Found! (The Epilogue to Lost)

Within days before performing the piece “Lost” for the First Speak storytelling series at the Tin Pan Theatre, I climbed Mt Hood. I still performed the piece intact as it tells the story of how much climbing provides community, satisfaction and even validation…but at that moment, I had already been found…


The climbing season on Hood was nearly over. Temps were increasing, crevasses widening, fumaroles exposed, and rockfall increasing. Timberline Mountain guides, who are the exclusive climbing guides on Hood would be shutting down their operations in a matter of days.

I called my buddy Cliff, one of Timberline’s guides, to check on conditions and pick his brain. There was a short weather window, literally about 18 hours that was aligning perfectly between my crazy summer schedule and John’s schedule at the bike shop. Cliff said we should be fine. That there would be a nice boot track. In fact, we were able to get in on a friends and family deal (usually reserved for guided clients) and pay for the snow cat up to 8500ft, skipping the first 2500ft of slogging.

Now you might this this is “cheating,” and to some degree it felt that way. However, John had gotten up to 9 or 10k ft twice before and I had two false starts on Hood. The tough part is at the top, and that’s what we needed to surmount in order to calm the demons that unfinished business can conjure.

We drove up to Timberline Lodge’s overnight parking lot arriving around 8pm, and along with a handful of other determined souls, we tried to get a few hours of fitful sleep before waking at 12:15am and meeting the snowcat at 1am.

The snowcat driver was all business. “Sharps” (ice axes, trekking poles) get stashed in a cage on the outside of the cabin. We were warned of the prospect of the snowcat rolling and all signed a separate liability waiver just for the ride. The ride proved uneventful though and in about 20 minutes, we blasted up 2500ft ensuring we would be get a taste of real climbing quickly.

John and I were conscious to get ahead of the two guided rope teams (mostly so that they wouldn’t feel like we were just following in their footsteps and effectively skirting guiding fees). We were dialed, threw on our crampons, and set out with intention. I was nervous about my fitness level, so I employed the “one earbud” technique. It’s generally considered bad form to listen to an iPod while climbing with a partner in the middle of the night on a glacier, but I kept the volume down low enough so that I could still get a solid rhythm to follow and be able to hear my partner and stay aware of the specter of rockfall. It made me crank and we made solid progress.

There was another team we passed in a crevassed section who already looked wasted and it was barely 3am. “They’re not going to make it,” the little voice inside my head stated dispassionately. “I wonder what they think of me.” The last glaciated peak I attempted to climb was Makalu in Nepal in 2010. Four years out of practice makes you rusty. Injury makes you weak. Fear makes you tremble.

I was nervous and the echo in my head became deafening. I trepidatiously expressed my frustration with my nervousness to my partner who has cojones many times greater than my own. He admitted nervousness as well. Although John has a freakish level of fitness right off the couch, he’s experienced enough to know that if things go wrong on Hood, they can go really wrong. Remember those crevasses, fumaroles, and rockfall that I mentioned early? Add avalanches to that list earlier in the season. He’d gone up twice and turned around due to concern about avalanche conditions. Although I’m always the physically weaker of the two of us, I have more experience in that area. He wanted to come back with me to try to get ‘er done. His response didn’t inspire confidence, necessarily, but it did make me feel less alone in my nervousness.

Huge fumarole

Huge fumarole

We kept inching along, passing people, figuring out section by section, testing the waters…or the snow rather. We traversed north of the “Hogsback” to go straight up the “Old Chute.” A HUGE fumarole lurked at the bottom of the ascent up the Old Chute. A fall here could mean a deadly tumble into that fumarole. The climbing was not that tough, but that fumarole never vacated the back of my mind.

We began following a boot track that went straight up which makes the going a LOT easier. However, there were three crazy slow rope teams ahead of us who would not yield. We shifted right and began kicking in our own steps – exhausting work in these soft conditions. John took the lead and ended up kicking steps the entire way. Although he was doing the tough work of breaking trail, the snow was sugary and I still had to kick in a few more times to get good purchase with each step.

We passed the three rope teams and what we saw was astounding. Each team was roped together by some kind of hemp rope, the rope was tied around their waists (no harnesses), and they were carrying coils in their hands (providing no protection in case of a fall). No one was wearing a helmet. They were all clearly inexperienced except for the guy in the lead barking orders. No wonder Hood has a reputation for accidents due to its accessibility to the uninitiated. We wanted to put as much space between us and them as quickly as possible.

The chute got steeper and steeper. I knew some climbers rope up for the steepest parts and some people use two ice tools, especially when the snow is more firm. The slope really got my attention but I was comfortable forging forward front-pointing with one axe. We surmounted a slightly unnerving bouldery section with verglas (thin ice) in between the rocks to reach the crater rim right as dawn broke.

It was magical.

All those times when the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour, I think to myself EVERY time, “What the hell is wrong with you, girl???” But I muster the will to get up and get ready in the cold and dark. And then I am rewarded with this.

Easy part of the crater rim

Easy part of the crater rim

We made the mistake of roping up for the final section on the crater rim due to the big exposure (drop-offs) on each side. A guy died here a few weeks prior when a cornice on the north side of the rim broke. However, it was all reasonable scrambling and walking to the true summit to call Hood mine, so we wasted some time since it wasn’t necessary to bust out the rope.

I only took one summit photo holding a sign saying “Michelle was/will be here” for my mountaineering friend currently battling cancer. No need to dwell when the conditions were only going to get even softer now with the sun rising.

We reversed our steps to head back down the Old Chute. The temps began warming quickly and the snow was loosening up. It was becoming like weird chards of broken glass that wouldn’t hold your weight. I was gliding down with each step for a couple of feet before my weight would settle the snow. Unnerving but fast. Thankfully the snow firmed up a bit more after a few hundred feet.

The three rope teams were retreating without summitting. They were so nervous that they were going down backwards, facing into the slope, creeping along painfully slowly. We walked down facing forward, plunge stepping with increased confidence despite the fumarole lurking in direct sight.

Descending quickly

Descending quickly

The rest of the descent was uneventful until we reached the 8500ft. No snowcat now. We began to slog down the snowcat tracks when a lightning storm broke out on the horizon just a few miles away. So we began to jog toward the lightning, toward the safety of the lodge and civilization.

When it was all over, I was intensely satisfied. Mt Hood is a coveted objective and has turned around many seasoned mountaineers when the conditions weren’t right. But I was also left thinking, “Really, this is what I have been feeling so incomplete and lost about for the last four years?” It’s a funny thing how easy it is to take for granted what you have or what you can do, and how much you can yearn for it when you cannot. The human condition.

I’ve crossed Hood off my list.  And I am found again.

Fearlessness is Bullshit

“A rejection is just a re-direction in life.” – Jill Shapiro

The next time someone tells me they admire me because I’m fearless, I’m going to vomit. Don’t worry, it will be figurative, not literal. 🙂 It’s frustrating because many people seem to use it as an excuse. They are open to be inspired by someone they consider to be fearless, but they won’t apply that inspiration to their own personal situations. “Oh, he/she’s fearless, I couldn’t do that. I’m too afraid.”

There are truly few people who are actually fearless, and I would posit that they should NOT be admired. What’s so inspiring about someone doing something scary if they are devoid of fear???

I know how full of fear I am in all areas of my life. If I create a perception of being fearless, yet trying to convince others that “If I can do it, so can you!”, then I have completely failed. It’s difficult to identify with fearlessness. Why? Because fear is completely normal and human!

It’s precisely because I feel fear intensely, assess the risk, and then find a way to work through the fear that I can feel satisfaction and reward. When I was in college, I entered every single classroom assuming I was going to fail due to my lack of self-confidence, support network, and financial resources. However, I would focus on doing my very best at every assignment/test/paper, and I surprised myself by graduating first in my class.

When I first started rock climbing, both indoors and outdoors, I would tie in (connect the rope to my harness) and feel an intense wave of anxiety as I would walk up to a climb. That lasted for several YEARS, and sometimes I questioned why I kept coming back when the anxiety was so strong, but the sense of accomplishment of working through the fear to get to the top of a route far outweighed the discomfort of feeling that fear. Now that fear is completely gone as I was successful at desensitizing myself to it. However, I can still get “gripped” while lead climbing outdoors and am working on that primarily by controlling my breathing. So, no, I am still not fearless while climbing.

IS THE DANGER REAL OR PERCEIVED?

There are a couple of tricks to working through fear and keep it from holding you back from your dreams. The first trick is to find the peace of mind to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and say, “Wait, is this danger real or perceived?” You’ll often find it’s perceived. We are the ones that are paralyzed by fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of suffering. And if we work through it, things often work out just fine. When they don’t, such as when you bomb that presentation or don’t get that second date, no one else remembers it a year later.

When the danger is real, respect it. Fear can keep you alive. As the mountaineer/speaker/author Alison Levine says, “Fear is normal, it’s complacency that will kill you.” Fear is a totally valid human reaction to real danger.

Real danger - there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Real danger – there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Follow your intuition that that stranger might really mean you harm or that prospective work environment really could be toxic. I can’t even count how many times I’ve listed to my intuition in the mountains. Others around me might have thought I was wussing out, but my intuition told me the danger was real and I listened when the consequences were high. One such time was on Mt Whitney’s Mountaineers Route where I got the heebie jeebies on a slope and decided to turn around 700 ft from the top because I was concerned about avalanche danger when the temps rose later in the day. As we crossed that slope the second time on our retreat a little lower, I saw an extended crack in the snow. We practically ran across the rest of the slope. That’s REAL danger.

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney

WHAT’S THE BEST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN?

The second trick is to do the mental exercise of determining different scenarios. What’s the best thing that can happen if you take this risk? What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you continue to climb despite the fact that your toes are already numb and the temps are dropping, worse case is frostbite…maybe far worse. Best case is summitting your objective. Not an acceptable risk for me.

If you are afraid of telling that special person in your life how you feel about them, the worse case may be that you scare them off. Best case is that the feeling is mutual. How awesome would that be to find out that the feeling is mutual versus the prospect of finding out the hard truth that it is not? You’ll find the latter out sooner or later!

If you are worried about taking that new job, pitching to that new client, making the case for a promotion to your boss, what’s the best thing that can happen? You get the new job, client, promotion and have a chance in hell at being successful. Worst case is you have to work through rejection and focus on your next opportunity. Seems like a no brainer when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it?

POWER OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The third trick is to tell others and create accountability. Simply naming the fear makes it tangible and creates power to address it. Afraid of public speaking? Announce on Facebook that you are joining Toastmasters and want some partners in crime. Tell your friends that you are starting that new job search and they will keep asking you for progress reports. Make that standing weekly date at the climbing gym with a supportive partner. If you keep your fears locked away in your own head, it’s REALLY difficult. I always tell my climbing partners when I’m getting gripped on a route – they are well trained to shout encouragement and remind me to breathe.

Everyone has their own individual Achilles’ heels. I’m no longer really afraid of heights, of asking for what I want, of leading others in the backcountry, of delivering keynotes to large audiences, of taking risks with my career, but NOT because I’m fearless…because I’ve worked extensively through those fears consistently over YEARS. All of these things used to be REALLY tough and they are no longer.

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska?  Vulnerability

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska? Vulnerability

BUT I’m still working my fear of vulnerability and rejection. I’m confident in my skills, my abilities, and my potential to have positive impact on this world, especially in group situations. However, I am a really open, transparent, and giving person, and when I feel rejected or betrayed one on one, it can paralyze me with fear and a major gut reaction to pull back. Vulnerability and emotional pain to me is far more painful than any subzero temps I’ve endured, more draining than carrying the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried, and more intense that any unprepared bivy I’ve survived.

“Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we’re so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is the supreme creative act.” -Ram Dass

There are some good reasons for this based on my wacky family situation that cause me to continually seek ways of validating my self-worth and take things too personally. I’ve come to realize that’s my next frontier of fear. But just as with my history with heights, public speaking, career moves, guiding, I can chose let the fear rule me, to close down and protect myself…or I can continue to take risks, stay vulnerable, and potentially reap great rewards.

Even writing this publicly is the first step to naming the fear publicly and forcing accountability…I chose to consciously embrace vulnerability with other individuals.  Let the pain begin!  😉

What’s your Achilles heel? And what are you going to do about it?

Lost

I performed this piece at the “First Speak” event at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR on May 31, 2014.  Watch or read below as I try to answer the age-old question, “Why do you climb?

I’m often asked to answer the age old question – “Why do you climb?” It’s a difficult question to answer adequately. I hesitate to speak for all mountain climbers of all styles, ages, and disciplines as it’s an intensely personal motivation. My automatic reaction to give the surface answer which never seems completely satisfactory to neither myself nor the questioner.

Yes, there is great satisfaction in meeting an objective, a natural discipline that must be summoned to train and prepare for greater and greater mountains, a camaraderie in the mountaineering community unlike that I’ve experienced elsewhere, the peace and focus of moving meditation, a deepening connection with and respect for nature.

…these are all valid reasons…

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

But none of these speak to the underlying DRIVE or REWARD to explain why the moving meditation or the satisfaction of physical challenge feed ME. Why do I feel drawn to the high mountains rather than trying to compete in triathlons or ski at resorts for example?

I think there’s some aspect of mountaineering that’s seems so extreme and remote to the “average” person…that once I realized I, “little ‘ole me”, could be competent in this environment, against all of my own and others preconceived notions, it felt even that much more impressive.

There’s something satisfying about actually BEING GOOD at something. Like, if you suck at golf, it’s not so pleasant to go out and try to play golf with your friends every weekend. But if you are decent or even excel, the reinforcement is confidence building.

I pretty much suck at everything physical.

I don’t have great motor skills or hand/eye coordination so I always suffered at sports like golf, tennis, or volleyball. I basically sat on the bench for any team sport or pulled the team down when I participated. I dabbled in adventure racing and mountain bike racing for a while, which appealed to me more than triathlons because they were more focused on backcountry activities rather than running or riding on roads, but I’m REALLY slow. Racing is kind of demoralizing to come in last, or if I’m lucky, second to last every time.

I discovered what my body is good at is endurance. As long as I go my pace and eat a little something every hour or so, I can go for hours…and I mean HOURS. I can just keep hiking and hiking and hiking. And that’s the primary ingredient for mountaineering. You also need to be able to carry a heavy pack and there are some technical aspects to climbing on different terrain like snow or glaciers, but it’s basically hiking up hill for hours and hours and hours. I have a surprising capacity for carrying loads uphill despite my stature, as long as it’s slowly.

I was smart and I methodically acquired skills over the years, learned from experts, and slowly progressed to more and more difficult, committing, remote, and lengthy climbs until my climbing “career” culminated in an attempt of Makalu, the 5th highest mountain on the planet.

I think if I were a man, 6’2″ and genetically gifted, mountaineering might actually feel less satisfying to me. I have to work hard, I have to train smart, I have to be strategic about how and with whom I climb…because it does not come naturally to ascend 5,000ft up steep snow slopes with over 50lbs on my back in weather that ranges from blizzard to heat wave. It’s NOT easy, but if I apply myself, train, prepare, focus, AND I make it to the summit, it feels like it was against all odds and I feel that much more impressed with myself.

BUT still, WHY do I need this kind of reinforcement, WHY does it feed me so much.

Without engaging the help of a psychologist to try to draw connections between the events of my childhood and my adult psyche, I still struggle to give a clear and meaningful answer but recently garnered some insight…

After three years of being on the sidelines of the mountaineering world, recovering from a stubborn knee injury and surgery, I’ve just begun tipping my toes back in the water and have set my sights on the Cascade mountains on our horizon, part of why I moved to Bend in the first place. Seeing those mountains day after day without climbing them is like being teased constantly.

I decided to focus on Mt Hood. Even though it’s the most impressive and the highest mountain in Oregon, it was still ONLY half as high as I’ve ever been. I know I’m out of shape and haven’t been hiking regularly for a long time, BUT it’s ONLY 5,000ft gain and only requires carrying a day pack. It’s steep but not ridiculous. I’m the mountaineer after all who has been to 23,000ft. This should be a realistic challenge to tip my toe back in the water to effectively day hike to 11,250ft.

Mt Hood

Mt Hood

I met some nice fellows through the Cascade Mountaineers club here in Bend who were planning an ascent of Hood. I called the trip leader, Frank, and explained my situation – “Yes, I have tons of experience. Yes, I do very well at altitude. Yes, my self-arrest skills are dialed, in fact I led a self-arrest clinic for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit in January. No, I don’t feel very fit and I’m worried about my ability to keep up with a group.”

Frank was understanding about my situation and was supportive and encouraging. I convinced him that if I had any trouble, I was self-sufficient and could turn around on my own.

The Wednesday before our climb, I met one of the other guys on the trip, Nathan. He was a young buck around 20 who was still in college. Sweet guy, but he said he had climbed North Sister the day before with a friend. North Sister. The mountain that some of the Cascades leaders were talking about trying with trepidation this season…

I joked with him and asked him, “Are you cool with climbing with someone twice your age?” and he asked back, “Are you OK with climbing with someone half your age?” I chuckled. He had a good sense of humor and said he was fine going any pace – he just wanted more experience.

Friday evening, I met Frank and the final member of our team, Bridger, to carpool. Bridger was a tall, handsome, young fellow. I would guess early twenties as well. I was thinking to myself…”Uh oh! TWO young bucks!” My anxiety level began to elevate.

We swapped stories on the 2.5 hr drive to Timberline Lodge. The plan was to sleep in our cars in the parking lot. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag on purpose because it seemed silly to use for three hours of non-sleeping. Instead I planned to bring my beefy super warm Denali-worthy down jacket to keep me warm for just a few hours. On every trip, it’s inevitable that you forget at least one item. This time it was my down jacket! So I lay in the back of Frank’s Subaru Outback with all my layers on, softly shivering.

Because I couldn’t sleep, the hamster wheel in my head was whirring. “Could I keep up? What about those gusts of wind hammering and rocking the Subaru? Would the young bucks be tolerant of my pace and rustiness? Would the weather hold? Do I have what it takes?” My anxiety grew to a deafening level and I could think of nothing else until our wake time of midnight.

I took myself back to a time in Ecuador where I and two of my buddies were attempting Cotopaxi, a glaciated peak that was 19.3kft. One of the guys was super fit and the other one had inadequate gear and needed to go faster to keep warm. To keep them happy, we had to go at a pace unsustainable for me and I nearly bailed at 1,000ft below the summit despite the fact that it was my second time traveling to Ecuador and all the training and planning that went into getting to that point.

I decided I would not even try to climb Mt Hood because I was convinced I did not have what it takes and that the pace would be too fast for me. Frank assured me it was the wrong reason not to go forward, “We want you on this climb!” I told him my anxiety was simply too great. They said they would miss me and headed out into the darkness. I jumped into Frank’s sleeping bag and while my body was happy with the newly acquired warmth, my heart was heavy.

After a couple hours of delicious sleep, I took myself to a leisurely and not-very-well-deserved hearty breakfast at Timberline Lodge. When I swung back by the cars, the boys had already returned. They were back so early that I was convinced they had had to turn around, but no! 9 hours door-to-door! I remarked, “Wow! Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t go with you! No way I could have done it in that amount of time!” They said, “No, we really wished you were there. The conditions were great. We went very slowly and surely. You could have done this.

I held back tears on the drive back to Bend but a few defiant ones snuck out and rolled down my cheeks. I was frustrated for myself for not even trying, for letting fear of the unknown keep me from knowing, for feeling like now maybe I don’t belong to the tribe of mountaineers. I did EXACTLY what I tell others not to do. I held myself back. I didn’t even try.

So why do I climb? Mountaineering defines me as a person. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think that should be the case, but it is. I am lost without it. A tortured soul wandering this Earth trying to find meaning and a place of belonging. If I am not a mountaineer, then who am I? To what tribe do I belong? How can I connect with this world? There is no neat resolution to this story…I will be lost until I find my way into the mountains again.

Baby Steps on a Baby Peak

Pickett Peak stands at 9,118 ft and is a “baby peak” by my standards now.  Funny as I look back and remember training for my Half Dome hike – I was thinking at the time, “Wow! 8,842 ft!!!  I have never been THAT high before!  We REALLY need to prepare for the altitude.”

Now I have climbed above 15,000 ft twelve times and the highest I have reached (and stayed overnight) is 23,000 ft.  However, the last 14 months have been challenging to say the least with my ACL reconstruction recovery.  Learning to walk again, dealing with a host of complications, and frustrated by pain dismissed by the traditional doctors.  Starting in early June I turned to a surgeon for a second opinion and began exploring alternative therapies (chiropractic, acupuncture, and the likely most effective, Graston therapy).  The pain finally began to abate and I was able to venture back into the mountains!

Nevada Beach campground

For my birthday weekend, John and I went to Tahoe for the weekend.  We camped at Nevada Beach – a fabulous campground with great facilities, lots of space, and right on the beach!  Saturday morning we got a ridiculously slow start.  Decompressing from my stressful job and travel schedule seems to take longer and longer, but we eventually rallied and headed south to the Hwy 88 and 89 junction.  As you head south, two pointy peaks jut into the sky – Hawkins and Pickett Peak.

In 2010,  I climbed Hawkins Peak (10,024 ft) with my friends  Sonja and Enrique.  This was the hike I planned as their Death Ride recovery hike.  Boy, were they cursing me as we bushwacked to the base of the summit and then scrambled to the top on class 2/3 terrain.  Ever since then, I’ve kept the other pointy peak in the back of my mind….

Enrique & Sonja lamenting our friendship and they will their Death Ride legs up Hawkins Peak (Pickett Peak in background)

Pickett is shorter than Hawkins and doesn’t get a lot of attention; however, the climb to the top is solid class three.  We didn’t have any beta or a map, but it would be pretty tough to get lost.  From the intersection of 88 and 89, we drove due South on a dirt road.  Doodlebug, my low clearance Mazda 3, struggled along and we stopped once we lost confidence we could safely go on without getting stuck.

It was nearly 3pm by now, but the summer days are long and the weather was ideal with the exception of some strong winds.  We packed our day packs and headed up the fire road with the peak on our right.  We continued until we hit a fork in the road and it became obvious that we needed to leave the fire road and head cross-country due West to aim for the Pickett Peak saddle.

Bushwhacking on the saddle

Once you leave the road and become engulfed in the trees, it’s a bit difficult to keep your sense of direction without a compass or GPS, but we had faith in our route finding and continued until we began to go uphill in earnest.  We began ascending a blocky talus field but then realized we had overshot the saddle to the South.  As we gained the saddle, we were blasted by the wind and intimidated by the better view of the Pickett Peak summit.

We made our way across the saddle, the exposed part of my legs below my capris getting scratched to pieces by the brush.  Thankfully, the good ole foreshortening effect was in force and as we got closer to the summit, the slope looked less and less steep.  It was still bonified scrambling, so we donned our helmets as a precaution against a fall or being hit by a dislodged rock.

John carefully working his way through the rocks

I was still not sure of my limits between my knee and my lack of fitness, so I focused on moving efficiently and conscientiously.  We navigated upward always picking the path of least resistance, traversed a false summit, and surmounted the final summit block.

Happy Em on summit of Pickett Peak

As we found the highest piece of rock, the sense of accomplishment, exhilaration and peace washed over me just as it had with countless summits before.  It didn’t matter that this was a “baby peak,”  this was a true accomplishment and I was elated!  We celebrated at the summit, took care of the obligatory summit shots, and took a few moments to pause and soak in the 360 views of the South Lake Tahoe mountains.

Emilie down-climbing

The summit is only half way, even on a baby peak, so we carefully down-climbed and retraced our steps back to Doodlebug.  I realized it’s a long way from 9,118 ft to the heights I have been and want to return, but every step you take gets you just one step closer to your goals…

We spent the evening cooking on a Coleman stove, breathing in the smell of evergreens, and watching the sun’s rays fade over Lake Tahoe.  It was all that much sweeter thanks to Pickett Peak.

Sunset over Lake Tahoe

Lessons for Life – Pink and Lavender’s Excellent Australian Adventure

First, and most importantly, one must be indoctrinated into the cult of Charlie the Unicorn.  Charlie has two fellow unicorns who are instigators – Pink and Lavender.

Among my group of friends, we have decided Marie is Charlie as we are always trying to talk her into crazy adventures (although in reality this role does rotate) and Karen and I are Pink and Lavender.  It’s important to keep in straight that Karen is Pink and I am Lavender as I detest pink with a passion (and find lavender slightly less offensive).

Back in April 2011, I tore my ACL and had a less than straightforward recovery.  I expected to be getting back in shape and more or less up to my usual high jinx  by October.  However, as the months wore on, I realized it was increasingly unlikely that I would be able to do something “big” in 2011.  What’s my definition of “big”, you ask?  Loosely speaking, it would be traveling internationally to climb a glaciated peak at least 18kft high, but alas, that did not look possible this year.

I realized that one of the seven summits, Mt Kosciuszko in Australia, is a straightforward hike of just ~10 miles and ~4000ft gain to a height of 7,800ft.  I typically would not use my hard earned vacation time to hike something so easy, but this seemed like a bonafide challenge in my current state where hiking 5 miles on flat ground with trekking poles was difficult.

I tried to work my charms on Charlie to convince her to go on this grand adventure, but I was unsuccessful.  I had better luck with Pink, and after convincing her spouse to give her an international hall pass (while he was drunk – he is convinced this was not fair play), Pink and Lavender began not to plan their excellent adventure.

Karen and I are both, by most standards, high-powered professional women with demanding work travel schedules, deadlines and pressure.  As the date approached, we both kept remarking how behind we were on planning.  I had two major components taken care of – renting the car and securing our hotel in Sydney.  Otherwise, that was it.  It was the most unprepared I have been for any vacation, let alone an international one, but we surmised we would have the 12-hour flight to bone up on Australian attractions.  Instead Karen turned me into a True Blood addict by watching a full season on her iPad over the Pacific Ocean.

We landed in Sydney during the day and vowed to stay up until at least 9pm to try to get on Australia time.  The most challenging part of the entire trip was driving out of the airport being on the “wrong” side of the car and the “wrong” side of the road.  Not to mention no easy route into Sydney (thank goodness for GPS)!  We chose to walk all around downtown Sydney to absorb the sunlight and help our bodies fight jet lag.  We walked the entire Sydney Botanical Gardens (which are massive!), along the waterfront, and checked out the iconic Sydney Opera House.  We managed to stay up until 8:30pm and I fit in my yoga routine, portable ultrasound and electrical stem treatment on my knee before passing out.

On Day 2, we had bad weather and chose to check out the gimmicky, but still fun, Sydney Wildlife, Aquarium, and Imax.  By this time we had formulated our plan of attack for the rest of the trip.  We would try to make it down to Jidabyne (the closest town to Kosciuzsko) in one shot and pick a day to summit based on the weather forecast.

We navigated due south through gorgeous countryside much like that of the California wine country.    If memory serves, it took us about 7 hours to get to the small town of Jindabyne.  We found a cute little hostel named Mooses xxxx that was completely empty.  I’d definitely recommend it – a steal, very comfortable, and has a full upstairs lounge complete with a pool table, comfy couches and a full movie selection.  We thought we would do a warm up hike on Tuesday, and then attempt Kosciuszko on Wednesday, but the weather forecast showed that our best chance would be Tuesday to avoid some nasty impending storms.

We were up early at 6am and made the lonely windy drive through the park to the Charlottes Pass trailhead.  It was cold, windy, and foggy and we worried about the weather turning on us.  There are two options to hike Mt Kozzy – you can go straight up and down the easy fire road (Summit Track) or hike the single track trail called the Main Range Track.  We decided to go up the easy way to ensure a summit and see how my knee behaved, and then we would descend the Main Range to get some variety in the terrain.

We set off at 7:30am and the hiking was easy at first.  I was glad to have my poles for support and still a bit nervous about whether I could do the total mileage.  Pink told me during the long drive that one of Charlie’s reasons for not joining the Australian Adventure was her concern I wouldn’t be able to complete the hike.  This gave me the impression that the whole trip would not be worthwhile if I could not make it to the summit.  Pink’s response was that if we couldn’t hike, there were plenty of other things to do in Australia.  This had really taken the pressure off of me in terms of feeling responsible for her trip potentially being ruined if I couldn’t make it, but I still felt the personal pressure of wanting to accomplish something meaningful in 2011.

The hours slid by slowly as we hiked slowly but surely upward, making our breaks short to keep from getting too cold.  The area is beautiful and there was no one else around.  I could imagine how it would be a great place to ski in the winter.  We made it to the Seaman’s Hut where we took a break and surmised that there were 45-60 minutes to go.  I began to feel confident that we really would make it!

Towards the top, we were surprised to hit a several snowfields that we would need to traverse given this was Australia’s summer. I was very thankful to have my poles.  My operated knee was still not ready for uneven terrain – it wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight if I foot were to slip.  Despite that, I gave one of my poles to Karen.  She has an unreliable ankle and we would be equally screwed if her ankle decided to roll this far out on the trail.

We trudged on to toward the summit with the views expanding all around us as we edged upwards.  When we arrived at the top, we plopped down for a congratulatory round of summit pics and had our lunch break.  It was technically one of the easiest hikes to a summit I have ever done, but given the difficult surgery recovery and how uncertain I was about whether my knee would hold up, I was ecstatic to reach the top!

I also realized that we had met the main objective our of trip, that which we few nearly half way around the world to complete, and I felt immensely grateful to Karen for making the journey with me.  Amazing that she would leave her family over Thanksgiving and come so far not knowing whether I would be able to make it or not…

We chose to return the longer, single-track trail called the Main Range Track to make a loop.   I’m glad we did it, even though it was a bit more than I should have bit off (made the round trip total 13 miles and my knee was killing me at the end) because it was really beautiful.

At the very end, we very carefully boulder-hopped across the Snowy River and had to surmount one last evil hill.  At the top, we read a sign that said it’s advisable to start with the Snowy River crossing first in case the river is running too high to cross.  We shuddered at the thought of coming that far and then having to retrace the entire 13 miles if the river was impassable.

We did some yoga stretches and spent the next day and night in the Kosciuzko National Park before heading back to Sydney.  This time we drove a slower more scenic route up the coast, camping at beaches along the way and stopping to hike, wine taste, or take naps on the sand.  Despite our lack of planning, we managed to find a place to stay each night and they were all quite spectacular.

Looking back at this trip now, I am reminded that its not just about the personal accomplishment of making it to the top of one of the Seven Summits, but about the great people we spend time with along the way.  It was a most excellent adventure…thank you for your friendship, Pink!

Learning to Climb Again – Rocking the Red River Gorge

It’s been humbling to face the prospect of relearning to climb again.  I’ll be brief…primarily to spare those around me who have been by my side during this trying period.   I tore my ACL in a random snowshoeing accident in April 2011.  Normally, the post-ACL reconstruction surgery is a painful and consuming 4-6 month process.  My medical team flippantly remarked that I would probably bounce back faster than normal because I was “young, fit, and compliant.”  However, by November, I was still struggling with constant pain, inability to walk with a normal gait, and the frustration of feeling like I was inhabiting a stranger’s body.

My annual trip to the Red River Gorge near Lexington, Kentucky was fast approaching and I wasn’t sure I would be up for technical rock climbing.  Keeping my fingers crossed that the knee would be far enough along by then, I reached out to Red River Outdoors to request my favorite guide, Kennan Connor.

I really dug Keenan’s vibe the last time I was in the Gorge.  He was very mellow, even keeled, and unassuming despite some of the serious and record-breaking climbs he has accomplished.  I thought I would be coming back to work on lead climbing with him, something I hadn’t really been attracted to as I’m a big weenie about leader falls.  That would definitely have to wait a while because I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to top-rope easy routes!

Keenan belaying me on a tough start at The Shire in 2010

I met Keenan and Rae at the Red River Outdoors meeting spot a couple of miles from the infamous Miguel’s Pizza.  Rae was a young women who aspired to become a guide and who would be shadowing us.   Thankfully Keenan remembered me and asked “So, how has your climbing progressed over the last year?”

I chuckled and explained how much everything had slid backwards due to the injury…one year older and yet no progress.    He reviewed the areas and the routes we climbed last year, inquiring what kinds of climbs would be most appropriate for my current condition.  I truly did not know whether I would try to make one move on the rock and suddenly turn into a beached whale floundering about…but I REALLY wanted to try and definitely felt like Keenan’s mellow encouraging way would be positive.

All three of us climbed into Keenan’s beater (I was surprised to still see it kicking!) and drove out to the Southern Region area.  Keenan decided to first go to an area called Left Field with some easy 5.5 and 5.6 climbs as a test.  I still needed my poles for balance on uneven terrain and walked slowly on the trail, thinking to myself that it was probably silly to test my knee in the vertical world when it was still challenged in the horizontal world.

Hiking in the Southern Region

Keenan did a trad lead (where the leader places gear in natural features of the rock for protection) to the top of a set of anchors that would serve two routes – Return to Zoe (5.6 35ft) and Flee the Fixer (5.5 35ft).  I chose to try Return to Zoe first which was a dihedral (corner) as I tend to enjoy this kind of route – it uses a lot of balance and opposing forces versus muscling straight up a route.

I was very nervous as I put my harness on and tied into the rope on a figure-eight knot.  I hoped I would not turn into that beached whale or worse, hurt my knee, but I was trying to keep my expectations extremely low.  I stepped up to the rock face, asked Keenan to keep me tight, and took a deep breath.  I could feel the sharp crystals through the skin of my fingertips and feel the connection with the earth as I took hold of the rock.  I stepped onto two small footholds and mentally crossed my fingers as I stood up on my feet.  They held!  And no pain!

I very slowly and deliberately planned my moves and carefully balanced on each new foot placement.  As I ascended the dihedral, I began to use opposing forces with my legs, stemming out across holds.  I had never needed to be so deliberate with my movements before and I found it actually felt more fluid and effortless than the year prior.  I was absolutely elated to reach the top of the climb and not feel tired at all.

Reaching the top of Return to Zoe (5.6 trad)

Keenan lowered me and had to ask, “Which leg was it again?”  He said he couldn’t tell that I was favoring either side.  So far so good!  I then climbed Flee the Fixer, a more slabby climb which was tougher, but I also made it to the top without resting.  Rae led a sport climb just to the right (Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft – climbers are definitely good for colorful route names!!!).  This was one I had climbed last year so I could make a direct comparison, and it was MUCH easier than the last time.  Maybe there is something to being more deliberate with your movement!

We headed over The Shire where I had also climbed before.  I really struggled to walk down the small hills, leaning on my poles because my left knee couldn’t bear to be loaded downhill.  How bizarre that I seemed to feel better in the vertical world than the horizontal world!!!

Climbing over a bulge on Audie (5.8)

We climbed Peewee (5.7 35ft) and Audie (5.8 35ft), two slightly tougher routes that were more vertical and with a few bulging sections.  I had to rest once on Audie as my lack of fitness and rock-climbing endurance was kicking in, but I was still stoked to complete both climbs.

I remembered one really nice long 5.8 that I saw last year, but we had run out of time.  We donned our packs and hiked over to the area called The Gallery and I climbed a 65ft 5.8 called 27 Years of Climbing. Due to rope stretch, I could have hit the ground if I fell on one of the first moves, the crux of this climb, but I just stayed focused on not falling and pulled through.  I had to rest twice toward the top, but was flying high as a kite by this point.

Up high on 27 Years of Climbing (5.8)

Finally, we walked around The Gallery to the Volunteer Wall to hit a challenging climb that I completed last year.  Darwin Loves you is a strenuous 5.9+ 50ft climb.  I was starting to feel a bit more tired by this point and conscious that I shouldn’t push too hard on my first day back on the rock.  I got through the first moves off the ground, one of the cruxes, and then became exhausted about 25ft off the ground.  My forearms became so pumped that I couldn’t hold on any longer and I called it a day.

My support crew for the day, Keenan and Rae

Keenan, Rae, and I left the Southern Region of the Gorge as the light was beginning to fade from the sky, and I was immensely grateful for their support and to be back among this wacky tribe of people that are compelled to climb.

Route highlights

Wall Route Rating Height
Left Field Return to Zoe 5.6 35ft
Left Field Flee the Fixer 5.5 45ft
Left Field Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft
The Shire Pee Wee 5.7 35ft
The Shire Audie 5.8 35ft
The Gallery 27 years of climbing 5.8 65ft
Volunteer Wall Darwin Loves You 5.9+ 50ft