Whew, this one has taken a while for me to sort through. I’ll start by saying that we made it to 13’700 ft, just shy of Rainier’s 14’410 ft summit that I could see from my vantage point behind the lead guide, Win Whittaker. As we ascended an open face with 60 mph winds barreling us to the ground, the rope between me and Win grew taut. He looked back and saw how hard his rope team was fighting to stay upright, took a knee and drew a slash across his throat. That was it, we weren’t going to summit that day, but I’d been ready for that, even prepared for it.
I lost my good friend Carrie to pulmonary hypertension a couple years ago, and so I partnered up with the American Lung Association for my summit attempt of Rainier. My climb included a fundraising goal that would support the ALA, and I’d climb the mountain. It combined two things I cared a lot about, and seemed perfect.
I remember talking to my parents, one a pulmonologist and the other with a PhD that focused on lung pressures, soon after meeting Carrie and they told me with unwavering certainty that I’d likely see her die from the disease. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face when I told him Carrie had decided to pursue a pregnancy, a very high risk for someone with her condition.
But actually watching Carrie die, slowly and then all at once, was something I never could have prepared for. The daughter, friends and family she left behind missed her deeply. I learned a lot about the wonderful person Carrie had been – to others beyond me – in the months and years following her death.
I remember in the first days after she passed, I sat in my apartment with tears streaking my face, looking up at the ceiling, trying to feel her presence in any way I could. People had always talked about feeling the dead, being visited by the dead, seeing the dead manifested in the living, but I wasn’t channeling any of that. I threw my laptop on the coffee table and said, “this is bullshit! It’s all bullshit.” I knew I’d never tap into that divinity, as much as I yearned for it. I get to carry my memories forward, and though it’ll never suffice, it’ll have to be enough.
In a memorial card, I wrote about the person Carrie had been in my life, and I saved it before passing it on:
“I miss her smile and her “fun fun” and her childlike enthusiasm for the little things. I miss her telling me to dream big, to fill my passport, to walk away, to grow the fuck up. I miss knowing the pain she had felt and knowing that she walked in solidarity with my own. I miss the push she’d give me to do the things that scared me, her support when I’d fail, and the face I know she’d be making if she knew I was crying as I wrote all this down. Here’s to a girl who shines as bright in death as she did in life. Never on a pedestal- just the reality of who she was. Not the life of the party, but the instigator. Someone who taught me how to love, accept, include, give. Best of all, she wouldn’t want any of us to spend a minute doing anything but celebrating the beautiful lives we’ve been given. She would have been a wonderful mom. The best, really.”
I stand by everything I wrote in that card and will for a lifetime, but there comes a point when you enter a small, quiet room beyond mourning. I moved to Seattle and though Carrie would be thrilled for me, she’d never hear anything about it. Carrie would never attend my wedding and roll her eyes at the ridiculous things I’d registered for, she’d never ask me to tie dye dozens of baby onesies again, and she’d never be here to bake that amazing coconut tres leches cake with the pink frosting that she knew I loved.
Where the mountain meets the clouds, we dance among the angels.
I let go of the summit of Rainier in the same vein of my letting go of Carrie. I let go of it months before the climb. Though it was important and awesome and challenging, the summit was only one small part of what the climb was all about. I went in with zero expectations, absolutely zero expectation of summiting, and left an experience that was so wholesome it vibrated my zero expectations into an incredible flurry of events that I couldn’t have expected even if I’d tried.
The 4-day summit climb begins with an orientation and gear check, then a full day of mountain school for those unfamiliar with ice axes, crampons, rope teams, harnesses and avalanche transceivers. The climb itself is a 2-day mountaineering extravaganza over 20 miles of 18,000 vertical feet in 36 hours. This baby blows Whitney clear out of the water.
Day 1 of the climb hikes us up to base camp at Camp Muir, 10’000 ft above sea level. We arrived in early afternoon and got our gear in order for the upper mountain before hunkering down in the bunkhouse, which was essentially a giant adult sleepover. The guides gave a rundown of the upper sections we’d be climbing in a few short hours and assigned rope teams. Win Whittaker had chosen me for his rope team, which was either a huge honor or meant I was screwing up wildly. In either case, I was damn proud to be following a Whittaker up a mountain, and Win’s about the chillest kite-surfing, necklace wearing, shirt always halfway unzipped mountaineer you’ll ever meet.
Day 2 took us on a four part climb of the upper mountain. We were woken at 11:40pm and given an hour to don harnesses, avalanche transceivers, helmets, ice axes and crampons before meeting outside the bunkhouse to assemble into rope teams. Rope teams are used as a safety mechanism over glaciers and steep or otherwise dangerous terrain should someone fall into a crevasse or slip down the slope. Being on a rope team creates anchor points so that if someone falls, the entire team can self arrest in order to keep that climber in play.
Part one of the climb brought us across the Cowlitz Glacier and a series of icefall terrain, up the Cathedral Gap and into Ingraham Flats for our first break. Thankfully we were buffeted against the wind in this spot, but a few climbers turned around due to altitude, exhaustion, wind and/or dehydration.
Part two took us up Disappointment Cleaver, and this is where things started to get exciting. To navigate the Cleaver, the teams of 3 or 4 need to reel the rope in shorter in order to make it through the steep narrow switchbacks efficiently. Coming off the Cleaver were a set of big steps up a snow chute with burms on either side. Beyond the burm to my left was a drop off down snow and ice. When I went to take one of my first steps up the chute, my crampon caught some spare rope behind me and threw off my balance, so I slipped and fell off the side. In my disoriented 2:30am state of mind, I somehow managed to yell FALLING and my team arrested the fall. Behind me, Anna arrested with her ice axe into the dirt, and in front of me, Win arrested the rope in his cool, calm, collected Win way and looked down at me and said, “I got you.” So suave. I clambered my way upright and back over the burm, took a couple breaths and we continued upward to our second break, where we lost our last set of climbers before the summit.
Part three was a straight shot up to high break, where rest stepping and pressure breathing were crucial. Pressure breathing is used in high elevations to increase the amount of oxygen reaching your blood. You purse your lips and blow out all the candles on your 100th birthday cake, then breathe in that fresh mountain air. This creates a back pressure in your lungs that inflates them fuller so that you’re able to take more oxygen in on your next breath. Rest stepping is a brief stage of every step you take where you stand upright on your lower leg so that all of your weight is on the skeletal frame rather than your muscles, giving them a brief but much needed break.
The haul up to high break was when things started to change for me. The wind became stronger, the climb steeper, the elevation ever greater. It was hard to keep eating and drinking water, hard to think. I closed completely inward, focusing on each slow, deliberate, controlled step up the mountain. I could only see by the light of my headlamp and my neck had started to ache from constantly looking down at the placement of my crampons and rope. It was this feeling right here, this one that I can’t quite describe, that’s prevented me from writing this blog post. It’s a feeling of elation and exhaustion and adrenaline and exuberance and power and fierceness and fear that exists only in the space under your helmet. It beats you down and lifts you up all at once. You can’t believe your body keeps carrying you upward, you can’t believe how hard it is or how fun it is or how totally, completely metal it is.
On the last stretch to the summit, we were being pummeled by the wind so hard that I let out a loud yell that was immediately lost to the roar surrounding us. I yelled because I had to focus on where my ice axe was, on placing my crampons correctly in the narrow chute, on managing the slack in the rope line ahead of me. I yelled because here I was, number two up the mountain behind Win, feeling like I needed to drop to my knees and scream in honor of how totally fucking badass this all was. When those thoughts reach the tired slug of a brain state you’re currently in, they get after every fiber of your experience. So when Win took a knee up ahead of me in preparation to turn us around, I had already let go. The set of emotions and the incredible attempt my body had made were enough. I felt absolutely full to the brim with new knowledge and experience and a huge honkin bruise to accessorize it all.
I think the climb was cathartic, but only in the spirit of Carrie rather than the centerpiece. It was awesome to bring her painted rock up there, to know how supportive she’d be, and to think of her as we watched the sunrise. It was great to do something to support the Lung Association, and it was great to feel the weight of mourning float away.
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