The Tree Planter

When I saw the #naturewritingchallenge prompt for the unsung hero of parks/wilderness/public lands, I wasn’t sure what to write. I know some of the big names–Roosevelt, Muir, Thoreau. The usual list of affluent white men who dominate our society and history. I had a hard time thinking of someone “unknown” who has made an impact.

So instead of trying to come up with an impressive biography, I thought about who has had the most impact on me. Who has been a role model and someone who has made a difference in my life by their example? In an instant, I knew a woman who has made an indelible mark on my memory. I picked up the phone, called my mom and asked if she still had “the picture of your friend planting trees” on the wall. Moments later, my mom sent me a text with the following image:


Her name is Loraine (although I kept calling her Irene in my head). I don’t know where this photo was taken or much about the backstory. All I know is that she was my mom’s best friend growing up and her picture has been on the wall in my parents’ house since I can remember.

I grew up staring at this image and never realized how much it impacted me. I remember different thoughts about it over the years. Once I thought about how neat it would be to have a career like that where you went out into the wilderness and took care of the land. Another time I wondered how many trees she planted and if it made a difference. When I began “adulting” I sometimes wondered how anyone can do such amazing work and still pay their bills.

As I grew older and went out on my own adventures, it was natural for me to see clearcut patches in the forests and wonder if people like Loraine were going to be out there replanting. Or I would see harvested areas that had been replanted and I would wonder if the lumberjacks themselves had replanted or if people like Loraine came through and did it. Without even realizing it, I had come to link the ideas of conservation, sustainability, and stewardship with the image of a young woman dancing up the side of a mountain with a bag full of saplings.

I’m not sure where Loraine is these days. I met her when I was young and at the time she lived in Canada. I don’t know if she’s still there or if she’s currently involved with the outdoors. Part of me believes she is–maybe not leaping up hillsides these days, but still connected to public lands in some way. What this #naturewritingchallenge has made me realize, however, is that Loraine is an integral piece of my worldview. A young woman out in nature doing physically demanding work and acting in what was probably considered a counter-cultural manner at the time the photo was taken represents, for me, the image of outdoor stewardship. It is a picture of someone unknown taken by an unknown photographer in a place I may never have been to that is etched in my mind as the model of stewardship.

I want to honor the unknowns and the work they do to make a difference in our public lands: the anonymous hikers who quietly fill their pockets with litter as they explore the trails; the beachcombers who bring extra bags to pick up pieces of plastic from the shore; even the social media users who take pictures of themselves and others picking up garbage and share their posts to help raise awareness and inspire others to do the same.

Maybe they will never make it in the history books and perhaps people will never remember their names. But the human mind is wired to remember images better than words, and the more we see these unsung heroes making a difference, the more we will remember them.

Take it from me.

I couldn’t pick out John Muir in a lineup, and I have a vague awareness of the protections/acts President Roosevelt put into place. However, when I see clearcutting and areas in need of restoration, I immediately recall a young woman on a stump with a spade in one hand and a tree in another. She isn’t just a memory; she is a call to action. I sing her praise because of it.

Thank you, Loraine. You are an important figure in the preservation of public lands, even if I’m the only one who knows it.


Wilderness Chaplains

A lot has been happening! I am excited to share the news, updates and progress with everyone. This seems like the best way to do it until the official website goes live.


The Need:

Chaplaincy-skills and critical incident response are desperately needed in remote environments. Unfortunately, these are areas where such services are difficult to come by. It may be long, intensive hours and many days before wilderness first-responders can access resources for themselves, their team, and the people they respond to.
More people are getting outdoors and placing growing demands on rescue organizations. These organizations are largely non-profit and volunteer based and their members are being exposed to more stress and trauma than ever before. 

There is a growing movement to bring chaplains to these organizations, develop peer-support programs, and increase critical incident stress training. However, the resources are few and far between, and there is no established standard for how to best serve the wilderness community in this way.

Wilderness Chaplains is the response to this need.


Educating the outdoor community in compassionate crisis response and supporting wilderness first-responders.


Wilderness Chaplains is a non-profit organization by and for first-responders. Our focus is in compassionate critical incident response in wilderness and remote environments. Our services are available to all, regardless of religion, faith, or spiritual preferences.

Focus Areas:

  • Support (services we provide directly as chaplains)
  • Education (training, workshops, presentations, enduring materials)
  • Outreach (assisting agencies/organizations with their specific needs)
  • Membership (develop and certify wilderness chaplains, provide continuing education, foster networking/connections)


Non-Profit Status

Wilderness Chaplains is a sponsored program of an existing 501(c)3 (Angels for Angels). Our goal is to achieve independent non-profit status within five years.
Fiscal sponsorship allows for a faster start-up process. The sponsoring organization takes on responsibility to funders and the IRS to ensure that money is spent as intended and charitable goals are met. Angels for Angels has an established presence in the non-profit world. They provide education and services to support startup non-profits such as Wilderness Chaplains. It is an honor to have their support!

Call to Action

Achieving sponsorship was the biggest hurdle to date. Now, it is time to get to work!
This includes building the organization (brand, logo, licensing, website, etc), forming the non-profit (governing board, articles of incorporation, bylaws), and designing the actual trainings/materials (to understand the scope of this, 1 hour of instructor led training requires approximately 44 hours of design!)
Emergencies don’t wait and the need is NOW. Our goal is to begin meeting these needs with effective, evidence-based services as quickly as possible. 

How you can help:

Financial Support

We need donations to get started! Our sponsor wants to promote self-sustaining program and requires us to show at least $3,000 in revenue per year. These funds will be used to develop the program and run the organization. Ideally, future revenue will come from grants, trainings/presentations, fundraising campaigns, etc. Right now, our only source is through generous donations from our friends and supporters.
Please donate via PayPal today, every dollar helps!


Do you have an area of expertise? Are you willing to donate time/skills in support of Wilderness Chaplains? Please contact Katja Hurt at to talk about how you can help support our cause.


Please support Wilderness Chaplains! Help us make a world of difference!

Donate Here via PayPal


Eulogy for Stephen

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.

Black Diamond: There for the Journey

I’ve had the privilege of providing gear reviews to IReviewGear over the last year. Since I already have such an active outdoor life, I feel great about the fact that anything I get sent by my Editor is received on the condition that I wait until I can use it for real. He has been fully supportive of me waiting until the right opportunity to try something out and letting me fill in the space between by reviewing the things I already have.

These days, when I get asked for recommendations, I try to send people to the website. After all, I put my thoughts in writing there, so why repeat them when a link is so much faster?

When that isn’t enough, I’ll try and find out more about their needs. Often I will direct the inquirers to go to an outdoor-oriented store to try things on for size/fit. In these cases, some brand names might pop up, but usually in relation to specific products:
“Running shoes? Well, I’ve been using Asics, but it’s a matter of preference.”
“Gloves? Well, lately I’ve been using Outdoor Research, but there’s plenty to try on and find the right one for you.”
However, there are three brands I have come to highly recommend based on their reputation and my preference for them. The first two, Osprey and Mountain Safety Research (MSR) I have done product reviews for and you can find those on the website to see what I like about them. However, one brand that I have come to use religiously but not put out reviews on (I really should get started on that…) is Black Diamond.

Now to clear up any disclosure concerns, this post is not being sponsored or pushed for by Black Diamond. In fact, I hope they are pleasantly surprised by the fact that I rely on their gear so much that I am driven to rave about them. When my Lead Editor asked me what I thought about various brands and Black Diamond came up, I about burned a hole in my phone at the rate I texted responses. That’s when I realized I had a story to tell…

Black Diamond has a special place in my heart because it’s the name I associate with my blossoming passion for mountaineering. Sure, growing up as a downhill skier, I recognized the name among the sea of others like K2 and Rossignol. It wasn’t until I began transitioning from a hiker into a mountaineer that I realized how much my own story relied on that familiar logo:

Image result for black diamond logo

Scrolling back through photos, I recognize the diamonds everywhere. It’s on the headlamp from my first time leading a friend through Ape Cave near Mt. St. Helens. I recognize it on the purple shell that went everywhere with me as I started exploring the mountains in winter, first as a cautious hiker and then as a confident snow scrambler. The culmination is in one joy-filled photo taken on my first winter-route summit, Foss Peak, located in the Tatoosh Range of Mount Rainier National Park. The ice-axe and shell frame my huge grin as my legs and feet (outside the frame) are warm and dry, protected by none-other than a pair of Black Diamond Gore-Tex Gaiters.

It felt amazing to have transitioned from hiker to scrambler in 2017, care of the Mountaineers’ Scrambling Course out of Olympia, WA. I was tempted to stop there and enjoy the many scramble worthy peaks in my Pacific Northwest home–I would never run out of places to go now that this new approach was opened to me!

Then came the fall, and more of my scrambling friends began talking about taking the Mountaineers’ Basic Climbing course over the winter. I was hesitant–relying on ropes was way outside of my comfort zone. Seeing all of the photos of amazing climbers dangling off overhangs in the desert every time a gear advertisement popped up was intimidating. “I could never do that,” I told myself. “No way could I be that [strong]/[skilled]/[balanced]/[insert any other standard you like].” The closest I came to the climbing side of Black Diamond was a climbing harness buried somewhere in my closet; a gift from my mother when I took a gym-climbing elective in college over eight years ago.

Well, it turns out that my friends are pretty persuasive. I signed up for the Basic Climbing Class in Olympia for 2018 with some misgivings, but once the money was paid I knew I was committed.
At the first classes I was adamant that I would learn the bare minimum about rock climbing but I was really only there for the glacier parts of the course. I got a lot of knowing smiles from the instructors and leaders–they had heard the speech before and knew I would change my mind soon enough.

The first “field trip” was amazing. We took over a local school gymnasium and went to work! Out came that barely used climbing harness and on went the learning. Rope coiling, belaying, using texas prussik to escape a crevasse… so much to learn to prepare me for my career in glacier climbing! The prospect of rock was still not thrilling, so I smiled and nodded through the rock-oriented stations but only felt truly invested when it was a glacier skill.

Fast forward through the snow and glacier parts of class… they were cold and a lot of fun, hard work and I checked the boxes as I went.

Then spring arrived, and with it came the rock climbing focus. I gasped my way up the climbing-gym walls feeling like an idiot on display, yet when I came down, I was complimented. Then I stumbled through our first skill stations day which involved a lot of climbing and belaying and was told I was a natural. Excuse me?! I was out of my comfort zone and freaked out at the prospect of putting complete trust in the system and the gear that held me. A natural? No, “natural” would be staying in control of my fate and not relying on nylon and metal to survive as far as I was concerned. Yet I had come this far and I was determined to pass the class, so I gritted my teeth and pushed through the stations. I admit, I had a lot of fun, albeit peppered with a good deal of anxiety. Maybe I could do this…

Then it was time for the rappel station.

I couldn’t imagine any of those models in outdoor-magazine-gear-ads feeling anything near my level of concern with rappelling. I had three instructors checking my harness and gear, I was on a backup belay, yet I was still uneasy as I approached the edge and checked my carabiners for what felt like the dozenth time. I realized that I had done everything I was taught to do and now it was time for faith. I steadied my breathing, took the final step, and sat back over nothing. My body weight shifted into the harness in a way I had never felt before and I felt the opposite pulls of gravity and the rappel system holding me in place. Then I began inching down and made my way slowly towards the ground. I was elated–it worked!

I came back up for my second rappel with a little less trepidation and now some curiosity. “How can I make it smoother this time?” was the surprising direction my thoughts took. I entered the system, felt my stomach clench as I approached the ledge but this time I knew what was coming and welcomed the steady hug of the harness.

“Huh, I think I got this!”

As luck would have it, I was the final student going through the rappel station for the day. As I prepared for the final rappel (which required a fully loaded backpack in place to complete skill), I noticed that my classmates were funneling outside. “Oh great, an audience…” Only this time, the negative self-talk stopped there. They were all beginners like me and had already been through this, so why worry? I checked over my gear and showed the instructors my system and was cleared to go. I stepped back into the rappel and began to descend.

“Let go with both hands now,” one of my instructors ordered when I was a few feet down. “Feel that it works–feel that its got you!”

I had a moment of clarity then. Although I can’t remember the exact thoughts, I know that the end result was an understanding that all of those professional-level climbers I was intimidated by had something in common. They understood the purpose of every piece of gear they touched and they entered into a relationship with the rocks through the bond of their system, whether that was a minimal amount of chalk on a well conditioned hand, or a loaded rack, harness, and series of bolts that guided the rope along its journey. They felt trust, both in themselves and in all the pieces that had to work together. And finally, at that moment, I felt it too.

So I not only let go with both hands… I let go with both hands and leaned backwards and gave myself fully to the pulls of gravity and the system. It felt amazing!

Climbing has only gotten better from there.

I am still a beginner in the process of trying to complete the requirements of the basic course. There is still a lot to learn, and a deeper understanding of the way my gear and the systems we build with it and around it interact. Yet on this journey, I have come to realize two things. The first is that I have to trust myself–to go through the correct steps, to double check my work, to ask for guidance if I need it and to forgive myself if I feel stuck. That trust is a work in progress.

The second thing I realized is that I have to trust my gear. Not a blind trust; part of climbing is knowing how to properly treat and respect all the tools and equipment that comes with it. I have to trust that my gear will tell me when something is wrong, through wear and marks to changes in feeling and movement. But also trust that there are people out there who dream, design, and create gear not only for the climbing legends, but for people like me who are just starting out the journey and have yet to learn all that they are capable of.

And you know what? Every time I look at the gear I have, and every time I experience the rush of picking out a new piece online or at the store, I’ve finally noticed that those beautiful black diamonds are always there. They’ve been with me since I learned to ski and as I found the joys of nature through hiking. Now they are everywhere, holding me close when I go beyond what I believe I am capable of and having my back when I stumble. I never knew that a brand could be so closely tied to my own story, until now.

Colonel Bob Turn-Around

I’ve been working with Paul K. to become a hike leader. This means assisting him and then doing a mentored lead on several hikes.

A few months ago, Paul scheduled a conditioner hike up to Colonel Bob Peak. Plans changed due to conditions so we didn’t make it. This would be a second attempt that I would co-lead, and with a break in the weather, it seemed perfect.

Our group assembled in Olympia bright and early and carpooled out to Pete’s Creek Trailhead which would take us up to Colonel Bob.

The hike started out smoothly with lots of sunshine and camaraderie! We paused to let folks put on microspikes and then again for snowshoes as we rose in elevation, enjoying the early spring views as we went.

When we reached a clear, snow covered hillside, the obvious trail disappeared. As this was a hike and not a scramble, we were supposed to stay on trail. Comparing observations and looking at the GPS route, we finally set off towards the other side of the hill on what we believed to be the trail. I stayed in the back of the group to sweep.

I began noticing concerning features in the snow, all of them ringing bells from various avalanche trainings. Several of the hikers made passing remarks about signs they were seeing as well. Red flags began to appear in my mind. I hurried to catch up with the group where they were paused to discuss the trail. I looked at the slope they were standing beside and gasped. They were standing beside obvious avalanche runout, some snow chunks bigger than any of us. The hill above them had obviously slid several times.

“Can everybody move to the side, please?” It was more of a command than a question. As the group stepped over, I outlined my concerns and we had a quick discussion about our next move. Some opinions were that we were this far and could easily be in the tree-line shortly and continue on. Others were that if conditions were bad here, they would probably be bad further up. In the end, caution won out and we decided to turn around and haul a$$ off the hillside.

As soon as we were off the slope, I called for a break and talked to Paul about the situation. We then had a group debrief about what had happened on the hill, the decision making, and how everyone was feeling about the choice to turn around. Consensus was that there was disappointment in not achieving the summit, but also a lot of relief. There was also interest in how the group made the decision and how we were all able to contribute. Overall everyone seemed satisfied that we had made the right decision. After our snack/rest, we began the trek out.

As we neared the Trailhead, our decision was validated by the weather. It began to rain hard through the trees and we made good time getting out of the woods and back to our vehicles.

The day concluded with a detour to Aberdeen for burgers and beers. The drive back to Olympia was full of fun conversations and stories about other tough decisions and turn-arounds.

As we parted ways, Paul and I debriefed the hike and agreed that we had made the right call. We also agreed that we would return to try again–after all, the third time is the charm!

To follow our trail:

Colonel Bob’s Peak

Northwest Avalanche Center

Climbing Walltz

On Monday, my mentor for basic climbing, Carolyn D., met up with me at the climbing gym to practice sitting hip belay (more specifically, navigating the system of setting up and tying in gracefully successfully). After battling with the tangle of rope for a while, it was time to get back into climbing after a long hiatus from the climbing gym.

Gym climbing in college was fun and a great workout. Trying to get back into it last year wasn’t successful as after the first visit to a local gym, I suffered from a MRSA infection on my arm, and once that was healed and I went back, I ended up with horrible MRSA infections on my leg. I can’t say for sure that I contracted it at that climbing gym, but I have since decided to 1) climb elsewhere, 2) wear as many items of cover-clothing as reasonable at any gym, and 3) wash everything and shower vigorously (oh yes, there’s a difference) after each session.

And to clarify, Cirque (the gym this story takes place at) is not the same climbing gym that I went to before. Sadly, I doubt I’ll ever go back to that one. Once bitten, twice shy… twice bitten, %#$& that!

I’ll admit that after a long hiatus and being a little gun-shy from getting so sick last year, I was nervous at the prospect of climbing again. It has been my biggest point of concern/fear in basic climbing and something I hoped to skirt around with more focus given to glacier travel. But then Carolyn worked her magic and suddenly a mental block I’ve carried for who knows how long is lifted.

Things started off a little painfully. I fumbled through my belay test, my inner monologue a barrage of self-defeating rhetoric that made me regret ever agreeing to come to the gym. As we approached the first wall, Carolyn asked about my goals and thoughts and whatever else she was asking that I kept losing over my own negative self-talk. But then I got on the wall and I actually had fun!

“My arms are going to kill me,” I thought, and “I must look like an idiot,” crept through my mind. But Carolyn coached me along and before I knew it, I was at the top of the wall and being lowered down.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad…”

Then it was my turn to belay Carolyn. I was a little nervous that I would screw up again without her at my shoulder guiding me, but as soon as I said “on belay,” I was mentally clicked-in and focused. Everything flowed and I felt the familiar calm of the wilderness that I hadn’t expected to find at the gym that evening.

As I watched Carolyn climb, I noticed something I hadn’t before. Maybe because I am used to watching men climb, or maybe my own self-talk blinded me with anxiety, but watching Carolyn’s slow, fluid movements up the wall, I was pulled back to college but not to the gym. No, I was mentally back in a local dancehall dancing ballroom, practically floating as I waltzed around the dance floor.

I let out a quiet gasp as I watched her feet and arms waltz up the wall, and I had a moment of clarity. Any act of athleticism when gracefully performed is like a dance. I had seen it in skiing and figure skating, but had never looked for it on the mountains. And if my amazing mentor could do it, I realized, maybe I could too.

My turn came next, and Carolyn pointed me toward a 5.8 route. As I climbed, the voice inside started in with the negativity again, but this time I found myself taking a breath and whispering, “it’s just like dancing.” And suddenly I felt a connection to the wall that I’d never felt before, and I trusted my body to do what I asked of it as I turned my focus away from my fears and up to the hand and foot holds that took me to the top.

I climbed two 5.8s that evening, both with a rest on the rope to problem-solve, but both all the way to the top, even after hitting a point of knowing that letting go and “trying again later” would have been easier. And I felt elation, not negativity or frustration, at the end.

We celebrated with a quick run around the bouldering wall so I could send a picture of me climbing in leggings to a friend (a small business owner who has recently launched a super fun leggings-sales business from home). I was upbeat, excited, and more hopeful than I’ve ever been about climbing.

I know I have a long way to go in my climbing career, but you know what? When I started college, I had no inclination towards ballroom dance either. If I could leave college as a dancer, maybe I can leave 2018 as a climber.

I can’t wait to waltz the walls again soon.

To follow our trail…

Cirque Climbing Gym

Foxy Leggings Apparel

Scrambling Instructor

“Well, maybe I’ll help out with one class,” I thought way back when I saw Tom’s email recruiting former Scramble students to be instructors for this year’s class.

Famous last words.

It was great to be in the classroom with everyone and getting a refresher on the skills I learned last year, especially as these are mandatory for the basic climbing course I’m taking this year. The value was two-fold and each time I showed back up at a class, I realized how much I was learning as I imparted my knowledge. It has been a blast!

On their first snow Field Trip, I started out in as much of a background role as I could, then before long I was demonstrating ice axe arrests and coaching participants on skills I didn’t even know I remembered. It was a beautiful day, a ton of fun, and has already paid dividends in my own training and learning.

Heading up to Alta Vista for “class.”

Ice axe arrest training and practice.

A brief delay for a first aid event (don’t worry, it ended up being very superficial but needed lots of protection from the high impact activities).

Snow travel and photo ops, of course!

Using multiple methods to descend back to the parking lot…

And finally, a successful return to the parking lot!

It’s amazing how wonderful it feels to test yourself by helping to teach others, by giving back, and by being a part of such a wonderful community. I love being a member of the Olympia Mountaineers more and more every day! Can’t wait for Snow Field Trip #2!

To follow our trail…

Olympia Mountaineers

Alta Vista @ Mt. Rainier National Park