Lessons from a silent mountain | Moment's Notice


Last updated 7/3/2019 at Noon

The view from the summit at Mount Baker, showing packs about 100 feet below.

Nearly eight years ago, this column featured the story of three women from Edmonds (Michelle Clyborne, Ruth Arista, and I) climbing to the summit of Mount Rainier, Washington’s most famous of peaks, and of the lessons we learned on the way.

This past week, the same trio ascended Mount Baker, another of Washington’s most beautiful and technically challenging volcanic peaks.

Much has transpired since the first climb, adventures and joys and trials and sorrows we could not have imagined, but the friends who climbed together then are part of a loving community that helps us through the most difficult of endeavors.

Mount Baker’s peak is 10,781 feet, just about 3,600 feet shy of Rainier’s highest point, but the wisdom it imparts is not any less.

Kulshan (as derived from the Lummi and Nooksack words), also known as Mount Baker, means “Great White Watcher,” and is one of the snowiest places on Earth and the second-most thermally active crater in the Cascades.

We smelled sulfur several times along the route, caused by volcanic gasses rising through vents on the mountain. Sometimes you can see the gasses rising from the rocks, especially near the edge of the Sherman Crater just below the summit, and crevasses form regularly.

The mountain felt, well, alive, and quietly contemplating its next move.

During this climb, the Great White Watcher taught in a different way than Rainier. This time, traversing and often climbing straight up an icy glacier covered in fresh, slushy snow, I thought of people I know and love whose teachings seemed to materialize as I picked up my crampon-clad feet again and again.

This time, each step brought faces, faces of those in my orbit who make this life so very special.

I saw Jeff and Jane, who shared a lesson from their mountaineering son to “climb the mountain, come down as friends, and make it home for dinner” (wisdom delivered with a Snickers bar and a field note book).

Michelle, Ruth, and I talked through our fears and doubts about the trip inside a tent drenched in the rain, and agreed to climb as far as we felt right, agreeing that nothing was better than getting home for dinner with our husbands.

Because of Emily (of Studio 26 Pilates), I took careful, smart rest steps and did not feel the exhaustion over 15 hours because she taught me to find the strength in small movements and understand that pushing with large muscles is not the most efficient.

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And the most inspiring insight came from a beloved 11-year-old, Olivia, who drew a snow-capped mountain with a caption stating her “heroes are the women who try.” No matter what happened that day, the three of us and the other three women on the hike with us knew that opportunities for amazement are ahead of us, as long as we try.

There was one lesson, though, that did not become clear until we were descending and struggling to maintain our stamina, footing, balance, and determination.

Early in the day, when the sun came out to create a stunning contrast between the white of the snowy peak and clouds from the blue of the sky, I felt the exhilaration from the exertion and the appreciation why we carry 40-plus pound packs and camp in the rain and get up at 2 a.m. to attempt to summit a volcanic glacier – having experiences in this life far beyond what you can expect and feeling strong enough and deserving of pursuing them.

It was a poignant, almost physical manifestation of something we all know. Many of our individual journeys with those we love also have a summit.

There is both an ascent and a descent, and a time with them and a time without them. Those who my mom and I have loved and lost were in each step, with the near madness of the joy going up and the aching of the uncertainty going down.

That mountain truly is a Great White Watcher – icy, silent, blanketed white, and churning inside – and walking on its surface, experiencing the silence, you become aware of all you have watched over your time in our shared existence, and the messages others tell, show, or gift to us, and maybe feel stronger and more grateful because of it.

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Ruth Arista, Maria Montalvo and Michelle Clyborne in training for their climb atop Mount Baker.


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