The Sound of the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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


Makalu Advanced Base Camp

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

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

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

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

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

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving "Crampon Point"

Leaving “Crampon Point”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crevasse Crossing

Protected Crevasse Crossing

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

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

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

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

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

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

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

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

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

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

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

Last "Selfie" Taken

Last “Selfie” Taken

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

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

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

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

Serious Self-Care

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

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

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

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

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

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

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

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

Climbing Mt Shinn

Climbing Mt Shinn

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

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

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

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

Put on your own oxygen mask first!

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

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

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

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

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

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

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

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

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

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

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

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