To archive the story for my record, here’s a copy of most of what was published on 8a.nu.
9 years ago I was having a conversation with a young Margo Hayes under this beautiful climb called God’s Own Stone at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I was rushing out to try one more attempt before flying to Argentina. The route seemed so close to sending. I knew it could go that day.
Margo was struggling and in tears because she hadn’t sent it, yet. She asked what I would do about the crux clip. Would I clip it or skip it? It was something I’d had to decide so I was familiar with the debate. There are people who skip it, but I told her it was part of my crux and that I was unwilling to skip it and take a potential fall higher up. Then, I followed that statement with whatever she decides, she needed to decide on the ground and stick to it. Otherwise, she would get to the quickdraw and potentially hesitate, wondering if she should or could clip. This would put her send at risk, wasting precious energy.
I don’t know what happened on her subsequent attempts, but she did eventually send the route. I, however, did not. I gave a good effort, found myself at the spot to clip the crux draw on point but couldn’t and because I refused to skip it, I ended up coming off the wall and not sending. While I was disappointed, I remembered how upset Margo was earlier and how upset I used to get at failure, too. I resolved to not be upset and to show Margo that she can enjoy the climb, have fun climbing, and that it didn’t matter if she sent or not. I don’t know if that was the impression I left but I didn’t cry after failing to send and my spirits were still high despite that. I left excited for Argentina hoping I would return and clean it up when I got back, but I lacerated my leg on a petrified tree stump there and that ended my climbing season for a while.
I’ve never forgotten about the route. Various life events kept me from getting back to try it again, including taking time to compete in the World Cups for as long as I could, then several injuries, and my own confidence in my ability leading up to trying again. Last year I shifted my mindset around what I could try and set about getting on routes that intimidated me. I got hooked on Omaha Beach and was super close to sending but weather didn’t hold up and I walked away. That spring I injured myself stripping caulk from my bathtub trying to fix some things to prepare my place to be rented out. That was the end of my hopes for Omaha Beach that spring, and any training or climbing dwindled to recreational attempts indoors.
Then, my nephew died in April and my whole world turned upside down. I stopped climbing and turned to the mountains, summiting Mt. Rainier and some other Cascade peaks. I thought this would have a healing benefit for my elbow but when September came and I was headed back to the Red River Gorge where my nephew had been living and died, I wasn’t sure how much climbing I would be able to do. Afterall, on top of facing this place without him, I hadn’t been outside climbing for most of the summer.
When I arrived, I started on moderates. Just repeat what I knew I could do or should be able to do. Then, I started chipping away at mini-projects like Astro Dog, which is a fabulous but cruxy (for shorties) 5.12d/7c in Muir Valley. After sending a few of those, I thought it was time I test what I could do and go back to some unfinished business: Castle Has Fallen 5.13b/8a, Buttercup 5.13c/8a+, and God’s Own Stone 5.14a/8b+ were at the top of the list. I honestly thought it would take me longer to accomplish all of them.
I gave Castle Has Fallen a couple goes the year before but strained my shoulder in the crux and walked away. I gave it one project burn this season, then went back and sent it my 2 nd go on Day 2 “working” the climb (total of 3 attempts this year). Buttercup I tried a few years earlier and fell at the crux quickdraw, not willing to skip it and risk falling higher. I had tweaked my finger with my beta in the crux anyway. This season, I gave it one bolt-to-bolt quick session, then walked it, improvising in the crux on my first redpoint attempt, clipping the crux draw as I went. When I got back on God’s Own Stone, my first go (Day 1) was horrible. I thought “how did I ever get close to redpointing this years ago?” My 2nd go (Day 2) was much better. I focused on the individual sections just trying to do the moves and make the clips. I struggled figuring out the crux. My 3rd go (Day 3), I stuck the crux move from the dog and went to the top, twice. Now I felt optimistic. I gave it 3 more goes on Day 4, sticking the crux and going to the top but only off the dog on my 3rd attempt. Scrounging a partner to go back there was a challenge but I found someone for Day 5 and walked the route, clipping the crux draw, on my first attempt.
This is my fifth 5.14 and first not in Washington State. It’s been a goal of mine to achieve that although I had hoped it would have been a route in the Frankenjura. I don’t put any emphasis on my age but having just turned 50 and sending 5.14 feels pretty good. It gives me hope that I still have time to achieve some other long standing climbing goals.
And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul
Grief is a journey, like anything else. Finding my strength, resilience, compassion, and love has been the greatest gift I could have received from it. It was the mountains that brought me back to life and re-connected me with myself, and a few critical people, too. Unlike the mountains, my grief process was an ugly one. Reflecting on this past summer and the journey of my grief, love, and loss, I would spend more time doing mountain outings than sport climbing because I could find no better reprieve from the grief with which I struggled. To get a grasp meant heading into the great outdoors for as far and as long as I could possibly go hoping I would find myself and not kill myself in the process.
Instead of turning to some of the usual remedies for dealing with overwhelming pain like drinking myself into a stupor, sleeping all day, or indulging in self-harm and any other thing I could think of to shut out the world and make me numb, I turned to the mountains. I didn’t want anyone to see me weak and I wanted to avoid turning to self-destructive means. I didn’t know how to “be” in this space because it was all new territory for me. Opening up and being vulnerable especially when the pain was so physically and outwardly visible, was terrifying. Not only was I afraid that if I let someone in, I would drown by facing the overwhelming pain that was lying just beneath the surface but I really believed no one would understand. I thought if someone saw me like that, it would be too much, too heavy, and I would be too broken for them to love let alone want to be around. I felt really alone.
Putting on a brave face with false bravado was draining. Showing up trying to be something I wasn’t created a lot of pain and confusion for myself and others. I snapped at colleagues; I was ruthless with my boyfriend; I couldn’t get away from a temporary roommate making that situation complicated and uncomfortable; I’d miss climbing sessions without notice leaving my climbing partners hanging; etc. I was afraid to commit to anything and trying to will myself to do something only amplified my angst.
I stopped climbing and took a leave of absence from work. I couldn’t read emails, surf the internet, pay bills, do laundry, clean my room, organize anything, leave my condo, be in public for too long or hardly socialize with anyone. When I tried to show up, I could be happy and engaged but then I would retreat after and slump, sometimes just breaking down into tears. Sometimes, the tears would just come uncontrollably out of nowhere: sitting in a car, taking a shower, in the middle of conversation, standing in line at the coffee shop, in the middle of breakfast, or trying to climb. It was as if I had no control of my emotions and already feeling I had no control over the death of my nephew, I felt I was losing control of everything in my life and was afraid to do anything. The things I was able to do seemed like a big achievement, including getting out of bed every day.
One day I decided to go on a hike. Just to get out. I just needed to be in nature but I also didn’t want to be alone. I asked a particular friend to join me because I thought he’s quiet and won’t talk, and that’s exactly what I needed. If I started to talk, I was afraid I’d break down and the whole point of being outdoors was to avoid these heavy emotions. To my surprise, he became a chatter box. We laughed a lot and contrary to what I believed would happen, I actually welcomed the conversation and the company. Somehow and unexpectedly, he turned into an anchor of sorts. Bonus, he was joining me on a number of intense hikes and therefore was elevating his skills making him an ideal candidate for some bigger objectives I had in mind.
I found a sort of freedom and masochism in the mountains. I put all of my energy into the hikes, pushing myself as hard as I could go both up and back and sometimes just to go at all. There was no casual approach or descent. I wasn’t satisfied until I returned to the trailheads depleted of energy. There were times when I smiled from the feat, even passing out after some epics thinking I could wake up whole the next day. The feeling was short lived and I never woke up feeling whole. Instead, I was desperate for the next outing.
One friend worried about me saying “don’t get yourself killed out there,” which struck a nerve and brought a lump in my throat, a constriction in my chest, and tears to my eyes. Perhaps I was trying to kill myself indirectly: subjecting myself to the elements, pushing my limits, and maybe I wondered if I would let the elements take me if a chance arose (see Green Creek blog post). In hindsight, I believe going out on these adventures with someone helped push me but also kept me safe. It’s totally possible I could have gone in over my head otherwise. It also helped keep me moving forward and avoid those other potentially self-destructive patterns. Still, in that moment, I knew there was some truth in what he was saying because (also in hindsight) I had a type of survivors guilt I was facing and quietly replied “I won’t.”
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Believing no one understood me made me feel isolated and alone. I know it’s not true because people would tell me if I needed anything to reach out, or they were there for me, but how do you use people who say that? I didn’t know what I needed and experiencing me in that state was not pretty. Who wants to be around that anyway?
I didn’t want to be that person either: someone who sleeps too much, or cries all the time, or is angry at everything and anything, or can’t be present with another person because of my emotional instability. I fought it and started fighting people who were close to me. I pushed people away, isolating myself so my grief wouldn’t spill into their happy lives.
One difficult moment was going to Reno for the Youth National Championships to support and cheer for my girl, Lora. I had to keep my distance so my emotional state didn’t impact her ability to have fun, enjoy her last year as a youth National competitor, and prevent her from competing effectively. I was still crying often and on the verge of breaking down spontaneously and without notice. I was incredibly self conscious about it all. I just wanted to hide myself away but I also didn’t want to miss this moment with her for anything. Therefore, I showed up and went through the motions, hoping she wouldn’t pick up on anything; hoping I wouldn’t ruin her event for her; hoping I could keep that time about her and not make it about me no matter how bad things felt for me.
The woman we were staying with in Reno was incredibly helpful in this regard. She lost her aunt some months before and as the anniversary of Josh’s death came while I was staying at her home, we talked. I confided about my grief and she shared her story. We bonded and that night I found a black rose (chocolate covered strawberry) waiting for me as a tribute to Josh. It was a beautiful, uplifting gesture and I felt seen without asking for anything.
Further, the thing about Lora is that she’s a beautiful woman whom I’ve had the pleasure to know since she was 13. We have shared a lot, grown close, and sometimes I think of her like a mini-me. She understands me and I was very fortunate that she would stop by as if my place was a second home to study, use my shower, pass some time, join me for dinner, or join me on a run (even though running is not her favorite thing). And, she would leave me the sweetest notes reminding me she loved me and how proud she was of me for the hard work I was doing — like getting out of bed! Even though I was embarrassed she saw me like that, we’d been through so much together over the years that she became and still is a rock in my life and I’m forever grateful for her.
Nature is the kind of friend that never leaves my side. Even in grief-stricken times in her soul I can confide.
After I started hiking, I realized all I wanted to do was go and go hard! It was an intense draw that I must get outside and not just to be outside but to be out in the mountains on the steepest, longest, most arduous, and least populated hikes I could find. Even if I couldn’t get up in the morning for a planned outing, my reliable hiking friend remained flexible and with some determination, I could squeeze in an outing even if it meant hiking in the dark after sunset. It wasn’t long before the adventures got a little crazy and I was becoming obsessed with using the outdoors as a way to escape.
At one point, I managed about 50 miles in 8 days with about 17,110 ft of elevation gain. Not quite the elevation gain in less mileage like when I did Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft in 31 miles over 6 days), but it’s still a lot.
Even still, getting that energy out didn’t stop me from blaming myself for what happened to Josh. It felt wrong that Josh wasn’t here, that everything he stood for and tried to make of our family was even more broken then it had been before he died. I felt like I let him down, that my guidance and counsel let him down. I had always tried to be there for him and show him we could make something of ourselves despite the odds. Yet even my efforts to fulfill his last wish, fell flat. It was disheartening. I felt all of the optimism and hope that I had clung to and had continued to instill in him evaporate. Once again, the mountains were a place I could go where I didn’t feel alienated and I could run myself into the ground and try to feel pain in other ways than in my heart and soul.
Then Green Creek happened and I turned a corner and instead of allowing myself to drown, I wanted to fight. I wanted to come out of this, be free of the chains weighing me down inside, find and “be” me, whatever that meant. And I met someone who knew exactly what I was going through without experiencing it with me. He was going through something much heavier and for longer than I. He recognized this space with me and with our epic Green Creek adventure, we bonded in a way only people who share an epic adventure together, can.
He asked what other mountain objectives I had because he had some alpine goals and wanted me to join him on one. My goals were more about mountain hiking and adventuring into the back country. I didn’t care about summits and I wasn’t really excited about climbing. He threw out some ideas all in Washington Pass (WA Pass). I’d never been up that way and when he heard that, he suggested we do Liberty Bell and some of the nearby spires in a day. It was something on his tic list and with my climbing skills, the objectives he had in mind should have been achievable. Nearby was Black Peak, a peak another friend of mine suggested along with a short list of other suggestions. It seemed we might be able to do both in a weekend. I’d always wanted to go up there to scope out Liberty Crack and Thin Red Line and Black Peak was on a list of things I should do so I agreed to go.
Despite agreeing on another adventure with this person after the Green Creek epic, I worried more about my emotional capacity to be out trying for goals and summits on popular climbs when I just wanted to be away from people and not have any pressure for sends. Even though I had turned a corner with the Green Creek incident, the healing process and release of that toxic energy wasn’t an instantaneous shift of being. It was a gradual process of release, of building trust within myself that I was safe with myself and others and that everything would be ok.
One [moment] you’re walking along like usual, and the next…you feel like an alien has invaded your body; your actions and reactions…become totally unpredictable and confusing.
Unfortunately, the Friday I was to drive up to meet him, I learned that a friend of mine had died of Covid. I hadn’t been on my computer much, not being able to sit still or focus for very long without breaking down in tears that the one time I chose to go online, this is what I found out.
I just lost it.
I’d already been struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, which would come out of nowhere, and had a persistent eye twitch that was driving me crazy. There was this moment of being completely frozen, staring at my computer, watching my fingers type: is this true? is this that friend?
My breath was caught in my chest and I stopped breathing and started hyperventilating. I couldn’t handle another loss…not another loss. Tears were streaming down my face and I slumped to the floor, pressed into the wall. I wanted desperately to be anywhere but where I was. No one was there with me. Who would I call anyway? What do I do? How long will this last?
I texted my friend who was expecting me later, warning him that I might not make it and admitting that I was having some sort of thing happening. I wanted to call someone to come be with me but I didn’t know who to call. Who would I be comfortable with seeing me like this? I was in such a bad state and was scared. What was happening to me? Why was I falling apart? Could I even take my shower as planned? Could I finish packing? Could I drive to the meetup? Could I do anything right now? I texted a couple people, not mentioning the state I was in, but no one was available.
I told my friend my situation, telling him I couldn’t breathe, that I was immobilized, and I didn’t know what to do. First he said he needed me to breathe, then he offered to come down to be with me. I didn’t think that was a good idea because it would just embarrass me further. It was clear I’d have to get a grip on this myself and decided if I could at least shower, maybe I could finish packing and if I could finish packing, maybe I could do the drive, and if I did the drive, maybe I could go on the climbs as planned.
He was being as understanding as you can imagine for someone being thrown into that situation. The primary factor that got me into and out of the shower was the fact that I didn’t want to be alone, stuck in my home like this. I figured some company was better than that! I focused on each step, carefully weighing my ability to do the drive. It seemed like getting out and away from this enclosed space knowing I’d be out in the mountains soon, made every step achievable. By the time I arrived to meet him, I was in a much better place, though drained and vulnerable.
Liberty Bell and Black Peak attempt #1
In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks
Going up Liberty Bell was slow. It was cold, windy, the path long, and arduous. The climb itself was good. I was just slow. Really slow. I couldn’t motivate to lead any of the pitches but I did do the boulder problem near the summit up and down, which felt like a kind of achievement. Unfortunately, the plan was to climb several of the spires there and with my pace, that wasn’t about to happen. There were queues, I was slow, it was cold, I was somber, it just wasn’t in the cards. We hiked down and went into Mazama for dinner instead. The road was finally open after the wildfires had ravaged through and it was my first time. I have friends who live there or have moved there recently and I have always wanted to go but just never had, until then. I did contact my friends when I knew I was going to be in town, but no one was around and cell reception was non-existent in that area so further attempts at contact was futile.
Thankfully we ran into some of his friends and that took the emphasis off of me. I wasn’t very conversational or feeling very social and I was tired from trying to be upbeat when I felt emotionally exhausted and low. When we set up camp at the same spot as his friends, I excused myself and hid away inside my van under the guise of preparation for the next day. Eventually I went to bed and lay there hoping I would fall asleep when I heard them talking about shooting stars. I got up and looked out of the mesh window of my van at the starry night trying to spot one myself, but never did. I sighed and retreated back to bed thinking how much I could use a wish right now. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was reminded of the many times in the past when I had desperately wished for things and nothing ever changed. My wishes never came true. I resolved to stop wishing and despite the difficulty breathing due to the intensity of the smell of smoke from the wildfires that had been raging in the area, I lay back down and tried to sleep.
The next day we attempted Black Peak but my knee started bothering me not even half way into the hike. I felt really, really bad. First, I almost don’t show up for the climbs, then I show up but I am in no condition to do the objectives, now I have a knee issue and it’s possible I’ll have to bail on this objective as well. Part of me thought I never should have agreed to come out and do this but I knew what the alternative was so despite thinking I was letting him down there was nothing I could do about it. This situation was exactly the type of scenario I had been trying to avoid and was afraid of creating. To not be able to show up in a functional state and impair other people’s experiences was the worst thing I could think of doing to someone.
I wrote about Black Peak in another blog post, but the net of the first attempt is that I pushed myself as far as Wing Lake before admitting I couldn’t go any further. He probably already knew that because I was taking forever to catch up to him, having to stop often because of the pain. Still, after taking some pain relievers and having lunch, I reassessed knowing he was still hoping we could make it, but the knee was not good. Disheartened, I had to admit I couldn’t continue without putting us at risk on the mountain. For the line we wanted to do, the only way to bail was to continue up! And, let’s not forget that I still had to hike out.
We descended slowly and he suggested we head out into a meadow and picnic instead of driving directly back. It was still early in the day and we had our lunch fixings and fresh baguette from the Mazama store to snack on. I thought that sounded like a good idea because I wasn’t psyched to go home for fear I would regress and honestly I was just going through the motions of climbing and hiking, anyway. Although I felt numb inside, I forced smiles and avoided crying. We picked wild blueberries, found a spot in the meadow and enjoyed our view of WA Pass. I kept apologizing for being the reason he couldn’t get his objectives and thought he’d never want to climb with me again. He told me that my emotional stress was probably really high and that this was most likely why we weren’t able to do what we set out to do. He also said he cared more about spending time in the mountains with people he loved than getting a summit. I relaxed a bit thinking perhaps he understood what I was going through and we agreed we’d go back for Black Peak some other day.
Love and Loss
I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.
My boyfriend at the time was the closest person to me and I did a great job of pushing him away by creating the kind of cruel atmosphere my entire being wanted. It was another form of self-abuse. A way to confirm the narratives playing within. A way to feed the ugliness and somehow be “right” about deserving that kind of treatment. This played out spectacularly well when we were in person, especially if he was in my space. I expected abandonment, criticism, blame, distance, etc. and when all I got was patience, care and love, I didn’t know what to do with it. If he wasn’t going to be cruel and mean it was as if I needed to create that environment to satisfy this idea that I didn’t deserve such kindness.
Our long distance communications felt safer because I could hide all of the ugly and never admit what was really going on out of shame or embarrassment. I could put on a happy face and be happy for that time glossing over the heavy aspects of my life. But in person, with no escape or room to breathe, I couldn’t hide. He could see and feel what I was up against but the fear of letting him in, of breaking down the walls and letting him see how I was really doing seemed scarier than being frustrated at him at every turn. It started with me thinking I had to be something I wasn’t: happy, strong, loving, secure, together. And, because I wasn’t honest about how I was really feeling, what was really going on, and what I really needed, I became distant, edgy and difficult instead.
I lost my best friend not only by pushing him away but by putting on him unreasonable pressure and expectations, as if he could simply take away the pain by absorbing it from me. I self-fulfilled my belief that what I was, was too much, too heavy, and I too broken for someone to love, let alone want to be around. The moment I saw him again after some time apart (to give me space to figure out this dark period), I wished I hadn’t pushed him away. I missed him so much. On top of losing my nephew, losing close friends, losing family, I lost him. This Holiday Season will be particularly rough for me to navigate emotionally, though I’m going to continue to do the best I can.
After having time to reflect and process what was going on, I’ve come to understand that everything I experienced and the coping mechanisms chosen or avoided were all natural and common responses to grief, trauma, and PTSD. Despite coming to terms with that, I can’t change what happened, and I can’t help but feel sorry for the hurt I caused others. I can’t rationalize the behaviors because feelings aren’t rational. Grief, trauma, PTSD isn’t rational. There’s no script to follow, no prescription for healing. It’s all a muddled mess of loss, sadness, pain, detachment, numbness, isolation, depression, insecurity, judgement, blame, guilt, love, and anger. And those closest to the grieving may pay a price when the grieving don’t turn to them for solace, which is hard not to take personally.
I was lucky I chose the mountains as my escape and therapy (of sorts) because I discovered I’m not just a survivor, I’m a fighter and I’ll never give up on myself. After intense months of hard internal work with the support of a good therapist that continues to this day, I am finding a way to allow myself to grieve and come to terms with my personal traumas and PTSD. I came out of the darkest period with a clearer head and a fuller heart. That experience changed me, though let’s be honest, I’ll always have work to do. Grief, trauma, and PTSD never leaves. It just changes as I learn to live with and embrace the strengths and gifts I’ve received from them.
I’ve lost a number of people over the last few years but losing Josh was like losing a part of my very soul. A fabric of my being is now missing and will never be replaced. I never knew you could experience a loss quite like that.
Today, my process with grief looks different and my ability to “be” me dramatically improved. I’ve exhausted some of my shields and can stand on my own two feet, grounded, secure, safe, and loved for who I am, by the most important person it matters to, me. Just like my experience in the mountains, I learned that beauty and pain can co-exist, and that it is possible to be sad, happy, and at peace at the same time. That story I’ll save for another time: the process of becoming “me” again.
I’m off the mountains and back to rock climbing. I’m able to be more open and I’m practicing being vulnerable and letting people in. I feel so much and cherish those I love more deeply because I feel intimately how precious and short our lives are. Therefore, I continue to look for ways to celebrate Josh’s life, keeping his memory alive in everything I do that reminds me of him. The bond we shared will forever live on in me and how can I be anything but happy about that?
I don’t need to escape to the mountains anymore or hide my vulnerabilities. I’m still learning how to communicate what is really going on with me in the moment, but I’m having the hard conversations, even if they aren’t elegant and well formed. I’m also trying to stay open to what comes back, without judgement or defense–of them or myself. I know I’ve made a mess of some things and I only hope to repair what I can and ask forgiveness, otherwise. Grief is a journey, like anything else. Finding my strength, resilience, compassion, and love within myself during the darkest of times has been the greatest gift I could have received from all of this.
Excerpt from Surviving Grief
Sometimes I want to sugarcoat my process with grief, but there’s no sugarcoating it. Writing is one way I have learned how to be open and vulnerable, which has really helped me heal. I appreciate everyone who reads my story however raw it plays out and I appreciate everyone who continues to show up in my life and become part of my healing process.
Here’s an excerpt I found that hit the nail on the head for me. Rather than paraphrasing it, I’ll just leave it here but you can find this and other posts on the Surviving Grief facebook page and blog.
"There’s just no sugarcoating grief. It’s one of the hardest experiences imaginable. There’s so much loneliness, sadness, blame, confusion, and anger that comes with it. It’s crying yourself to sleep, pushing people away, feeling depressed, detaching from the world, and not wanting to go on. It’s crippling anxiety, and not getting enough sleep, or getting too much. It’s questioning everything, or being so numb that you stop caring about anything.
Here’s the thing…the death of a loved one is brutal and cruel, and it will beat you down and kick your butt, until you have no fight left...Grief sucks! There’s just no way to make it sound like walking on sunshine. I know it’s not…because I’ve lived it.
Only if you’ve suffered a significant loss can you understand that by not acknowledging the pain, you’re not allowing yourself to move forward in the way you deserve…in the way all of us who have faced loss deserve. I know all too well that grief is a downer. It’s sad. I’ve come to realize that the only way to truly turn that pain into something positive is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to just ‘feel’.
Forget about putting on a brave face. Cry it out…because there’s healing power in vulnerability. There’s strength in sadness. But I still refuse to sugarcoat grief. Instead, I write the honest truth about it…but I also try to share what I’ve discovered. That by embracing the pain…you gain strength.
You love harder and care deeper. Pain in life is inevitable...but pain is power. Pain allows you to understand yourself in ways you never knew."
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.