92: My Everest

92: My Everest

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

My Everest

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

~Henry David Thoreau

It was October and I was at a bookstore to hear the author and mountain climber Heidi Howkins. She looked intense. “Mountaineering is a life-or-death situation,” she explained. “And I have to be ready for whatever challenge I may face. I take it seriously.” Heidi proceeded to read and comment from her newly released book entitled K2, One Woman’s Quest for the Summit.

Her obvious excitement built as she continued: “K2 is a deadly mountain. Only five women had made the summit and all died either on the way down or in subsequent climbing accidents. I wanted to summit that mountain!”

In her two prior attempts on K2, Howkins had seen climbers swept away by avalanches and had seen frozen bodies along the trail. And yet K2 kept calling her.

I had never been a particularly daring person. I had attempted many things in my life, but never felt I had mastered any of them: knitting, sewing, skiing, scrapbooking, rafting, running, foreign languages, sailing, water skiing and the litany goes on, without ever reaching perfection in any of them. I was about to turn sixty and become a grandmother, too.

I needed to prove something to myself. I raised my hand and asked, “How does one actually get started?” The author turned her full attention to my question and replied, “Love of mountains and the sense of accomplishment in achieving goals.” I thought to myself: Hey, I’m there, I have always loved mountains, read every book I could get my hands on about mountain adventures, flew over Mount Everest in Nepal, went to see the IMAX films on Everest and Eiger, not once but three times! I am there; I can do this… maybe.

After the book signing session was over, I was able to speak personally with Heidi. “Do you think a woman my age could ever achieve a personal goal of actually climbing a mountain?” I timidly asked, thinking she might laugh at such a preposterous question. She looked directly at me and said, “Follow your heart and achieve your goal. Climb your personal Everest, but do it with the most knowledge, planning, training and professional guidance that you can find!” She wrote inspirational words in my copy of her book, smiled and said, “You go for it, girl!” I left that evening filled with inspiration and determination.

I thought to myself, “I have my goal. Now I have to achieve it!” I even knew which mountain I wanted to climb. It was in my back yard and a source, for many years, of great family memories. I had skied, summer camped, snowshoed and photographed that mountain many times: It would have to be Mount Hood. Heading home from downtown Portland that evening my mind was reeling. I walked in the door to my house and abruptly announced, “I am going to climb Mount Hood!” My husband raised his eyebrows as he often did when I made one of my pronouncements, and said, “Really, now wash up, dinner is ready!”

I began my research right after dinner. A community college featured an adventure course in the spring. Starting in early May, a mountaineering course designed for first time climbers was being offered. It was perfect. All I had to do was get in the best physical condition I could achieve in the next six months. I was not a novice in physical conditioning as I had always had a gym membership and used it at least once a week. I felt reasonably certain I could intensify that routine and achieve greater cardio and endurance conditioning.

Months passed. When I wasn’t on a treadmill or pumping weights at the gym, I was running the hills around our neighborhood. By early May, I felt I was ready to learn the climbing techniques. I enrolled in the one-day “snow school,” which taught the intricacies of climbing as part of a rope team and using an ice axe for self-arrest. There were six of us in this class, and I was filled with anxiety as I realized I was old enough to be the mother of my classmates, who would become my climbing partners. What in the world had I been thinking?

Dave, the instructor, a middle-aged, rugged and gruff individual, began to speak. “In essence, I will be asking you to carry a fifteen-pound backpack with gear, wear a heavy pair of boots and walk on varied slope angles for six to eight hours, much of which will be during the night. In addition, we’re going to diminish the amount of available oxygen along the way.” Dave proceeded to say, “Not all of you will be physically able to summit. You need to be honest at all times so that you do not jeopardize the safety of the group. We will be roped together.” My heart sank, as I was certain that speech was directed at me.

Dave continued, “Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest summit at 11,240 feet, is a volcano. It is considered a technical climb with crevasses, ice and falling rocks. It is a mountain where weather can change without warning signs. 157 climbers have lost their lives on Mount Hood!” Why did he have to say that?

It was May 25th and it was time. We would start to climb at midnight. There was no visibility beyond the direct arc of our headlamps. By starting at midnight, we would be off the mountain before the sun melted the high walls of ice on the upper slopes. We roped into two teams of three and started to climb. We climbed and climbed, at first with no more effort than climbing stairs, but gradually getting more breathless as the altitude increased.

Dave kept repeating his mantra: “One foot in front of the other in a very slow pace.” He also kept asking me “Are you with us? Are you pacing yourself?” He must have been concerned about my abilities but it was starting to irritate me. All the faces around me displayed a mask of extreme fatigue and I knew mine was no exception, probably more obvious because of my age. It was almost dawn; we climbed at a pitch that seemed wildly steep, perhaps forty-five degrees. We negotiated around rocks, crevasses and large chunks of ice.

Resting briefly, we noticed a hot, sulfur odor escaping from a nearby fumarole; a reminder that Mount Hood is an active volcano! I no longer paid attention to the complaints of fellow climbers who were verbalizing their every discomfort. I was cold too, but my hunger had been replaced with raw nerves. I had to pull deep within myself to focus! The air was definitely thinner and it was harder and harder to take deep breaths. No longer did our team chat endlessly. There was an eerie silence. Only our crampons could be heard crunching on the frozen ground. Would this ever end? I told myself to keep moving and squelched my doubts.

I pictured the mountain, where we might be on its flanks and how close we were to the summit. Someone yelled, “We’re at the Pearly Gates” — a narrow icy and extremely dangerous gully. A small slit of sun was breaking though the darkness of the night. We continued to climb, and then we suddenly stopped climbing. There were no more places to climb! We were there!

I stepped onto the peak’s windblown summit, more than two miles above sea level! Lights from faraway places twinkled magically. Incredible! Exhilarating! I had done it! The view was magnificent!

A sudden strong gust of cold wind served as an abrupt reality check. And then, I thought to my very weary self, “I have to get down from here!”

~Shirley Deck

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