Never Give Up!

IgniteBend is a unique event where each presenter/performer only has 5 minutes on stage with 20 slides that rotate automatically every 15 seconds.  It’s fast-paced, fun, and very challenging.  I had to figure out what story or message I would share in just 5 minutes!  I chose my epic descent of Mt Sill (about which I also wrote for the Sierra Journal in 2009).  Below is the video and transcript of what I planned to say.  :-)

I travel around the country speaking about how to “Achieve Peak Performance,” telling tall tales from the mountains and how the lessons I learned transformed me as a person and a professional. The most influential trip out of all of them was Mt Sill’s Swiss Arête in California.

People often think that climbing is a really dangerous activity, but in my case it was mountain biking. I had a bad accident and managed to suffer a broken collarbone which needed a pin to hold the pieces together.

I was still recovering from the injury when my buddy, Jeff told me he was saving the Palisades Traverse for me as a birthday present – climbing 5 of the CA 14ers in one go. An endurance challenge along an impossibly long knife-edged ridge. How could I possibly say no?

I was out of shape and hadn’t carried a pack since before the accident, but I had been following 5.9’s in the gym, Jeff was willing to lead all the pitches, and I rationalized it didn’t matter how heavy the pack was if I could just go slow enough. Everyone needs a buddy like Jeff!

My pack ended up being the heaviest I had ever carried at 61#, nearly half my body weight, but I couldn’t complain as Jeff’s was 72# and weighing his pack actually broke our hanging scale!

The approach hike is 8 miles with a 3,000ft gain straight uphill to 11,000ft. We both suffered under the weight of our packs but made it to our new home at Sam Mack Meadow after 8 hours of hiking.

It’s difficult to describe the anticipation the night before a committing climb and you struggle to get everything prepared and get a restful night sleep. The wind howled all night as gusts up to 50mph as has been forecast. We woke at 2am, got ready in the cold and started hiking in the dark.

As we were climbing up the left flank of the Palisades Glacier, it was so cold in the shade with the high wind gusts that we were shivering even as we were hiking. We passed the high camp of another group of climbers who shouted, “You don’t know how bad it is up there!”

We reasoned that we could always turn around and go back to camp, but we had to see the conditions for ourselves. We reached the beginning of the rock climb at just over 13,000ft and got ready for the climbing to become more serious.

The climb is five long pitches (rope lengths) to the summit at 14,200ft. It’s moderate climbing but very strenuous in the altitude, and the high winds made for very chilly belays.

The crux, or the hardest part of the climb, is in the middle of the fourth pitch, past the point of no return. I reached over into a thin crack system, pulled backwards in a move that’s called a “layback” and I felt the searing pain of the pin blow through my shoulder.

I dropped and fell onto the rope, stunned and in pain, despondent that I knew something had gone terribly wrong but I still needed to get through the crux section. Adrenaline is an amazing thing and I still can’t remember how I got through the section to climb up to Jeff.

I told Jeff, “Jeff, we have a situation. I blew the pin in my shoulder. We need to get down and get me to a hospital. Don’t ask me about it again, I’m going to try to tune out the pain.” We still had one more pitch to climb upwards and reach the summit.

Jeff was eerily calm and just said, “OK” and got to work. It’s a scary feeling to be that high and know that you are so far from help. It’s important to be self-sufficient, and choose partners with whom you can work together to get out of emergencies.

We abandoned the goal of a full Palisades Traverse and began descending around Mt Sill, picking our way down carefully and looking for a faster non-standard descent route. The going was VERY slow as I was in pain and we had to try to find our way down an area about which we had no “beta” – climber speak for information.

We looked straight down several thousand feet and began a series of sketchy rappels. Around every corner, I thought “one mistake here, and we could both die.” We both kept that eerie calm when I started to slide on some ice and when Jeff dropped his backpack into the bergschrund.

There was no moonlight and could not find our way back to the climber’s trail back to camp. We had no choice but to spend the night out unprepared, spooning for warmth, hoping our significant others would forgive us as we did it for survival.

We spend the whole night awake and shivering, readjusting as our body parts kept going numb from cold and lack of circulation. We simply had to make it through the night and sunrise would guide us to food, water, and shelter back at camp.

We hiked all the way back down to the parking lot, grateful to be alive and in the grand scheme of things, unharmed. We found that the cars in the lot had been vandalized and my car had not escaped someone’s wrath. Instead of getting upset like I might usually at something like a parking ticket, we both gave thanks just to be back at the trailhead.

The accident and unplanned bivy taught me how to keep going in the face of adversity, when around every corner lies another seemingly impossible obstacle. Pick good partners, stay calm when the you-know-what hits the fan, and figure out what you need to do to keep going…and never give up!

Are you surviving or thriving?

Many people are intrigued by my departure from the corporate world to follow my passion of making adventure travel for women, but I’m going to take us a few years back to one of the hardest climbs that clearly demonstrated the value of following my passion.  I’m including the video from this talk.  It was done with amateur videography equipment so apologies that the audio is not the most awesome.  Regardless, you might get a kick out of the live version as well.  :-)

Mt McKinley, or its native name, Denali, is the highest mountain in North America and is known as a “mountaineer’s mountain.” Even those who have climbed both Everest and Denali often say Denali is tougher.

Denali - West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Denali – West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

It’s 20,320ft which is high, and as you may know, as you go higher, the air pressure drops making less oxygen available. However, it’s location close to the Arctic Circle makes it feel higher as well because the air pressure also drops as you go further north. You are dropped off by ski plane at 7,800 feet and have 13,000 ft of glacier and vertical relief to climb to the top of this formidable mountain.

It’s intimidating when you are dropped off as you are on your own for 21 days. You worry about your physical preparation, skills, logistical planning. As you look up around the Kahiltna Glacier and see these intimidating peaks all around you are only 9k ft high and realize there’s over 20kft of climbing because you nearly climb the mountain twice.

IMG_3979The typical routine is to carry heavy loads up higher, dig caches 6-10 ft deep, bury your cache, and head back down to sleep at a lower altitude to recover. The total load I carried was around 120# split between my backpack and the sleds dragged uphill every day. There had been a volcanic eruption of Mt Redoubt earlier in March.  As a result of the heat-absorbing ash that blanketed the glacier, it was less stable than usual so we chose a night schedule. That means that we slept during the day, would wake IMG_3983around 10pm and be climbing before midnight each night.

Sometimes people tell me vacations sound like their worst nightmares. :-)

But I was in heaven. It was the most intense, isolating, scary, committing thing I have ever done, and John kept saying he was surviving but it seemed like I was thriving.

It made a difference later after we made our way up to our final camp. We had to dig out a platform and build walls made of snow blocks. It was hard work as we were now above 16,500 ft which felt like digging at 19k ft. You would pull three strokes of the snow saw and have to lean against the rock to catch your breath.

Location of our high camp

Location of our high camp

We came down to recover and witnessed an accident up high that proved to be fatal to the two fallen climbers. It made me nervous and we decided to take a rest day and head up the fixed lines, our descent route, to familiarize myself when I was unexpectedly shut down by incredible pain upon each inhalation. I was debilitated. We waited three days and each day tried again but the pain only got worse.

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

I got checked out by the ranger medic and we confirmed that it wasn’t anything life threatening. I still had to get myself out of there. A helicopter ride was an option but any self respecting climber will at least try to self-evacuate rather than put others’ lives at risk.

So we packed up from 14k camp and started to head down. I was in excruciating pain the entire time as breathing was unavoidable. But we were hell bent to get all the way down what had taken us 14 days to climb up, we descended in 11 hours.

I kept thinking of John’s words, “In this environment, I am surviving but you seem to be thriving!” It was a good thing that I was so passionate about climbing, about being on that mountain at that time, and about getting my own butt off the mountain. It was the only way I could keep going was to remind myself that I WANTED to be there.

Having the time of my life!  :-)

Having the time of my life! :-)

Sometimes the paths we take when we follow our passions can seem really difficult. But the reality is that life is really difficult and there will always be obstacles and challenges along the way no matter what.

If you are living supporting someone else’s dream, those inevitable challenges can seem intolerable. But if you are following your own passion, you will always be working toward your personal mission.

Then the question becomes…what is YOUR passion!?!?

Best Training Hikes in the Bay Area

Training for backpacking and mountaineering has several components – cardiovascular (both endurance and interval to raise anaerobic threshold), strength training, and “sport specific.”

Sport specific refers trying to mimic the activity as best possible.  For example, in mountaineering, we typically carry heavy packs up and down steep slopes over several days for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on average.  It’s tough to mimic those conditions in the gym, but we can do so out on the trails.

Hiking Montara Mtn gives training at sea level new meaning

Beautiful single track

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would recommend hiking with the pack you will actually carry in the mountains.  This achieves several objectives – gets you more familiar with your gear, gives you a chance to see if there are any issues with the fit (i.e., waist belt digs into your hips), and best simulates the actual conditions of your climb.

Water is the best way to weight your pack.  It’s easy to calculate (1 gallon is 8.8# and 1 liter is 2.2#), it’s plentiful and can be convenient on really hot days, and you can pour it out if you need to move faster or your knees are bothering you on the downhill.

A girlfriend of mine once brought 10# boxes of trash compactor bags in her pack, but when we started to run out of daylight and needed to move faster, she couldn’t do anything with those boxes. If she had water, she could have poured it out to lighten her load.

One disadvantage of using water is that it is more dense than the actual gear with which you will fill your pack.  This makes the center of gravity feel much lower than it will be on the actual climb.

Hiking the fire roads on Diablo

Company at the summit of Olympia Peak

One standard training principle is to carry the water up to the top of your hike, pour it out, and then descend with a lighter pack to save your knees and legs.  I never did this because I find the downhill to be quite challenging.  Its also the most dangerous part of most climbs – you have gravity pulling you downward, a false step is more likely to result in a fall, and you are the most tired when descending.  I always found it really valuable to train for the descent as well as the ascent.

When I first started climbing, I took the time to research all the major steep day hikes in the Bay Area.  I calculated the feet gain per mile to figure out which hikes would give me the best bang for my buck.  Mt Diablo tops them all for being a butt kicker that really simulates the strain you’ll experience on a mountain.  Mission Peak as also great for its relentless slope and was a great hike to do when I was more pressed for time.  Others are good for variety, but I didn’t feel were as beneficial as a staple.

Hike Miles Altitude Gain Feet/Mile Comments
Mission Peak – Main Trail 6.0 2100 350 Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top
Mt Diablo North Peak Loop fm Regency Gate 9.9 3100  313 Real butt kicker -  when I’m really serious, I would do this one EVERY weekend. Bring a map and lots of water, can be VERY hot in summer.
Mt Diablo – 4 peaks of Diablo 16 4700 293 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Del Valle to Sunol 19.5 5600 287 Long long hike that requires a car shuttle. I’ve done this twice in about 8.5 hrs
Mt Tam – Mtn Home Inn TH  6.5 1500 250 Beautiful hike. Good for variety, but not nearly as hard as top two.
Montara Mountain 8 1800 225 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Windy Hill – Portola Valley Loop  7.2  1400 195 This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.
Wunderlich Skyline Loop 10.0 1800  180 Wooded and cooler in summer.  Well-marked trails.  Gentle grade but continuous slope.  Good for endurance but not very grueling.

All distances and altitude gains are based on publicly available info, my own recollection and use of an altitude watch, or maps.  If you redo any of these maps with your own GPS, feel free to send me your stats so I can improve the accuracy of this chart.

Please feel free to shoot me any questions or share any other local hike gems you may have.  Finally, I’ll put in a plug for my friends at BodyResults.  Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Courtney Schurman who has been writing my training programs for the last decade for big objectives.  Call of the Wild clients get special discounts at www.bodyresults.com/wild.

Hope this helps your progress toward your backpacking and climbing dreams!

The gang on a windy day on top of Mission Peak

Friendly tarantula on Mt Diablo in Oct

Plan B on the Clear Creek Route

This is the story I shared at the Armchair storytelling event in April 2014 at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR.  The theme was “Plan B.”  Listen below or read on…

 

It was 2005 and only my second full season of climbing. And by climbing, I mean mountaineering – multi-day ascents of snow covered or glaciated peaks ideally at least 14,000ft high. One such mountain was Mt Shasta, one of the southern most Cascade volcanoes in Northern California standing at 14,162ft high. I had successfully summited the summer prior via the Avalanche Gulch route, the normal route, with a guide service. I returned with Gregg*, a leader of the Sierra Club, and a man I greatly admired for our second attempt of the Clear Creak Route. (*name changed)

The Clear Creek route is an unpopular route due to it’s long approach, both on unmarked logging roads and then hiking from around 5,800ft up to around 8,000ft where we would make camp in the protection of the last clump of trees. It creates a tough and long summit day with over 6,000ft gain up to 14,162ft.

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Gregg was a the trip leader who organized this trip after we aborted our 2004 attempt due to rain at “main camp.” We were back with an even smaller team, just Gregg, my friend, Nora, and myself. It was nice to have a small team with fewer variables in terms of team dynamics.

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Gregg was an experienced trip leader, long distance ultra-thru-hiker, and mountaineer. I knew he had climbed Denali and even though he didn’t summit, simply the fact that he had set foot on that mountain and made it to 17k camp made me worship him as someone I aspired to be like. Denali is a very serious mountain where they drop you off by ski plane and you try to get to the top in around 3 weeks. Gregg was extremely knowledgeable about all things mountain-related…he knew all about Leave No Trace wilderness ethics, dehydrated all his own food, and yes, had lived on the flanks of Denali.

My friend, Nora, was tall, gorgeous Italian woman who was really intrigued by the physical challenge and drama of mountaineering. She was ambitious but really cautious. After we made it to “main camp” with considerable effort, she stated that this was as far as she would go. She was too beat from the approach hike and was happy as a clam to sleep in and serve as our “base camp manager” maintaining radio contact.

I was bummed that she wasn’t going to try to go higher, but in reality, if she really had serious doubts about her ability and desire to go on, it would likely mean we would all have to turn around. With a small team of three, it’s just not wise to send someone back down to find camp alone.

Gregg and I decided to stick with our plan to get up at 1am and be hiking by 3am. When that alarm comes in the middle of the night, I ALWAYS snooze at least once and think to myself “Why the hell do I do this shit?”, but then I find some kernel of willpower deep within and get my butt out of my sleeping bag to get ready in the freezing cold and a state of brain fog.

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing in the middle of the night is a difficult thing to describe. It sounds quite miserable, but it’s actually quite magical. Even if there is the sound of wind, the silence is absolutely deafening and you tune into the sound of your own breath, the soft sounds your clothes make while moving, the crunching of your crampons in the firm snow, and the creaking of your ice axe when it shifts so lightly with each placement. You can’t really see where you are going and fall into a trance like moving meditation where you have never been more disconnected yet more aware at the same time.

Incredible hoar frost

Incredible hoar frost

We had gained over 5,000 feet with less than 1,000ft to go when we came around a ridge to the north. We were completely blasted by a steady stream of wind that felt like what I imagined the Jet Stream to feel like. We had to head directly into the wind on a slope of jumbled rocks and rime ice, ice that’s growing into the direction of the wind, which really slowed us down and sapped our energy.

We could look up now and see the summit in the distance. It was at least an hour or two away but now was within our grasp. Gregg started to say something to me with a desperate look on his face, but I couldn’t understand him. “What???”, I shouted over the wind. He was practically slurring his words, “I’m so cold, so cold and so hungry. So sorry. I must eat now!” He tossed his pack down and started digging around for food.

I watched him in a bit of disbelief. Here was my mentor acting like a starving madman, and he was violating a cardinal rule. If you stop for a break, the first thing you do is throw on your down jacket to conserve body heat before you do anything else. I felt weird giving Gregg any kind of direction, but I said, “Hey Gregg, Why don’t you put your down jacket on first? Then we can stop and have a break.” He said, “No! Too hungry! Must eat first!” as he was visibly shaking now trying to tear open his protein bar wrapper.

The final traverse up and left to the summit

The final traverse up and left to the summit

Then he began to explain that he was too tired and didn’t feel like he could make it the rest of the way. He said, “You are doing great and are strong enough to finish this climb. Take my GPS. I have all of the waypoints that you can follow to the summit.”

I was surprised. Why would he want me to go on? Clearly he wasn’t doing well and there is safety in numbers. It would be a huge deal for me to go on alone with my low level of experience at this point to summit by myself. I was looking up at how close we were to the summit and thinking about the fact that this was our second attempt and all the physical effort we had put in to getting to this point. But maybe I could do this and it would be a huge coup for a beginner!

Then Gregg broke through my thought processing and said, “Really! You should go! I will make myself a little fort from the wind and sit here and wait for you!”   Sitting without moving in the middle of a freezing jet stream for several hours when you are already too cold just didn’t make any sense to me. I literally looked at Gregg, looked toward the summit, looked at Gregg, and looked toward the summit again, calculating how long it would take me to get there and back to him. No way around it, it be at least 2-3 hours.

An image suddenly came to mind of Gregg’s wife, who I had never met in person, asking me why I left her husband on the side of the mountain. She was asking me this because in one scenario in my mind, Gregg was nowhere to be found when I came back down to regroup. I realized I didn’t have any good answer, that the allure of the summit was not great enough to explain to a loved one why I had chosen to go on.

I knew Gregg might continue to fight me if he felt I was turning around because of him so I said, “You know, I’m actually pretty tired, too! I’m ready to call it a day. Why don’t we head down together and we can take another break when we get out of the wind?” Gregg reluctantly agreed. I knew from my previous guided climbs that guides like to put the weakest person out front…partly so that they can better observe how that person is doing and pace the group for that person’s speed, and partly to avoid having the person fall on top of them. Not explaining my thought process out loud, I told Gregg he should go first. He looked at me for a minute, as if he was processing my words in slow motion, and said, “I don’t think I can do it. My brain feels like I’m in a fog and I can’t see the way down.” I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This guy is my leader. This isn’t good!”

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

“OK, Craig, follow me then.” Gregg and I began to work our way down the loose bouldery and icy section slowly but surely until we rounded the ridge. The wind suddenly fell silent and the temperature spiked with the solar radiation bouncing back up off the snow onto us. We stopped again for another break and ate some more. Gregg seemed like he was rapidly reawakening from his fog. I explained how I had been really concerned up higher and that he hadn’t seemed to be making much sense.

Gregg looked at me with some humility and said, “I think you made the right call. I don’t know what I was thinking. I must have been sliding into hypothermia.” We continued down the thousands of feet left to retrace back to main camp. On one of the steeper slopes, Gregg and I were heading down side by side when my feet slipped out from under me in the slushy snow of the early afternoon. I started to slide but my reflexes were fast. I flipped

Standing "tall" under a towering cornice

Standing “tall” under a towering cornice

over so quickly and arrested my fall with just one hand on the head. Gregg was standing above me looking down at me and said, “Wow, you really have learned some things in the last year!”

I beamed as if Gregg was my sensei and I was the young grasshopper who had just graduated from training! The mountains are a fantastic training ground with lessons to bring back to our every day lives. I realized that on this climb, the obscure Clear Creek Route on Mt Shasta, I learned to respect authority, but not to be afraid to ask questions or even take charge, especially if your life or that of others depend on it!

The Sound of the End of the World

In March 2014, I performed in “First Speak”, a personal storytelling exhibition at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend with 6 other brave souls that bared themselves to the world.  I told the story of the night on Makalu when I wasn’t sure I would live to see the next morning…

To describe the sound of an avalanche as a freight train running off a cliff is to do this force of nature a great injustice. The sound of an avalanche is the sound of the world ending.

It was 2010 and I’d been climbing big mountains around the world for just under a decade. I was invited to join a Himalayan expedition at the last minute and the stars aligned with the start date of a new job. The objective was Makalu. A mountain few have heard of but that demands great respect. It is the 5th highest in the world lying on the border of Nepal and Tibet, situated just 15 miles as the crow flies from Everest. Makalu is 27,700 ft high, twice as high as South Sister…and then add another 7,000ft!

Big mountains are really unique animals as a climbing objective. They often require months if not years of physical and mental training, and equally as long for acquiring the specialized gear and arranging logistics. Each mountain is different in its altitude, terrain and dangers, but the same formula is applied to most to allow the human body to undergo fascinating changes to adapt and perform to the rigors of high altitude.

Typically, you will trek in anywhere from 7 to 10 or more days to a base camp or advanced base camp where you set up your new home for the next few weeks or months. In Makalu’s case, we lived at 18,500ft for around 5 weeks total.

 

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

After you establish base camp, a rotation schedule begins where you climb higher to bring a new load to a new altitude, then return to base camp to recover. Climbing high stresses your body with the lower levels of available oxygen to spur the adaptive process while sleeping low gives your body a better chance at recovery with a bit more oxygen. The next rotation, you might spend one night at Camp 1, then reach Camp 2 and scurry back down to base camp. Effectively, you end up climbing the mountain several times over!

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Back to Makalu, my partner, John, and I made it to Camp 2 and spent one night at just under 23k ft without any major problems. The next rotation would be to go straight up to Camp 2 from base camp and spend the night again before hitting a new altitude at Camp 3. I really wasn’t feeling like I was strong and fast enough to go straight to Camp 2 in one shot, so I decided to spend the night at Camp 1 alone and then join my partner on his way up to Camp 2 for a second night.

The morning I was set to leave and head up to Camp 1 alone, I woke up to knock snow

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

off our tents at ABC. The weather didn’t look great and I was feeling a bit nervous, but I knew I couldn’t miss this rotation or I would be off schedule. I was also nervous about crossing a glacier alone, but I knew the terrain from the previous rotations and my partner and I had designed a communication system for my solo adventure.

It was 10:35am and I am packed and ready to head off on my solo adventure. It’s as close as I’ve come in my lifetime to knowing what some of the great explorers of the last century felt. John snaps a final picture of me and says, “Last seen alive!” I respond “Not funny.”

I am alone now. It’s eerily quiet with just the sound of my own breathing and the creaking and popping of glacial ice all around. The terrain is steep and undulating and every now and then, my steps cause a rock slide beneath me that breaks the silence with the sound of rocks clapping against each other as they tumbled. After a short section of scrambling and hugging a rock wall during a traverse, the going is getting easier but more dangerous as the tongue of the glacier was right above me, threatening to let loose at any moment. I move quickly, that is as quickly as high altitude will allow you to make it to “crampon point.”

“Crampon point” as we call it was a place where all of the climbers were stashing our heavy technical gear like mountaineering boots, crampons – the spiky things that you lash to the bottom of your boots, ice axe, harness, etc. That saved us time so that we didn’t have to carry it back and forth through that section every time. But it also meant that things were about to get more serious.

I am a lone figure out in the Himalayas taking the time to carefully don my technical gear.

Leaving "Crampon Point"

Leaving “Crampon Point”

There’s a certain freedom and magic about being alone on the flanks of a Himalayan giant. I think at myself, “How many other human beings have the opportunity to feel so alive?”

I take a few deep breaths to center myself and step directly onto the glacier ice with my ice axe in my uphill hand to stop myself in case of a fall and a trekking pole in my downhill hand for stability. I begin working slowly upward, one step at a time with a breath or two in between. Step, breath breath, step, breath breath, was my rhythm for hours.

I love the moving meditation of glacier climbing but it was interrupted as the weather got just plain weird. The sky became slightly overcast with really low hanging clouds and it became hot like a convection oven with the suns rays reflecting up and baking me. I strip all the way down to my lowest layers and even pull my t-shirt up through the collar for ventilation. I am panting and sweating and stopping every few steps to lean on my ice axe and catch my breath.

Then the clouds close in into a whiteout – a condition where you can only see a few feet in front of you – and the temperature plummets 50 degrees easily. I stop and throw a few layers back on so that I don’t lose too much body heat. But then the clouds came back and it heated up again.

I reach the apex of the slope to where things leveled out a bit but then the crevasses began. Crevasses are big cracks in the giant slow moving river of ice that threaten to swallow a climber whole. If I fall into any one of them, at best I can be killed in the fall or at worst be stuck in an icy grave for hours succumbing to hypothermia.

My insurance policy is to be on radio contact with John. At least someone would have a

Crevasse Crossing

Protected Crevasse Crossing

clue where I had fallen and I wouldn’t have to wait until the next morning to be found. When I was about to cross a crevasse, I would radio John, “Crevasse #1″ and he would return “Copy.” If there was a safety line, I would clip in and jump across. Then I would call out “clear” if I had successfully crossed the crevasse and he would copy again. I did that 6 times over crevasses on the way to Camp 1.

I jump across the final crevasse and a wave of relief floods me to see the Camp 1 tent on the horizon. It’s 4:30pm and we agreed to talk again at 6pm. I am able to make my fabulous dinner of chicken soup and tuna and boiled 2 liters of snow into water without incident. Some people loose their appetite at altitude. I think everything tastes fantastic!

At 6pm, I confirm with John that he would radio at 7am the next morning when he was leaving Advanced Base Camp so that I will know what time we would be meeting to head up at Camp 2 together. I told John I loved him and he joked that this was an official channel and he couldn’t say it back. In addition to being my climbing partner, John is also my emotionally unavailable boyfriend. That is the last time I speak to him.

After we hang up the radio, the silence is deafening. I have over 12 hours here alone at 21k ft without radio contact. Nothing to do but eat, drink, pee – life reduced to the bare essentials. Talk about feeling like you are out on a limb!

All of a sudden, there is a huge crack like thunder right on top of me followed by a

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

rumbling roar that sounds like a freight train tumbling off a cliff. I shoot over to the side of the tent, open the tent in a flash to look outside. It’s a serac avalanche, an avalanche of chunks of ice as a big as car tumbling down the glacier. I watch in horror as the seracs tumble down into the area where I had been a few hours before but I was safe for now. We had placed this tent in a zone that was supposed to be safe, but there always could be a catastrophic event.

It takes an eternity for the sound of my heart pounding out of my chest to merge with the reborn silence.

I literally had just relaxed when I hear another huge clap and roar, this time coming from behind my head. I reach over again and unzip the tent again…but this time I look out and there is a complete whiteout. I can’t tell where the avalanche is coming from and whether I should run or stay put. Not only can I not see where the avalanche was coming from, I can’t see where I am going.

I realize I am a sitting duck. All of the wide temperature variation during the day had loosened things up and there’s no reason to believe this isn’t just the beginning.

I think about whether I should stay or if I should go. I have no radio contact until morning

Last "Selfie" Taken

Last “Selfie” Taken

and it will be getting dark soon. Even with light, you can only see a few feet in front of you in a whiteout. If I fall into a crevasse, no one would find me until the next morning…or perhaps they would never find me since I hadn’t told anyone I would potentially leave camp. It was extremely dangerous to try to reverse my steps.

I know it’s a probability game either way and my odds aren’t good, so I choose to stay. I know I should probably have my life passing in front of my eyes thinking of all the things I still wanted to do with my life, but that’s not my style. I might have lost it if I let myself go there mentally. I just lay there alone in my tent, feeling the rush of adrenaline and stress hormones coursing through my body. Primal fear is something few of us every have the chance to really experience and it’s wild how intense all of your sensations get. The refrain that keeps going through my head is “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck, mother fucker, how did I fucking get here?” There was no one to blame – I chose this path and here I was.

I put on my climbing helmet. I know it wouldn’t save me from a direct hit of an avalanche, but it can at least help in the event a stray ice chuck hits the tent. I write in my journal, “John, I really do love you if you read this for any reason.”

Clearly I’ve survived to tell this tale, but I was forever changed by that night. I’ll never experience fear, risk, or life quite the same again after hearing the sound of the end of the world.

Serious Self-Care

The mountains have taught me many critical lessons that have enabled me to live life more fully and feel more confident to take risk.  I began climbing around 10 years ago and was formerly someone who always considered herself to be unathletic.  In school, I was truly the kid who was always picked last for dodge ball!  However, over time as I slowly built my experience, trained and ventured into bigger and bigger mountains, the most serious of which was the 5th highest mountain in the world, Makalu, in Nepal.

One of these lessons has been the importance of self-care.  First, the concept of self-care assumes that you have a certain level of self-awareness.  If you are out of touch with your body, or with your needs, it will be difficult to focus on self-care.  Mountaineering forces you to become very self-aware.  We preach eating before we get hungry, drinking before we get thirsty, and layering or delayering to regulate our body temperature.  Getting any one of these simple things wrong can cost you a summit or in the worst case in extreme environments, it can cost you your life.  Failing to regulate your blood sugar through food can cause you to “bonk” and not have the energy to make it to your destination.  Dehydration can accelerate or exacerbate Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms.  Either getting cold or getting sweaty can be a precursor to hypothermia as water pulls heat away from the body.

Even on mountains where supplemental oxygen is not required, we joke about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”  So much in mountaineering and in life is about team work. And women especially often fret about being a burden and will sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the group to avoid feeling like or being seen as a burden.

A 13 year old reminds me about the importance of self-care…

One such example occurred on a GirlVentures course I was guiding this summer.  GirlVentures is a inspirational non-profit that focuses on providing transformative experiences for adolescent girls through leadership, communication, and technical skill development in the outdoors.  This particular course was a 14-day backpack that included an ascent of an 11,000ft mountain called Mt Shinn, a technical canyoneering descent, rock climbing and rappelling.  Each girl gets the chance to try out a different role each day (leader of the day, cook, gear goddess, navigator) and on the day that we were ascending Mt Shinn, “Cindy” was the navigator.

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Mt Shinn’s approach is a difficult cross-country approach and the climbing, while easy second and third class, needed a great deal of attention.  To lessen Cindy’s stress of being navigator for the day, I gave her the instructions of being very aware of her surroundings during the approach.  We repeatedly turned around and looked behind us to see how we would figure out how to retrace our steps back to camp.  She seemed anxious but was taking it all in.

The climb was very challenging for Cindy who, like several of the girls, has a healthy fear of heights.  Cindy worked through each of the scrambling sections and areas with a sense of exposure with the help of the instructors and her fellow participants.  It’s a stressful thing to face your fear of heights at that stage, but Cindy seemed to be coping well.

Climbing Mt Shinn

Climbing Mt Shinn

On the way back down, we turned the leadership over to the two “leaders of the day” and to Cindy as navigator.  We hike towards the back to provide a controlled environment where the girls have a chance to experience decision making in the wilderness, communicate with each other, and start the long process of finding their leadership styles.

Cindy did seemed stressed that she felt getting the entire tired and hungry group back to camp was on her shoulders.  I began hiking closer to her and giving her tips along the way when we would see landmarks we noted on the way up.  She was very focused and seemed to be doing a great job.  We got back to camp with little delay and everyone began to focus on self-care – hydrating, resting, changing into fresh layers.

Soon one of the instructors ran over to me to ask for help with Cindy.  Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what.  Cindy was cold, shivering, and was breathing rapidly.  We performed a full assessment, helped Cindy find her dry layers to change into, and continued to encourage her to eat and drink to recover from the day.  Her respiration and pulse were high, but her oxygen saturation was also high.  Hypothermia is typically indicated with a low pulse rate, and altitude sickness would usually be indicated by a low oxygen saturation rate.  We were perplexed, especially as Cindy’s respiration would get back in control when we would doing relaxing guided imagery or controlled breathing with her.  I began to suspect that Cindy was actually experiencing anxiety likely caused by initially getting cold, having low blood sugar, and being overwhelmed by this new uncomfortable physical experience.

One of the instructors and I stayed with Cindy through the night, calming her down when she woke up in a panic.  All of her vitals began to return to normal as she realized she was going to be all right.  I told Cindy what my theory was and she confided that she had felt so much stress and pressure from the challenge of navigating the group back to camp, that she hiked much faster than she had energy for and didn’t stop to eat, drink, or change her layers.  She arrived into camp physically and mentally exhausted and never uttered a peep until her anxiety was well on its way.

Put on your own oxygen mask first!

Cindy’s primary concern was that I would tell someone about the trouble she caused that night and that it might make her ineligible for the next level of leadership training.  Cindy and I had a long talk about what it means to be a leader and be in a position with responsibility to others.

First, you must take care of yourself and communicate your needs. Just because you are in charge of leading a group does not mean you are a superwoman and no longer have basic needs.  Stop the group, stop what you are doing, and tell them what you need and then do it without apology.

Second, you are serving as a role model for others to take care of themselves.  How many mothers do you know that run themselves ragged taking care of others but then tell their daughters how important it is to take care of themselves?

Third, Cindy DID become a burden on the group that night.  Two out of four instructors had to provide their undivided attention on one person, taking them away from the other ten girls.  It likely would have taken less than 15 minutes to take a break during the descent to eat some more food, drink some water, throw on a warmer layer and admit that she wanted more help with the return navigation.

Cindy seemed to digest all of this feedback, but we also encouraged her to share her experience with the rest of the group and ask for help learning this life skill.  The group was AWESOME.  Instead of being annoyed with Cindy for having shown vulnerability and having a tough time, they rallied around her and over the coming days when we did difficult things like the Helms Creek descent, they kept asking her how she was doing, when was the last time she ate, etc etc.  She would giggle each time but seemed to appreciate the well meaning reminders.

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Moms, don’t forget you are a role model for self-care!

I mentioned that mothers are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to self-care.  Just a couple of months ago, I ran a custom backpack for a girlfriend of mine from business school.  “Kristy” is your typical overachiever and right after getting her MBA she completed an Iron Man – she’s a tough cookie!!!  Fast forward 10 years and Kristy is now the mother of two kids who returned to work two years ago and is killing herself to prove she is still a competitive professional.  She’s gained weight, doesn’t have time to train, and wanted a goal that would inspire her…hence, the idea for a backpacking trip that would culminate in the non-technical ascent of one of California’s “14ers”, Mt Langley.  [A "14er" is a mountain above 14,000ft in elevation.]

It’s a beautiful area, but Kristy had not been able to make time to train, and she suffered on the way up to our camping spot at 11,000ft under the weight of a full backpack for the first time.  We went slowly and she struggled to control her competitive self which said “Go faster!” but then her fitness would say “Go slower!”  We worked hard on finding a comfortable pace, but it seemed like she had a lot of trouble with self-awareness and kept apologizing, illuminating the fear of being a burden.

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

I convinced her we should go as far as she could could go – no pressure!  We set off Saturday morning to the flanks of Mt Langley and a very slow and measured pace.  Slow and steady wins the race!  I would say, listening to her breath to try to gauge the pace right.  If she was ever in front of me, she would keep pushing a bit faster and faster until she had to stop to catch her breath.  I shared with her my theory that after being a mother for so many years and putting others’ needs before her own, she may have lost the art of self-awareness.  Surely she had needed to hone her self-awareness when training for and completing an Iron Man, but that was years ago.  Could she remember how to tap back into her own needs?  She cocked her head, thought about it, and agreed there could be some basis to that theory.

I decided to take over the pacing and keep encouraging her up to the top of Mt Langley at a super slow pace.  I would point out when we would get passed by someone (usually a guy) going faster but then we’d pass him as he had to stop and catch his breath.  One of those guys turned around because he was feeling altitude sickness.  Kristy and I continued on at our nearly agonizingly slow pace, but we made it to the top!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Kristy since then has made comments about how I can get anyone to the top of a mountain, but it really comes from years of experience in self-awareness and how the body reacts to physical activity at altitude.  Kristy was mentally tough and really listened – she had faith that if she kept putting one foot in front of the other, she would get there and she did it.  It was really hard for her, but listening to her body and finding a pace that would not burn her out or bring on altitude sickness was the key to achieve this major milestone.

The next time you are racing toward some goal, whatever it may be – personal, professional, physical, intellectually, don’t forget to take a moment to think about what you need to nourish and care for yourself.  You’ll be more likely to reach your final destination and feel good about it!

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

If you are interested in seeing the live version of this talk presented in Bend, OR at the SeriousSuccess Motivational Series for Women, check out the YouTube video below:

Find Your Voice

In her book, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams tells a story of nearly being murdered, but silencing herself from speaking out. It’s quite shocking, but so very plausible with the written and unwritten rules for well-mannered girls and the nagging belief that she brought it on by ignoring her intuition – victims often blame themselves. Her sense of guilt when realizing her silence could hurt another woman inspired me to share a story. A story where someone found their voice to report an act of violation, how she was supported when she did so, and how it may have helped other women…

That someone was me, 20 years old at American University in Washington, DC in 1995. I have woven our two stories to show the striking parallels although the threat of danger was much greater in hers than mine.

I had just done the most courageous thing yet in my young life – believed I was worthy of a top school, believed I could make it work all alone, and taken action to make it happen. I applied to transfer to American University to pursue a degree in international business and study foreign languages. To my surprise and delight, I was accepted as a transfer student for the Spring 1995 semester. So I packed my little Mitsubishi Galant full of everything I owned and drove for three days from Houston, Texas in the dead of winter to the overwhelming world of snow, politics, and glitter.

“I had seen him around. He was striking, thirty-something, tanned, blond and fit….Joseph wore me down. It was easier to say yes than to say no. I put my pen and papers down, put on my hiking boots, and followed him. How bad can this be? I thought. The fresh air will do me good.

I hadn’t been there but a few days when I went to a university play right across from my residence hall. At intermission, a charming young Latin man leaned over from the row behind me and introduced himself as Persi. He asked me where I lived and responded “Hughes Hall.” It’s a common thing to tell people in which hall you live, but later I wondered if that wasn’t my fault for disclosing too much.

Persi did a great job of convincing me that I should go clubbing afterwards as he and many of his Latin American friends would be at the Spy Club – a popular hangout for American U students. It didn’t take much convincing though. I was eager to make new friends, always had an affinity for Latin culture and the Spanish language, and dancing was my favorite activity to blow off steam from the stresses I was under as a young woman on her own without emotional or financial familial support.

I was excited to be going out for my first social interaction and put a lot of effort into looking especially nice. I took a cab to the club and wandered around. I saw Persi and was relieved to already recognize some of his friends from around campus. Despite my protests (I was not a big drinker and I was under age), Persi bought and handed me a drink. I drank at least half not to appear ungrateful. Persi asked me to dance, but grinded up against me in a way that I was not comfortable. I put up with it long enough to be polite but finally pulled away and said I was going to walk around. I decided I wasn’t really having fun and left without saying goodbye.

“I made a calculation that continuing to follow a man who was increasingly mad was a better risk than bolting at this point. I didn’t want to upset him. I can’t say it was good manners, exactly, that kept me deferring to him, when every decision I was making was sabotaging good judgement, but the effort to just keep walking seemed easier than trusting what I knew. I didn’t have the energy for conflict. I kept quiet. But I made a crucial error.”

When I got back to my residence hall, my Resident Assistant was still awake in our floor’s common area cooking a late night snack. I joined her to tell someone about the events of my evening. I was still pretty excited about going out for my first night on the town, but I neglected to tell her about my discomfort with Persi. To do so would have been admitting that I was wrong about his intentions and I also know how easy misunderstandings can be, especially with intercultural interaction.

I was shocked when Persi arrived on our all female floor and opened the door to the common area. Again, not wanting to seem impolite, I didn’t express that surprise out loud or ask him what he was doing there. Instead, a string of pleasantries were exchanged – oh hey, how’s it going, yeah I got tired and left, sorry I didn’t say goodbye, so I really am tired now, going to go to bed, have a nice night…

My RA watched as I left the common area and Persi followed me back to my room.

Finally my intuition was firing loud enough that I began to pay attention and feel justified with my sense of unease. I left my door wide open earlier and he walked in right behind me with no invitation. What was this guy doing? I felt had not given a single positive reinforcement to anything he had said or done but instead had repeatedly backed off each time. I told him, of course still politely, that he needed to leave because I was done for the evening.

“I turned around. Joseph was standing on a large square rock. The veins in his neck were protruding. The pupils in his eyes dilated black. In what seemed to be happening in slow motion, I saw him raise a double-edged ax, now reflecting light, directly over his head, with the force of his whole body about to bear down on his target. Our eyes met. The ax was meant for me. As he lunged forward, he slipped. I ran. For a mile and a half I never looked back.”

He insisted that he would indeed leave, but he really wanted a hug before he left. I wasn’t attracted to him at all and my stomach turned as I said “fine.” A hug is innocent, right? I shouldn’t be rude after he’d come all this way to find me, right? I didn’t want to alienate on of the first human beings with whom I’d made contact on campus, right? He held me tight, locked his embrace around me, and forced his lips onto mine. I was able to extricate myself from the unwelcome embrace and began to find my voice.

“Hey! Who do you think you are that you can come into my room late at night and assume I want to mess around with you! I’m not that kind of girl!” Truth is, I WAS that kind of girl, but only with someone that would have given an ACTUAL invitation to my room. However, it seemed like the only good defense at the time. Really, truly, I am a good girl, don’t violate me!

Persi backpedaled, apologized, and insisted he really just wanted a regular hug and would behave this time. What do I need to do to get this guy out of my room? OK, fine, fine. You are probably not shocked that he did it again. Negotiating clearly wasn’t working with this guy, so I wriggled out of his arms again, pushed him out the door as politely as I could, and locked it behind him.

“In my remaining days in the Sawtooths, I wanted to tell someone, anyone, what had happened. I wanted to speak. I wanted to say how scared I was, how I was almost murdered, hacked to pieces by a madman with an ax, and it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t believe it. I believed it was my fault. I betrayed my instincts. My body tried to warn me. The owl tried to warn me. But I ignored them all and walked past my intuition. When one woman doesn’t speak, other women get hurt. And now Joseph could be hurting another woman asleep in another wilderness.”

I was incredibly unnerved by the incident. How did he get onto our floor and into my room? How far could it have gone in the worst case? What had I done to create the situation? What would I do if I saw him again? I felt like I should do something to quiet my mind and my stomach, but I realized nothing had really happened. He hadn’t raped me and had barely put his mouth on me, I had no bruises, he eventually left…but I still felt violated and gross. My dorm room, my brand new home, no longer felt safe.

The next morning I sought the counsel of my RA and told her all the details of the prior evening. She said she, too, thought it was weird that he showed up on our floor seemingly uninvited at that hour (normally residents are called by the front desk and have to physically come down to escort guests) but figured it was fine since I acted like I knew him. She validated my feelings of discomfort and encouraged me to report the incident to campus police. I protested saying nothing had really happened and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Her reasoning was that he may have done things to other women or it might escalate the next time. Funny how I was not motivated to stand up for myself, but when I realized my inaction could harm other women, I found the courage to risk judgement by going to Campus Police.

“Next to the creek, at the base of the ravine, there was a small wickiup constructed out of willows. Inside were bloody deer skulls and amulets made out of bone. A small library of esoteric books on Mesoamerican cultures from Aztecs to Mayans were in orderly stacks, with sections on human sacrifice marked with pieces of torn paper. And then one of the students pulled out the double-edged ax.”

Campus Police had an entirely male staff, and they were very supportive. They asked questions gently, listened, and made no judgements implying that I had done anything wrong in process. They seemed interested only in being kind while getting as many clear, concrete details as possible such as what exactly was said in what order. They asked me if I would be able to identify Persi if shown some photographs and I was confident I would. They put together six photographs and laid them out on the table. Persi was among them. Why would they already have a picture of Persi on file, I asked? The response was disturbing. He had a history of peeping on showering women in the dorms!

This was the final straw and Persi would go before an administrative committee to determine whether he could stay at the university or would be dismissed. He dropped out that semester temporarily. His Latin guy friends were in all of my classes and we were on projects together. When they learned that I was “the bitch” that was getting Persi kicked out of school, they said “Why are you doing that? Persi is just a regular guy that gets horny when he gets drunk!” I explained what had happened and that I did need to be dealing with Persi’s unwanted horniness late at night. Thankfully, the guys got it. As much as they had a brotherhood, they wouldn’t want their sisters treated the same way.

“When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us. We’ve been raised to question what we know, to discount and discredit the authority of our gut.”

Persi returned to school a year later. The committee hearing took place and I was asked to testify. I answered all of their questions calmly and there was a sense of seriousness and impartiality in the room – someone’s future was at stake. But I could feel the committee members vibe shift when I answered there final question, “Was he next to you or behind you as you walked to your room?” Persi was behind me. He was found “responsible” (this was not a court of law) and only then the committee was given access to Persi’s full file so they would have complete information for a disciplinary decision. Using the information in the file, they decided to dismiss him from American University.

It’s a story of a small injustice that was carried through to completion. I can rest easier that perhaps Persi learned his lesson and will not go further in his transgressions against women. There’s no guarantee in that, but I’m satisfied that I found my voice, stood up for myself, and had the opportunity to be supported along the way. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

“It’s not the lips of a prince that will save us, but our own lips speaking.”

Terry Tempest William’s book, When Women Were Birds is a beautiful and unique autobiographical piece about a mother’s influence on a young Mormon woman during the time of women’s liberation through a radical act – leaving behind years and years and years of blank journals. You can find it here on Amazon.