The Power of Dreams

I have never cried so much on a trip before.  Every time I summited one of the three high peaks in the Rwenzoris range, aka the Mountains of the Moon, I was completely overcome by emotion, welling up inside so that I could not speak and had to take a moment to compose myself, lest others see.  

Climbing Mt Stanley, Mt Speke, and Mt Baker was literally a dream come true.  Most will scratch their heads.  Where are the Rwenzoris (and how do you even pronounce that)?  Why were you compelled to go there of all places?  Why can’t you stop adventuring and just sit still for a while?

A region so unknown, I could only find 3 maps available out of the UK

A region so unknown, I could only find 3 maps available out of the UK

I first heard about the Rwenzoris back in 2005, 10 years ago!  I was just getting into climbing and picked the brain of a local woman, Alison Levine, about mountaineering.  In addition to being a mountaineer and professional speaker, Alison also founded a non-profit called Climb High Foundation that trains women in Uganda to be guides and porters.  That mountain range was called the Rwenzoris.  I then heard my mountaineering role model, Arlene Blum, mention the Rwenzoris in one of her talks at REI Mountain View.  Finally, my amazing sports podiatrist’s wife, Debbie, mentioned that out of all the things they have done (and they have done a lot – things like the Marathon des Sables, Ecoquest, climbed Aconcagua, etc etc), the Rwenzoris were the most beautiful they had ever seen.  All roads lead to the Rwenzoris…

The Rwenzoris also just so happen to have 3 peaks at or above 16k ft high – Mt Stanley at 16,763ft, Mt Speke at 16,137ft, and Mt Baker at 15,988ft.  My passion is high altitude climbing, so this put the Rwenzoris at the top of my list despite the time/expense to get there.

I obsessed about the Rwenzoris nearly every year, this mountain range almost no one else had ever heard of, researching/plotting/planning until the perfect storm of opportunity arose…

Celebrating 40

For some reason, turning 40 hit me particularly hard and I still can’t quite put my finger on it.  It’s not just checking a new box for the age bracket categories.  It’s not that I suddenly looked or felt older from my last day as 39 or my first day as 40.  My clients, most of whom are older than me, call me things like “kiddo” which is kind of annoying, but I also secretly love.  I think it was more the disparity between the perception of someone in their 40s being mature and responsible and how I feel.  I still feel SO young inside – there is so much to learn about the world and people, so many places to explore, so much inner growth to pursue – that mature feels like a ridiculous word to embrace at this stage.

I turned 40 on a particularly challenging Call of the Wild trip in Italy – the hikes and the terrain were not what was particularly challenging (especially because gelato and espresso were inserted between hiking segments!).  It was the first time ever that I did not personally gel with a group (that’s the diplomatic way to put it).  I never mentioned my milestone birthday because I believed most of the clients would feel like it detracted from their vacation and high expectations.  The rest of the summer rushed by as I ran like a chicken with her head cut off from one trip to another.  Something inside me felt empty for not taking a moment to celebrate. 

I sat with this for months trying to decide what I could do that felt worth to me as a great celebration.  I noodled and I brainstormed.  I foolishly asked for feedback on Facebook for ideas (to which I got the response, “But didn’t you get to go to Italy for your birthday?” and “How about going wine tasting?”).  Only Linda Sun mentioned climbing BIG peaks…exactly what I had in mind but how?  The finances are tight since everything I have goes into the business and I didn’t have the staff support yet to truly leave and be out of touch for any period of time.    

But if I set constraints aside, the objective that met all my criteria to be worthy of a 40th celebration???  The Rwenzoris.

My Mother

My mother passed away when I was 12 and she was 40.  After decades of never discussing my mother or her death with those who raised me, I always had a deeply buried sadness about growing up motherless, but I felt like she loved us until the end.   I only learned 2 years ago, accidentally from an extended family member, that she committed suicide.  This kind of information hits you hard, even as an adult.  Suddenly I felt abandoned all over again.  I will never understand why she did it – what depths of despair and hopelessness that she experienced.  Every day and every year I now live will be longer than she did.  It’s in her memory that I am dedicated to living an epic life worth living.  One that is full of vitality and happiness and pain and disappointment – whatever comes my way from the choices I make.

Me and Mom

Turning 2 years old

 

This is why I feel an increased responsibility not to waste the precious time that I have on this planet. I have the opportunity to, hopefully, double her life experience if I live until 80…but anything can happen any day.  On the journey back home, a passenger died on the flight that Eszter and Chris were on.  We don’t have details about what happened, but essentially one moment a fellow was coming or going to a faraway destination, and he never woke up.  No one wants to die, and few get to chose how they go, but I am dedicated to make the most of the time I have.  Exploring a remote mountain range on the border of Uganda and the Congo sounded like a fantastic way to spend my time!

Making My Own Dreams a Priority

Many regularly express envy of my lifestyle – with good intentions, they say I am “living the dream” and wish they could do it, too.  Not only do they not see the sacrifices I have made to leave the corporate world and try to make this combination of vocation and passion work, they are truly not interested. It’s easier and more fun to put someone on a pedestal than feign interest in the reality – the reality behind running any small business regardless how sexy the product is.   

I won’t go on and on about those sacrifices (I’ve been told I’ll hear the smallest violin in the world playing), but the last 3 years I have been dedicated financially, physically, and spiritually to helping others dreams come while putting my own on hold.

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild

My personal dream is to climb – to have enough time and financial security to be able to take off a couple of times a year to do something BIG.  I’ve been cranky and pent up and downright bitchy at times focusing exclusively on others.  Climbing the three high peaks of Uganda was the realization of a nearly 10 year dream in the making – the perspective resetting impact of this trip is difficult to put into words.  Making my own dreams come true simply must be as important and making others’ dreams come true, too.

For me, climbing is to love, to live, even to forget and release.  It’s the purest celebration of life that I know – my own life and those who have gone before me.  To climb is to be whole, and I am feeling whole again…thanks to the Rwenzoris!

Leadership Bones

I used to think I didn’t have a leadership bone in my body.

I was always a great student, worked hard, got top grades, but I was painfully shy and terrified of authority. My hard work helped me graduate first in my class from American University and then get into UC Berkeley’s business school, one of the best in the country.

But my fear of the limelight, fear of responsibility, and belief that I was not a leader persisted. Berkeley, and many graduate level programs, has a strong emphasis on leadership. If you are being groomed for management, leadership kind of goes hand in hand with having strong analytical skills. What good are good decision making skills if you can’t execute those decisions and create buy-in from your stakeholders, whether clients, employees, management, or investors?

I slipped into a high pressure and highly quantitative role after business school structuring esoteric collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Never you mind what exactly those are (they are less scary than they sound but evade a one sentence explanation), but suffice it to say, the work was very detail oriented and analytical. I enjoyed it and excelled at it.

Outside of work, I had been introduced to the world of mountaineering and was pursuing it with gusto. That’s a whole other story about how I got into climbing, but I discovered that I loved the sense of accomplishment that comes from selecting a difficult but achievable objective, researching it, preparing the logistics, training adequately for that particular climb, facing the obstacles that the mountain chooses to throw at you, and seemingly against all odds, making it to the top of a mountain and then back down safely.

Success on Kilimanjaro

Success on Kilimanjaro

I also had never been very athletic but found that some of my physical weaknesses became competitive advantages in the mountains. I’ve always been prone to easily overheat and become overexerted in warmer climates, but it turns out I have an above average tolerance for cold temperatures. I’ve always been very slow and steady, but it also turns out that slow and steady can translate into superior endurance and is the right way to help your body acclimatize at altitude.

 

FIRST ECUADOR EXPEDITION

After hiking Kilimanjaro (19.3 k ft) with success and completing a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course with Alpine Ascents, I decided to try my hand at the Ecuadorian volcanoes. Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo range from 18.3k ft to 20.5k ft…amazing that such high glaciated peaks can be found near the Equator! I went with Alpine Ascents again, one of the best mountaineering guiding outfits around. As usual, I was the only woman – 1 out of 9 men (6 clients, 3 guides/staff) for two weeks.

It was great. I don’t mind that environment as it’s only a matter of time before I offend the guys who are on their best behavior in my presence. 🙂   However, our second acclimatization hike was really too tough for me physically. It was Imbabura, a tough hike with 5,500ft gain up to 15.2k ft. Most of the day was sunny, hot, and humid, but when we reached the summit by a section of exposed scrambling, all of the sudden the clouds closed in on the mountain top and we were all shook by a terrifying clap of thunder. Our helmets buzzed with the electricity in the air. The guides yelled, “Down! Down! Down!” and we practically ran down what we had delicately climbed up.

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

The sky opened up and let loose a torrent of hail which transitioned to rain as we descended. The volcanic ash soil turned to black, slick silt and we jogged down the mountain, bracing and falling and tumbling. I was absolutely wrecked from the hike and my quads were unreasonably sore. Bruce, one of the other clients, felt the same way, so we agreed to be on the same rope team for the first mountain, Cayambe. We attempted the climb but turned around early together to save ourselves for the gem, Cotopaxi.

Long story short, the only mountain I summited on that expedition was Imbabura and I learned a valuable lesson – no harm comes from conserving energy, but if you expend it all and overdo it, you may not be able to recover in time.

 

FINDING A NEW WAY IN MEXICO

I continued climbing peaks in California and Washington when I received an invitation to climb with my guide buddy Eric on an independent guided expedition to climb the highest peak in Mexico, Orizaba at 18.8k ft.

Although Eric is 6’2″ and freakishly strong, he has one of the slowest paces of any guide I know. He does it because he has the clients’ success and safety in mind. Typically, a Mexico volcanoes expedition would include both Orizaba and another high, glaciated peak called Iztacchihuatl, or “Izta” for short.  It was 17.2k ft high and Eric found that clients would be too burned out after trying Izta to be successful at the main objective, Orizaba.

Eric designed a more humane acclimitization schedule with Orizaba as the main prize.  Instead of pushing our limits on Izta, we would do two mellower mountains that would still incite the acclimatization process.  We hiked to the top of both La Malinche (14.6k ft) and Nevado de Toluca (15.4k ft) which were tough, good workouts, but did not destroy any of us.  All three of us clients, another woman from California and a French Canadian man, were successful reaching the summit of Orizaba.

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

I learned a valuable lesson about what works for me.  A much gentler acclimatization program with emphasis on not burning out before the primary objective helped ensure that the primary objective was met.

 

BACK TO ECUADOR WITH A NEW VISION

I hadn’t stopped thinking about Cotopaxi and wanted to go back. I mentioned the idea flippantly to my two climbing buddies, Jeff and John, who both jumped at the idea. I had never planned an international expedition before, especially not where I was the leader.

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

Jeff and John were great, they just said, “Tell us what to bring and we’ll bring it. Tell us where to show up and we’ll be there.” I leveraged my contacts, my new vision of what the itinerary should be, and my Spanish language skills. I developed a different itinerary where we would do 2 brand new hikes I had never done before (Pasochoa & Ruminahui) that weren’t as difficult but would provide exposure to high altitude. We would spend one night at the hut and practice on the glacier the next day before heading up to give ourselves yet another night at altitude without too much exertion.  Everything would be done with an eye toward maximizing acclimatization while minimizing exertion before attempting Cotopaxi.

I kept chuckling when the locals would start talking to Jeff and John in Spanish, assuming that the men would be in charge, of course. They would receive blank stares in return (Jeff and John knew how to order cerveza, but not much else) and then I would answer in my halfway decent Spanish, much to the locals’ surprise to see a small woman speaking for these two tall guys. While this was unusual, the locals also seemed to feel respected by a gringa speaking their language fairly well and out of mutual respect and interest.

At the climbing hut on Cotopaxi, the local guides also seemed surprised that I was “in charge” but I received nothing but respect there as well. Although the Latin culture has a reputation for being patriarchal, there are many men who respond positively to a woman who exudes confidence and demonstrates credibility.

I still remember cresting a final bump near the summit of Cotopaxi only to look down and see this frighteningly yawning crevasse below me. I yelled back to John, “Watch me!”, crossed it by gently placing each step on the snow-bridge spanning the crevasse, and began ascending the other side of the dip, passing a team waiting to go back down. As I passed by, one of the local guides said out-loud, “Un verdadero alpinista.” [Note that “alpinista” is a masculine noun despite ending in an “a” and being applied to a woman.]  That translates to “a true alpinist.” That remains the highest compliment I have ever received.

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater (photo credit: John Gray)

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater with me in the lead and Jeff in the middle (photo credit: John Gray)

What does this all have to do with leadership? Well, I discovered that in the right situation:

  1. I had the skills required to guide a group to making decisions that were appropriate for all of us and for the conditions.

  2. I had a vision! I had done this Ecuador expedition before, learned from it as well as the Mexican expedition to come back and do it another way that worked better for me and my team!

  3. I created a solid team. John and Jeff had the appropriate skill, gear, and demeanor. They both also respected my decision making and experience while providing their valuable input where they felt inspired to do so.

  4. I accepted help from my team. When I was suffering up the last 500 ft to the summit, John walked up to me and took a few things off my harness and pack to lighten my load. Even though I was the leader, the lighter load helped me feel stronger and our collective strength grew with John’s actions. Leaders do not have to be able to do it all!

  5. Even in environments like mountaineering in a developing Latin country (talk about a male dominated environment!), it is possible as a female to demand respect and credibility.

I began to believe that if I could successfully manage a leadership role in a high risk endeavor in a developing country with male teammates, there was no reason I couldn’t handle leadership roles in Corporate America…how might YOU be holding yourself back???

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!?!?

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.

Journey versus Destination? Whitney Set Me Straight

It’s often said “the journey is more important than the destination.” I’m not sure what wise man, or wise ass, coined that phrase, but after three failed attempts of the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt Whitney in winter conditions, I called bull shit.

I set about to summit on my fourth attempt. Making it to the top allowed me the luxury to look back on a five year relationship with Mt Whitney (2006-2010) to see if an learnings had penetrated my thick skull. Talk a walk back in time with me…

ATTEMPT #1

In April 2006, I attempted my first big mountain. The climbing bug had just bitten me and I spent 6 months acquiring the skills (basic mountaineering course, Sierra Club Snowcamping training series, training with Courtenay Schurman of Body Results) to prepare for a four-day winter ascent of Mt Whitney’s Mountaineer’s Route.

Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states standing at 14,505 and the Mountaineer’s Route is 8,000ft of steep snow slopes requiring a heavy pack with provisions, climbing equipment, and winter worthy gear (clothing and sleeping system). I was a newbie climber and I chose to go with International Mountain Guides just based on the price and itinerary

Those four days were the most physically challenging in my life at that point. The 52# pack felt back breaking and the shortest day was 6 hours of ascending. Down lower on the mountain, the temps were higher and the snow created a sauna effect that threatened heat exhaustion. Higher on the mountain, the temps lowered, wind picked up, and a storm blew in causing me to struggle to stay warm. The steep slopes and sense of exposure looking down then forced me to focus my awareness on each step in a way I had never had to focus before. My competitive side struggled with the fact that I had prepared diligently, yet the others seemed so much stronger and faster than me.

Alas, we reached the infamous “notch” less than 500ft below the summit, and the two guides decided to turn us all around. They could see a storm blowing in from the west and wisely assessed that there was not enough time to get us all up and down the final exposed chute safely. I was supremely disappointed that all the months of physical preparation, skill building and logistical planning failed to result in a successful summit.

However, I recognized that it was an excellent lesson to learn early on. No matter how much you have prepared, how much you have spent, how bad you want it, the mountain may have other ideas.

Heading back down the gully to Iceberg Lake with IMG in 2006. Check out all that rental gear!

ATTEMPT #2

In April 2008, I went back with three swell fellows – Rob Martin, Chris Alger, and Bill Kish. We were well prepared and well suited for each other. We planned an ascent over three days and the first day we blasted up to the moraine around 12,500ft. I felt strong and was happy with my climbing partners. Unfortunately, Bill started feeling bad when we arrived into camp and his headache worsened over night. Typically symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) improve with time at altitude so Bill wisely chose not to ascend further and Rob wisely chose to stick with him.

Chris and I set off at around 4am and crossed the slope that is the one major avalanche risk. We knew that the avalanche forecast was relatively stable with the exception of southeast slopes with sun exposure – just as this slope had. We saw some horizontal cracks which are not a good sign and another guided group we chatted with said their shear tests were positive.

We had worked backwards with the timing to try to be back down and off the slope before 10am, but I really got the heebie jeebies going across it. Chris and I were slower than we had expected due to the altitude and Chris’ lack of experience on snow with crampons. I kept thinking about the fact that the slope was a terrain trap. Even if someone were able to dig us out quickly, we could be decimated by the volume of snow that could accumulate. I was also thinking about Chris’ wife, a dear friend and maternal figure, and felt it wasn’t worth the risk to keep going. As we were about half way up the main chute on the way to the “notch”, I decided to listen to my intuition and turn around. Thankfully, Chris seemed very relieved when I made the call and did not protest.

Chris descending at lower left as the alpen glow hits in 2008

We rejoined Bill and Rob and descended to a set a lower camp for our second night before hiking out. I remember having the best time joking around with those guys and singing and dancing to random songs blasting from tiny iPod speakers. We may not have summitted, but we definitely had a blast.

ATTEMPT #3

April 2010 rolls around and the four of us – Rob, Chris, Bill and myself – are back for more. We were joined by Bill’s new climber girlfriend, another gal named Sonni, and a dude named Jason.

Chris and I had packed a rope and some rock and snow gear to set protection in the final exposed chute; however, my pack was around 55# and I wasn’t in as good of shape that year. I felt that my ability to even get to the chute would be compromised if we carried all the technical gear so I convinced Chris we should jettison it. He agreed and we carried onward up the mountain.

Everyone seemed to suffer a bit more with their heavy packs this time so we camped at Upper Boy Scout Lake (below the moraine camp). This meant a bit of a longer approach on our summit day. We set off dark and early and made good time up to the “notch.”

Fortunately and unfortunately, the weather was fabulous and there were several teams ascending and descending the final exposed chute. Sonni quickly and wisely decided not to climb the chute as she was the least experienced of the group and making a mistake in the chute could result in a 1200 ft fall. Bill and Cindy were like mountain goats and seemed to float up the chute. Rob, Jason, Chris, and I started off on the steep slope together.

The snow was thin over the rocks and it was disconcerting to me. I couldn’t get full purchase of my axe or my crampons in spots and there were sections of rock sticking through the snow. I climbed up a slabby section of granite with my crampons skittering and realized I would have an awful time downclimbing if I kept going. I’m a snow climber and not much of a rock climber, having very little experience down climbing. I told the boys I was turning back and they forged on.

The last frontier on Whitney in 2010. I turned around soon after I took this shot.

I was disappointed with myself to have come so far for the third time and turn around, but I felt the mountain simply wasn’t worth dying for and I had to recognize my experience was not in sync with the route conditions. Later Rob told me that he and Jason sat at the summit for a while contemplating their descent and almost regretting that they had pushed on to the top. They carefully descended and I watched on pins and needles as they kicked some steps in three or four times before feeling comfortable to weight each foot.

A guided group was being lowered and I also wished I had been strong enough to carry the extra gear and rope so that we could do the same. One of the guided clients dropped a water bottle and it nearly nailed Jason right on top of his helmet as he finished the last few tenuous moves descending back to the notch.

We all regrouped at the notch and descended together, me with a heavy heart knowing the third time was not the charm. However, the party we had back at Upper Boy Scout Lake really lifted my spirits!

ATTEMPT #4

At this stage, it was beginning to feel personal. I was frustrated with all the supportive comments from friends about how it’s really about the journey and not the destination. I would exclaim in frustration, “F@#k the journey. The whole point of the journey is to get to the destination!!!”

In September 2010, I hatched a plan that *just* involved hiking the peak, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Given I decided just a few days before the weekend and the Whitney permit lottery was closed out many months prior, I chose to enter via a trailhead 36 miles south of the summit of Whitney. My plan was to start at Horseshoe Meadows, hike cross country up Old Army Pass and camp, summit Mt Langley (14,026ft) and continue around the backside of Whitney to summit. It would involve traveling a total of 48 miles at altitude to summit two 14kft peaks, and I would do it alone (also see Sierra Journal “Taking Whitney from the Backside”).

The first day I hiked 8 miles and camped on the moonscape of Old Army Pass pitching my tent into strong winds. I arose and began hiking at 6am to summit Langley by 9am. As I was descending back toward the trail, I startled a group of three male hikers. We struck up a conversation and they were somewhat incredulous about a female soloist but friendly and good-natured. They were on the same itinerary as me and we were all uncertain how far we would get on day 2. I bid adieu and pushed hard to reach Crabtree Meadow at sundown logging a brutal 18-mile day.

On day 3, I only hiked 6 miles to a small alpine lake above Guitar Lake both to recover from the tough previous day as well as the sleepless night caused by the coyotes yipping around my campsite. That small lake was also the likely last water source before heading up the backside of Whitney. I settled in and was enjoying the views when I see the three musketeers come over the horizon. They were joking that they were convinced I was really just a myth – they were wondering if they would ever see me again or if I was just a figment of their imagination.

They became my new best friends when they shared their cheesy quesadillas with me for dinner and we decided to team up the next day. My plan was to get up at 1am and get hiking by 2am in order to time the summit as close to sunrise as possible. Once at the top of Whitney, I would still need to hike the last 11 miles down to the Whitney Portal and beg for a ride back to my car at Horseshoe Meadow.

We arose according to plan and I paced our new little group up the switchbacks leading to Trail Crest. We were slow and steady but made amazing time and summitted together around 7am. The shadows of the Whitney crest were cast in alpenglow on the mountains to the west.

Self-portrait at the summit of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states.

It was glorious to be at the top of the highest point in the lower 48 after more than five years of trying. I loved that I made it there with my new friends (and to this day, they continue to invite me on their annual boys climbing adventure!!!). I have a tough time describing the swell of emotion that typically overcomes me when I reach a summit, and the feelings were amplified many times given the long history I had with Whitney. I can only say that I had to hold back tears of joy.

EPILOGUE

Now that I have reached the destination of the summit of Whitney, it’s easier for me to look back on the long journey and smile. I can see how far I have come as a climber, a leader, and a person. Whitney has tested my physical strength, my mettle, and my decision making. It has provided me with the opportunity to connect with other wonderful human beings in a situation where all barriers and pretenses are removed. And it has shown me the beauty and power of nature.

The journey has indeed been worthwhile, but never would have happened if I had not focused obsessively on that destination.

I’d like to climb the East Buttress route next, a full-on multi-pitch rock climb (Jeff B! Still got my eye on you!), but now it will purely be about the journey. The destination has been reached.