Dear John –
I’m writing this letter to tell you that I’m not angry with you for dying on a mountain. I’m not angry, because I understand you, because I reach for the same things you reached for.
This past spring, after you were already dead, I climbed up Asgard pass. I
had climbed Asgard in the summer when it was rock and dirt and found it to be a different beast when covered with ice. My buddy Peter and I climbed it late in the day when the snow was slushy, camped on hard snow pack in our zero degree bags, and then tried to descend the next morning. The slush had hardened into a horrific steep sheet of ice during the night, and I had a lot of trouble getting purchase with the side points of my crampons. I plunged my ice axe in, over and over, so that I had something to hold on to if my feet slipped, but that gave me little comfort. The run out was bad, bad enough that if I’d known how icy it would be, I never would have climbed it without a harness, ice screws, and a professional guide. From where I stood, there were about 1500 vertical feet of drop (over about 4000 feet of linear slope) to the bottom of the pass. There were no gradual plateaus that would slow me down if I slipped. The only thing between me and the lake at the bottom was bunches of hard rock. FUCK. I remember when I climbed Rainier on a guided trip led by Matt Hegeman. When talking about various mountaineering accidents involving multi-thousand foot un-arrested slides, he would say “And that’s when he [she/they] took the ride of his life.”. Of course, Matt is gone now too. They found your body once the snow melted out, but they never found his.
Oh the guilt I felt as I careful picked my way down. FUCK. Get me off this ride. If I take a slide and die, everyone is going to shit all over me – “She’s the mom who took too many risks after husband died and left her kids orphans.” FUCK. Then it happened – I lost my feet, my ice axe didn’t hold, and I screamed as I began to take the ride of my life. OH FUUUCCKKKK.
In an instant I assessed the situation and decided to intentionally slide towards a pile of rocks. Ideally, I would be able to slam my feet into the rocks and stop. If I wasn’t angled right, my body would hit the rocks instead and I would likely break something. If I missed the rocks and kept sliding, I would most likely…join you and Matt. I was lucky and was able to stop myself with my feet on the rocks, but then things got much harder. I had slid into a steeper section, a section that was too dangerous to go down facing forward. I determined that the only way I was going to get safely down was to climb backwards, meticulously kicking the front points of my crampons in with my face towards the slope and my back towards the view. And so I did just that. The ice was so hard, I had to kick my front points in 3 times to make each step stick safely in the ice. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Using only my front points meant that my calf muscles were constantly engaged, and they burnt out horrifically, to the point where I would have started crying from the pain if I thought it would do any good. I frequently couldn’t get my ice axe in because the ice was so dense, so I would jam it down over and over until it mercifully penetrated the surface. Sometimes it would plunge through the ice so suddenly, my body would slam forward and my face would hit the ice too.
There was one particular moment when I stood there on my front points, feeling like I had nothing left. I wanted so badly just to lay down on the ice and weep, but I knew – regardless of how exhausted I was or how much pain my calves and shoulders were in, I had to dig deeper to find the strength to finish. Giving up was not an option.
The truth is, those horrific 3 hours made me feel more like myself than I had felt since you died. When I’m on a mountain, the world becomes very simple. I need to keep myself fed, hydrated, warm, and in one piece. When I’m faced with various objective hazards on a climb, my focus becomes razor sharp and I feel completely alive. There are no phones, no traffic lights, no children I need to nag to do their homework, no dishes to wash. It’s just me, the mountain, and the elements. Most people don’t understand our need to climb. Afterwards my Asgard pass climb, people looked at me strangely when I showed them my bruises and joked about the failure of Peter’s new ultralight tent. We only slept 2 hours because snow blew in the whole night and our zero degree bags weren’t warm enough. “Mountaineering is the art of suffering” was something you told me many times with a smile. The desire to suffer for a summit was something we shared. The sunburnt eyeballs, the scabs, the horrifically sore muscles, the frostbitten fingertips – it’s all worth it to us Mountain People.
This is all my way of saying – I’m not angry with you for dying on a mountain, because I understand you. I understand your need to climb mountains, because I climb them too. I understand how alive and real you feel when standing on top of something big, looking down on the clouds, because I reach for that feeling too.
After you died, part of me still believed I could keep climbing if I was careful, but the Asgard pass trip made me realize otherwise. Now that you are gone, I’m not allowed to die. If I die, our children will be orphans. Just as I lost you, I also lost my dream of continuing to climb big icy glaciated peaks. I’m the one who was left behind, and that is where I must remain – behind, here, on this planet, while you soar in the sky with the mountain gods.
Still, I’m not mad.
I’m not angry, because it could have been me instead of you. I remember all too well the avalanche that swept behind my climbing team when I was ascending Rainier with Matt on the Kautz glacier in July 2012. If the mountain had crumbed in that way 20 minutes earlier than it did, I would be dead and you would be the one left here to face the horror.
I’m not angry, because the man I married was a rough and tumble Mountain Man. When we met, you had already summited Mt Rainier twice. I will never forget the story of your first summit at age 22 Your team ascended most of the mountain, slept, woke up at midnight, summited by 6am with headlamps, climbed all the way down, drove home, and then (after a shower) you smoked a joint and went to an all-night dance party. That was my John – a man who walked among the clouds and pulsed in a crowed of sweaty earthly bodies, all in the same day. You were not meant to be tamed.
Once we had children you settled down a bit, but still – the wild mountain man was always there. I felt him, hungry and stir crazy inside of you during the years when our girls were so little and neither of us had much time to explore the outside world. You became overweight, depressed, and seemed almost resigned to a life that wasn’t yours. Once our youngest was out of diapers, I supported you in getting back out there, in going back to the mountains that called your name. I look back on that time as the time when you found your light again, the time when you got back to being yourself – the bearded mountain man, the trail warrior who embraced the suffering in the name of a summit. I never loved you more than when you were your beautiful, banged up, filthy self.
It’s true that this passion of yours eventually lead to your death, but still – I’m not angry. You didn’t wrong me. You never lied to me about the risks. You always included me in the decision. You supported me in my own climbing. You taught me that loving someone means letting them follow their dreams. You showed me that partnership is about loving and supporting your other half as a whole package – not a bunch of bits and pieces that you can pick and choose from.
I’m not angry because, even though you are gone, you still send your love to me. Yes, I’m widowed. Yes, my life of grief and single parenthood often looks like one big shit show. Still – the beams of your love nourish me. I’ve never been more loved than I am now. No one can ever take your love from me.
If I had died on a mountain, you wouldn’t be angry either. That, too, is a gift. In fact, your soothing compassion and forgiveness is what gets me through the day-to-day reality of my new life. When I struggle to be present for the children through my horrific grief, you do not judge me. You watch me, look down on me, and say “Oh sweetheart, I wouldn’t fare any better.” We support and honor each other all the time, even though one of us is dead and one of us still walks the earth.
I tell you, over and over, that I’m not angry, because I want you to be free. I feel you, soaring up above Mount Rainier with the Mountain Gods. Enjoy the glory, my love. Someday, when it is my time, we will meet again.