John and I never climbed the really big mountains together, which is fortunate, because there was theday when he didn’t come home. If I’d been with him, I wouldn’t have come home either.
Statistically speaking, mountaineering accidents are rare. In fact, it is said that you are more likely to die driving the roads around Mt Rainier than climbing Mt Rainier itself. Still, we knew we couldn’t take the chance that our girls would become orphans if one avalanche or slide took out our whole rope team. So, we played switch hitter. Sometimes John was off climbing, sometimes I was. It was easier that way – we didn’t have to scramble to find childcare and our burdens of worry were lighter. In fact, climbing was hugely bonding for us even thought we did much of it separately. We would train together – taking our little girls for family time at the bouldering gym or taking them out on weekend hikes while he and I carried 60+lb packs. We would stay up late strategizing before one of us had a big climb and then stay up late breaking down the achievements and mishaps of said climb after it was done. We would spend hours debating the pros and cons of various pieces of technical gear. I might say “My new crampon-compatible La Sportiva boots are surprisingly comfortable, but I’m just not sure they are stiff enough for ice climbing or insulated enough for Rainier.” Other times he might say “I saw some yahoo struggling to melt snow (for drinking water) with a tiny little Jetboil while I was sitting pretty, melting snow easily with my MSR Whisper Light.” Climbing was something we shared, whether we were on the trail together or not.
As the summer of 2014 approached, John and I made lots of exciting plans. How would we fit in all the joy we were reaching for? John had his climbs, I had mine, we had family camping trips to plan, father-daughter trips with John and each of the girls, and of course the mundane realities of work and household duties. It would be a busy, but wonderful, summer. John and I scrambled to get each of our important climbs on the calendar – 2 different Rainier climbs for John (Liberty Ridge and the Kautz); Rainier, Adams, and the Wonderland trail for me. In fact, the schedule happened to settle in such a way that John would return from Liberty Ridge on a Friday, we would spend the evening together, and then I would depart the next morning with 3 of my climbing buddies for Mount Adams.
Of course, John didn’t come home that Friday evening. I cooked the surf and turf celebration dinner I had planned for his arrival, because, well, my kids needed to be fed. I deflected their questions about his return, telling them he was a bit delayed but would be home soon. In a numb haze, I continued to meticulously pack up my gear for my Adams climb, all while knowing but in no way accepting that Search and Rescue helicopters would be dispatched in the morning.
It turned out that by that Friday evening John had already been dead for 2 days and everything in my life was going to change.
Instead of climbing Mount Adams the next morning, I sat at home on the phone with a Ranger from Mount Rainer. I listened as she told me that a helicopter had spotted the team’s gear strewn about on the Carbon Glacier, 3300 feet directly below where the team was camped. They could only view the fall area from the air, as there was too much rock and ice fall to make ground travel safe. I was told they spotted an exposed hand, but no bodies.
Instead of climbing Mount Rainier in July, I spent countless hours reassuring my frantic children that I would never again climb the mountain that took their dad’s life. Melanie would cling to my neck at night, sobbing, begging me through tears “Mama, no climbing big mountains. Dada is DEAD and I need at least one parent here. No climbing mountains with avalanches, mama, EVER.”
Instead of hiking the Wonderland trail in August, I acknowledged that trauma had ravaged my physical body and had robbed me of my incredible strength. For a while, I was not able to eat without fear of vomiting. For months, I was not able to sleep more than 2-3 hrs a night before waking up to my terrible reality. Grief filled up my chest like a pool of dark heavy tar, and it became obvious that I didn’t have the 8 day, 22,000ft elevation gain/loss, 93 mile hike in me.
Instead of spending the summer climbing, I spent the summer planning a memorial, crying, caring for my hysterical and traumatized children, and wading through the horrific 2+ hours a day of death related paperwork and administration that would ultimately take me over 6 months to complete. I lost my husband, I lost my body, I lost my summer, I lost myself.
I often tell people that year 1 after loss is about numbness, hysteria, and day-to-day survival. Once you have stabilized, dealt with the horrific paperwork, and learned to keep breathing through each day, then you hit year 2. Year 2 after loss is about moving past day-to-day and into the rest of your life. What now? What kind of career do I find now that I am the sole breadwinner? How do I begin to reach out for joy in life again after spending a year laying on the floor sobbing? How do I cope with the fact that, a year in, I only miss him more. A year in, as I now fully realize that John is never coming back, I must manage the deep, dark, all encompassing loneliness that settles in. This is forever. My other half is gone forever.
In a way, for me, Year 2 started a bit early – April 17, what would have been my 11th wedding anniversary – 10 months and 20 days after loss. I had to do something to cope with the day, so I decided to climb a mountain, or rather 3 mountains, with my friend Selena, who also used to be one of John’s climbing partners. We climbed up Granite mountain, chatted with other hikers at the top, then post holed down the other side through deep snow and ascended back up to the summit of West Granite, where we were alone. It was a glorious bluebird sunny day. We proceeded to strip down to softshell pants, sports bras, and glacier glasses, and sat on our packs so that the snow didn’t give us popsicle bums. The clear skies allowed for the kinds of views that cause your entire world perspective to change, and we sat there gazing upon the glory that is Mount
Rainier. Selena said to me –
“It was just about a year ago that I did this hike with John. He was training for Liberty Ridge, so bright and excited. He really only talked about 2 things that day – his upcoming climb, and how much he loved you.”
Of course, I hold onto any crumb of love that comes to me from John these days.
“How did you know he loved me so much?”
“He had that glistening sparkle to his eyes when he talked about you. You know that glisten – people have it when they are really truly happy, when the happiness jumps out through their eyes. He was just so happy with you, Holly. It’s not something you are imagining post-loss. He really, really loved you, and he was so happy because you supported him in climbing these mountains. He was truly happy.”
Then, Selena and I went quiet. We sat there for a full hour. I crossed my legs, adjusted myself so my body was squarely facing Mount Rainier, closed my eyes, and dove in.
“Hi John. Happy wedding anniversary.”
“Oh, Holly.” I felt his soft crinkly eyes gaze down on me as I began to weep.
“I miss you so much, John, I can’t stand it.”
I accepted his shushing and allowed the chatter of my mind to quiet. I opened my eyes and found myself face-to-face with the incredible radiance of the mountain that claimed my John. My chest began to ache, but I realized that it wasn’t so much from pain as it was from an incredible energy exchange that was happening. I literally felt John pouring light and strength into my heart center. It burned and I had to press my hand firmly over the area so that my chest wouldn’t explode. For a full 10 minutes I simply allowed John to brighten me, nourish me, replenish me, unconditionally love me. And then something incredible happened, something that proceeded to last for almost the entire hour I was there –
I felt happy.
Yes, happy. For that hour, I felt a true joy that I hadn’t felt since John died. I felt alive. I felt how the whole world is open to me. I felt free, up there in the clouds. Life became simple – me, the sky, the snow, Rainier, and John. Finally, I heard his voice again inside my heart. What he said was very simple – that this time ahead of me was to be a time of both great joy and continued sadness, and that it was up to me to embrace life and have fun whenever I could.
Selena and I eventually hit a third peak (Granita). There was no set trail down, so we bushwhacked through slide alder and tried not to break anything when post holing through the thin snow covering boulder fields. On the way down I made a clear decision – I decided to have a fucking awesome summer of mountaineering. I lost my summer in the mountains when John died, and damnit – I was going to reclaim my Mountain Woman self this time around. I wasn’t going to be the Grieving Widow all the time anymore, I was going to be Holly, the Badass Mountain Girl, and I was going to have a ton of fun doing it.
So, I made a bunch of plans, including Mount Adams in June and the Wonderland trail in July. My super fit mountain woman friend Morgan agreed to climb Adams with me, and there we found ourselves on the morning of June 6 – standing behind her black Prius, at the base of Mount Adams, dividing up the shared gear, packing up our 50+lb packs. And then, it happened again, as I was stuffing John’s 4 season Northface tent into my huge custom McHale pack – I felt happy. Not just a little happy! I felt bright, joyous, and truly excited to be alive! I wasn’t dreaming of the mountains taking me so that I could float up above them with John – I was dreaming of climbing them, and coming back down to be with my girls.
Morgan and I eventually threw on our packs and began to ascend. Though our loads were heavy and the heat was brutal, we were in great spirits – making crass jokes and telling climbing stories. Still, just a few hours in, I began to struggle. The heat made me feel faint and I had to rest more often than I should have. Morgan was very patient, and we continued to make our way up. Once we reached about 8k feet, something very scary happened, something that I have a hard time admitting even now. I began to gasp for breath and my anatomical heart began to physically ache and race as if it was going to beat out of my chest. My leg muscles pumped away and were just fine, as I’d been training with a heavy pack all year, it was
my heart that was the issue. It did not in any way feel like grief or sadness – I was happy, in a good mood! It felt like deep, undeniable exhaustion on a cellular level. I have never before or since had that experience – I could feel the organ of circulation inside of my chest and it HURT. I wondered – is something really bad about to happen?
I’m embarrassed to say – I kept climbing. When my heart began to race and ache and I gasped for breath, I would stop and rest, and then I would continue until it hurt again. Climb, rest, climb, rest – Morgan was an angel of patience. We reached high camp at Lunchcounter, cleared a snow platform for our tent, and settled in for the evening. In fact, we were still in a great mood, laughing, chatting up various bearded mountain men camping nearby. Sure, I’d been slow, but still – it felt absolutely fantastic to be up in the clouds, away from it all, looking down on the world. I glanced around camp and enjoyed (rather than being saddened by) how much of John was all around me – his 20 yr old bomber 4 season Northface tent, the custom made high capacity backpack with purple and green straps that he had surprised me with one Christmas, his banged up aluminum pot used for melting snow for drinking water, and the La Guryeve crampons he had lovingly bought me before my first summit of Mount Rainier. We ate a feast of ramen and energy bars, slept, and then started for the summit in the morning. Most of our gear was left at high camp, so our packs were light and we were still in a good mood.
Perhaps because my pack was lighter, or perhaps because I had adjusted to altitude, my heart did not hurt on day 2. However, I was embarrassingly slow, in fact perhaps as much as 50% slower than Morgan. I let her race up to the summit without me and trudge on behind at my own snail pace. And then, a couple hours in, there was my John! I felt him playfully hopping from summit to summit – Mount Adams, Mount St Helens, Mount Hood, and back around again. He laughed and I was reminded that my husband was and is an adventurer – both in the flesh on this planet and now in the afterlife. Then I noticed a jet airplane off in the distance and watched John leap towards it, grab onto a wing, and go for a wild ride, all while grinning down on me. He said “Holly, I’m happy, and so are you!”
I made the summit, one foot in front of the other, and Morgan and I made our way down. I was happy but often felt faint from the heat. We went home and I meditated on what it all meant. Did I train enough? Yes, I trained all year. Training wasn’t the issue. If I had trained more, I would have exhausted myself more. My body didn’t need more exercise, it needed rest. I had to finally admit that the grief and sleep deprivation had inflicted extensive damage on my physical body.
I knew I had a brutal Wonderland trail trip coming up in just 5 weeks – 8 days, 93 miles, 22k feet elevation gain and loss, heavy 55lb pack, brutal heat. This was a trip I was supposed to do last year, a trip I wanted to do this summer as part of reclaiming my Mountain Woman Self, a trip John would have been proud of me for accomplishing. The voices in my head began to compete –
Nurturing Holly: “I am completely fucking exhausted, I shouldn’t go.”
Hardass Holly: “Don’t be a fucking wimp. Pull yourself together.”
Nurturing Holly: “I’m worried I’m going to collapse.”
Hardass Holly: “You are a warrior. Push through.”
Nurturing Holly: “But, I’m just so TIRED.”
Back and forth, back and forth, all month. Hardass Holly continued to win out, because Hardass Holly usually wins out, and I kept training at least twice a week with a 50-60lb pack. On two different occasions I almost passed out from heat exhaustion. I continued to have serious reservations. I began to fantasize about cancelling the trip and going off by myself someplace where I could rest. I dreamed of a quiet retreat or spa somewhere with cool white sheets, soothing views of mountains, good books to read, no cell phones, and many hours to sleep. I was ashamed of this fantasy, told no one, and continued to push on.
Less than 24 hours before I was supposed to depart for the Wonderland trip with Nika (my bestie), Selena, and Bri, I went to dinner with D, a dear kind friend. I did not tell D about the spa fantasy but did tell him that I wasn’t excited about going on the climb. He was truly surprised, because of how much he knows I love the mountains. I told him of how I had struggled on Adams, of how little I had been sleeping, and all of the sudden, right there at Tallullah’s café on 19th and Mercer, I burst out crying. I hate crying in public. D said
“You should cancel your trip.”
“No, I can’t. People are counting on me. I’m sure I’ll be fine once I get on the trail.”
“Holly, why don’t you cancel your trip and let me send you to a spa as a treat.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to do it.”
I fought D for a while. I’m a warrior, not a wimp. If I go to the spa, I’m a Pampered Princess and not a Badass Mountain Girl. D kept pushing back. I consulted my BFF Nika, my Mother in Law, and various friends, and the consensus was clear – everyone has been really worried about my deep exhaustion and all parties would be relieved if I didn’t do the Wonderland. My MIL actually almost cried real tears, in fact, about how concerned she has been about my health. Bev said “Maybe it’s time to stop being a warrior.”
Before I surrendered to the idea, I asked myself one more question – what would John think? Am I still John’s Badass Mountain Girl if I go relax instead of crushing the Wonderland trail? And then it hit me –
John is dead.
I will always love John. He will forever be the great love of my life, the father of my children, and the man who gave me everything I ever wanted. I feel certain that I will always have a deep connection with his soul and know that there are important wishes he had that I will continue to honor. However,
I don’t want to be married to a dead guy anymore.
John’s not here. Maybe I’m not supposed to be John’s Badass Mountain Girl any more. I’m not the Holly I was before I met him and I’m not the Holly I was when I was with him. I need to find a new Holly, and in fact, I can already feel her emerging. Just as the lotus flower blooms from the mud, I can feel green tendrils of life poking out of the decay that is inside of me, the decay that is the life that I had with John, the life that was full of joy but is now gone. These sprouts will not blossom if I do not rest, if I do not repair the damage that grief, stress, and sleep deprivation have done to my body. I do now what has always been the hardest thing for me to do – I surrender. I give in. I let go.
So here I am, at a beautiful wellness center. My villa has cool white sheets and views of the mountains. Last night, I slept 8 hours. The last time I slept that much was 10 months ago in my campervan, after Julie and I hiked 18 miles in a day through the Enchantments. Just an hour ago, I went to a “Meditation and Poetry” workshop. The teacher read the following poem, which seemed to be just for me –
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least
sound in fear of what my life
and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I can feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the
world, and am free.
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests and I rest too. I rest in the grace of the world and I am free. I lost my summer, my body, myself, but all of these things can be found again. I will find myself, I am finding myself. I still love mountains and am still planning to have an awesome summer, but I set a new intention to be gentler. I admit that I don’t know what the future holds and guess what – I’ve gotten to the point where that’s exciting, not depressing. I am alive, I am loved, and the whole beautiful world is open to me. Thank you D, thank you Nika, and thank you to all of you who continue to hold me. My husband may have died, but I did not die. I am opening, exploring, blossoming, and truly glad to still be here on this planet with all of you.