Climbing Above Fear
Last weekend, in the last weekend in August, I summited Sahale Peak in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State. This was my 2nd climb on a mixed (snow/rock) route, my first time on a glacier and first time seeing crevasses up close and it was probably the most anxious and nervous than on any other climb I have done. I was nervous about this climb from the time that I signed up for it back in the spring, but especially on the days leading up to it, and almost the entire time of the climb itself.
It’s easy to look at amazing photos of smiling summit selfie shots and think that person felt confident, self-assured throughout the climb, and like they never had any doubts in their ability. In my case, at least, that was not the case on this climb.
I am not a natural or experienced mountaineer. I grew up with lots of snow, but the biggest hill near where I grew up in North Dakota was the overpass over the interstate highway. I could count the times I have skied on one hand. There were no mountains to climb when I was young but since college, I have loved hiking and began to rock climb. But when climbing on a rope, I can trick my mind into thinking if I fall, I will be fine. I really don’t have a fear of heights, but what I do have is a definite fear of falling, exposure, and loss of control. And let’s be real, you encounter all of those if you are going to climb a mountain.
Last summer, I did my first route on snow at Unicorn Peak in Mt. Rainer National Park after taking a climb school with my local hiking and climbing club. I only signed up a week and ½ before the climb so I don’t think I really had much time to be nervous and also, I had no idea really what to expect. Once at the snow, I strapped on my crampons and clipped the ice ax to my harness, ready for the challenge. Going up the gully of snow that day, I felt confident. I remembered the skills from climb school, the snow wasn’t too steep, the team stayed together and went slow, and we made it to the summit block, climbed a fixed line, rappelled, traversed over, and then got back to the steeper section of snow. This section went straight down and then we would rappel over a section and go down the rest of the gully. All I saw ahead of me was the big drop off into nothingness. The snow had melted and was thin, too thin for crampons and if you needed to self-arrest, the ice ax likely would not have stuck into much. But the rest of our team quickly plunge stepped their way down without worry. I stood there, frozen, with a pit of fear in my stomach. I felt terrified to step or slip and felt frustrated that there, of course, was nothing I could do but go down. The leader of that climb tried to coach me about plunge stepping and assured me if I kept the pace quicker it would be easier. Eventually, I made my way down, we rappelled, and then I had to face my fear of losing control on the glissade down. I went about 3 times as slow as the rest of the group, sticking my feet into the ground and digging in my ice ax. Once the steeper section was over, I finally had looked up at the mountains in front of me, Mt. Rainier, and smiled and thought how cool it was.
So, when this climb was posted earlier in the spring for Sahale Peak and my friend, who had also signed up, encouraged me to go, I went ahead and asked the leader if I could join. The leader is someone I have climbed with before and I definitely trusted him and also knew that if he thought someone wasn’t capable of doing a climb, that he wouldn’t have them on his team. He emailed back right away and said he had been planning on asking me if I wanted to try this climb, since it would be a good intro to the North Cascades and alpine climbing. I felt nervous, but it was months away and both my friend and the leader’s wife were signed up and I figured we were all in a similar level of fitness and confidence in mountaineering skills. The months passed and I probably did more climbing and hiking with elevation than I have ever done. The physical part of the climb, though I knew it would be a challenge with 5,100 ft. of elevation and a round trip mileage of just over 14 miles, was doable. The mental fear and anxiety though was the much bigger challenge.
As the trip got closer, both of female friends who had signed up, dropped off due to injuries. Left on the climb was the trip leader, two assistants, the assistant’s husband who had climbed for probably over 20 years, and two males who, although still fairly new to the climbing club, had climbed big peaks and felt completely comfortable on the snow and rock. I was definitely the only one in the group with big hesitations. I thought a lot about bailing also, but I knew from the jaw-dropping photos I had seen from trip reports, online groups and even my Backpacker magazine, that this hike would be absolutely worth taking. I consoled myself with the thought that, since we would be camping at the spot before the last summit push, that if I truly got up there and felt I couldn’t do it, I had an easy out. It wouldn’t mean that anyone else would give up their summit, and I would still see the area. I told myself this as I checked out my ice ax and crampons the day we were set to leave.
The trip itinerary had also changed. It went from being a three day trip (hike in, camp, next day summit, hike to a lower camp for another night, then hike out) to being a 2 ½ day trip (drive up to stay in a hotel north of Seattle Wednesday night, hike in Thursday, set up camp, either summit that day or the next depending on weather, camp, then hike out and drive home. There was little time to relax, reflect, or take in the views, unlike my other recent casual paced adventures. Of course, we all would stop, take breaks, photographs, and stand in amazement at the beauty around us, but we were there for a mission. To summit.
Thursday morning we got to the Marblemount Ranger Station to pick up our backcountry camping permits when they opened at 7 a.m. Our trip leader had reserved them in spring, so we had them already, but it took about a half hour to get through the 9 groups that were in front of us. From there, it was about another hour drive (23 miles of gravel) to get to the trailhead. The valley was shrouded in fog and there were no views to be had. We loaded up our packs and started up 35 switchbacks through the forest of tall pines. Once we got to Cascade Pass where there is a nice overlook with benches, we could only see fog and clouds. The trail splits here and we headed up towards Sahale Arm with the clouds and fog lifting a bit to allow some sunshine and views. It truly was amazing. We could see Doubtful Lake below and had glimpses of Sahale Mountain at times in front of us.
We went up the winding trail until it got steeper to become mostly scree and boulders. I was exhausted from my heavy pack and the 6 miles and by the time we got to the top where the glacier camp is, I felt a huge sigh of relief, since I really needed a break. The sky was clearer but there were 20 mph winds to combat with and it was chilly once we stopped moving.
My first thought when I looked up at the towering peak in front of me and the wide glacier field, was “No way, I am not doing that.” We scouted the rock bivy sites for the ones that would offer us the most wind protection and setup our tents. I shared with one of the assistants and we staked our tent extra well with large rocks. We had 360 degree views of the cascades when we stood in our campsite and fresh glacier water a few hundred feet away. It was unlike anywhere I had ever camped. There was one solo guy who was starting up the glacier with tennis shoes and an ice ax, and another team of three with crampons, ice axes, who had roped up to start the traverse over with the deep blue crevasses below them. It was nearly 3:00 by the time we had setup camp and our leader contemplated the decision of whether we should push for a summit that afternoon, or gamble on better weather on Friday. It was supposed to be nice weather Friday, but there were no guarantees. Either way, I knew I just needed to rest a bit. I took off my stiff hiking boots and lay down in the tent for about 20 minutes, resting my back and aching knees, and drank more water. From my open tent door, I could watch the group of three going up the mountain. It didn’t seem that bad since it was not that steep and more of a traverse. But it still looked scary. In a moment of reflection, I told myself that I needed to stop being so afraid, and do it or I would be filled with regret. I had the skills and the support of an experienced team. I knew that if the leader said we were going, I wouldn’t hesitate unless the weather got truly worse.
Our leader made the decision to wait for clearer skies and less wind on Friday, so we settled in for the night. We made our dinner crouched behind the bivy rock walls to try to stay out of the biting wind. I put on every layer of fleece and jackets I had brought, and went to my tent by 6 p.m. to stay out of the wind. I fell asleep by 8 p.m. since I had only slept 5 hours the night before and was exhausted from the day. The wind stopped in the middle of the night and after some decent sleep, I woke to clear skies, the sunrise over the Cascades, and a goat, who was happily finding some salt over by the camp of our other team members. It was summit day.
I rallied my courage, got my bag ready, and ate some breakfast before the group assembled at the base of the route to put on our crampons around 7:30 a.m. The group started up quickly towards the steep section without hesitation while I slowed down, trying to make sure all the points on my crampons were solid on the hard snow. It had been 30 degrees overnight and the snow was hard, and the worn boot path from yesterday’s climbers was icy in spots. I felt a bit overwhelmed, but one of the assistants hung out with me and made sure to coach me through until we were on the less steep boot path.
I didn’t look around or behind me, only at my feet and ice ax to make sure they were solid. I didn’t want to think about the crevasses below me. We got to a level spot for a break as a group and I felt calmer. For most people, this was a pretty benign glacier, a short snow section, and great snow conditions, but for me, each step back on the snow with crampons was a victory.
We crossed the next section and landed at the base of the rock section before the summit. Usually the rock sections of a climb are my favorite and the easiest, but this was a lot longer and bigger than the other climbs I had done in the past. Looking up, I knew this would not be easy either.
We took off our crampons and started the scramble over boulders, up some scree, over a short traverse in a “no fall zone” with nothing below us but a steep drop to a rocky gully. We climbed up Class 3 rock with a few Class 4 moves.
It was easy climbing, but enough exposure and loose rocks to make me be on high alert. Once we got to the base of the last section where it was a Class 4 climb, only once I clipped in my personal protection to the anchor on the rock, did I start to feel calm. Our leader contemplated whether or not a fixed line was needed and I said, “Yes, I would love a fixed line.” He laughed and said, “I figured you would say that.” I was the 3rd to summit and this was the easiest part of the day, with my prusik attached to the fixed line which made me feel protected and at the summit, I felt truly happy and proud when I looked out at what was behind me.
Even though I was still nervous about the descent, I had made it up to the top. The views were incredible, mountains upon mountains and once the entire group was up, we had a chance just to relax, as our leader pointed out the prominent mountain peaks that he had climbed in the past or ones that he wanted to do in the future. Then… it was time for going back down.
Our leader rappelled first by tying together our two thin 30 MM ropes. They didn’t go down to the bottom, so after I did a somewhat sloppy rappel to a ledge, I unhappily and cautiously down climbed a lot of the steep stuff I had just climbed up.
I got down without incident and after a short snack, it was time to go down the snow section. It started out gradual and I felt pretty good about the descent. The snow had melted a bit in the sun and the crampons and ice ax went in further. The two assistants hung back with me as the rest of the group went down quickly, as I was still more cautious. I felt a bit silly for being a bit too slow, but I knew that to feel comfortable, slow was what I was o.k. with. In the one steep section, I did some side steps and on the very last part, and then felt joyous in a section where, even if I did fall, I wouldn’t be in any danger as the crevasses were behind me. The assistant mentioned how earlier that day, our ice axes probably wouldn’t have worked if we had needed to self-arrest in the hard snow, but said she hadn’t wanted to tell me that to scare me. I laughed and said I was really glad she hadn’t. Sometimes being a bit naive can be a good way to cope with fear. We had arrived back down a bit before noon.
The true celebration for me was when I had my crampons off and was once again on the rock at camp. I felt proud of myself, a bit embarrassed for being so slow, but mostly just felt amazing. This is what keeps me going back for summits. I love the feeling of accomplishment with a team, the incredible rare views of our beautiful world, the feeling of growing confidence and the feeling that every muscle in my body has been awakened and tested. I feel more alive in those moments than I do in any other situation.
We took down our tents and packed up for the long additional 6 miles out, all downhill. We were treated to all the epic views we had missed out on while we had gone up just 24 hours previously. We met a lot of day-hikers who were out enjoying a bluebird sky day and I took lots of photos to try to remember the beauty of the area.
The hike out, especially after Cascade Pass, with the switchbacks seemed to take three times as long as the previous miles, as my knees hurt, and my toes in my stiff boots ached.
I was incredibly relieved when we arrived at the cars around 5:00 p.m. It would be another 8 hours before I would be back at home, but putting on clean clothes and flip flops, made the long journey back bearable. There really wasn’t time on the way back for a great post-summit dinner, but we just stopped for giant take out burritos and managed to avoid Seattle and Portland traffic.
As with all trips and climbs, there are always things to learn. On this trip, I think I really learned that I could push myself to examine and climb past my fear and what I thought I was capable of.
I got more comfortable with exposure and with using crampons in different snow conditions. This trip was also a test, did I even like this stuff? There were moments I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing on my vacation, climbing on steep rock and snow where I could fall and die?” When I had nervously checked out my ice ax two days prior, I told myself that if I didn’t like it, this could be the last time I had to do it. I wouldn’t have to push myself again.
But, there really is something about Type 2 fun. I’m not sure I had fun at the time we were climbing, but looking back, I remember the joy of the summit, the feeling of accomplishment, and the awe of the mountain peaks and glaciers all around me.
I’m pretty sure I will never be going up the really steep icy mountains, but I’m also pretty sure this won’t be my last time with an ice ax. There’s just something about the mountains that keep calling me back to find out more. More about myself, the world, and our tiny little place in it.