False Summits

False Summits

May 17, 2020 0 By sarahkyllo

I originally wrote a piece with a theme of false summits last summer after a particularly epic (for me anyway) climbing trip in the North Cascades as our team trip report. But, in the times of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote, and how it applies to so many more situations than I could have known at the time. And what follows is my attempts to piece together the two things, both being out in the world taking risks and feeling your most alive and also, being alone, in a world where days blend together and there’s nothing to plan for because everything is uncertain and nothing is known but you still want to feel like you might learn something from the experience.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about in these past few months of quarantine and social distancing, is that there are a lot of unsettled moments of my life that I spend with the “Fear of Missing Out” (fomo), driven even more by social media. If friends are out summiting peaks, or killing it on an epic lead climb, doing trail runs, seeing gorgeous mountain sunsets or taking an awesome road trip…and I’m not, like most people, I feel jealous. I’m happy for them, but let’s be honest, I’m mostly envious of their experiences while I spend a weekend at home, doing yard work and errands. Even if I will be doing that in a few weeks, I still feel like I have wasted an opportunity. And while that’s normal, I’ve also noticed now, a few months into this pandemic, a bit of relief right now. No one is out doing epic shit. We are all just watching too many videos, doing home workouts, and creating yard projects, and slowing down. And while I absolutely cannot wait until it’s o.k. to plan trips, and go climb with friends, and grab drinks on a patio, and backpack, and climb mountains, I’ve found myself wondering why I have felt such angst and longing every weekend that I wasn’t out doing those things in the last 5 ½ years of living in Oregon. Wondering why the thing that should make me so happy and fulfilled also has led me to a life of comparison and a feeling of competition to try to do more or as much as others each season. And feeling anxiety that there are just more and more summits to chase while trying so hard to have the life I always wanted to have but trying to squeeze it into even shorter time frames, now that I am older and feel like there is even less time. Chasing false summits and wondering why I always want more.

“You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves”. Lito Tejada-Flores

Ruth Mountain and Icy Peak Climb (June 2019). Time has an interesting way of creating an illusion of experience and memory, and what the mind remembers or forgets seemed to be central theme of the trip I took last summer. If you were to ask 6 climbers what they remember about a climb, you’d probably get lots of different answers that range from the best moments to the hardest or the funniest. For example, on our trip to the North Cascades to summit two peaks last year, things to be remembered: the long rope team descent from Icy in soft snow and hot sun, seeing 6 fuzzy little ptarmigan baby ducks while descending a steep rocky gully, the epic views, the very long hike out on day 2, the veggie belays up the muddy gully (i.e. using trees, shrubs, vegetation for holds), the sunrise with Icy Peak in the background from camp, the mentorship and teaching of how to setup for rope teams, stories of other summits, what other people brought to eat versus what you brought, arriving back at the trailhead at 9 pm on Sunday just when it starts to pour rain and fresh clothes are the best thing ever invented and you eat at an Applebee’s in Bellingham because it’s the only thing open and you are starving. Things forgotten: sunscreen, sunglasses (left at camp after setting off to climb Icy Peak), false summits, parts that at the time seemed so hard or exhausting at the time but a few days later, didn’t seem so bad at all. I guess this is all part of climber’s memory, which keeps us coming back to put ourselves in situations where we have to challenge ourselves mentally and physically.

Our team of 6 had arrived at the trailhead in the North Cascades near Canada after a hearty breakfast at a diner after driving up to Seattle from the Willamette Valley the night before. We adjusted our heavy backpacks filled with gear with our full bellies, and set off for adventure. The hike in on the Hannegan Pass Trailhead for the first 4 miles was relatively flat, as we all noticed how amazing the area is with our first view of Ruth from the trail that had several places for fresh water from Ruth Creek and wildflowers. The weather was full of clear blue skies, with no wind, no bugs, but humid and warm. We arrived at Hannegan pass around 2:15 p.m. and found the climbers trail that would take us towards our first peak.
towards ruth

Once the trail split, we found our first patches of snow as we made our way up to the dreaded “muddy gully” that the two people who had done this route before had told us about from their previous summits 6 and 10 years ago. Fortunately, the mud wasn’t too bad as we scrambled over and under tree roots, slick rock, mud, and dirt with our 35+ pound packs on using as many “veggie belays” (using roots, trees, etc. for holds) as we could. We were at the top of the gully about a 1⁄2 hour later in good spirits. From there, we did a short traverse on snow before rounding over the side of an unnamed peak to the saddle trail that winds towards 7,115 ft. Ruth Mountain.

We found a nice patch of rock to setup rope teams for glacier travel. We started on the glacier at 4:45 p.m. The snow was too soft for crampons but still made for some good kicked steps by our leader.

rope travel ruth
I asked if the top we saw was actually the summit and Cathy, who was one of our members who had climbed it before, said she didn’t remember a false summit (as we all cheered inside), and later, laughed from the back of the rope team as our leader called out from ahead, that there indeed was a false summit. Of course. There always is.
Despite the heat and wanting to take off layers, we dug deep and persevered as we headed up past what we thought was the top towards the actual top. Even when the summit keeps getting farther away, there is nothing more to do than to keep going. It wasn’t long before we were at the top of the actual summit just before 6 p.m. We took summit photos, signed the notebook summit register, and we headed down to our camping spot for the night with even better views of other North Cascades mountains that seem to go on for days and a great view of Mt. Shuksan where we knew other members of our climbing club were out making their summit attempts. It felt like being a part of something so much bigger than any one of us, and at that time, we were the only party on the mountain. It was a special kind of magic.

top ruth

We then headed down south from the summit on a ridge with some loose “dinner plate” rock and scree before a small snow patch before arriving at camp a little before 7 p.m.
We all were able to find rock to pitch our tent looking into the Nooksack Cirque as we rested, ate, enjoyed the views of Shuksan and Icy Peak, and melted snow for drinking water. The sunset against the peaks was nothing short of perfect.

sunset north cascades
Sunday morning we left camp at 6:15 and headed down a gully. Before we left camp, Christopher, being the conscientious leader he is, reminded us all to bring our harnesses, helmets, crampons, ax, sunglasses, etc. Arriving at the glacier just before 8 a.m., we took a short break and Chris realized he had left his sunglasses back up at camp. There was a small amount time spent brainstorming how to rig some temporary alpine glasses with cardboard and duct tape, but in the end a baseball cap lent by Bill and a rotation of sunglasses worked for the day. Team work. Chris mentioned that although he forgot his sunglasses he did have two ATC devices (used for rappelling and belaying).
We set out on rope teams again up the glacier in crampons with fairly hard snow. Christopher set some pickets over a fairly wide open crevasse that we all safely crossed above.

We got to the rocky ridge, did a short traverse over, and took off our crampons when we got to the rock. We all scrambled up mostly easy 4th class rock to the summit of Icy Peak,

7, 063 ft., arriving at the summit by 10:30 a.m.

We took some time to truly take in the glory of the area, as many of us understood we would likely never be back in this same spot. Cathy helped to set up the rappel and ended up dropping her rappel device down the route, which as the universe sometimes does, worked out just fine due to Chris having brought an extra one.


We rappelled down a fairly direct route and moved back to the got back into rope teams, deciding crampons were no longer useful as the warm sun was making the snow fairly soft and slushy. We worked our way down and back up the gully towards camp, most of us feeling a bit dehydrated and ready for a break. After arriving at camp around 3:15 p.m., we packed up, melted some more water, while one of the members boiled water for a 2nd lunch of rehydrated lasagna while others watched in jealousy and headed up the ridge and back on Ruth Glacier to traverse across the snowfield on rope teams back towards the trail. After another hour, we were off the Ruth Glacier just before 6 p.m.

Over across the peaks, there were dark storm clouds and thunder threatening, so we moved as fast as we could with our ice ax lightning rods on our back around the no-name peak down to the last obstacle around 6:50 p.m., the Muddy Gully, which was far more muddy and more miserable after a long day. After a mostly successful navigation, we got back to the trail winding in and out of the trees as we felt a little bit of rain and even a brief period of small hail pellets. It never was enough to get us wet, and we tried to move as quick as our tired feet would take us through the next 4 miles with the goal of arriving before dark.
Finally, the opening to the road appeared and we cheered as we saw the cars waiting for us around 9:15 p.m. After changes of clothes and shoes and cold drinks, both cars headed out towards Bellingham to eat some food, do summit certificates and debrief. At around 11:30 p.m., we all sat around a table in a mostly empty Applebee’s, feeling completely exhausted as Chris distributed certificates. The debrief at the late hour was something like, “well, that was really fun, great job everyone.” After some debate about bacon and why 95% of the items on Applebee’s menu contains bacon, we devoured our food set before us in an exhausted hungry quiet state.

That trip was definitely one of the most physically and mentally exhausting days I’ve experienced, but also one of the most rewarding trips I have ever done. There was not one moment where I wasn’t amazed by the beauty of this area and everyone showed up over and over with laughs and a positive attitude.

icy peak sunet
In 6 or 10 years, will I remember the moment where I sort of panicked on the loose dinner plate rock traverse towards camp after summiting Ruth or the moment when I was so hot and out of breath on a gully on Sunday or feeling like I was always the one trying to keep up on the down climb? Maybe. But, here’s what I hope I remember. The mountains humble you. Your mind remembers what it wants to. In another situation, I might have felt like the odd one out, the less experienced, the slowest, the most fearful with exposure, and just felt like I didn’t belong in this group of climbers but instead all I felt was encouragement and an acceptance for where I was and who I am and all that I may become in that moment.
False summits exist in all of our lives. There are things we are always reaching for and then when we get there, sometimes we realize there’s just so much more work to do. We’ve never quite made it, because there’s always something else…that thing we always keep reaching, pushing, learning, working, one foot in front of the other.
Why do we keep climbing? Maybe it’s all those false summit moments, where you realize you have to dig deep and keep pushing beyond what you think you have in you. For me, it’s the curiosity of what is seeing what is above, but also connecting with friends in a way you just cannot do unless you’re in the mountains with nothing around you but snow and rock and sky and the challenges in front of you. There’s a simplicity and purity to that moment. Mac and cheese becomes paradise. A summit snickers bar might be the best thing ever. Years from now you might discover that forgot a bunch of little details or forget how hard the climb was but whether you remember this or any of the little moments, you were there. The memories made in the mountains with friends matter. And that’s a memory you can’t erase.

There’s a quote that is in my favorite movie, Family Man, which is a 90’s holiday movie that might appear sort of cheesy, but still remains relevant to me all these years later. There’s a line that the main character (who is longing for his past life of power, fancy suits, and a penthouse apartment) asks something along the lines of, “Don’t you want a life that everyone envies?” and his wife responds, “we already do”. What are we all chasing? There is no perfect summit, no moment where everything just makes sense and we feel happy and fulfilled all the time. There are just summits, and times we’ve think we’ve reached something but just discover there is even more work to be done.

And maybe I feel even more pressure to fill my days with adventures because I spend so many years of my life waiting for life to begin as I went down a dark hole of obsessions over exercise and losing weight and trying to be something I was not. And now I am in the place I always dreamed I would be, and I want every day to feel that exciting and meaningful. But, there is a pace, a rhythm to be found to the days. There is no one summit, there is no one perfect way out of this situation we are in right now. But, I want to know that I didn’t spend two months inside my house in quarantine without learning something.

So, what have I learned? Silence and sitting with your thoughts isn’t as scary as you think. Schedules are made to be changed and modified. People adapt. You are stronger than you think. Just because you see something to be overcome, doesn’t mean that you will get there without struggles along the way. And you can still have hope and make plans for the future that you wish for even when it is all completely uncertain. Let’s face it, it was always uncertain, we just never realized it in the same way until now. And what really matters, what makes us human, is connection. Whether that is over Zoom, or Facetime, or over brunch or on a mountain summit high fiving friends, it’s the sharing of experiences that collectively make us better. That is what makes every false summit worth it. That is what makes life worth it.