Welcome to Alaska (aka Crevasse Whip)

I flew from Seattle to Anchorage on a Monday. The weather was mostly clear with a few scattered clouds. The woman sitting beside me in the window seat announced excitedly that she was going on a cruise. After taking in an eyeful of the climbing guidebook propped open in my lap, she asked: are you going hiking? Yeah, kinda.

Normally, I’d be happy to carry on a conversation with whoever wound up in seat 17A or whatever it was beside me. But at approximately the same time that she struck up a conversation, we began passing over the Chugach Range. Looking down, it took me a moment to realize that the seemingly low-hanging cloud beneath us was actually an expansive glacier. Its huge expanse confirmed that I was definitely outside of my home range, which seemed suddenly scaled down by comparison. The terrain beneath us was big and wild and enticing. My jaw dropped and my eyes welled up a little with excited and awestruck tears; a special kind of tear that only powerful natural experiences can conjure. I felt simultaneously small but very much in the right place. The feeling was only slightly reduced when the tiny plane window was overtaken by an iPhone screen, but what little I’d seen struck a deep and resonant chord.

Upon arriving at the Mountain Trip guide house in Anchorage, I was immediately enthralled by stories of big mountain rescues, avalanches and other stuff you might otherwise hear about in Outside magazine. All of the stories were told from a first person perspective. My eyes widened and I could hardly contain my endless questions. I immediately got the sense that I was surrounded by decades of experience.

Not having much to do right off the bat, I tried to busy myself by helping other teams prep gear for the West Buttress of Denali. Tents were thoroughly inspected for tears, zipper snags, adequate rain flies. Unnecessary ounces were shed. “That’s weight,” the lead guide said, plucking something from the kitchen kit. Noted, I thought to myself.

The cast of characters that makes a seasonal migration to Anchorage year after year is a lively bunch. Lots of personality. The backyard keg only served to enhance things, and definitely for the better. While new on the scene myself, I felt like I was among my people. I immediately noticed the bonds forged between folks that had spent weeks together working at altitude, often in the elements and laden with heavy, mandatory gear. There was an evident sense of community and camaraderie. These people were hearty; both physically and in the way they carried themselves. I loved it.

Three days out from our flight onto the Kahiltna Glacier, I began packing with my lead guide Ben for our 12-day climbing course. He’d developed a menu and introduced me to the long list of gear that we would need, most interestingly: seven pickets (we used all of them,) two low-stretch 50 meter ropes and four sleds to help haul our heavy loads. We rigged my backpack with a drop cord so that if I fell into a crevasse while fully weighted, I could get the weight off of my body and onto the rope instead. I sipped a beer and taped more than 50 wands to prepare for low-visibility glacier travel. We made trips to Costco and Carrs and bought what seemed like an obscene amount of meat and cheese (turns out, it was pretty spot on.) And almost suddenly, it was go time.

We met Astrid and Dan at the Lakefront Hotel beside Lake Spenard, which was busy with float planes landing on the lake and departing overhead. In the hotel lobby, the walls were decorated with taxidermy goats, moose, grizzly and polar bears. It felt simultaneously very over the top and very Alaska. Again, I loved it. Dan and Astrid were joining us from New York to gain the skills for glacier travel on their own terms. They struck me as being very prepared and eager to get after it. Things got started on the right foot.

At that time, the forecast we’d been referring to for the last few days looked dubious, at best. I was happy to have a goretex top and bottom shell because it looked like we were going to be subject to near constant rain for the duration of our trip. Ben mentioned that we could begin with a knot review and rope techniques in Talkeetna, since there was a good chance that we would be grounded, possibly for days. Apparently the pilots rely on line of sight only for their glacier landings. No vis means no flight.

We weighed our bags and gear and prepared to settle into Talkeetna for the night when we got a call out of the blue: the plane was ready and departure time is now. It felt like a total curveball, but I threw on my double boots, glacier glasses and a quick layer of sunscreen. I thought I was going to have the night to make minor last minute preparation additions, like downloading additional media to my phone to hold me over for 12 nights, seeking out a few additional interesting facts about Denali, etc. But nope!

We climbed into a Beaver that sounded like a flying muscle car. Our flight took us over deep green and dense Alaskan woods where we saw the occasional cabin with no obvious road to access them by. I watched the service drop off and disappear from my phone, one service bar at a time.

As we approached the Alaska Range, the tears crept back into my eyes like they had for the Chugach Range. I was experiencing full-body “woah dude.” And it only got bigger and better as we flew deeper into the range, impossibly close to house-sized cornices, vast glaciers stretching 40 miles out of sight. I tried to say into my headset: this is one of the best days of my life. But the Beaver’s roar drowned me out and that was ok. I was dazzled. I knew immediately that this was going to be a place that I would return to many times over, for business and for pleasure. That special kind of Alaska heavy-duty dragging pleasure that humbles and forces you to dig deep. That special kind of completely unpredictable weather pleasure that arrests your full attention into the immediate here and now. A special kind of brutal pleasure that I was ready to be smacked down by. Hell yeah. Maybe normal people call it masochism.

The plane eventually touched down on the glacier alongside Annie’s Ridge. I felt the skis dredge wet spring snow beneath us. Momentarily, I imagined the plane catching an edge much like you would on a pair of normal skis and what that would mean for us on the inside. But the thought didn’t last long because we immediately began ripping gear from the belly of the plane so that another team could board and fly out. I recognized another lady guide from back home, Robin, and gave her a hug. As my network grows larger, my world seems more interconnected and smaller and all the richer for it.

I dragged a sled past a party of folks that seemed like they were actually mid-celebration, a true party. Basecamp was a lively and happening place. Again and again, I heard that team after team had summited in 2-week weather windows, while several of our trips are budgeted 22 days to turn a trip around with enough time for acclimatization, weather and come-what-may on the tallest mountain in North America. The load I was pulling didn’t feel particularly heavy, but I was embarrassed to find myself huffing and puffing a bit as I drug it up a short stretch. I wondered how I would fair beneath the weight of my 60 pounds of personal gear with the addition of whatever food and group gear I would need to cary. The glacier was surprisingly hot and I felt myself drench with sweat almost immediately. I mentally prepared myself to grind.

Ben asked me to start digging but didn’t get around to telling me why. He requested a 3 foot by 3 foot dig site. I hopped to it. After digging to roughly knee depth, I asked him how deep he wanted the hole. “About five feet,” he said nonchalantly. I couldn’t remember the exact figure for how much a cubic meter of snow weighs from my avalanche education, but I can tell you that it’s more than you’d think. I dug in and moved as much snow as quickly as I could and felt my heart rate rise with the piles of snow accumulating around me. In my mind, this was an audition for a Denali trip. I wanted to show Ben that I could dig up there alongside the best of ’em.

The days wore on and we covered snow skills like cramponing and self arrest, running belays, crevasse rescue, snow anchors, roped glacier travel and so on. Some days were exceedingly hot and our days began between 2 and 5am to accommodate. Oh, and it was never dark. No headlamp required. Around 3am, you’d get a bit of twilight but never full-on darkness. It wasn’t as weird as you might think, but it made falling asleep hard at times. That, coupled with an ever changing sleep schedule: 2am, 3am and 5am being the choice times, made for a disrupted sense of general time as well as “time on” and “time off.” I discovered roughly four days in that I really needed the occasional solo tent time to relax and unwind. Around camp, there’s always something to straighten, always water to melt, always something to dig, etc. There’s always something. And the methodology and process was all new to me, despite the time I’ve spent in the Cascades. I felt out of rhythm but not necessarily out of control. I was literally out of my element and doing everything I could to embrace the differences.

Eventually, we moseyed up to Kahiltna Pass, establishing camp at 10,000 feet. We were parked beneath Kahiltna Dome, which has a beautiful ridge, zebra-striped with crevasses. After many consecutive days of lots of skills and not a lot of movement, my body was craving exertion beyond shoveling snow (trust me, I’d had plenty of time to practice that. So it goes out there.) Finally, more than a week into our adventure, it was time to climb.

Ben lead the way gaining the ridge and over a spicy looking bergschrund. He kicked again and again into soft Alaska corn snow that wouldn’t quite consolidate. The couple-inch surface layer felt firm beneath crampons, but once you punched through, there was a relatively uniform layer of mushy, wet, soft snow, unlike anything I’d experienced previously in Washington.

Just beyond the ‘schrund, we paused to discuss our plan for the day and any hazards we might want to consider. When asked to weigh in, I saw no ‘red light’ reason to stop climbing and recommend that we continue on. We were well ahead of our turnaround time and on a broad ridge. If anything, we had every reason to continue on. We did. I got to lead and picked my way through textured terrain atop the ridge. The snow was wind-affected and funky; I could tell that we were traveling alongside some pretty sizable cornices and was keenly aware of our exposure off the backside of the ridge away from camp. Occasionally, I placed a picket to guard against a fall, equally for psychological and physical security.

Eventually I came up on a snow bridge; the epitome of a snow bridge, almost like something out of a Japanese garden. I could see a dark space on the left side of the ridge beneath where the route meandered. As I assessed the surface snow, I felt assured by the firm snow crunching beneath my crampons. I gave the dark hollow space several feet of distance and probed first with my basketed ski pole and then with my ice axe. The feedback I got from my initial probe strikes was confidence inspiring. I stepped exactly where I’d probed and began to probe further. Not wanting my basket to interfere with the depth of my probe, I leaned forward to plunge my ice axe into the snow. To my great surprise, the world fell away beneath me and my world went white. The fall stopped just as quickly as it had started and I found myself slumped over, hanging in my harness deep inside a crevasse. My hands had locked themselves down around my ice axe and ski pole.

A nervous laughter gurgled out of me. My system had been rebooted by a wave of adrenaline. Ha… Haha… Ha… “I’m OK!” I yelled to my team. I heard nothing back, so I yelled again louder, “Guys, I’m OK!”

Besides finding my self sharply arrested by the end of the rope, there had been no impact and no consequence to my fall. While I’d had the wherewithal to process the potential for a serious accident in the plane landing on the glacier, hanging in the bottom of a crevasse, I felt surprisingly unafraid. This thing that I’d been teaching about and preparing for, for years had gone as well as it possibly could have. I was fine. I was grateful. I was actually really stoked that things had turned out as well as they did.

As I looked around, I noticed that I’d fallen through several feet of what looked like cob webs beneath a 7 or so inch layer of firm snow on top. I remember looking at the firm layer and thinking that it was trustworthy because of the surface texture. Obviously, since I was actively probing when I fell, I didn’t inherently trust the surface appearance, but this seems like a free lesson that I can pass on: don’t trust what you see at the surface! Probe earlier than you think you might need to – it’s better to find the edge and solid ground instead of spooky hollow cob webs, you know, before it’s too late and all.

Almost immediately, I began stemming in a full straddle-stance to climb more than 15 feet from the depth of the crevasse (15 feet per Ben’s assessment; my wigged out brain registered 20 feet, but who knows.) The rope had caught me inches above what appeared to be solid ground. Not sure what to trust with bodyweight and not wanting to know what was lurking beneath apparently stable snow, I trusted my crampons to the walls of the crevasse and used my ice axe to climb higher. I captured progress with the prussic that was pre-rigged to the rope. After clambering up what I estimated to be a body length, I tied a knot in the rope beneath my prussic. And then again. And again. I had no desire to trust my full bodyweight to a single prussic alone, even if it absolutely would have held. When I was just a few short feet from the lip, Ben poked his head over and asked me how I was doing.

“I’m fine!” I was happy to report. He padded the lip, anchoring his backpack to his ice axe and vector/plucked me out over the edge. Our size difference is comical; he may as well have used a pinky to lift me out.

I took a moment to sit on a pad on firm snow and collect myself. I held my hand out to see if it was shaking with adrenaline. Surprisingly, it wasn’t quaking that bad. I guess I felt some nervous laughter, but my nerves quickly subsided when I realized that I was going to be OK. Best worst case scenario.

Not surprisingly, we decided to call that our high point and turned around for camp. I lead the way back and felt myself grow nervous as temperatures rose. At that point, it was just after 8:30am. Not necessarily late, but given the less than confidence inspiring snow, high time to head out of there.

After all of that, I thought to myself: that’s quite the welcome to Alaska.

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Utah: A travel blog about 26 hours of Greyhound hell

The Climbing Part

After five years of climbing, I finally made it to Indian Creek. The first day, I ran along the base of Supercrack Buttress and put my hand or fingers into every crack within reach. I noticed that as I pulled down, it felt like the sandstone pushed back. Everything felt incredibly climbable.

I noticed a lovely looking off-fingers crack that I assumed would go well. With hardly a glance a the guidebook, I racked all of my gear to my harness plus a few borrowed cams, which felt like a lot, and did the customary hands-on-hips pre-climb appraisal of the route. I chalked my hands and started up.

The first 15 feet went well. I was climbing a left-facing corner with tight, secure hand jams. I felt confident and placed gear accordingly. Then I arrived at a bulge. I had good feet and was able to take a rest to contemplate the moves ahead.

I moved away from my relatively comfortable position and began jamming my way up the bulge, for lack of an opportunity to lieback because of an inconvenient flare. The most logical feet for the moves were at hip height. Having climbed through the flare, it became time to lieback. I worked my feet up and my arms immediately began screaming to my brain, “THIS AIN’T GONNA LAST LONG!” Suddenly I became acutely aware of where the rope was beneath me and the prospect of taking an upside-down whipper. At this point, my breath was most certainly audible to my partner 30′ below. I reached down to my hip, fumbled a piece of protection into the crack, and mentally prepared myself to pull enough slack rope up to clip the piece. Ain’t no time like the present when your arms feel like they want nothing more than to give out on you, so I yanked the rope up, barely managed to clip the piece and half screamed to my partner: “I’m gonna fall!”

The Creek did not disappoint. I’ve heard a few people mention getting humbled by the climbing there, but I figured I’d been crack climbing long enough to be able to hang in there. Actually, I suspected that I might even excel because of my small hand size. (Haha, in retrospect, that’s cute.)

It’s true that the jams are so good that it feels like the crack grabs you back, but what I’d failed to account for was the length of the routes and what it feels like to climb with minimal rests and without other features. Nothing but pure crack. (If you’re not a climber, that sentence probably sounds weird.)

Over the course of the week, I got to climb at Supercrack Buttress, Selfish Wall, Scarface and Battle of the Bulge. After destroying the backs of my hands at Battle of the Bulge, we took a day to clip bolts on Potash Road. Despite the gobies, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. We started after noon most days. This was not my choice.

I assumed that after a few days, I would literally get into the groove and be able to send something beyond my warmups. I thought I would pick a project for myself. Not this trip.

Rain rolled in right around the time I started to collect a little confidence. Snow, too. Besides the weather, I’d also been confronted with the gnawing discomfort of an incompatible partnership. Not the typical minor spat that turns a day sour, but an entire week of misalignment. We disagreed on most everything. In the most Jersey Shore moment of my life, after trying to talk things through and establish reasonable boundaries, I finally gave up. In the middle of the woods somewhere outside of Bryce Canyon, I angrily packed up all of my shit and my tent (which I’d had to do every night for a week of cragging in the same area, which was obnoxious, due to indecision and my van-dwelling partner’s inability to plan) and took off walking down the side of the road.

Utah: The Not-Climbing Part

For lack of a vehicle, I was relatively stranded. I came upon an RV campground and asked where the nearest Greyhound station was. The young man on the other side of the counter had emo-styled, bleached-blonde hair, several piercings and a lisp. He blinked and looked at the backpacks on my chest and my back, quizzically.

“I don’t know where the nearest one is,” he said flatly.

Another employee behind the desk looked up from his screen and said simply, “I’ll take you.” Thank god.

For the record: there is no taxi service operating near the woods outside of Bryce Canyon. And I’m fairly confident that there aren’t any taxi services within an hour drive in any of the small towns in the surrounding area. (I later asked a motel owner in Parowon, she laughed, and offered to give me a ride to where I needed to go. Utah is very hospitable.)

So that’s how I found myself in the passenger seat of a Ford Taurus traveling 60mph through the desolate Utah desert at night in pre-tourism shoulder season having the lyrics of “Into the Coven” sung/explained to me. It was approximately 9pm. As an aside, I listen to a podcast with the catchphrase: “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered.” Between the lyrics about bleeding the blood, smashing the cross, etc. I was praying to the creators of the podcast, Karen and Georgia, that this hour long drive wouldn’t be my last. (Spoiler: I didn’t get murdered.)

That’s when my driver surprised me: “I’m a Mormon.” His demeanor and sincerity was enough to convince me. Apparently, his musical tastes juxtapose sharply against his lifestyle choices. Utah, you’re wonderful, never change.

The next bus outta there wasn’t until 1pm the following day. So I stayed in a motel room with paper thin walls, scratchy sheets and creaky floors. Fifty dollars was a small price to pay to insulate myself from prolonged circular discussions about nothing leading nowhere; possible tickets from camping in inappropriate places; and the possibility of being ruthlessly teased by endless climbing made inaccessible by a partner decidedly unavailable to climb, despite being on a climbing trip. (?!?!) I fell asleep listening to a channel dedicated to true crime, scrolling indifferently on my phone. My mind was caught up in how something as simple as a climbing trip – what most people consider a vacation – could be so miserable.

The following day, I arrived at the bus stop 45 minutes early. I’d eaten a bagel and some pretzels the day before; we’d last shopped for groceries a week prior. The stop was many things in one: a gas station, a truckers’ rest stop, a bus station, a prime people-watching opportunity. There was a Subway and a Taco Bell inside the building, too. Hungry and disinterested in gas-station ham & cheese, I dropped my bags at a table and stood in line at Subway.

“What kind of bread do you want?” the woman barked at me from the other side of the glass. She seemed generally offended by my presence.

Forty-five minutes slipped by. At 12:55, I became concerned. No bus. 1pm came and went. I panicked at the thought of missing the only northbound bus out of the Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah. I searched through my phone and found a bus tracker. I was relieved to learn that the bus was running 45 minutes behind. In that email, I also learned that I would not get onto the bus without a printed ticket. Stranded, in the middle of the desert, I was without a printer. Go figure.

The bus rolled in and people piled out. The bus driver was quick to light a cigarette and adept at avoiding eye-contact with me as I crossed the parking lot to him. He walked around the back of the bus and I closed the gap by walking around the front.

“Sorry to bother you,” I said as I rounded the corner of the bus, “But I noticed that my email confirmation said that I needed a printed ticket. We’re kind of out here in the middle of the desert. I don’t have the ability to print a ticket.”

He took a pensive drag from his cigarette, gave me a kind of creepy old man smirk and said, “Frankly, I don’t give a shit if you have a ticket or not.” It was at this moment that I noticed that he was missing the pointer finger on his right hand. He took one of my bags and stowed it beneath the bus. I got on.

The second I became separated from my backpack containing literally all of the climbing equipment I own, I became very anxious. I thought about how tourists’ backpacks were regularly stolen from night buses in Thailand. But then the bus started and we were off.

I groped around in a smaller bag for my headphones. No dice. They were beneath the bus. Given that we were departing an hour behind schedule, it dawned on me that I would miss my connecting bus out of Salt Lake City. Great.

I called a general customer service line and spoke to someone that generally spoke English. He was unable to answer my simple question: My bus is going to be late. When is the next bus out of Salt Lake City to Seattle? I requested to speak to someone else. The next representative said that I would have to direct my question to someone in Salt Lake City. No, he cannot transfer me. I dialed the number provided and got the same general customer service line. A woman answered. Trying to use as few words as possible, I explained my situation a third time. Provided my information a third time.

A man on the bus approached me and asked me if he could use my phone, as I was obviously engaged in a conversation on the aforementioned phone. I probably failed to conceal my incredulity. Being a female product of society, conditioned to be nice, I blurted a “Yeah, but I’m using the phone right now.”

“What?” said the woman on the other end of the line.

Ultimately, I received zero useful information from three customer service representatives. I resigned myself to figuring it out upon arrival in Salt Lake.

The man on the bus began to speak to me rapidly about how honorable I was and how generous I was to loan him my phone. I reluctantly handed it over to him with the dial screen already pulled up. He continued to talk to me as he began using my phone. Not wishing to engage in further conversation, I opened my book and waited for him to finish his phone call. He then thrust the phone back in my direction and asked me if I knew about this band because he was involved with the band and helped them get started and he really liked this band and this band made great music. Rapid fire, the sentences didn’t end or begin. He just talked. Endlessly. Apparently, he was affiliated with Fitz and the Tantrums. Hmm.

About halfway through the third song, playing out loud on my phone, another man a seat ahead had made two fists with his hands and was visibly trembling with rage. I leaned back in my seat and mouthed silently to Talking Man, “He’s mad,” pointing to Angry Man. Talking Man paused only momentarily and continued talking over the music. Angry Man spun around and stood up and told him that the music had to stop.

Not wanting to witness a fistfight 30 minutes into a 24 hour plus bus adventure, I announced: “I have a phone call to make!” And proceeded to call my mom. Talking Man stood up, unphased, and began asking the other passengers on the bus if there might be a phone available for him to use. No phone call was ever made.

Several long hours later, and more than an hour behind schedule, we arrived in Salt Lake City. Talking Man had visited me for much of the ride, although I’d moved away from Angry Man for fear of physical violence.

When the bus stopped, I collected my bags and basically ran toward the nearest brewery. I knew that Utah beer was going to be, well, state-regulated Utah beer, but I was desperate.

I made it a block from the bus station when a man walked up to me and asked, “Did you come off a train?” Not sure why my method of transportation was relevant, I told him no. He then told me that he was trying to hop the next freight train because Utah sucked because you couldn’t buy or have weed there. He also informed me, repeatedly, that I was in a very sketchy area. Surveying my loaded backpacks, he told me that I needed to figure out how to travel light. Without missing a beat, I told him that I had a lot of climbing equipment on me. That I hadn’t been planning to walk with all of it. (Cue mental facepalm. “Yeah, I’m carrying a bunch of valuable shit today. It’s heavy!” My city smarts are lacking, I’m now well aware.)

My phone started ringing. It was my boyfriend, Tim. Trying to act nonchalant, I told Tim everything I knew about the guy that had followed me for three blocks. Apparently, being known was enough to get the guy to bugger off, because he suddenly ducked into a parking garage without a word. I was alone again. Just me and my big-ass backpacks. Thankfully.

My soggy Subway sandwich was the most substantial thing I’d eaten in 2 days, several hours earlier. Despite the beer (all the beer on draft) topping out at a rowdy 4% ABV, I felt calmed halfway through my gose. I killed time, a salad and the end of my book before I ordered another beer. This time an IPA. 4%. I pulled a new book from my bag.

A man sat down beside me and flashed me a smile. I made some kind of friendly offhand comment and went back to my book. He ordered a beer and some dinner and struck up a conversation. I learned that he worked for a company that sold medical devices that helped straighten spines. He told me about being in the OR, he agreed with me that Utah beer was pathetic, and we discovered that we had a mutual appreciation of Bend beer. Boneyard Brewing was a shared favorite. He was a nice guy. I indicated to him that on the scale of crazy, he was near the bar counter whereas most everyone else I’d interacted with in the last 24 hours were a full arm-length above the bar on my improvised crazy scale. He laughed. He got to hear this full story in person. He even bought me another weak Utah beer, compliments of the company he worked for. What a guy.

Reluctantly, I paid $10 to Uber the half mile that I’d walked to the brewery. I was pleasantly surprised to have my first female Uber driver. After I told her the abridged version of the last 24 hours, she said, “Oh honey, you have to take this,” and gave me a small pink can of Mace. “I’ve never felt like I needed to use it. Sounds like you need it.” Women support women.

Just before midnight, I queued up with the other Greyhound riders headed to Boise, Portland and beyond. A friendly young guy spun around and asked me about my bags and where I was headed. I told him that I’d been on a climbing trip and that I was headed home to Seattle. Within the span of a 10 minute conversation, he asked me to guess his ethnicity, demonstrated to me that he’d come prepared with a 40 stashed in his jacket pocket, and let me know that he was a virgin. Congratulations!

We boarded the bus. Talking Man was back and snatched up my bag before I could say anything otherwise and let me know that he would take care of it for me because I didn’t need to carry it because it looked heavy and he would love to help me out and that I was a mountain goddess and that I was from Seattle and that he was from Seattle too and on and on. Talking Man sat beside me again. Talking Man asked for my phone again. Not knowing what else to do, I handed it over again. And this time he made calls. Six of them.

“Mama? Mama, can you hear me? Mama? It’s me. Can you hear me mama? Can you speak up, Mama? It’s awful hard to hear you Mama. Don’t be mad, Mama. I just wanted to talk to you, Mama.” After his call with Mama, I indicated that it was 1:02am and that I’d like my phone back at 1:07am. I wanted to listen to music. “Ok, ok. I’ll give your phone back. I just want to listen to three songs. Is that ok? You’re so honorable for letting me borrow your phone. I just want to listen to three songs. You said that I could.” Trying to be gently firm, I repeated: “1:07.” Well, 1:07 came and went. “Hey, it’s 1:10, can I please have my phone back?” He reluctantly handed it over, talking to me the whole time. And he did not stop talking to me until after 1:30am. At this point, I was only able to muster the occasional, “Mmhmm.” His babbling was nonsensical. I told him that he could continue to talk to me, but I was going to go to sleep.

I put headphones in and put on my favorite podcast. In this particular episode, of the hundreds of episodes that I’d listened to before, and of all the topics in the world to cover I learned:

“Because you can board a Greyhound bus with cash and absolutely no paper trail Greyhound is usually the preferred form of travel for people who have found themselves on a Do-Not-Fly List. Fugitives, convicted felons, drug dealers, registered sex offenders, etc.” (Listen to this particular episode here and start at 19:40. Enjoy. #Murderino)

Meanwhile, on my first Greyhound bus ever, confronted with a man that literally would not stop talking to me and would not stop talking for the full 8 hour bus ride to Boise, ID from Salt Lake City, UT, I thought to myself: GREAT. I must have fallen asleep at some point, because Talking Man poked me upon arrival in the Middle-of-Nowhere, ID, and I nearly jumped a foot out of my seat. He asked if he could use my phone again. This time, I said no.

We eventually parted ways, mercifully, somewhere in Oregon. The rest of the ride was uneventful by comparison, but all I can say is that I’ve never been so grateful to see evergreen trees and a Northwest downpour. My climbing trip was an utter failure, but hey, I guess I got a semi-decent story out of it.

Gusher

You could say I’m exuberant when I get to talk about climbing. And you’d be right.

This weekend, I basically exploded my love of climbing and eagerness to pursue guiding all over a colleague at Mountain Madness. My social-awareness filter tried to flicker on a few times during that conversation, but my enormous stoke overpowered it. Oops.

You don’t feel that kind of excited all on your own, though. It takes input.

As we crept along the highway in afternoon ski resort traffic, I felt a part of my brain come on that’s been dimmed for a while now. Probably unknowingly, Ian validated a very deep, core part of me that I have shut down for the better part of the last year: I live to climb and I love to guide. I just barely broke out of my comfortable world in Bellingham before that light flickered out. I’m so glad I did.

Besides eagerly anticipating what’s ahead in 2019, I’m taking a moment to really savor that connection. It wasn’t any one thing that Ian said. It was a shared language and ambition that really resonated with me. It’s the type of feeling that I want to give to anyone interested in sharing a rope with me. C’mon. Let’s climb.

There’s something to be said about a moment in which everything makes sense; I think it’s when your calling is coming through, loud and clear.

I’m very excited to take that call.

Awakening

In my mind, I stand at a stony precipice looking down into inky blackness. Above me, the stars shine brightly, beautifully. All is quiet and well up there. I feel a gurgling inertia in my chest. I wish to slip into the darkness, sound into sleep, but the untamed faucet of my thoughts pounds my mind. Pressure builds against the dam of my own making.

And then suddenly, a single drop leaks through. A crack forms. Then there’s a burst: the thoughts rush through and comfortably settle, like a river no longer resisted. There’s calm, clarity and a certain natural order. Truth. A literal breakthrough.

I, like any person native to anywhere, am the product of my surroundings.

I am the first born daughter of two small parents. I too am small, but able. I was nurtured to believe in myself. I am naturally wild. I find affinity in animals, flora and fauna; confidence in my quiet. Like a puppy, I can be riled. Like a horse, I long to run free. Like a girl, I love to love. Love finds me and I find love, though it comes with ample searching.

I found climbing when I was looking for myself. I was lost at the time, searching for purpose in school work. I applied my passionate heart to my studies, but never found the thing that gave me wings. I went to school to write, but couldn’t seem to find my voice. I felt stifled by the style I was being trained in.

In time off from school, I worked as often as I could. I climbed sporadically at my local gym but was never truly moved by the colorful plastic holds, challenging as they were. I knew it was possible to climb outside, but I didn’t know how to do it. So I asked for help.

When help came, I discovered something that I would do for the rest of my life. I knew it immediately. Nothing had ever rung so true and so right. I have fought ever since to be with my love of climbing.

To those who have never fallen in love with a passion, I probably make no sense. To those who limit their passion to a joyous corner of their life, a small shrine of what it means to be alive; I probably come off as cavalier. Trust me: I am. A mountain does not fit in the tidy closet of an hard-earned apartment space, I’m afraid. And one certainly isn’t enough.

To return to my opening thought, the enormous dam of my self-imposed insecurities burst tonight when I realized that I wasn’t meant to be a rock climber alone. Oh no, my calling comes from deep within the mountains that have lent shape to the last 25 years of my life. I was born into the rugged Cascade Mountain Range for a reason.

Now if only I could fall asleep…

Just Say Yes

Recently, I learned what it feels like to be emotionally, interpersonally and spiritually malnourished. The feeling developed over the course of a year in which I failed to connect, I stopped feeling inspired and I felt like I had stopped growing. My ambitions toppled over. My opportunities felt like they’d dried up. My heart felt withered and I retreated into myself most every night to wait it out until things would finally get better. Turns out, this isn’t a good coping strategy.

I’ve changed several aspects of my life in the last few weeks, including a move and a new job. I made several of these changes against the well-intentioned advice of people that I love, trust and respect. This isn’t a flagrant middle finger so much as a revelation: you gotta carve your own way sometimes.

It all comes down to one little word for me: Yes.

For the last year, I fought really hard to fit. I swallowed my climbing ambitions and tried to substitute them for superimposed career ambitions; I translated my native dirtbag tongue into office banter; I relinquished an important piece of myself to pursue the comfortable and conventional. First world problems acknowledged, I suffered all the while.

In trying to smash myself into a tiny box, into abbreviated dreams, into comfortable complacency, I became bitter. In tamping down my inner flame, I lost my drive and my passion. I became vapid. Disinterested. Bored. And I needed help. And I found that in a fabulous therapist by the name of Charlotte. Thank god.

The greatest gift that I’ve been given in the last six months is that tiny word: Yes.

When I would hone in on everything that was wrong; all that I wasn’t; all of these walls that I’d built around myself to contain my loud-laughing, obsessively passionate, utterly determined, unruly personality, Charlotte asked me why?

When I shared my dreams, my hopes, my aspirations, Charlotte asked me why not?

When I followed up with all of my anxieties and insecurities, she acknowledged them and encouraged me to employ my flame and passion to problem solve around obstacles. Without ego stroking, she simply did some fire stoking. Charlotte told me yes. You can.

Previously, I’d been trying to survive on a steady diet of disregard, disinterest and disconnect. My contributions to my tiny box world felt like trying to fit gloves to feet. Obviously, I didn’t fit. And unfortuantely, I experienced a bit of soul rot for it. But I think soul functions very much like your liver and can repair itself when cared for properly.

There’s something incredibly powerful about someone telling you: yes you can. I think this experience will have enormous implications for me in how I request and provide mentorship. I think that this newfound understanding of “yes” has enormous implications for me as a female athlete. I want to project the yes-you-can feeling to any woman up against any obstacle; any challenge; any personal pursuit; because goodness gracious, a little belief and encouragement feels like the first rain to my soul garden after a long drought. It’s been a short 3 weeks in my new life and I’m already beginning to see the bloom. More details to come.

When climbing breaks your heart

Climbing, I love you. But you’re bringing me down.

Climbing, you’ve taken me to some incredible places. I’ve stood atop mountains that I climbed both physically and emotionally. I’ve learned what it means to truly see and know someone thanks to you. I’ve learned to get over myself. You’re present anytime I think about the things I’m most proud of in this life. You’ve given me more smiles, more highs and more experiences… More relationships… Than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. You’ve really given me something to live for. For that, I can’t thank you enough. For that, I love you.

Climbing, you’ve also stripped me raw. You’ve made me cry in front of people I didn’t want to cry in front of. You made me vulnerable. You’ve injured me physically. You’ve dictated my lifestyle and burnt bridges for me. You’ve been an addiction. An obsession. You’ve simultaneously swollen and decimated my ego. And most recently, you’ve stolen precious life. Again.

Each time I lose a friend to climbing, it shocks me to my core. How could something so beautiful and wholesome be so cruel? How could this happen? Sadly, it comes with the territory.

This is not thoughts and prayers. This is sadness beyond sadness; devastation; and acceptance. The rules are simple: there is always risk and your job as a climber is to mitigate it. Sometimes – even the best of us – come up short.

Beckey Tattoo

In a complete 180 from my last post, I recently posted a photo of a tattoo I got to commemorate one of my all-time heroes and it blew up (by my standards.)

As is typical of me: I decided I wanted it, drove to a shop in downtown Bellingham, asked for a price quote, didn’t feel the vibe I wanted from the artist, left, found another shop and sat down, arm outstretched less than a half hour later.

Now, I have Fred Beckey’s name permanently etched on my arm. #noragrets

The reaction I’ve gotten has been funny to me. There’s been a lot of, “Ok…” in my personal life. And a few, “F&CK YEAHs!” The people who get it, yeah, those are my people. Obviously, I got it for myself first and foremost and I’ll explain why:

Fred Beckey never sent 5.14. I don’t even know if he climbed 5.12. And he certainly wasn’t a saint, he had an affinity for women (lots of them) and a bit of kleptomania for virgin routes.

But, Fred Beckey climbed for nearly 80 years.

Fred Beckey was the guy to establish countless NW classics: Angels Crest in Squamish comes to mind, the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell, the West Ridge of Forbidden, the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower.

He established so many first ascents that he lost count.

He never sought fame or the limelight. He just sought climbing. A whole hell of a lot of it.

And the more I tell people this, the more I realize it means to me: Fred Beckey pioneered countless new routes, spent an absurd time in the mountains and he always came home.

Fred Beckey is my hero because of his relentless dedication to climbing. Besides opening a whole lot of stunning routes to the climbing community of the Northwest, he gave back to all of us in the form of guidebooks. That’s no small undertaking.

I had the idea for this tattoo a year ago while I was on a climbing trip in Mexico. I was hanging out with my friend Carey climbing beautiful bolted multi-pitch lines in Potrero Chico — pretty far removed from a lot of the classic Beckey lines, but pretty awesome nonetheless.

When Fred Beckey passed recently, I knew that now was the time to pull the trigger on this idea. I’m so glad that I did.

So, thanks Fred. I’m looking forward to the wisdom I’ll draw from your name permanently on my arm in the climbs to come. Hope you’re sending new routes in Heaven.

All the things unsaid: climbing, social media and ego

I haven’t written much in the last few months. Several times, I’ve sat down and hovered my hands over my keyboard trying to write. But you know that feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue and no matter how hard you think about it, it just won’t come to you? I’m finally ready to say all the things that have gone unsaid.

After my season of working in the mountains came to a close, I felt really lost. I had wrapped so much of my sense of identity up in what I was doing that when it stopped, I didn’t feel like I had much left to offer.

It’s also worth mentioning that I was working constantly between a busy restaurant gig and guiding jobs, so I hardly had a moment to stop and process. Back at home in Bellingham, I often worked late at the restaurant and began the following day early — like 4 a.m. early — to get down to Seattle to pick up clients for guiding jobs. For the majority of the summer, I slept the best on a thin Thermarest when I was out in the field. It was a lot, but I loved it!

If you know me, if you’ve read anything that I’ve written before or exclusively what it says in the address bar: You know that I’m passionate about climbing. Duh. I’m also prone to exhibiting high levels of stoke, because yeah, climbing. I love it.

As far as I can tell, Newton’s 3rd law about equal and opposite reactions to applies to everything. Including emotions. For as stoked as I’ve been, I’ve also been equally unstoked (destoked? Not stoked.) I think it’s really important to talk about that, because social media portrayals are so ubiquitous but limited in truth. I am not my social media. That’s what I want you to think about me; but that is not all of me.

It has been a hard couple of months. But I’m finally coming around and realizing that I’m not pitiful because I’m not projecting 5.12 anymore.

Whew, it feels great to finally say that.

Like any other living breathing human out there, I get anxious sometimes. A lot of my anxiety is the product of a stupidly huge ego that I try really hard to keep in check.

Ego. What a funny little — or big — thing. Sometimes I feel silly for having a blog dedicated exclusively to personal pursuits in climbing, because ultimately, who cares? I guess I just think a lot, write a little and hope it comes in handy for some reader someday.

My ego motivates me to try a hard route. My ego beats me up on the inside when I fail.

My ego scoffs at a moderate route. My ego doesn’t want to recognize that the best climbers climb EVERYTHING and that the grade doesn’t matter. It’s the climbing that matters. It’s the people you go with that matter.

My ego wants to be the best climber. My ego doesn’t like to recognize that the best climb 18,000 times more than I do and that’s a dumb reason to climb.

My ego wants to show off my goofy side on social media. My ego tells me to take a post down that doesn’t garner enough likes or comments.

My ego wants to be friends with everyone and anyone that climbs. But my ego tells me to focus on relationships that benefit my personal progress and development. My ego forgets that relationships take work and effort; especially the ones that don’t fall within my immediate focus on climbing.

My ego feels smug when people tell me about how I’m constantly “getting after it.” But my ego tells me that it’s never enough.

Enough of that bullshit! I’m sure you have your own echo chamber of egotistical garbage to scroll through on a daily basis. I do not wish to contribute to it.

My feeling is that social media profiles are an almost perfect manifestation or representation of all of the ego problems I just listed.

I think that a glossy social media profile is not a report card or reflection of success in life. It’s a measure of how much time you’re willing to dedicate to showing yourself off.

In pulling back a little, scaling down on exclusively scaling rocks, I’ve come to realize that I am not a complete person if I’m only a climber. I am a friend, a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a writer, a thinker, a doer, a drawer, a baker — a person full of LIFE! I have ideas and aspirations; and while climbing is a beautiful medium for challenge, achievement and accomplishment, it can’t be everything. I don’t feel whole when it is.

Yes, I am still very much a climber. Yes, I love what I’m doing. But no, climbing isn’t everything. It’s what I love but there must be balance.

That’s what I needed to say.

Why You Should Climb with a Girl

This weekend, I had the special opportunity to guide on Mount Baker leading a rope team of women. We were fast. We were strong. We summited on Friday via the Coleman Deming route in just over 5 hours.

After coming back to Bellingham, the mother of two sisters on my team — who also climbed and summited Mount Baker with my co-guide Arthur Herlitzka — told me that it was special to her that her girls got to climb with a female guide. I smiled and told her that I was excited about it too; but I didn’t realize exactly how important it was to me.

On the way down from 10,781 feet, Michaela, Tatum, Scarlett (my rope team) and I began to talk about feminism, outdoor media and climbing. At first, I didn’t have much to say beyond that I thought it was important to see more women outside and in positions of leadership, like guiding. And then I recalled and talked about the post I’d written about a bizarre and frustrating encounter with someone essentially mansplaining in a classroom environment how he understood the plight of all women in outdoor leadership because his wife had been slighted too… Yeah, I’m still a little salty.

But anywho, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you — as a female guide — about how climbing with a girl might differ from climbing with a guy. I’d also like to add the disclaimer right up front: the traits that I’m going to list are not necessarily gendered nor does gender exist in a binary. These are just my observations of climbing with women in the last couple of years and are not absolutes (i.e. women always X, men never Y, etc.) I mean nothing more than to highlight the things that I’ve really enjoyed about climbing with women. Also, I use “women” and “girls” interchangeably and don’t mean any offense by it. That said:

Girls are so fun to talk to. I’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations with women while climbing. I think that having a steady conversation while grinding uphill for hours on end is an impressive feat in and of itself. It definitely helps with the passage of time and mileage. I’ve also observed that women are more inclined to uphold their end of the conversation.

Breaks tend to happen right when they need to. Seems to me like a lot of women aren’t afraid of speaking up when they need to take a sec and adjust their pack, their boots or whatever comes up. When climbing with girls, I find that I’m well-hydrated, well-snacked and comfortable cruising at a sustainable pace. I find that girls tend to be more communicative about how they’re feeling and what they need before something like blisters become an issue. And I appreciate and respect that.

Speaking of snacks… Besides taking breaks for snacks, it seems like girls like to take a little bit more time with food prep and tend to bring the goods. And by goods, I mean chocolate. To be honest, I think most of my climber friends — guys or girls — are keen on summit chocolate. And post-climb beers. Yeah.

Girl-stoke is different than boy-stokeGirl stoke comes out in giggles and shrieks and proclamations of love for the mountains. Boy stoke seems to come in the form of hoots, hollers and whoops. Stoke, regardless of the source, is often contagious. But as a lady, I find girl stoke to be especially infectious.

Oh man, can we take a second to reflect on the awesomeness of lady-beta? Yep. It’s happening. Right now. First, I’d like to say that I really appreciate when people pause to ask you if you actually want beta. Props to the people that deny it. Props to people who don’t automatically spray you down. However, I gotta say that I love getting the crucial lady beta that gets you through the crux (because I’m not 6′ with a 6′ wingspan and man-powerful-muscles. I’m 5’1″, short & powerful, but sometimes require a more delicate sequence.) I don’t know if there’s any way to describe in words how great it is; but when it happens for you, you’ll know.

And while we’re on the beta note, I’d just like to briefly comment on the numerous times I’ve been on trail and people have asked either my male clients or my male coguide for beta on a route — not me, despite wearing the patches and gear to suggest that I’m a guide. While it might seem like no big deal — and often isn’t in and of itself — I raise the issue because it’s happened on more than one occasion. While I can’t say conclusively that it relates to being a lady, I just wanted to mention the observation and I’ll leave it at that.

The bottom line is that I’m psyched when I get to climb with women.

I’m psyched when I get to climb in general; but it’s extra special to climb with an all-lady rope team. It’s different and it doesn’t happen very often (at least not in my climbing thus far.) I know that more and more women are getting outside and getting themselves into positions of outdoor leadership. I think it’s awesome; it’s necessary. I look forward to roping up with them.

My Job

My job as a mountain guide is probably not what you think.

As I’ve reflected on before, my job is not the one that my journalism degree from Western Washington University prepared me for. But here I am, still writing.

My job isn’t playing in the mountains on the regular; it is a lot of preparation and anticipation with regard to route finding, dietary restrictions, food shopping, coworker coordinating, weather observations, gear packing, van driving, etc. It’s preparing myself for all of the questions my clients might have and being truthful when they ask me something I didn’t plan for (this comes with a little embarrassment.)

The perks of my job are sunrises and sunsets in the mountains; conversations about life with people from wildly diverse backgrounds; the occasional nap while technically “on the clock;” all of my Trader Joe’s snacks are paid for; incredibly savvy, humble and inspiring coworkers; the opportunity to grow into my profession and simultaneously as a living, thinking, breathing human; the chance to do what I love, with love, as much or as little as I choose to accept work. (I want ALL of the work.)

The challenges associated with my job are working with people in emotionally challenging circumstances from the minute I wake up until the minute I fall asleep. I have to coax people into completely trusting me when they’ve only met me 24 hours prior, when they have little to no experience with what we’re doing and when they’re completely exhausted by the physical exertion and possibly the numerous questions I’ve asked them on the approach (I can’t help myself; I’m just so curious.) It’s (obviously) a lot of grinding up and down hills; it’s been a little hard on my body at times. The pay is something people often ask about; all I can say is that I make it work, whether it’s a second restaurant job for the off-season or forgoing a splurge or wearing the same clothes until they literally fall apart. (Actually, it’s all of the above.)

With each trip, I learn so much. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people that are incredibly talented — technically and interpersonally — and done my best to keep up and offer what I can. Besides my coworkers, I’ve had the distinct challenge of working with clients that didn’t seem interested in working with me; the joy of reaching the top when it seemed unreachable; and the bittersweetness of relinquishing a summit and savoring a high point more than 1,000 feet beneath our intended objective.

My job is so much more than a job. It’s being a relatable, conversational person; a source of inspiration when the client thinks they’re too tired to go on; a sense of emotional security when the going gets tough and scary; the voice of authority when difficult decisions need to be made; a backcountry chef in the wee hours of the morning and after a long day of climbing; all in all, it’s a lot. It’s not easy.

I heard a joke that cracked me up the other day that I think is especially relevant right now: “How can you tell someone is a mountain guide?… Because he or she will tell you.” In case plain text doesn’t convey the humor, it’s funny because it’s true! When what I do for work comes up, people generally either look at me with awe or ask plainly:

“So you take people hiking?” Yeah, something like that.

Sometimes that hike involves moving through terrain that you might not survive without adequate skills and preparation. Not trying to be dramatic, but it’s definitely more than just hiking. You get the idea.

One thing that has occurred to me in this career pursuit is that I no longer seek to put down the 9-to-5er. And it’s not just because most of my clients are 9-to-5ers — though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a consideration — it’s because it takes all types to make it happen; whether that’s the climb, the company I work for or the community that I recreate in. I hope that in my life decisions, I’ll be taken seriously even if I’m not a suit-wearing professional. I’m a professional in my own right in that I keep people safe in alpine circumstances; I give people the opportunity to have impactful experiences in high, wild places; I get to share what so many mentors have given me along my own journey into alpinism.

The bottom line is that I’m lucky to do what I do. I am so grateful that Mountain Madness decided to have me on this season. I love the line of work that I’m in. I’m living my dream with all of the hang-ups and challenges that come along with it.