There will be three parts to this post, feel free to jump around as you see fit. Parts one and two are in response to the questions I have been asked the most since Stephen died: “what exactly was your relationship,” and some version of “why the hell did you climb Dewey?” So I’ll take on those two questions here once and for all, and then the third part will be some of the good that has happened since the incident. I wouldn’t have been able to write any of this without being inspired by Renee’s beautiful post about her experience. Thanks to her courage, I’m ready to share mine.
Part I: “Mountain Wife”
I met Stephen in the Wilderness Skills class, a prerequisite to Basic Climbing with the Olympia Mountaineers. When he was introduced to me, I couldn’t tell if I felt a strong connection to him or if his overabundance of enthusiasm and cheer at that early morning hour was breaking my brain. In either case, I thought he was a little weird and was happy to carry on my own way. A passing comment about going hiking together (him, me, and the woman who introduced us, Janine) stuck in my head, but I wasn’t sure about following up with it.
Fast forward to the start of Basic Climbing. During one class, we were told about the “Conditioner Hiking Challenge” where students were encouraged to do a conditioner hike with a Mountaineers group (with certain distance, elevation gain, and pack weight requirements), then go do an unofficial one with some classmates, and then do a third “for time” with the Mountaineers. I was worried about my fitness for the class and saw this as a great motivator to get out there, so I tracked down Janine and Stephen and asked if they wanted to join forces for the “unofficial” conditioner hike… which resulted in Stephen and I proudly placing our markers on the challenge board as the first to complete the challenge. Kinda proud of that!
By that point, we knew each other’s pace and enjoyed hiking together, so we decided to do more and to partner up in class whenever we could. He was a huge advocate for socializing outside of class and helped me plan several of the social outings that many of us started going on. At some point Stephen became my go-to when I wanted to get outside to play, and Stephen informed me that his girlfriend, Joy, had named me his “Mountain Wife,” a title I laughed over and embraced.
Stephen quickly became one of my best friends. When one of our classmates asked me if the two of us were dating, I realized how close we had gotten and began to feel uncomfortable navigating such a deep friendship that could be misunderstood from the outside. The result was Stephen and I finding our way through the topics of relationships, attraction, boundaries, and friendship. Well, I found my way… that jerk already had it all figured out. Up until then, my world was pretty black and white: you loved family, you were in love with your romantic partner, but the love you had for friends was way different. So how could it make any sense that I felt like I was in love with Stephen but purely as a friend? It didn’t make sense to me. Stephen enjoyed the hell out of teasing me as I worked my brain around a concept that he was already familiar with. I’ve never met someone who can love so much and so truly as Stephen.
My favorite story from this time was when we were camping up on Mt. Baker for Crevasse Rescue training. Stephen and I were tent-sharing for the first time and I was sooooo nervous. What if I say something dumb? What will people think? Won’t Joy be mad? Do we sleep head to toe? But of course, rather than speaking any of this aloud like a sane person, I crawled into my sleeping bag a half hour before he got into the tent and proceeded to press my face into the wall of the tent in an effort to put the “right” amount of space between us. Stephen got into his sleeping bag and said goodnight and clearly was watching my struggles and laughing, because without warning he rolled towards me, wrapped his arms around me and gave my neck a quick kiss and said “goodnight sweetie.” I froze, and he started laughing and playfully punched me and told me to stop being such a dork. After that, I didn’t care what people thought and enjoyed playing up the “mountain wife” title because I was finally learning what Stephen already knew: you can fall in love with anyone and build the best relationship from it without ever wanting to date, possess, or be sexual with them. You can fall in love in friendship and it is such a gift. Perhaps many of you reading this already knew this, but it was a huge area of learning for me to say the least.
I remember telling Stephen that from the way he talked about her, I felt like I loved Joy as well even though I had never met her. As usual, he called me a dork and said I would meet her. It took until a wonderful rafting trip on the Wenatchee for me to meet Stephen’s beautiful soulmate. I was so nervous and overthinking everything (again) that when we all went to a brewery after getting off the river, I timed my trip to the bathroom to be when she was there so I could awkwardly word-vomit to her in the hallway how I was worried about what she thought of me and that I never wanted to harm her and Stephen’s relationship because it wasn’t like that… and beautiful, amazing Joy… she looked at me like I was a crazy person because she knew how to love just like Stephen, and she understood all the things I was still trying to embed in my growing worldview.
From then on, I felt at ease and could say “I love you” to Stephen without thinking twice, and I longed to get to know Joy more because seeing the two of them together and hearing how he talked about her gave me so much happiness. Having been through several failed relationships myself, it was healing to see these two soulmates in their ups and downs with an endless unconditional love that finally helped my own heart to heal after several years of calcification.
I knew my heart was truly healed from all the pain over the past years on the day I received the call that there had been a fall and Stephen was dead, because on that day my heart broke into a million pieces. Yet that same day, the pieces started finding their way back together, and more and more every day since. His legacy of love and the amazing friendship he gave me and that he left for me and Joy has been a blessing I never expected. In his life and in his death, he healed my deepest, darkest wounds and reintroduced me to the heart I had tried to cast aside several years ago and had tried to replace with certificates, volunteer hours, throwing myself into caring for others, and turning away from the people I truly cared about for those who wouldn’t hurt as much to lose. And I would have still been on this path if it weren’t for Stephen, my mountain husband, my best friend.
Part II: Dewey Peak
The day Stephen died, in fact mere hours after his fall, I was faced with a dual role I have never imagined being in. As the newly appointed Safety Officer for the Olympia Branch, the Mountaineers who found out about the fall did the right thing and notified me. As a chaplain, I have delivered many death notifications to next of kin. Yet nothing prepared me for receiving that phone call myself. For a brief moment I thought Stephen might still be alive–after all, John was performing CPR! But when I reached John and Renee, who had cell reception all the way up on Dewey, I knew for sure that Stephen was dead.
There is no manual for what to do when you are called to be an official yet the victims are your friends, and a group you were supposed to have been out climbing with except that you felt sick and bailed at the last minute. No training prepares you to receive notice that a loved one has died. And nothing in my training told me what I was supposed to do.
Yet I am who I am: a strong-willed, loving, protective warrior-healer who cannot wait on the sidelines. In the span of minutes, I was running towards the gunshots, as they say in the law enforcement world. I made a lot of decisions, burned through my battery making call after call, told people I had no authority over what to do, and somehow did everything I could think of to make sure everyone was taken care of that day. This is the part that many people know… all of my caring and actions in the days that followed. Now for the part that until now wasn’t widely shared, and will hopefully explain why I climbed Dewey Peak and how it has helped me to heal.
Within hours of learning that Stephen had died, I began having awful images in my mind of him falling. It was like my mind was trying to process what had happened and I kept seeing him fall to his death over and over, even though I hadn’t been there. Oh yes, secondary trauma is a real thing, my friends. Don’t ever disregard it for a moment. That night as I tried to sleep, the images solidified into a terrible repeated video in my brain where I watched him fall over and over until I had finally cried myself into exhaustion and could sleep. Every night this happened; the same video on repeat from the same perspective with the same outcome. It was awful. During the days, John and Renee and many Mountaineers and friends came together and talked. We tried to make sense of what had happened on Dewey, of why Stephen had fallen. There were so many questions, and we grasped at theories until a picture was painted of Stephen having a seizure and pulling on the rappel anchor wrong and thus falling to his death. Even when I decided that I wanted to accept this theory as fact and try to move forward, the nightmares continued. He died on Tuesday and I endured four solid nights of this, and I wondered how I could ever survive this.
Things changed that weekend… I connected with someone who seemed to understand this kind of trauma and I started opening up to the dark, awful thoughts I had been having, sharing my fears and guilt and disbelief with this person. As we talked, I found myself saying that I needed answers and that I just couldn’t accept the theories that were out there. Even though at the end of the conversation, I knew I might never have the answers I wanted, it felt like a relief to finally have said it all out loud. That night, the nightmares stopped. The memory of the mental video of Stephen falling was still there from time to time, but it wasn’t as strong and I felt like I was going to be able to heal.
Over the next few days, a lot happened that I will not share here out of respect for the many, many people involved. The short version is that there was a lot of information and conjecture colliding all over, a team from a local rescue organization was organized to go up to Dewey to research what had happened, and the investigating rangers gave it a green light provided they were there. I asked to go so I could find closure, then I balked and said I shouldn’t because I was too close and people would freak out, and then I agreed to go so that I could aid the research team with the extensive amount of information I had come to possess about the incident, as well as hopefully find a way to say goodbye and reach some closure. Several factors resulted in this climb being about a week and a half after the incident, which was incredibly fast in many regards, but the timing and the team made it happen and so we went.
I do not wish to share here what was seen or done or learned specifically from that climb. A report exists and is available to those who wish to take whatever they can in terms of promoting safety in the mountaineering world. Go find it for yourself, or talk to me one-on-one, but only if you want answers and knowledge. Those seeking drama, vengeance, or blame are not welcome.
What I do wish to share is how beautiful the climb was. Dewey is not a mountain I would have sought out to climb, but I fell in love with her beauty and felt like she was an old, tired mountain as soon as I saw her. Dewey is not a killer, and I felt peace in going to see her for myself. I am grateful to have been part of the team that went up there; to be able to help, to advocate for the victims of the incident (both the living and the dead), to talk with the rangers, to see what Stephen saw in his last moments on this earth (absolute beauty, for the record)… it was exactly what I needed. The team allowed me time to myself to kneel in the last place Stephen would have stood and say goodbye. I told him I loved him and would miss him and allowed myself to cry, and then vowed that I would make it home alive from that mountain and show, mostly myself, that it could be done.
I experienced one of the most powerful spiritual moments of my life that day, one that I have been hesitant to share with too many but now realize it is for me to share and others to accept or reject as they see fit. I know my truth, and that is what matters.
As our team finished rappelling and was putting away gear for the hike down, I set off ahead of them to look at the place where Stephen fell one last time. I had been warned that there might be dried blood in the area but on the way up I hadn’t seen any. As I carefully maneuvered my way across the rocky hillside, I stopped and looked up over and over, trying to see where he had fallen to make sense of the whole story for myself once and for all. After a few feet, I began to notice that the view above me was eerily similar to the view I had in my nightmares of Stephen falling. The rocks looked similar, the sky looked similar; it was like walking into deja vu. I took a few steps and looked up, stepped some more and looked up, and then suddenly I was there. I stared up in awe at the exact line of rock and sky that I had seen in my mind over and over again. I had never seen a picture of this spot or from this angle and had no possible frame of reference for it outside of what I had seen in my own mind. I stood there and looked up at the empty rock wall and recognized all of it. Then my eyes moved down the rock to the top of the scree and I saw the path in the dirt where something heavy had slid, and my eyes came to rest on the tree and the rocks directly in front of me. Without details, I will tell you that it was very obvious that I was standing mere inches below where Stephen’s body had come to rest, and where John and Renee had climbed to him to try and help him even though it would have already been too late. One of the team members caught up with me as I stood there and took in the scene, and I started to move on, embarrassed to be standing there. Then I stopped and turned around and told this amazing man, who I had only just met that day, that it didn’t seem right to just leave. He told me to stay where I was when I said I wanted to come back and cover the area, and instead he remained in that precarious spot and used the rocks and earth to bury the signs of what had happened there. It felt right, like being able to do one last thing for Stephen. I am beyond grateful for all of the people who were up there that day. They talked with me, cried with me, and I knew that nothing in this world could prevent them from keeping me as safe as possible, even as we all willingly engaged in an activity with known risk and painful reminders of what can go wrong. I hope that in time they can all be recognized for how much they did that day, not just for me and those impacted by Stephen’s death, but for the mountains and the climbing community overall. I believe what we learned will help us to be safer, whether on Dewey or on other peaks.
Part III: Living
After Dewey, my healing began. I’ve made some mistakes in the process but I have taken to heart the realization that life is fragile and we cannot take a day for granted. Those I wronged, argued with, and/or injured in the following weeks I made sure to talk to and forgive/ask for forgiveness. I confused the hell out of many people by saying “I love you” to them every time we talked. I finally found the courage to stand up for myself and give myself downtime, something I have been horrible about! As my heart has healed and been overwhelmed by how much love there has been in the aftermath of such a tragedy, I have finally opened up to myself and to others again. What implications these days and weeks will have on my personal, professional, and mountaineering life is yet to be seen, but it all feels like it is going in the right direction for the first time in years.
My greatest gift in all of this is that in losing someone I love, I have had my eyes opened to how much love there is around me. I have had remarkable friends step forward in all of this, some to send me messages and remind me that they are still here, and others who have delivered food and household items and even put their lives on hold to stay with me 24/7 until the shock was passed and the nightmares had stopped. The Mountaineers have come together in a powerful, beautiful way and the community is coming out even stronger. And I have been given the gift of an amazing friend in Joy, Stephen’s soul-wife who has embraced me as his mountain-wife and allowed me to be there for her as much as I know Stephen would have asked me to. I’m a little suspicious that he’s behind the whole thing, in fact, because at so many moments it has crossed my mind that having only known him eight months, I do not deserve to have received so much love in his absence. Joy and Renee are in my life to stay, and I love how much we are inspiring each other to not only keep on living, but to truly live the way that Stephen showed us.
Never take a day for granted; never leave the words unspoken. Drink in every moment of this beautiful life that we live.
I love you Stephen. Always. Climb on.