The last time we were together as a family was Sunday, May 25, 2014. It was Memorial day weekend, and (as was our tradition) we spent the time camping with friends on 25 acres of forested land that we own in Okanogan. Our land was always a happy place. John would chain-saw up trees that had fallen naturally. I would chop the resulting rounds while friends sat around in camp chairs, telling me my muscles looked awesome. We would have huge fires, cook in cast iron dutch ovens right there in the coals, drink beer, swing in the hammock, hike daily up to a local peak, and watch the girls delight in being free to climb trees and play in the creek. Sometimes, John and I would sneak off during the day to have sex on a blanket or against a tree out in the woods where no one could see. We were living the life we wanted to live. We were a happy family.
That Sunday morning the girls and I stayed on the land with friends while John left early to grab his gear and embark on a climb of Liberty Ridge, which he had been training for passionately over the previous 12 months. When he kissed me goodbye, he was full of life, bright, so excited about his upcoming adventure. This was something he had wanted for a long time. John was a mountain man and he was most alive and beautiful when he was pursuing his dreams. He thanked me, several times that morning, with great emotion. He thanked me for supporting him in all of the training, because it meant a lot of lonely nights when I put the kids to bed solo while he trained. He thanked me for supporting him in his mountain man path, because climbing has risks and we both knew it. He thanked me for honoring him and loving him as he truly was. The energy between us that morning was pure and beautiful John-Holly energy. I kissed him goodbye with the love and support of a wife who truly wanted her husband to be happy and he kissed me with the raw emotion of a man who felt unconditionally loved and supported exactly as the man he was.
John left for his climb and the girls and I finished our camping trip the next day. We went home, I stumbled over the mess of still wet/dirty clothing he’d left for me to handle, and we went on with our week. I brought the girls to and from their lovely school – a private Waldorf school – a darling place where the kindergarten is full of hand made wooden furniture, the students knit their own flute cases, and everyone is held with tender love – parents and children alike. I’ve always felt safe in the hallways there… I’ve always felt I could be my own true self with the other parents – geek-girl, granola hippy, camping obsessed, organic food eating mama. It was and continues to be a community that I call home.
The other parents excitedly asked about John’s climb all week. I told them of how it was the most technical route on Mt Rainier. On this route, vertical ice climbing is involved. On Liberty ridge, there is no turning back. It is a route that you can go up but not down, so climbers have to carry their full packs up and over the summit in order to descend the other side. Usually when you summit a mountain, you leave your heavy pack at high camp, have a light pack on summit day, and can turn around if you are too tired. On this route, once you hit the vertical ice, your 3 options are – summit the mountain, helicopter rescue, or death. John was climbing with phenomenal guides and I felt confident they would all make solid decisions. I’d climbed with the lead guide myself and held him in high esteem.
I continued to put a mostly genuine brave face that week, but had some nagging worries. There was a dark sense of doom that tried to descend on me that I mostly shoved to my subconscious. When I allowed it to enter my conscious mind, I analyzed it and tried to determine what terrible thing was coming but in no way allowed myself to think that said doom could possibly relate to his climb. I asked myself if the worst was going to happen – if John and the girls were destined to get in some sort of car accident… would I lose all of them? For some reason, though, a voice in me kept saying “That’s not the image. You don’t lose all of them. The picture is of you as a single mom.” I kept coming back to that – a vision of me alone with the girls. I told no one of this. I convinced myself that it was an irrational, fleeting thought, but the image haunted me all week.
On Wednesday evening, a few days after I last saw John, I received the following texts while he was on the mountain –
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.”
John – “Got to power down now, I love you.”
Holly – “I love you forever.”
On Thursday I didn’t hear from him, but I told myself that everything was probably still fine. Cell coverage on the mountain was spotty. They would be busy. His phone could have run out of batteries. I had nothing to be concerned about.
On Friday morning and afternoon I didn’t hear from him. I continued to tell myself that everything was still probably fine. They must have needed an extra day to descend (due to fatigue) or there could have been a storm causing them to hole up in a snow cave for a day. He would be home soon.
On Friday at 3pm I picked the girls up from school. Another mom, Julie, asked about John. I smiled weakly and said I hadn’t heard from him, but that everything was fine and he would be home soon. Most of me still thought that was true – everything was fine. His battery was dead. They were in a van on their way home. He would walk in the door soon – all stinky and filthy, limping, with a huge grin on his face.
I had planned a celebration dinner for his return. After a big climb he would be animated and ravenous. We used to joke that my way of saying “I love you” was by cooking him lots of meat, and this was no exception. Surf and turf was on the menu – true decadence. I had marinated a flank steak over night in balsamic, soy sauce, garlic, jalapeño, fresh thyme, fresh oregano, and cumin. I had also pulled the crab meat from a whole Dungeness and integrated it into a white wine serrano ham cream sauce to be served over pasta. Lastly, I smothered broccoli with lemon sage butter. John would be happy to walk in the door and find me in leg warmers and one of my favorite silly aprons, cooking the meal with love. He would kiss me, squeeze me, throw the girls up in the air delightedly, and eat until his stomach was about to burst.
By 5pm, the worry I had held at bay turned into true alarm. I called up Alpine Ascents International, the guiding agency running the climb. I reached Gordon, the Director of Programs.
“This is Holly, John’s wife. Have you heard from the team?”
“We haven’t heard from them yet.”
“Well are you concerned? Are you worried? Shouldn’t they have called in by now? You must have something to say! What does this mean!??”
There was a long, heavy pause.
“Yes, we are worried. We are absolutely worried.”
“What do we do?”
“I have already called the rangers. No one has seen their team on the mountain since Wednesday evening.”
“The rangers will be dispatching Search and Rescue helicopters in the morning.”
I hung up the phone, still not ready to absorb the implications. Stonily, I cooked the celebration meal and fed my kids. They asked where dad was and I replied that he was a bit delayed but would be home soon. We ate, I put them to bed, and then eventually went to bed myself. I was only able to sleep 2 hours that night. In the morning I called friends and arranged care for my children for the day, knowing that it was not a day when I could care for them myself.
In fact, I was supposed to depart that morning (Saturday June 1) to lead a climb of Mt Adams while John stayed home with the kids. John and I always climbed separately so that, if an avalanche hit or a whole rope team got dragged into a crevasse, our girls would not be orphans. One of my climbing partners, Joe, who was to be on Adams with me, agreed to stay with me all day so that I was not alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so we began obsessively cleaning the house. It reminded me of the time when I went into early labor with Melanie. Labor started gently and I began to scrub the kitchen floor, telling John “Once the baby comes, I’ll be busy, better to clean the house now!”
Around 10am, the first call came. The voice that I spoke to was soft, warm, gentle. A woman named Mary told me that she would be my communication contact all day as Search and Rescue progressed. They didn’t have any information yet, but she told me she would call me every hour.
Joe and I continued to clean. I got updates every hour and eventually the helicopters found something. When the 3rd call came in, around 2pm, I took the phone, went into my darkened bedroom, and sat on the chocolate brown leather couch.
“What have you found?”
“Holly do you have someone with you?”
“Yes, I do. I am not alone.”
Joe took my hand.
“We have not found the team yet, but we did find some gear. We do not know yet if it is their gear. The debris field is on the Carbon Glacier in a place of constant rock and ice fall, so we can only safely view it from the helicopter – we cannot get on the ground to investigate.”
“What does this mean?”
“We don’t know yet, but we do know that the debris and gear is in a direct fall line from where the team was. They were climbing on a ridge 3300 feet directly above the scattered gear.”
I hung up the phone and told Joe what she had said. They had not yet declared the team dead but in my mind it was a done deal.
Joe tried to console me. He tried to fill me with hope. He suggested that maybe it was gear from another team, gear that could be months or years old. He stumbled over his words, so obviously reaching, so obviously stretched to find a way to put any sort of a positive spin on things.
At that point I became angry. Not at John or at Mount Rainier, but at Joe.
“What the fuck, Joe? They are dead. The gear is in a direct fall line from where they were camping on the ridge. No one can find their team on either side of the mountain. They fell 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. They are fucking dead, ok?”
Joe tried again to infuse some hope, but he only pissed me off. Why hope? How would hope help me? Why tease myself with the idea that he might come home? Why embrace ignorance for a few hours more? Why do people think they must say something positive at times when there is nothing positive to say? In that moment I hated Joe and his optimism, just as now (11mo later), in a way, I hate people who try to bring me out of my grief by reminding me of all I still have – my children, my friends, my health, my incredible strength, my memories.
Yes my children are a gift.
Yes my life is not over.
You know what? At times, when I am in my pit of despair, those facts don’t fucking matter. When I am swimming in my ocean of grief, I don’t want optimism and I don’t want silver linings. My husband is dead, and fuck you to anyone who wants to sugar coat it.
Recently I was hiking with a very sweet friend who had lost both of her parents a few years ago and had her own extended period of deep grief. When I was talking of my pain and darkness, she said –
“You know you won’t always feel this way, right? It does get better.”
“But, in a year or two, my kids still won’t have a dad.”
She hung her head. “I know.”
Another time I was chatting with a different friend about how, sometimes, I can’t imagine ever being happy again, even though part of my brain knows I could be. She said to me “I just hope some day you can take more joy in your children.” I said “You know what? I fucking hope so too.” Meaning, OF COURSE I want to take joy in my children. The fact is, that (until literally just the last month) I just couldn’t do so. I looked at them and saw that they will never have a father again. Oh how I wanted to smile for them and be bright for them, but my spark just wasn’t there. Much of my energy went to worry about the future – how will I provide financially for them and for my Mother In Law? Responsibility for the family is on my shoulders and my shoulders alone. My children are my greatest gift, but during my darkest moments, they have also been my heaviest burden. They remind me of all that I still have, but they also remind me of all that I have lost.
All you have to do is love me, hold me, listen to me, and let me cry. I could also use a handyman to swing a hammer around the house, but that’s another story. You don’t have to convince me I will feel better some day, will get married again some day, or that the joy I take in my children will make it all better. Don’t tell me that it will all be ok. My husband is dead, I’m a single (only) parent, and my traumatized young children will go through the rest of their lives remembering at every important milestone (and all the unimportant ones too) that they don’t have a father. I float on a raft, alone, on my cold windy ocean of grief. If you tell me it isn’t an ocean or that the shore is closer than it really is, then you don’t help me, you only make me feel more alone.
Sit with me in my darkness. The way out is through. I continue to move through. I am broken, vulnerable, weeping in every possible way. I am also one of the strongest people you will ever meet. Don’t be afraid of my darkness – sit with me and allow me to dive deep so that I can feel what I need to feel and cry all the tears that must be shed. I will survive. We will survive. I am a warrior, and though these wounds are still raw and oozing, they do not destroy me. I may still be at the bottom of a well, but I continue to reach for the light, and for the love of all of you.