2019 was a big year. I can list off many of my outward accomplishments, and I will, because I’m proud of them. Mostly to remind myself of all the things I need to be grateful for! More importantly, is what I took away from those experiences. There are lessons for me that came out of putting myself into difficult or different circumstances that challenged me. If you lived the exact same experience with me, your takeaways would be different but it’s important to share what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always tried to continue to grow as a human. Maybe it will inspire someone else, maybe it’s information they can apply to the challenges they’re dealing with.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to appreciate the journey and accomplishments when I have my head down all the time, but it’s worth taking a minute to remind myself what I managed to achieve this year and the goals I didn’t. I was able to achieve every one of my biggest passion goals; climb mountains, sail oceans, deliver talks, mentor young women and significantly contribute to a charitable goal (through effort, not personal monetary funds). I climbed the tallest mountain in North America (well, only 19,000’ of it sadly). I raced across the Pacific ocean in 7 days. I trialed for an America’s Cup team which intended to include women. I delivered the keynote speech to an amazing company at a holiday destination, I put a huge amount of effort toward supporting my charity as an ambassador for World Hope International through my Denali climb and by guiding a team on a trek to the bottom of the tallest mountain on the planet. I continued to push and learn in the field of sailing by foiling around at 30Kts. In-between my big adventures, I managed to slow down a bit to explore new corners of our beautiful planet, cruising to amazing destinations in Baja and British Columbia. I wish I could have done more of all of these things but honestly, I was very very tired in between. I have yet to achieve finding sponsorship to complete the World First record, but passion is incredibly motivating and I hope I can find other ways to facilitate the project.
Climbing Denali was a very big challenge to me, both mentally and physically. My goal was to do my next “big” mountain on the way to completing my world record attempt of being the first female in history to climb the 7 summits and sail the 7 seas. I was hoping to climb Everest in the spring of 2019 but Denali turned out to be the only financially viable peak. I had honestly hoped to save Denali for last. It’s always intimidated me more than Everest (the reason for this is factually based but also some weird mental psyche). I trained for 9 months off the back of knee surgery so it took a while before I could really push myself. I can promise you, that I pushed with the same mental mantra that I carry into all my biggest challenges- “I can never be strong enough for this”. I went to Chamonix for 6 weeks at the beginning of the year and I spent an average of 20 hours a week in the gym when I couldn’t be in the mountains. There are so many factors you cannot control in the mountains but showing up as fit and prepared as you can, are within your control and I would not forgive myself for a lapse in either area.
Flying into Denali National park, the mountain range was so beautiful it moved me to shed a few little tears. On the glacier, we split our total camp loads evenly between us and then we each carried our own individual gear. We divided our loads between the packs on our backs and the sleds we pulled behind, dividing around 110lbs of gear. The first few days are spent in snowshoes. It’s awkward walking on flat terrain in snow for long distances in our stiff climbing boots as they have no flex. The spaciousness of an 8000m boot with one pair of socks at a low altitude allows a lot of movement for your foot inside the stiff boot and it’s a recipe for blisters. A few times the first day I pulled my boots off and took care of hot spots. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice a hot spot developing in the arch of my foot until I’d taken my boot off that night and it proved to be a massive thorn in my efforts from that first day throughout the entire 20-day expedition. Carrying the incredibly heavy loads up steep ice faces with large boots at awkward angles proved too much strain and I felt my MCL sprain on day 6. It felt like a grade 2-3 tear and was something I had experience with from climbing two years earlier. One of the guides had some amazing athletic tape and I was able to tape the MCL to keep it stable and found a way to tape the blister on my arch well enough to make it work. I cut a panel off the end of my sleeping mattress to make shoe inserts to take up space to reduce the movement inside the boot and a little donut for the blister.
The days were really hard. Our first day of rest came after a week and was greatly appreciated. We spent days building 5’ snow walls to protect our camp at 14,000’. One of our guides became concerningly ill and was tent bound for 5 straight days. He had some sort of bug that manifested itself in a horrible chest infection that severely affected his ability to adapt to altitude. Thankfully we had a doctor in our team who watched over him for a few days while he had a dangerously low Oxygen saturation status.
In the meantime, we did a cache climb (round trip), up to 17,200’ at high camp to bury our supplies for summit day. There is a 2,000’ vertical 50-degree icy face near the beginning of the difficult trip from 14,000’ camp which without elegance and skill, can significantly kick your ass. I have never been accused of being elegant. The wall and the entire day of 6,400 feet of vertical and decent, smashed us. We were grateful for the storm that followed which gave us a few days to recover at camp 14’.
Between two cache climbs and building snow walls, we rested in camp at 14,000’ for 7 days. I spent days in camp eating, writing blogs for you fine folks 140 characters at a time, answering questions sent from my website and social media, spent hours stretching, hydrating and repairing the incredibly unfortunate leak that had sprung in my pee bottle. The microscopic pinprick was only discovered after the entire overnight content had emptied itself into my sleeping bag while I dozed. Thankfully, I was well hydrated so it wasn’t quite as traumatizing as it could have been (for me anyway, you’ll have to ask my tent mates how it went for them sleeping either side of me). When I wasn’t busy playing Macgyver, gluing and taping myself and my equipment together, we waited anxiously for news of a weather window. We needed three days for the summit. One day up, one day to summit and one day to come back down. A few short days later we had our only conceivable summit weather window.
Very shortly after leaving camp at 14,000’, I felt something physically was terribly wrong. I started getting big black spots in my vision, feeling very dizzy and felt incredibly nauseous. We hadn’t even approached the vertical ascent before the icy wall. 30 minutes after we left, I considered out-loud whether I should turn around. I was roped to a team of 3 climbers including myself and a guide. If I turned around, the other climbers and guide would have to go with me and couldn’t leave me alone in camp (due to mountain regulations). It would ruin their chance at a summit. Between my wavering and dry heaving, we continued to push and I had to ask that we just go slow. Every time we stopped, I didn’t even consider a chance of eating or drinking because I needed to get my breathing under control. Something was definitely wrong. I felt the weight of an elephant sitting on my chest. We pushed on slowly..arriving at camp a few hours after the others who felt completely defeated by the icy landscape we were meant to carve into a camp. Even after a shitty day physically, we all pushed together to build tent platforms. We checked my O2 saturation at high camp and it was still normal, even good for our new altitude, sitting at 85%. Something was strangely wrong but it wasn’t necessarily altitude sickness, though I hadn’t ruled that out yet.
That night, I ate about 2,500 calories and drank as much as possible. I surprisingly slept very well for a first night at high altitude (if you don’t think this is high, you have to look up what latitude does to affect the effect of altitude on the body). I woke very early.. maybe just before 5 to begin preparing for the day. It’s perpetually light out so it feels fine waking at that time. I felt really good. It’s a long process to prepare in frigid temperatures and our goal was to leave by 0830. Our rope assignments with certain guides had been consistent throughout but this morning, no doubt because I’d been sick the day before, I was the first spot on the rope behind the head guide, Mike. No doubt he put me there to potentially motivate me or keep an eye on me. Before we got going, I felt great. I felt completely optimistic that this impossible summit I’d been working for may actually be possible. We left camp heavily dressed, hand warmers activated in the big mittens and gloves. Big Mittens were stuffed on the inside of the down jacket to take out when we needed it. The first traverse was the Auto-Bahn; duly named because if you fall on the steep icy traverse, you’d be sliding too quickly toward oblivion to arrest the fall. The silhouette of the peak blocks the sun for hours after sunrise and many occurrences of frostbite occur in its shadow.
Very shortly after leaving camp, I was sweating profusely and opening every zip I could manage. It was no warmer than -10F in the sun and I have no idea what it was in the shadows. I needed the mittens out of my jacket because their extra down layer was too warm. I had protected the metal parts of my ice axe that I would grasp with padding and duct tape to stop the conduction of cold into my fingertips. For some reason, at the bottom of the head, the duct tape had separated and the shaft section of protection kept slipping. I could feel the tips of my fingers going beyond cold in my gloves. My heart rate was maximum before any real effort was exerted and I realized, whatever had had ahold of me yesterday was still there and I needed to go back. Unfortunately, on this steep face, you only go in one direction for hours, until you get to a safe place at the end to turn around. “Mike, somethings wrong, I need to turn around”. Mike told me I just had to wait. After the Autobahn, we took our first break and I wondered if I didn’t just need some sugar and fluids. Before I could get to it, I shoved my cold hand from the ice axe into my heavy mitten with the hand warmers. The rewarming process of extremities is known as the “screaming barfies” because it’s so incredibly painful you don’t know if you want to scream or throw up. Tears streamed down my face as I shook and cradled my hand. “Rest” periods are regulated to short pit stops on mountains because it’s too cold or dangerous to stop for long. I drank as much as I could and shoved half a snicker bar in my mouth. Half of the precious frozen calories fell out of my mouth while preparing to move. I had wanted to turn around but hoped that with some new fuel I may be okay to carry on. 20 minutes later, I knew. I knew if I carried on, that something bad would happen and I would not only put myself, or others at risk to bring me back down. I tugged on the rope to get Mikes's attention. “Mike, I’m done. I need to turn around”. His response, “Bullshit Sara, you’re stronger than I am, I know you can do this”. What didn’t matter at that time was what any of us hoped or believed or thought we knew. What mattered was that something physiologically was happening to me that I knew if I kept ascending, would put me at a point of incapacitation.
When climbing, sometimes the more difficult terrain is slightly safer and easier to manage on the way up than the decent. I would not risk it; Safety-wise. Dignity wise.. I knew this was it. We quickly made rope swaps and I was separated from the group without most of them even realizing I was heading down. I passed on the important things, the World Hope International banner and the family dollar bill of which both needed to reach the summit, and I turned around.
Within a few minutes of leaving the group, together with one of the guides, Alex, I fell in my first crevasse. One leg, up to my hip. I already felt so sorry for myself that all I could do was laugh. How shit was it to have to expend extra energy to kicking or pulling my way out of a crevasse? Beneath me, I felt a wall of ice behind my boot and I kicked my way out using my crampon. Within minutes I fell in a second crevasse except this time, I could feel the emptiness in all directions and tapped the delicate crust I was resting on. Alex aided me by pulling and I scratched at the surface with my ice axe. I mentioned my falls to people on the way down who kept ridiculous amounts of slack in their ropes- but tired people at altitude have very few shits to give- and they barely acknowledged it.
Having left very early in the day, our traverse of the Autobahn on the way back down meant we were walking against the high flow of traffic and awkwardly walked above the placed protection stakes or bolting between parties to try and have a chance to clip in. It also meant we were walking in the spindrift that was building from the increasing wind, over a very icy surface since the kicked-in trail was otherwise occupied with people ascending. This meant every step was given multiple kicks to reach the icy surface for the crampons to bite into. So Much Effort, when I already felt like I didn’t have much left to give. Fear is a motivating factor and you’ll kick as many times as you need to if you’re shit scared of careening off into the abyss with one misstep.
About 30 minutes out of high camp I stopped. I felt so awful- so empty. I didn’t know how I was going to manage the last gentle slope into camp. When we made it into camp I asked Alex to take a video of me- standing in my climbing get up, feeling empty of anything left to give and holding only a feeling of failure. I may have made the right decision, or the only decision I was capable of physically completing (to come down and not to continue up), but good or bad, it was a failure. I did not stand on the required 2m squared roof of the mountain, therefore, making void the other 19 days of effort and the 9 months of training and the two years of practical training prior to that.
Sailing is more forgiving in that way. If you don’t cross an ocean race in First place, they don’t make you turn around and race the whole thing again. But mountains are different and world records are strictly different and I failed to meet their criteria.
This is not to say that it was a waste. It wasn’t. I failed the objective of reaching the summit but I achieved a different depth and perspective by failing. It’s bullshit to think I could only learn those lessons from failure. I learn a hell of a lot by achieving things by the skin of my teeth. Every “achievement” has so many moments of potential failure along the way that actually achieving them does not often afford the feeling of ease in its accomplishment.
However, let us not forget the journey. The journey of life, which takes me to these peaks and oceans and the dedication they take and the self-motivation I somehow find to push myself toward them; that effort, will never be a failure. The only failure I could find in a journey would be to never begin. You may not be climbing a mountain or sailing an ocean, but the same sentiment remains, you’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Never risking the effort to begin is the only failure I can see worth noting.
I left Denali and went down to a cabin in the woods with the intention to rest and go back up as soon as possible. It wasn’t altitude sickness that had prevented my summit attempt as I had initially suspected, little did I know on the mountain that I had contracted the upper respiratory infection from the guide and the infection only got worse over the coming days. After a week I let go of the fantasy of recovery as the infection progressively got worse. When I finally arrived back in Florida, my first task was to visit the doctor. I’d come back with a fairly strained cardio system and needed steroids and an inhaler for the weeks after. I had a resting heart rate of 115bpm. Not only was I not climbing mountains anytime soon, I wasn’t going to be doing much of anything physically productive for a while.
(Regrettably, I didn’t do any blood work after returning but it would have been interesting to see what was causing the cravings which compelled me to eat 12 cans of smoked oysters in my first five days back home. We could potentially blame something emotional here but most likely it was a mineral I was trying to restore.)
A month later- I set out across the Pacific Ocean for my first Trans-Pac race. I was with Paradox, my favorite vessel of all. I have had more laughs and more times over 30kts on that boat than all other vessels I’ve sailed combined. At the end of life, I feel those will be the things I remember- how great it was to surf fast down waves at the tiller of a big trimaran and how much we laughed and what those friendships meant over the years. When we landed in Hawaii I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by jumping out of an airplane. My team agreed, (except for a few who shall remain nameless). It was the most exceptional way to celebrate an ocean crossing that I’ve found. I sailed back to California less than 48 hours after the finish on the MOD 70 trimaran Argo. In the middle of the Pacific in an area of no wind- we stopped to jump over-board into the dark blue. At 2 miles depth, sunlight only penetrates so deep and whatever creature you envision within your vivid imagination, lurks, just where the sun rays disappear. It scares the shit out of me- every time I do it. I force myself to do things that scare me. Not because I’m a masochist but because you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Photo @Ronnie Simpson
I spent August foiling around Newport, RI on the TF10, again, being scared quite often on that little platform to be doing 30 plus knots. In between, I was preparing a keynote speech I was giving in Croatia and finalizing a charity trek in Nepal to Everest Basecamp for World Hope International. I was beginning to consider some big life-altering decisions at the same time and the stress and anxiety were at an all-time level. Wine helped.
I delivered a speech in Croatia that was mostly about the challenges of teamwork. I found it to be an incredibly interesting topic of which I feel like I’ve had a lot of accelerated experience through being a part of teams in extreme environments. Let me know if you’re interested in more details. I also covered the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA and my current World First Record attempt. One of my bigger goals is to continue to do more talks but the “adventure sports” category doesn’t seem to be quite as appealing in America as it is in Europe so have struggled for opportunities in the States.
Following my talk in Croatia- I went back to Nepal. I’ve been an ambassador for World Hope International (a point of pride), for the past year and I’ve dedicated my adventures and efforts to help raise funds for their water projects. I’ve been studying and working with Non-Profits since I was at University. World Hope International is the real deal. They have the highest ratings a charity can receive for their committed efforts and use of their donated funds, some of the qualities I find most redeeming in a charity. They are an organization full of dedicated staff and volunteers who pursue charity through a passion for humans and the environment.
I led a charity trek to Everest Base camp in Nepal for World Hope because I knew that the people willing to step out of their comfort zone and take on the challenge would inspire others to donate for their efforts. I supported World Hope on Denali for the same reason. Denali was a huge challenge for me. People pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone is inspiring. Our clients from World Hope had big hearts and big spirits and went well beyond where they were comfortable. They also did an amazing job of fundraising in their communities for World Hope and were inspired to continue on to other challenges to raise money for the charity. I know what it took from each of them to even get to the starting line in Nepal and how far past comfort they had to push themselves to reach their objective. I was so proud and happy for them to have achieved their goal.
After another year of adventure, what did I come away with? The theme I continuously challenge myself and others with- “You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.” Period. This is where you find yourself. Until you’re challenged with shit you can’t control, in an environment, you can’t control, I really feel like you’re missing out on some of the greatest edges of your human potential. We weren’t meant to be comfortable all the time, we weren’t meant to be entertained. Our bodies and our minds have developed to be active and to be challenged. Nothing that frightens or challenges you is trivial. Find your boundaries. Find that edge where you think you’re capable and comfortable and then go past it. Before you know it… you’ll be so far beyond what you thought you were capable of, that you’ll forget where you even started. Take some ownership of your destiny, in this one, single life that you have been given. Every person who’s ever achieved something has had a starting point. Don’t forget the old cliche that it’s all about the journey, it’s true. In 35 years, almost all of it has felt like the journey. There have only been a handful of times in my entire life where I’ve felt like I truly achieved the defined “goal”. Those moments… those summits.. those finish lines; literal and figurative, are things I continue to chase. But I’ll always remember to enjoy the journey. Don’t wait for life to happen. Best of luck with that initial leap.
A big thank you to my partners and sponsors for the past year: World Hope International, Sailing Performance Training, Momentous Protein, and APSU Nutrition.
PS- IF you’re wondering “what’s next”, watch this space over the next few weeks for my biggest announcement yet!