Third Time Divine: Koma Kulshan

With a vivid blue sky overhead and a solid strong earth beneath my boots, I moved easily, my senses swam in rhythmic monotony as I picked my way gradually to the crater rim of the volcano I found myself on for the third time in the past ten years. I felt so much misgiving toward myself in the weeks leading up to this climb, unsure if I could keep pace with the members of the team. And now I found myself breathing in the renewed magic of the alpine wind, knowing I belonged here, again.

I find there’s a lively tedium to floating slowly on cramponed feet up a weaving maze of a massive glacier, a dance to moving swiftly amongst the maw of deep dark crevasses which snake their way across the frozen river. A giving back from the mountain that comes from the giving of the body and spirit to the place.

Ascending Mount Baker
Descending Mount Baker

The first time I laid eyes on the Easton glacier of Mount Baker was in 2010, on an abnormally bitter cold July day, storm clouds pulling the curtain back on the summit every few minutes. Our tent was staked on the backbone of an exposed ridge overlooking the toe of the glacier and I was I hunkered in our tent eating ramen between my then fiancé and my father. So much has changed since then. My heart knows what it is to break, my soul knows the true understanding of gratitude, and not only have my muscles grown stronger but so has my mental fortitude. I think of that young girl now, snuggled in tight by the men she loved most, not knowing how much the life ahead of her would change. Marriage, a traumatic birth, postpartum depression, leaving a career, moving, a death, hardship in said marriage, and a rebirth of finding herself again.

Our trio didn’t make the summit that trip. The weather moved in and the lactic acid in my legs built up faster than my 26 year old moderately untrained youth could stay ahead of it. We turned back, with no sense of disappointment, only a sense of joy for being in the alpine. It is these trips with my dad I cherish the most, where I can draw on the memory of the two of us sitting side by side eating snacks as he taught me the topography and contour of the land where we sat. It’s where he tossed me over backward again and again to learn to self arrest, to tie knots, to fall in love with the eminence of the great outdoors.

Mount Baker Glacier
Sherman Peak, a sub-peak of Mount Baker

Do you know what I mean when I say that memories can feel like ghosts? How a physical place can invoke visceral emotions? It’s how I felt when I finally made my way back to the sacred land of Koma Kulshan eight years later. As I carried my heavy pack in the heat of a sweltering late August day, wildfire smoke creating a thick haze over the peak ahead, I could feel nothing but him. I could see his long legs sauntering and skipping their way along the moraine, him joking and laughing as I tried to keep up.

By the end of the 2018 climbing season, the glacier was really broken up, thick with questionable snow bridges, riddled with crevasses, sections of ice to climb, miles added to what would typically be a straight forward shot to the summit. I had only recently started to re-acquire technical skills I had learned so many years prior, finding a deep innate knowledge I knew I had but didn’t have the confidence to draw out without my dad by my side. I’d never climbed without him. So when I decided on a whim two weeks prior that damnit I wanted to go back to Baker I was probably (definitely) unprepared, but it didn’t matter because it felt like something I HAD to do.

I was on a team of all men, which never bothers me much. We slept an hour or two and woke to leave base camp by 11:45 p.m., moving on the icy mass by the light of headlamp. It felt scary. Foreign. I didn’t trust myself and I barely trusted the people I was with. I wasn’t sure how to climb without the steadfast reassurance of my dad. I felt like a burden. I didn’t know how to manage my fears. I wanted to turn back, but fuck, I didn’t come all that way to turn around. I didn’t know what to do. This is the day I met Stephen, a calm and soft spoken guide with deep eyes full of substance. I didn’t know it then but in the following years I’d consider him a friend after we later successfully climbed Mount Shuksan and Forbidden Peak together. He encouraged me to keep going, flipping on a switch of curiosity in my heart that forced me to continue sauntering along in the dark, counting my steps and forcing the fear back down my throat as I hopped over massive gaps in the glacier, teetered carefully across skinny bridges, and willed myself upward to 10,781’.

All things considered, it was a miserable trip. The smoke made it harder to breathe, we were moving for over 15 hours round trip, I had nerve damage in my toes. The descent across one particular crevasse frightened me so badly I couldn’t stop the embarrassing tears from coming. But that trip gave me the courage to keep going and to continue finding my way. I moved through haunted terrain with my dad’s ghost, listening to his whispers in the cold alpine wind, knowing he would be proud.

If that trip in 2018 felt like pain and suffering and fear and scrapping it, then my climb in the late spring of 2019 on a team of mostly all women was the polar opposite. It was divine. It was everything. It was the early culmination of months and months of relentless training for a bigger goal. It was the squashing of doubt that I could in fact climb hard and and strong a mere 8 weeks post heart surgery. It was profound soul stuff, bliss tears, and pride in the notable gains I’d made in my confidence.

It was early June and I was with three mountain girlfriends and a guy named Matt. It was his 57th summit of Mount Baker, but as he so eloquently said, ‘you can’t step in the same river twice.’ Every experience is its own, as I was certainly learning each time I stepped foot here.

Camp On Mount Baker
Camp On Mount Baker

The night before summit day I was abuzz with energy, laying three wide in our very cozy tent while my friend read a meditation. Her calm voice floated across the tops of our down sleeping bags and into my heart. The next day I envisioned her words as they became roots twisting powerfully into the earth from the base of my spine, drawing energy from the living breathing mountain beneath me. In my front, I could feel a soft burning sphere glowing in my belly, the spirit of which of course felt like my dad. This climb didn’t feel like pain or bearing or pushing. It felt gentle and serene and clear. My body and mind worked in symphonic agreement, and something in me burst forth. I shed something old (insecurity) and grew something new. I felt like the most true version of who I am, full of confidence and rapture. This divine climb up Baker in the spring of 2019 electrified me. What a gift to find this kind of joy in my life, and I’m forever grateful to my dad for showing me the way.

And we moved up that frozen river like the powerful women we are. I cried twice, once for me and once for him. I knew exactly what I was doing and not once did I feel that pesky angst rise up and threaten to overthrow me. Mountaineering and endurance are interlaced so kinetically into the essence of who I am and this third-times-a-charm climb up Baker brought me full circle. The time spent sharing, laughing, working, moving, teaching, learning, breathing, and growing with these amazing women is an untouchable memory. I got so much bigger in all the best ways during those four days together on the mountain.

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.