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Big Mountain Mentality

By Kaelyn Jenny


Big mountains are fun. Big mountains are scary. I have always found that climbing tracks a fine line between having the time of your life and wanting to be anywhere in the world except on the mountain suffering from the wind, cold, and altitude. I have been climbing for close to two years now, and I still find myself feeling nervous before every big climbing trip. I am currently gearing up to climb Kilimanjaro in January and although “Kili” is technically less challenging and not as tall as other mountains I have climbed, I still find myself feeling some pressure.

The face of Alpamayo as seen from Col Camp. Alpamayo is supposed to be one of the most beautiful mountains in the world (I personally agree with this designation). This is one of the most beautiful camps I have ever slept in, and is also quite high at 18,000 ft/5,400 m. We climbed the Ferrari Route in early June 2023 and traversed the knife edge ridge with a 2,000 ft drop on either side to reach the 19,512 ft/5,947 m summit. Climbing up the flutes of the face was an amazing experience I will never forget. Going from Col Camp to the summit then all the way back down to base camp took about 16 hours.


People often ask me what could possibly be appealing about battling altitude sickness while climbing in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of the night, with wind gusts strong enough to knock you off-balance. This is a tough question to answer until you’ve experienced what it’s like to climb big mountains. I think there is a thrill in the simplicity. Even with all of the high-tech gear, climbing mountains puts you in a situation where it is really just about you and nature. Whether or not you are successful comes down to your mental and physical abilities and if the mountain and the weather will allow you to climb on that particular day. The weather and the mountain are completely out of your control and all you can do is try to read the mountain and make the best decisions you can on any given day to climb as high as possible but still get down alive. There’s nothing else to worry about besides your relationship to the mountain, you feel removed from your normal responsibilities and society. There is something incredibly liberating about that. Coming down from a hard fought but successful summit is also always a celebratory experience in itself.

Our camp site at Alpamayo Col Camp. We spent 1.5 nights here (we woke up at midnight the second night to start our climb). The sunsets were fire and there were incredible 360° views. Camping on snow can be tough. At this particular camp it was blazing hot during the day with no shelter from the sun being on the col, but as soon as the sun went down the temperatures dropped quickly.


Although I have some good climbing experience under my belt at this point, I always feel pressure in preparing for a big climbing trip. For me, training has always been a balance of being physically prepared but not injuring myself or overdoing it to a point where I am not able to climb. Climbing a mountain requires very particular types of strength. Climbers need to be generally strong and able to be on their feet for hours at a time (my longest climbs have been 18 hours of steady movement). They also need to be mentally strong and able to know their physical boundaries and mentally navigate within those boundaries. There’s always times in training or climbing when I physically feel that I can’t go on or push any harder, but oftentimes what feels like a physical boundary is simply a mental one. When I’m training or climbing I try not to think too big. Breaking training up into days and weeks and focusing on what you’re going to do that one day or one week to train helps me to not get overwhelmed. Similarly, when I’m on a big climb, I break it up into hours or even steps or minutes. When you know you have 18 hours of climbing ahead of you, this thought alone can be incredibly daunting. However, when you mentally break up the climb and think “I just need to walk for one more hour before I take a break” or “I just need to get over that ridge and then I can rest for a few minutes” - it is much more manageable mentally.

Stunning view of Quitaraju from Col Camp. Alpamayo and Quitaraju share a Basecamp, Moraine Camp, and Col Camp. Quitaraju is less often climbed compared to its much more famous neighbor, Alpamayo. You can see our teams’ guides pictured in the center/left. We did not end up attempting Quitaraju in order to save our energy for our main objective, a peak close by called Artesonraju (you’ve seen this mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo). There was also some avalanche activity on the face of Quitaraju and we weren’t sure we wanted to make the approach to the face through deep snow only to turn around due to poor/unsafe conditions on the face.

Big mountains are, evidently, big. Nonetheless, we can break them down into manageable pieces both in training for them and climbing them. I look forward to sharing more about my past experiences on big mountains and about preparing for and climbing Kilimanjaro. Whether or not you have any interest in climbing mountains, I think the mentality surrounding climbing can be applied to many things in life. One of my favorite books, Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, is the story of an epic adventure to climb the first 8,000 m peak (one of the 14 tallest mountains in the world). Herzog ends the book with the line “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Even if you never climb a big mountain, you will surely encounter big hurdles in your life and will have to overcome them. Hopefully sharing a little bit about my journey and experiences on big mountains will be inspiring to someone, or if nothing else, be an interesting read.

Please leave a comment or give this post a like if you want to hear more. Running Lights has been a great part of my mountaineering journey so consider giving them a try if you haven't already!


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