“We can’t go any further. We need to turn back,” our guide announced.
We approached another crevasse; the ladder that had been established a couple of weeks before was now suspended midair, halfway across the gaping crack. There was no way around it. The avalanche danger was too high due to heavy snowfall in recent weeks, coupled with strong winds overnight.
11 hours earlier, the lead guide on the climb prepared us for the day ahead: “There is no sport called summiting. There is a sport called climbing, and if the conditions aren’t right, we don’t climb or we turn around if we assess that it’s not safe to keep going.”
In the early moonlit hours, we left our camp to ascend the upper mountain; I was the last on the rope during the first section. I felt alienated, distant from the spotlights that bounced ahead, and yet connected to everything I wasn’t tethered to. I felt small, not in a belittling way: in a way where my insignificance was overwhelmingly evident, juxtaposed with the magnificence of the mountain, the space surrounding us, the unknown fate of the climb and the unpredictable variables lurking in the dark.
I was intimidated and scared, though not panicked. We were completely exposed, nothing but rock and ice above and below, nowhere to hide or run if the mountain decided to shed or shift. I concentrated on my breath, the plunge of the ice axe in the powder and the limited circumference of light that guided my steps. Exhilaration expressed itself through a tearful reflection streaming down my cheeks, in awe of the fact that I’d made it here. I turned a daydream into reality with hard work and a lot of planning. I thought about all of the years before this: how I’d veered off the trajectory of a predictable, unfulfilling life. Instead, traversing a cathedral of adventure complete with crevasses, looming seracs and avalanches I’ve narrowly avoided.
There’s no sport called summiting on the mountain or in life.
I’ve experienced this many times over, so 11 hours later, here I was with my crampons clenched to the 45-degree crevassed slant of the Ingraham Glacier on Mt Rainier; the only disappointment I experienced was the view of Disappointment Cleaver to our right. The clouds floated below us as we paused 12,000 feet above sea level. The neighboring peaks of the Pacific Northwest revealed themselves in the morning haze; it was time to turn around.
When we returned to base camp another climber somberly expressed, “I feel like I failed and now everyone is going to know I didn’t make it to the top.” “Failed? We just climbed Mt Rainier! Remember, there’s no sport called summiting!” I exclaimed.
If I consider my life and all of the relationships and endeavors that have ended or fizzled and called them failures, then failure and I are one and the same, but I know that’s not true. I haven’t failed. As I’ve climbed through life, inevitably there has come a point where the conditions aren’t right anymore. I either turn around and go back down, find another trail or another mountain.
I’m new to mountaineering and I’ve fallen in love with the way of it: You train and train, preparing your brain and body for the challenge and suffering that lies ahead. You plan and pack, anticipating your needs and what-ifs, strategically stuffing everything into 75 liters of cloth, which weighs a third to half of your bodyweight. You clip in, bound to other fallible humans, trusting you or they will be able to act quickly enough to arrest and brace your fall or theirs. Using your voice is the difference between life and death. Unapologetically you yell commands to slow down, climb on, or stop in order to clip in and out of a fixed line. In order for each climber on the line to remain safe, you must abide by each other’s demands. You look to the right and to the left and realize there’s no place to hide; you’re completely unprotected. The only thing you’re in control of is your ability to stay present, listen, observe, regulate your breath and focus on your next step. You trust that wherever the mountain allows you to reach, you’ll reach, or you’ll decide to turn around first.
The highest point I climb whether that be the tippy-top (as my daughter calls it) of the mountain or the place where I turn around is only the halfway point of the climb. It’s on the descent where I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned, so the next time, I climb with more confidence and understanding.
My thirties have been just like this: a formidable climb, and just shy of my 40th birthday, I’m still climbing, putting one boot in front of the other. I’ve had quite a few climbing buddies over the years. Some of us still climb together, some have unclipped and I have unclipped from some. I thoroughly enjoy climbing with someone who is more experienced than I am and I love climbing alone. It took me awhile to recognize my appreciation for solitude, harnessing the confidence and skill to climb solo. I’ve climbed the same mountains many times over and some just once. Each scenario I’ve learned from; they all have their pros and cons. There has not been a wasted step or a wasted climb. They all build on each other, inside of me as preparation for the next climb.
Climbing and other outdoor endeavors come with inherent risk, just like life. I could avoid the risks by not climbing, but I did that for the first part of my adult life. I was safe, so I thought, and miserable. In my twenties, I was a frightened shell of a woman in an expired marriage with two young children. I hadn’t flown on an airplane in years; I was shriveling in every way, hiding behind my phobias. And then I stepped into them one at a time, scared as hell, yet slowly the fear became manageable, a sidekick to the freedom I allowed myself to experience.
I choose freedom and with that I choose fear.
Freedom and fear go hand in hand. When I’m free, I am exposed and vulnerable: I am at the mercy of something bigger than myself and bigger than the mountain I’m climbing. I recognize I can’t control anything but my actions. Whether it is climbing Mt Rainier or everyday life, there is a visceral decision to step forward with the fear, so I maintain my freedom while I ascend and descend.
When I returned from the climb, a girlfriend asked me if I’d go back to try again and summit. I said I would love to climb Rainier again, and then I explained to her that there’s no sport called summiting. ~Rebecca