730am, Friday, November 28 – Cat Ba, Vietnam
Today marks 6 months since my sweet John was taken in an avalanche. His entire climbing team of 6 was swept off Liberty Ridge 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier, marking the most significant climbing accident on Mt Rainier in 33 years, since 11 people were taken out by icefall on the Ingraham flats in 1981. Just like the Ingraham flats tragedy, no mistakes were made. No one slipped, no one failed to properly train (which can put an entire rope team at risk). The guides were solid (I’ve climbed with the lead guide, Matt Hegeman, myself), and proper precautions were taken. In both cases, the mountain crumbled in ways that cannot be predicted, except in that one can predict that glaciated peaks will always crumble – you just don’t know when, on which route, or how significant it will be.
John never trivialized the risks of mountain climbing. He was a huge fan of extensive training and insisted I take a proper 10 day course if I were to climb on glaciers. We spent countless hours in the evenings discussing the pros and cons of various gear and safety techniques. He would always train even harder than the guides told him he needed to train, as he wanted to have extra reserves should a storm hit, or in case another climber was injured and needed others to carry his or her load. John took mountaineering very, very seriously. Still, he respected the fact that, when on the mountain, he could never be in complete control. He spoke often of the Ingraham Flats tragedy. He said “Holly, you can do everything right and still the mountain is in charge. Icefall on the Ingraham flats took out 11 climbers in 1981, and that was on the ‘safe’, standard route that many inexperienced climbers take to the top without issue.” He would say “Sometimes the mountain makes a decision, and there is nothing you can do but respect and honor the raw power of nature.”
John never sheltered me from the risks. However, I never once thought about telling him not to climb. The man that I fell in love with was a mountain man. John lived to summit big snowy glaciated peaks. He was never more alive than when he returned from a trip – sunburnt, wind chapped, scabbed ankles, missing toenails, once with a cracked rib after a slide on Glacier Peak that slammed him into a tree (which was apparently a good thing, as it was that or go off the cliff). He would light up with joy and we would chat into the night about every detail, as we also did when I returned from one of my climbs, also often limping, bruised, with skin missing in various places. John and I never climbed anything risky together, as we had to make sure that, if the worst happened, our girls would not be orphans. Still, even though we usually climbed separately, climbing was a huge bond that we shared, and something we understood about each other. John and I both liked to do things that were really hard, reached for challenges that involved suffering that would have turned others away. That feeling of standing on a summit, looking down on the clouds, having pushed through pain, high winds, potential frostbite, while gasping for breath in an oxygen poor atmosphere, was a feeling that we both reached for in the same way. Frankly, there has been no day in my life when I have felt more accomplished than the day that I stood on top of Mount Rainier after navigating the crevasses on the Winthrop Glacier. After John died, someone told me that they had never seen him more proud than the day he received word (while I was on my way down) that I had had a successful summit.
Accordingly, I have no anger. I am not angry with John for embarking on this climb and I am not angry with Mt Rainier for making the decision it made that day. I’m not even angry with myself. I told John that I loved him in every possible way at every possible opportunity. I honored him as a mountain man and cheered him on as he followed his dreams. I have no regrets, no reason to be mad at myself for not appreciating or supporting him in every way.
Because there is no anger, I am left only with grief. While these last 6 months have been long, exhausting, and chock full of unending heartbreak, it still feels like just the beginning. The loss of one’s life partner and the father of one’s young children is enormous and all encompassing. I still weep multiple times daily. When I close my eyes and picture his sparkling eyes and full red beard, I literally feel like I’m going to vomit. In fact this nausea of the last 6mo, which hits me at least 2x a day, is more significant than all the nausea of my 2 pregnancies combined. I ache for him. I barricade both sides of my body with enormous pillows at night, so that the bed does not feel so big and empty. I play his favorite Pearl Jam songs voluntarily, knowing they will make me sob, wanting to hear them anyway so as to feel closer to him. When I cook dinner, I still stare at the front door, remembering how happy I was every time he walked through it after work, missing the way he squeezed me and kissed me hello, willing him to walk through that door just one more time. And then, after dinner, when I put my girls to bed, I ache even more. I ache for the loss of their innocence. I ache for all the future milestones of theirs that he will miss. I ache because John used to put them to bed, and thus this task is yet another reminder that I am alone.
Before I lost my John, I would have thought that 6 months was a very long time. It is true that I have made much progress in my healing path during this time, but still, I have come to understand that it is still just the beginning. My grief is truly an ocean. I tread water in this ocean, using all of my strength to resist the dark undercurrents that threaten to suck me under. I continue to feel enormous gratitude for the beams of sunshine of all of you who hold me. There is so much darkness, but there is also so much light. Thank you for sharing my journey.