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.

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.