In the end, it’s you against you — fighting for yourself
It was the end of July when a friend reached out and asked if I wanted an introduction to a man she met whom she thought we shared a lot in common. Primarily what I knew about him was that he was a climber and loved going out into the mountains. I was psyched on mountain objectives at the time and actively looking for opportunities to go out as much as I could. It was, for me, the obscure objectives with no people that lured me. This man and I couldn’t be more opposite in that regard, but, the adventure we would go on not long after meeting would be perfect for both of us. And, unbeknownst to either of us, this outing would not only bond us in an unsuspecting way but it would also alter the trajectory of our lives.
Before going into the mountains with a stranger, I asked to meet up and do a meet-and-greet to assess each other and make sure we felt safe and confident in taking on the objective he was proposing. Immediately we were on the same train of thought. Both of us knew we wouldn’t take a stranger out into something we couldn’t confidently solo on our own. But, skill is only half the equation; compatibility and risk tolerance are important, too.
We met at the YMCA in Bellingham for an early morning climb. This guy, Clint, seemed friendly enough, bringing me coffee as compensation for making the long drive so early in the morning. I drove up to Bellingham for that 8 am session (a 1.5 hr drive), climbed everything of interest in the gym, and left right after the session closed. I didn’t realize we would be climbing during a community climb timeslot at the Y where he hosted community climbs for 2 hours during the week before he went off to work. Since I was most interested in his climbing attitude and aptitude, I figured I gleaned enough information from the limited climbing we had and thought he was safe enough for the objective planned. Did it matter if we didn’t socialize much or that things ended abruptly? I supposed not. My desire to be out in the mountains outweighed everything else.
2 days later I headed north to meet for the climb. I slept in the lot outside his home the night before and first thing the next morning prepared for the day and the climb before heading indoors to check in on things. When I walked in, I was taken aback. He had made breakfast and set a plate for me. I’d already eaten but I sat with him anyway. The food was cold, which made me realize he had waited for me to come inside so we could eat together. Perhaps he wanted to be sure I would be well fed for the adventure so I would have enough energy to last the day.
On our way to the climb, we chatted a bit. Unlike our time at the Y, our conversations went deep quickly. How had we come to be connected, our mutual friend and our friendship with them, etc. I don’t recall what he asked me at one point but there was only one response and it was about my nephew, Josh, who had just died and whose situation I was still overwhelmed with and processing heavily. He opened up similarly and while we both shared briefly, it was enough to know that we shared some deep pain and were going through mutually tough times.
When we arrived at the trailhead it was later than we hoped, but it wasn’t so late that we were concerned about our climb. Not far into the trail we came to the washed out bridge at the middle fork of the Nooksack River. We had found information on the river crossing detailed in some online posts, but though we walked up and downstream the quarter mile suggested, we never found the log crossing. We did find, however, a Tyrolean traverse set with a dynamic rope. Concerned about wasting more time searching further, we decided to take the traverse.
The river is fed by glacier melt further up in the mountains, which means not only is it really cold, the river height and water volume fluctuate throughout the day and night. At this time of day, on this particular day, the water height and discharge volumes were as shown in the images below: Aug 5 around 9 am, height around 3’1″ (remember that I’m 5’2″) and discharge around 280 cubic feet per second.
For kicks, I added the height and discharge values as of this posting.
It was important to stay as dry as possible since we were starting our hike and hiking with wet clothes would be miserable until they dried. Therefore, Clint stripped down to his boxers to cross, and while we both took off our socks and shoes, I could only roll up my pant legs as far as they would go and hope it would be enough.
We set to cross with Clint heading in first. At 6’3 the water barely came to his knees. He went across fine, holding onto the rope as he went. Stripped of my shoes, backpack secured, helmet on, and pants rolled up, I entered the water. It was the first part of the crossing that was the toughest. The current was pushing against me, destabilizing any movement I made trying to take a step, which made crossing difficult. Unlike Clint, the water came up past my knees and was kicking up my thighs all the way up to my butt. He insisted it got better just a few feet further in and that the exit would be even better still. I backed out from the crossing twice before insisting he come back for my pack. He took my pack and I forced my way against the current to successfully cross to the other side. While drying my feet I made a mental note to make it back here and cross the river again while it was still daylight. I did not want to do this crossing in the dark!
The hike and the climb went fine. The only epic part of the entire day was the sun. I’m used to avoiding the sun and climbing in shade so lathered with sunblock and the river crossing behind us, we made our way to the climb. The terrain for the approach was varied: typical NW forest trail to a climber’s trail that was a little more overgrown with a few downed trees, some trail erosion, and a few more river crossings including one where you walked along a downed tree high above it. None of these other crossings seemed as scary as the first. After the talus field, we made our way to the ridge we’d climb to gain the upper snow fields.
Fortunately at the base of the ridge, I could leave some things to make my pack lighter and easier to carry up the climb. We simul-climbed the initial ridge line and most of the upper ridge, belaying the crux pitch. At the top of the ridge, we made a decision to explore more of the surrounding terrain, hoping to make it up South Twin. I had no idea what I was in for but was eager to explore.
The day was beautiful with blue skies, Mt. Baker hanging out behind us and the North Cascades sprawling to the East. The glacier was easy travel, though when decision time came to commit to summit South Twin or turn back, I remembered my goal to make it back across the initial river crossing in daylight. It was already nearing 5 pm. We had talked briefly about a turn around time throwing out 5 pm as the latest we could be up exploring. Clint looked at me and was willing for whatever recommendation I would make.
This was a lot of pressure!
I didn’t want to let him down and back down from something he thought would be attainable, but I was nervous about crossing the ice further up the glacier and cutting over to South Twin while knowing that we would be soloing up and down 5th class (?) rock. Further, rain was in the forecast for the night starting around 11 pm. While that seemed like we had plenty of time, we did not prepare to sleep on the mountain. I had a tarp and my foam cell mat with me for emergency use, but it wouldn’t be a good idea to plan on that for the night.
We agreed to turn back and I was relieved.
Clint’s thinking to stay on the mountain was not just that we could summit and sleep on the mountain but that the river would swell throughout the day due to glacier melt. It was afterall, one of the warmest summers on record for the area and everything was melting out at an unprecedented rate. My counter argument was the rain, and the big unknown was how much did we think the river would swell if the rain came and we were on this side of it? Would the water go down through the night or would it just keep rising with the rains? In that case how long would we be “trapped” on the mountain? I insisted we try to make it back to the car, before the rain started.
When we turned around, I did believe we could make it to the river before sunset, but as we moved, it became increasingly obvious that we would miss that target. Though we did only two rappels, and the hike back to the ridge went quickly, downclimb soloing the ridge and navigating the gulley was slow going (faster than pitching it out, but still!). Boulders would break loose and roll down making travel tediously cautious. We were losing time with that pace. Even after retrieving the things from the base of the climb and thinking we were “out of it”, we were no faster getting back to the main trails. Crossing that log high above the river felt a bit scarier at dusk, too. And, all the while, I kept my focus on that final river crossing. “No matter what,” I told myself. “We have to cross tonight.”
Finding the river crossing from the other side, in the dark, was painful. The trail is obscured by downed trees, and since it’s a makeshift crossing, the obvious trail still goes to the washed out bridge. We had to bushwhack around looking for the rope traverse. Or, maybe we’d get lucky and find that log we didn’t find earlier. Either way, the sound of the water told me everything I needed to know about what we were about to face. If I thought the water was rolling to roaring earlier, it was raging now. Trying not to focus on how intimidating it sounded, we found our crossing. Looking out across the river by headlamp brought a deep resolve. There could be no hesitation and no questioning our decision to cross. If we didn’t cross now, we were forcing ourselves to sleep on this side and despite Clint’s optimistic notions that he could cross several times and bring blankets back for me, I could see in his eyes before he set off that there was no double crossing here. He had one shot, and so did I.
After a quick bio break to collect ourselves, we harnessed up. We had left our helmets on from the climb so we only needed to strip off our shoes and put on our harnesses. This time we would be clipping into the rope line so we were certain not to get swept downstream. Suspecting Clint wouldn’t be able to make it back to help take my pack across, let alone bring blankets or other provisions, he took both packs on his crossing. Wide-eyed, he set off. The “easy” part was the first stretch, coming from this direction, with the hardest part just before the exit to shore. I watched as the rope stretched and the water came up to his thighs. He was stumbling and the rope was stretching, but, he was moving. Despite his height and weight, his leverage was compromised with the packs but he managed to make it across.
Now, I could have asked for a belay to help me get across. This would have put a rope tied to me and the other end through a belay device connected to him. He could then “pull” me across if I got stuck. If we had a static line for a rope, I would have potentially said yes to this, but this was a dynamic rope. There was so much give with it that I was afraid if he pulled me too much, I could lose my footing and it would be all over for me. I needed to stay in control, at all costs. So, no belay.
By the way, who had the brilliant idea to put a dynamic rope there? If we had tried to tyrolean, we would for sure have been under water! Even pulling a bag across would have drowned the bags! I was super frustrated that whomever set this line didn’t invest in a static line. Things would have been soooo much easier because with a static line, there is no rope stretch! You can hang your feet over the rope and shimmy yourself along the line without fear of it stretching and dipping you into the water from your weight.
As soon as Clint was safely across and without hesitation, I clipped into the rope. Barefoot and pants rolled up, I headed into the rapids. I quickly forgot how cold the water was as the “easy” section required my entire focus. The current at the “easy” end was worse than the original section that took me 3 tries to cross earlier in the day. The water level was up to my butt, lapping up my back at times. I pressed down on the rope trying to get it as taught as I could for leverage but keeping it low was another challenge. The water was pushing me forward making it difficult to keep the rope close and low. Every step was a feat of strength against the current. The water was so forceful that when I tried to lift a foot to take a step, I could feel the water trying to take me off balance and take my leg downstream. The destabilization instantly had me using my entire core and a lot of pressure through my feet to stay upright or at least to keep my head above water. I really tried to move quickly because I couldn’t forget that I needed to get out of this cold water soon or I’d get hypothermic.
Despite my efforts to move quickly, I found myself taking small, unstable steps, inching along fighting against the current. My toes dug hard into the rock bed beneath me dislodging rocks as I went. Still, I pressed as hard as I could until mid-stream I was stuck. I couldn’t move no matter how hard I tried. The force was so strong that it took everything I had to just stay upright and no matter how much I tried to shift my weight, my feet wouldn’t budge. The rocks continued shifting underneath me as the water tried to take them and myself downstream. The rope continued stretching pulling me off balance.
I focused all my energy on my feet. Push, step, stay upright. The water was lapping up my back, I could feel myself sliding downstream more and more as my legs drifted sideways. I tried to shuffle myself along on the rope by simply pulling myself hand over hand. I just needed any movement toward the shoreline and I knew I had to keep going no matter how stuck I felt. Yet, I wasn’t moving. It felt as though any shift was going to send me backwards into the water.
As the roaring continued in my ears, the rope stretching downstream pulling me with it, and me feeling held hostage by the situation, I wondered what more could I do. Clint could not come in and save me, the shore was still too far away. There was a moment when I wondered if I’d just succumb to the forces holding me hostage. Afterall, I was fighting so hard yet remained stuck. The sound of the water faded back as the smooth rock bed beneath my feet shifted, my balance threatened as I thought I was going under. This was it. Except it wasn’t. A voice from deep within overshadowed everything.
Was someone yelling this at me? Where was this coming from? I couldn’t hear anything. It was as though I blacked out with tunnel vision, and forced myself to move a foot. The rock I was bracing into slipped out from underneath me and disappeared. The water like a fire hose pushed me downstream, and I was falling in, not able to stand anymore. And the shore…still too far from the shore. I had to fight, or I would drown.
This voice was so loud in my head.
The rope was bending further downstream as I dragged myself into the final crux. Digging my feet into the rock bed as hard as I could, I pulled on the rope with everything I had: hand-over-hand, inch-by-inch. I was moving again. I was getting closer to shore, but still not close enough for Clint to grab me and pull me out of the water. Just-a-little-more…
I was so close!
As I neared the shore, I was nearly submerged. I couldn’t control the direction I was moving, I just pushed sideways into the riverbed with my heels and kept pulling on that god awful dynamic line until I felt Clint grab me to help pull me out. I was chattering from the cold. He put his arms around me and held me, then got his coat to put around me to help get me warm. I clutched him in that embrace, sobbing momentarily in relief. I didn’t even know this person and in that moment, he was everything to me.
Fortunately, the car was not far from the river and I had dry clothes waiting for me (something I have after every outing). I dried my feet still shivering from the cold and my wet clothes, got my shoes on and hiked slowly back to the car. I was slow from being frozen even though I tried to keep up with Clint. Back at the car, not caring if he could see me or not, I stripped down and set about getting dry.
In the mountains, there are times when indecency just isn’t a thing. Sometimes you have to pee in front of your partner, or worse, poop. Yuck! Sometimes, you have to change in front of them. And, sometimes, you get stuck on mountains and have to decide who will be big or little spoon. No one wants to expose themselves, it just becomes part of the outdoor experience when no other option is available. This was one of those times. I needed to get warm and dry quickly and the only way to do that was to ignore that this stranger might see me in my underwear and sportsbra. It was dark anyway, so unless he was a perv, the change would happen so fast, it would be a blip in the entire outing.
Under the van’s hatchback I changed. Not a moment after, the skies opened and a downpouring of rain fell around us. Clint and I looked at one another, a big grin breaking out across our faces as we silently acknowledged our circumstances and high-fived — we just escaped an epic night.
I broke both pinky toes on my feet that night, and one of them is still healing because I keep subjecting it to use despite the pain. This adventure remains one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. Never in my life have I had to “FIGHT!” like that. I felt as though I was doing the Amazing Race and now can possibly relate to what those athletes might be going through in some of their race challenges.
Beyond feeling like I’d just participated in the Amazing Race, this experience did something to me. I realized later that even though the conditions I was experiencing were very real and very dangerous, I had a choice. I could have given up. I could have drowned. Everyone would have understood it was the conditions, it was dangerous, it was a risk. At least I died doing something I loved, etc. etc. No one would fault me. But, I would have given up. And only I would have known that.
Where did that desire to fight come from? It was the very thing I needed to feel to survive not only the crossing, but to break this metaphorical, internal weight that had been holding me down — to shift the rocks beneath my feet and to find new footing against the forces in my life that were holding me back. That FIGHT tapped into a strength I didn’t know I had. One so deep that it could pull myself through that river crossing, and simultaneously break this unsettling, overwhelming, and sad current in my life that was at times at risk of drowning me. After which, the tide in my life shifted in a way I never would have expected. And coincidentally, seemed to have a similar effect on Clint.
This crossing brought us closer than I think we would have otherwise been. Later I would learn about his deep depression and I would share my panick attacks. Together, we found a way to be there for one another and by having this experience created a bond that was lifting us out of our dark place the more we were together. It was completely unsuspecting and I am forever grateful that I connected with him, put full trust in him for this adventure, and found my inner strength to get me through this rough patch in my life.