Chicks with Picks

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I remember, in fall 2013, the day the topic of ice climbing came up. John and I were casually discussing our upcoming 10th wedding anniversary (April 2014) and our friend Matty said “You two should go to Ouray to learn to ice climb together. You would love it!”. We didn’t make any specific plans and pretty much forgot about the idea. A few months later, John signed up for a serious and technical climb of Liberty Ridge and was told that he would need ice wall training before the climb. He made plans with a climbing buddy Mike (who also wanted to do Liberty Ridge) to go to Ouray and hire a private guide. John realized, after making the plans with Mike, that maybe I would have liked to go too. He was pretty sheepish and I was ruffled, but we worked it out and he promised me my own trip the following year.

John delightedly bought ice tools (axes), ice climbing boots, a new backpack (his fifth) especially suited to holding ice tools, and new crampons with front points more suited to ice climbing (vs his general glacier crampons). John loved gear and was truly delighted by the whole plan. He and Mike went to Ouray and had the time of their lives. John had the biggest grin in all of the photos he sent me, even in the “first blood” shot of him with a bloody gash in his forehead, resulting from chunks of ice that fell on his head as he climbed. He came home full of light (as he always did after being in the mountains) and told me be would love it if we could take an annual trip there together. I could tell that he had been charmed by both the sport and the cute little town, right down to the local brewery. A few months later, on May 26, 2014, John began his ascent of Liberty Ridge as part of a team of 6, guided by Alpine Ascents International. John and I texted many times during the first few days of the climb, and had the following exchange on Wednesday May 28, between 5:32 and 7:04pm –

5/28, 5:32pm
John – “Still on it. Totally epic. We are doing a bivy at 12,500′ right now, took two hours to dig tent platforms. Totally variable conditions, lots of belayed pitches. Took 7 hours to get 2000′ elevation today. Cold strong winds. The guides are doing an awesome job of keeping us safe. Weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and we will top out the ridge at 14,100′ and probably descend all the way unless someone has issues.”
Holly – “Wow! So you might be home tomorrow night! I’m so happy for you.”
John – “I will have many stories!”
Holly – “I love my mountain man.”
John – “I love you too! In my bag, holding the stove melting snow.”
Holly – “Enjoy the summit tomorrow, babe. You deserve it.”
Holly – “I’ve decided – I must go ice climbing this winter!”
John – “Yes, you will.”
John – “Got to power down now, I love you.”
Holly – “I love you forever.”
5/28, 7:04pm

John died that night, sometime after his last text to me at 7:04pm and before the early morning when another team ascended the route and found no sign of his party of six. The data suggests that, while they were sleeping, an avalanche took the entire team off the ridge, 3300ft down onto the Carbon Glacier. Thus began my hellish journey of grief, widowhood, and single parenting to 2 young traumatized girls – age 5 and 9.

In the wake of John’s death, just 8 months ago, I have had to reevaluate many things, including my path as a climber. John and I both loved to climb big glaciated peaks, but we never climbed on the same rope team. We knew that glaciers are inherently unstable, and that if we climbed together then one avalanche or one fall (pulling a whole team into a crevasse) could make our girls orphans.

Now that my girls have no father, I am not allowed to die. My children and John’s mother asked me not to climb on glaciers anymore, and I agreed. I knew I had no choice, but still – this promise to my children felt like insult on top of injury. John was the love of my life and mountaineering was my passion – both had been taken from me. Sure, there are all kinds of mountaineering, many types very low risk. At the time, however, that knowledge was of little comfort. I had been training with a 60lb pack 2+ times a week year round (rain, snow, or shine) since 2010 and my true love was the heavy pack, multi day, technical climbs of huge glaciated peaks. I had already summited Rainier (via the Winthrop Glacier) and was ready to springboard onto bigger peaks now that my girls aren’t babies anymore and it was possible for me to leave home for longer trips.

The awareness of this secondary loss (of my passion) hardened me and gave me the sense that my future was all burdens and responsibility – no joy. Oh how I wanted to be angry at someone, but there was no one to be angry with. I wanted to run around, shaking random people by the shoulders, telling them “Don’t you understand? I was REALLY GOOD at it! I can carry a huge pack forever! I could crush small children with my quadriceps! I carry a 60lb pack for FUN!”. I cried a lot, every day (still do) for the loss of my John and for the loss of the exact thing that would comfort me the most during my time of grief – big mountains.

Of course, although I’m still weeping (sometimes visibly, sometimes silently in my heart), I’m not one to give up. I knew I must find my love for mountaineering in a new way. I knew I had to dive back in and find that joy, even though more pain comes with the joy. Joy is a window into one’s heart, and by tapping back in I was opening myself up to all of the reminders, the awareness of what I had lost. There is no John to come home to after a big climb. No John to be proud of me for bagging a new peak, and no John to stay up late with me after a trip, breaking down all the details, mistakes, victories, lessons learned. No more John.

Still, I forced myself back out on the trail. Often I would be so depressed in the morning that I felt drawn to skip a planned hike, pull the covers over my head, and stay in bed all day. Turns out, though, that I’m stubborn as a mule and not very gentle with myself, so I dragged myself out there, even if that meant the hike started with tears. Inevitably, by the end of a hike I would feel better, at least for the moment, and I would feel closer to John. He was always there, gazing down on me with his twinkly eyes, telling me how much he still loves his Badass Mountain Girl, reminding me of how proud he is of how I’m handling the most difficult and painful journey of my life.

Winter approached and I thought of my promised trip to Ouray to learn to climb vertical ice walls. Should I even bother? The design of the Ouray ice park makes it easy to set up strong, backed up anchors, so (when working with a pro guide) the risk was low, but my grief left me with little motivation to follow through. Then, my friend Anna mentioned an organization called Chicks with Picks, and I made a brilliant decision – to learn to ice climb from women, with women. I make no apologies for generalizing here – mountain women are a heck of a lot better than mountain men at handling it when you break down in tears of sorrow out in the back country.

It was so hard and so painful to go to Ouray without John. Instantly, I understood why he suggested we start an annual tradition of climbing there together. The scenery was gorgeous, the local hot springs were enchanting, the pubs were full of happy mountaineers, and the ice climbing was phenomenal. Oh how it killed me to be there without him! All of the delights of Ouray also triggered my true sorrow, because I could not share these delights with him. After an afternoon exploring the town and a so-so night of sleep, I geared up for the first day of climbing. I had brought John’s new ice climbing pack and found that the straps were still adjusted to his back. With a dark, heavy heart, I shortened the straps to my frame and started out for the day. Frankly, I was unsure of why I had bothered to make the trip, but you know what? Those amazing, powerful, fearless women held me. They hugged me when I cried, belayed me when I climbed, made me laugh my ass off, and told me I made them proud.

By day 4 of the clinic I was tired, we all were. Our guide, Sondra, set a rope up on a 100ft vertical ice wall. I got 3/4 of the way up and my grip literally began to fail – I could barely keep my hands clenched around the axes. I just didn’t have it in me to finish and said “Sondra – I’m cooked. Lower me down.”. Sondra said “Are you sure? Find a ledge you can rest on for a bit.”. So I got both feet onto a small platform, pushed my hips right up to the ice, left a hand on one of the axes, and let the other arm hang down. For a few minutes, I rested in this way – one arm down, shake it out, switch, other arm down, shale it out, back and forth. Then, I fought my way up the rest of the wall and kissed the anchor at the top, and these amazing mountain women all celebrated my success.

Its the same thing, really – fighting my way up an ice wall, fighting my way through my dark and stormy ocean of grief. Thank you to all of you who continue to hold me through my tears and celebrate my victories. It would be so much easier to give up, but that’s not what badass mountain women do – we keep going. We know that mountaineering is the art of suffering, but that it’s all worth it for that taste of bliss at the summit – that place above the clouds where the sun shines. That place where my John is – still watching, still damn proud.

John, I love you forever and beyond.