I had a long drawn out debate over whether to post this or not. On one hand, I don’t want to make any of us relive the past two months. On the other hand, this blog is basically a hiking and climbing journal for me, and the past two months have been a huge part of my climbing life. (And it’s my blog, and I can do what I want).
As many of you probably know, one of my best friends out in Seattle passed away in a climbing accident. That’s all it was, an accident. One misstep. Nothing was done incorrectly, no one was unprepared. One slip is all it takes when this is your favorite hobby, and that’s something we all know. But no matter how often you talk about how it’s only a matter of time, no matter how much everyone says “well you’ll just make sure that never happens” (come on, let’s be real) nothing prepares you for when it does.
That friend was John. John who I met on Rainier two years ago, John who was thrilled to climb every following weekend and introduced me to Sam who was always down for spontaneous trips. John who finally let Simon into our meetup group climb 8 hours before we left because Simon was a stranger with a creepy profile picture, John who swore that even though Kacie might need a smoke break every 4 miles she’d kick my ass. John who finally got me to like dogs because Rippley is a bad ass, John who convinced me to hitchhike and taught me to rappel and laughed at me when I prussiked out of a crevasse I couldn’t ice climb out of only to immediately drop both ice tools back into the abyss as I crested the lip while he set up the world’s tiniest z-haul chatting with a random climber that (5 months later) would be Kacie’s tinder date when we climbed Eldorado.
So you can imagine how it went when I got the news. I had just gotten down from a climb, and I was catching up on my phone. JT told me first. John? John who? His last name passed through my mind, but I was trying to think of old people I knew named John. I don’t know any old Johns. And then I started seeing the Facebook messages that had collected on my phone. And the texts. Dozens of people saying I’m so sorry for your loss. Oh my god. The ground fell away and I was alone in outer space. I called Simon. Tell me what happened I need to know what happened and I need to hear it from you because everyone else is talking to me and I don’t know what happened.
I cried the whole drive home. I got home at 1am and woke up in a sweaty nauseous panic at 4am wondering how the world still existed and how I was still there and why was I still there but somehow it was still real. My father flew out to Seattle since I had just been stuck out overnight on that climb and he hadn’t heard from me, and instead of me comforting him he ended up keeping me from falling apart. Little things. Alcohol and grocery run for everyone in a dazed fog at Shawna’s house, putting gas in my car, making it easy for me to leave work because the excuse was “my father’s in town” not “‘I’m sitting here staring into space and crying because I can’t remember how to send an email and I don’t know what 39+12 is.” It was simultaneously a whirlwind and an eternity. You’re a shell of yourself, a shell shattered in a million pieces held together by who knows what with nothing but empty space inside.
Every tiny task is suddenly an insurmountable mountain. Decisions are the worst. What should I wear today? Where should I get lunch? What do you want to eat? I needed someone to just make every decision for me for a few weeks. And work? I should have been with the rest of my friends at Shawna’s, helping organize the memorial, taking care of things around the house, processing everything myself as well. And instead I was sitting in an office sending emails that were about as important as an ant is to the function of the sun.
But the world keeps going. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t taken a full breath in three weeks. Days still turn, bills need to be paid, you need to eat, you need to do laundry. So you figure out how to cope. All out of quarters for laundry? Cue panic, start crying. Okay, you can do this. Go to the cafe and get a tea and just get two dollars back in quarters. You can do that. And slowly, the decisions get easier. It’s just terrifying and not overwhelming, and then it’s just stressful and nauseating and not terrifying, and then it’s just anxiety inducing, and someday it’ll just be a random decision again and you won’t think twice. The small decisions are already better. But a week ago I almost puked in Manhattan at the idea of getting a new cell phone, despite mine being over 5 years old. It’s not gone yet. And then I cried for 30 minutes on the plane, too. I’m not drowning anymore, but I still get tossed around by waves.
There are five stages of grief, that’s common knowledge. But there’s a stage no one talks about that we’ve deemed stage 3.5: “shit’s weird.” And that’s just it. Sometimes it’s just weird. Your brain does weird things. Random thoughts you can’t justify, random bouts of awkwardness even around good friends, wondering why you’re so uncomfortable even though you’re somewhere that’s always been comforting. You randomly suck at things, you’re easily distracted, you’re irritable, you drift off during conversation and want to run home and just be in bed. I’m basically manic depressive over climbing right now, from “hell yeah I’d solo that” to “no I don’t want to climb anything and you’re all assholes for suggesting it.” And everyone else is just as awkward and no one knows what to do or how to feel and there’s no answer to either of those. Shit’s just weird and it’s okay to take a step back and acknowledge that.
Last weekend, we climbed Rainier to scatter some of John’s ashes. I had no idea what to expect leading up to it, so I just… didn’t. We took it super slow up to Muir. JT carried probably a literal ton of food and supplies. A grill, a cast iron skillet, 24 burgers, buns, bacon, cheese, you name it he brought it. Capri sun juice boxes! We ate like kings at Muir that afternoon, and attempted to sleep in the climbers’ hut. I’m usually conditioned to immediately pass out upon snuggling in my sleeping bag, but not this time.
We took another break at the top of the cleaver, and then began the long traverse to the right (east? north? northeast!). There were no ladders, no major crevasse crossings. There was a large serac dubbed the Tsunami Wave, and there were a few fixed lines and pickets placed just in case your group needed it. The trail finally switched back, taking us to what felt like the longest, steepest part of the climb. There are no natural breaks after the cleaver, though the switchback was a mental one. The guide services shovel out benches around 13,100ft, but I always pass those without noticing. There was one large step-over crevasse followed immediately by a fixed line and some steep terrain, but nothing awful. Past that, it was a tiny bit more uphill, and then the final traverse to the crater.
The tears started as soon as I realized we were nearly at the crater. I turned back to the team and shouted the usual “whoop whoop!” We dropped our stuff, huddled in sleeping bags for a bit waiting for the sun to rise, and went over to the summit register as the sun finally crept above the crater rim. It was a brilliant sunrise reflecting off the cloud deck below us. We took up a whole page in the summit register book. I didn’t know what to do. We went to the far ridge closest to the sun and clouds to scatter his ashes. The wind was whipping which was perfect, for once.* It was beautiful in so many ways, ways I never thought I’d see beauty. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s raw and it’s terrible, but it’s beautiful. My coworker (long time climber) told me when I asked for advice that this would always be part of me, part of my climbing foundation. But he also said that over time it would become a beautiful part, and that’s what I’ve been clinging to as I try to continue climbing while reconciling everything ugly that happened.
We spent nearly two hours at the summit before finally heading down. Robert pointed out that thanks to the wind, John has now climbed most of the peaks north of Rainier. Despite a stupid bottleneck just below the crater rim (which is a lot more fun when you can bitch about it over the radios, sorry OSAT), we made it back to Paradise in decent time, including a one hour hut nap which was the highest quality sleep I’ve had in ages. I woke up a new person. We even jogged the last part of the trail to Paradise to fly past tourists and drop our stuff at Nat’s car where I promptly forgot to check out of our climb (yes, they called me Monday morning to make sure we were back).
The analogy that has helped me the most is comparing the grieving process to an ocean. It’s a rip tide on an early September hurricane weekend. You get pulled out, you’re drowning, you’re underwater and you can’t fight it you just need to swim with it and you’ll hopefully pop out. The waves are enormous in the beginning, and frequent, and you think there’s no way you’ll end up back on shore even if you’re out of the initial current. Over time the swells get smaller. It’s one every few hours, it’s one every few days. You’ll still randomly be overwhelmed and cry or panic, but those episodes are fewer and shorter with more time in between, and someday you’ll be standing on shore with the memories lapping at your feet.
But it’s also like a climb. In the beginning it’s insurmountable. You look up at it and think there’s no freaking way up that, through those crevasses, up those rock chutes, those ice gulleys. But there is, even if it’s long and winding with plenty of obstacles and shit to throw at you. And you’re on a rope team. You have someone to belay you if you panic or if the terrain gets too tough, someone to lead the way, someone to help manage the obstacles, someone to give words of encouragement. Your friends are belay stations. If you’re falling apart in the grocery store you just need to remember in 30 minutes you’ll be at a belay station with someone instead of struggling through a tough crux move. It feels like it will take forever, especially starting at sunset knowing you have every hour of darkness to work though. But the sun rises, and your team is still there with you, and eventually you start to get the feeling that hey, you might make it. There are ups and downs, and the hard parts seem like they’ll never end but they do. And everything still sucks and you’re still tired and maybe it’s still intimidating but it’s one step at a time and if you start struggling you know you’re surrounded by people willing to pick you up.
So here’s to John, and the awesome community that he brought together, and to my amazing family back home. I have no idea how I’d be getting through all of this without you guys. I’ve learned over the past few months that I have lifelines in the most unlikely places. My dad, flying all the way out here, or agreeing to help me pay for a last minute flight back home. Simon, upgrading my flight home to first class. Shawna, giving us her house and Wednesday night dinners and helping me get back into climbing in a healthy way. Robert, convincing me to stick with the EMT class. Kacie, cleaning my apartment (all I asked was for help with my room!) before a last minute inspection while I had a meltdown at SeaTac. Kristen, somehow making me laugh while I fell to pieces in a bar. Nat for running back across the crater to get sleeping bags when I didn’t even care how cold I was, I just wanted to mope. Tony for unknowingly telling me every step up Rainier that we could push through this. JT for the Ptarmigan Traverse and reminding me how much potential climbing has and why I chase it in the first place. The list goes on, and every tiny thing helps me take a slightly deeper breath. I used to think I had a few special friends, friends whose doorstep I could show up on out of nowhere, broken down and lost, and they’d take me in without hesitation and judgement. Now I know I have tons of those, across several states, and especially here in Washington.