, armed with the knowledge of experience, Wedel will tell you that a couple of the most important pieces of equipment needed for safe mountaineering are helmet and goggles. “They provide protection from shattering ice from your team of climbers above you, as well as protection from rocks falling on you. If you climb long enough, it will happen.”

All ice climbers will carry a series of ropes, metal or fiberglass axes, and a variety of anchors with names such as “ice screws” and “deadman.”

An international climber has her eyes set on smaller peaks.

Having already reached summits in Washington, Colorado and Alaska, as well as Peru, Mexico and Ecuador, Wedel now has her sights on something a little smaller. “Next month we are going to climb The Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska,” she said. “It is 10,335 feet high, but is an extremely technical climb. Probably the most difficult that I have done to date. There is a stretch of somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 feet of vertical ice climbing. It’s going to be intense.”

Giving credit where it’s due.

Being a wife and a mother, Wedel has an absolute line of danger that she will not cross. “For them, I have to be able to tell if there’s something that is not smart to do,” she said.

She also gives a special thank you to her husband who has always supported her adventurous travels. “He has just been great. He understands my desire to do these things and go to all of these places.”

Wedel has future plans that include climbing in Argentina, and the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.

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