I couldn’t decide on only one post from 2015 so I’ve included three: one from our expedition to El Salvador to climb the country’s highest volcanoes–that expedition was called Volcanopalooza. The second one is the wrap-up from my short, but intense, attempt on Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan called Mission 5959. The final post is a tribute to my dear friend and co-adventurer, Jim Price, who left us too soon in 2015.
Volcanopalooza 2015: Knock Knock, Whose There? Bonk. Bonk Who? Bonk on San Vicente!
Originally Posted on December 28, 2015
Through an act of unmindfulness/not great computing practice, this is the second time I am writing this blog entry. Marian assures me it will be better for having to do it twice. I’m unconvinced but will try my best. Of course, another volcano has come and gone since I wrote this piece early this morning…
Yesterday’s volcano was San Vicente…twin capped volcano topping out at 2173 metres, the second highest volcano in El Salvador. For parts of the climb, I wasn’t sure I would get to the summit but in the end, I did…let me start at the beginning.
Because we had a two hour drive to our volcano de jour, we were up early for breakfast at 6 am. We then drove to the village of Guadeloupe on the early slopes of San Vicente and met our local guides. Alphonso, a trim, fit, and volcano climbing phoneme, was our lead guide. We was dressed in blue jeans, yellow soccer jersey, and a machete hung from his belt. Most of our local folks have carried and used machetes on our climbs but more about that in a future post. Alphonso set off at a good clip because we’d arrived late for our 7-8 hour climb and dusk comes early at this time of year. We quickly caught the group of 40 exuberant youth who were also sharing the climb. We passed them and Alphonso wanted to keep it that way. Up and up we went. I missed the first opportunity for a snack. I’d been moving well but shortly there after around 10:30, I started to slow. My legs started to feel like they were encased in cement.
One teammate turned back when the terrain began to get steep. I’ve found in my climbing career that once someone turns back, it opens the door to doubt. It opens the Pandora’s Box of the Questioning Mind and yesterday was no exception. As the terrain got steeper and steeper and we were literally crawling our way up the slope from tree branch to tree branch, my box of “Did I want to go down?” spilled open and I spent the next while mulling that question in relation to my slowing pace. So caught up in the ruminations of my Pandora mind, I did not realize that I was running out of fuel. At the next break, I ate a banana without realizing its import. I continued to climb, albeit slower and slower, albeit with my mind analyzing every footstep of my performance, albeit just putting one step in front of another.
Thirty minutes or so later, I realized steps were getting easier. My mind was easing. The volcano slope no longer seemed like a concrete wall. In a flash of insight, I realized the banana had cured my bonk. So I ate another. I laughed at myself and my “rookie” mistake. I remembered bonking on Aconcagua just as my team was hitting Windy Corner. I remembered that I’d made the commitment then, and it still makes sense today, to never turn, to never quit until I’ve deposited gas and oil (food and water) to my engine. It was humbling to see how I’d hadn’t quite had my systems in place (ie. snacking before getting off the bus, having snacks very handy (ie. in my pocket-though in fairness it’s hard to carry bananas safely in your pocket, being willing to ask the group to wait a minute so I could take care of needs, etc.). It was great to observe the pairing of body and mind…how as fuel declined, so did my mental state. I’m proud I didn’t give into Pandora mind and just kept stepping.
There was no views but the jungle until the summit ridge and then we could see most of El Salvador. One of the benefits of Volcanopalooza has been to experience many remote corners of El Salvador but also to see so much of the country. Its land mass is about twice the size of the Avalon Peninsula but with 6 million inhabitants. We took it the view, ate lunch and then scampered back down. The soil was soft and forgiving so we “skied” down and made short work of the descent. As you can see from the GPS track above, it was quite a steep up and down! We climbed about 1400 metres to the summit of 2173 metres.
Mission 5959 Wrap-Up: Listening to Whispers and the Dragon’s Tongue
Originally Posted on May 15, 2015
Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. A lot of people forget about that.
― Ed Viesturs
I’ve read several of Ed Viesturs’ books. He is the first American to summit all 14 8000 metre peaks without supplemental oxygen. It took him several attempts to reach the summit of some of them. I remember reading that he had stopped a summit attempt 150 metres below the top because “it didn’t feel right.” He respected his inner voice/intuition and it had kept him safe over the course of many, many expeditions. I, too, have such a voice. Most recently, it keep me off Everest 2014 and Everest 2015 and for that, I am grateful that I listened.
In my study of Buddhism, I’ve been taught to pay attention to the causes and conditions that bring each moment to fruition. I do my best. Some moments, I can see them clearly; other moments they are too muddled together to tease them apart.
I have had a relationship with PTSD for the past 46 years. Sometimes, it is hibernating quietly, hidden blissfully from my view. Other times, it overwhelms with the fury of a 100 year winter storm. Sometimes, it is my wise teacher and other times, my tormentor. It’s presence in my life ebbs and flows on an unscheduled tide than I neither understand not control and even though, I continue to grow to be the stronger one in the duo, sometimes I’m tripped up by echoes of traumas past.
Most often, it can take up to a week for the causes and conditions (i.e. weather and logistics) to allow a team to gain flight access Mount Logan. My trip, this year, was the exception. We flew in earlier than we were scheduled to and gorgeous weather allowed us unprecedented access to begin climbing. My luggage had arrived late in Whitehorse so I had to fly to the mountain not having had a chance to organize my gear into systems. Systems which help me know exactly where each bit of kit is stored in my backpack so I can access it quickly in case of storm or other emergency. It usually takes a few days to get in a rhythm and have it all sorted. Arriving to base camp around 10 pm, we got the tent up and I rummaged around, trying to find all I would need for a reasonably warm night. It was pretty cold out. Minus 20C or so.
It was a long, very cold, and nightmarish night. One of my worst ever in the mountains. My dragon-like PTSD partner seemed to have awoken after a decade’s long sleep. My heart pounded. Adrenaline coursed through my body like fiery lava spilling me over into restless fear, unsettled exhaustion, and wanting to run. As my practice of Buddhism taught me, I kept my seat. I stayed. I stared down the fiery assault, breathed compassion for the myself and the dragon, in and out and got up the next morning, and carried a load to Camp One. I did the same the second day after a better night.
By the end of the third day, we’d already made our first big carry to Camp Two at 4100 metres. As I skied each of those first three days, I revelled in the glory of the immense landscape I was traversing and thought about the many dreams, wishes, and goals I carried with me as a part of Mission 5959. I read the messages on my skis often and said them over and over again to myself. Anytime, I was moving, the dragon slept as if a child pacified by the rocking of a crib. Anytime, I stopped, it woke. Cried. Curled into a ball. Wished and wanted safety. I did my best to sit, pay attention, meditate, and find some ground amidst the cold, white towers that surrounded us.
After the carry to Camp Two, my inner voice that had kept me safely away from the heights off Everest for the past two disastrous seasons, began to enter the conversation.
“Don’t go back to Camp Two,” it said the first time.
“Why?” I asked back.
The wind, whipped into a frenzy by a ferocious Logan storm, kept me from hearing the answer.
As each gust died away, I heard the repeated whisper, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go higher.”
In response, I wrote in my journal, I organized my gear, I sat quietly trying to discern the source and meaning of the quiet words ricocheting in my mind.
“Was this the echoes of dangers past propagated by the newly woken dragon’s presence?” I wondered more than once.
“Could it be the normal anxieties of starting a cold, hard, sufferfest expedition in a remote, cold place? I asked myself over and over again.
“Should I take this message seriously?” I mused.
Pinned to our backs in our tents for the better part of three days as 175 km/hr gusts pummelled our camp, my mind wrestled with these and other questions. It was like watching a Saturday cartoon where the questions and answered wrestled in a swirling ball of animated fur and feathers. At the end of each storm-filled night, I waited with dreaded anticipation of the day’s plan.
“Were we headed up higher or staying put?” I called out of the tent when I heard footsteps in the morning.
On each of the three mornings where the answer was that we were staying put, intense and immense waves of relief washed over me and I proceeded to have a good day reading, putzing, eating, drinking, and navigating the world of expedition tent-boundness.
On the fourth morning, the storm wasn’t quite finished but it had dropped enough to allow us to travel up or down. We were running low on food at Camp One so we soon had to choose one direction or the other. Down to base camp to re-fill or up to Camp Two to continue climbing. When word arrived that we were moving up, most, if not all except me, rejoiced in finally being freed to continue the expedition. I, when hearing the up direction, was immediately buried with a sense of doom and dread and heaviness.
The whisper became more insistent, “DON’T GO, DON”T GO, DON”T GO TO CAMP TWO”, it yelled. I spoke to the guides and expressed some of my doubts and sought out the options. They were kind and understanding and offered words to calm and soothe the ever-louding voice. With that in place, I agreed to make a go for Camp Two. I started to pack. I grew nauseous. I breathed. I packed. I chased the thoughts and tried to catch them to understand their meaning. I thought about Andy who was on the trip at my invite. I thought about all the dreams I was carrying. I packed more. I stepped out from the tent into the wind and took down the tent. I packed my sled. Put on my harness. I helped others pack.
Each new gust of wind magnified the echoing message, “Don’t go, don’t go.”
I moved my gear to the rope. I tied in my sled. I tied in my harness. I clipped in my boots. We started to ski in unison across the flat expanse of the glacier. This time, movement didn’t quell the dragon. It didn’t quell the voice.
Both were screaming, “Don’t go, don’t go.”
I skied with them that way for about an hour hoping the gentle swaying of my arms and rhythmic swinging of my legs might lull the message away so that I would not have to disappoint Andy, my followers, myself. As the last team pulled up beside us and was about to pass, I know this was my last chance to listen to the week-long voice that was urging me to not go higher on the mountain without impacting another teammate.
If I waited any longer to listen and the other rope team went past, I was either locked in to going all the way to Camp Two or asking a teammate to help bring me back to basecamp. Wanting to inconvenience as few other people as possible, I decided, in that fleeting moment to listen. To listen to the voice that has kept me safe on 26 expeditions in the past decade. To listen to the causes and conditions that weren’t quite coming together for me to feel comfortable going higher. To listen to my heart and to my mind. To, for this once, seek safely and comfort instead of adversity. To recognize that although I was physically strong enough, skilled enough, and all packed and ready to go, I didn’t have to. I could have the courage to turn. To listen. To live to climb another day.
Decision made, I was flooded once again with tsunamis of relief. Both Andy and I were in tears as we parted. I wished him the summit and safe return. I turned my back to the mountain, leaving it and the don’t go voice there, and skied back to base camp. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d continued up, life’s like that. Each day, we navigate thousands of intersections/decisions, some we immediately perceive the impact of, many we do not.
I’m home safe. I’m sad. I’m grieving for the lost climb and for unloved/lost experiences. I’d been dreaming a fairy tale of book-ending an amazing decade of expeditions with Arctic summits, but alas, the dragon showed up and the ending to the story is still being written.
Mission 5959 turned into Mission 4100 and I thank all of those who entrusted their dreams to me to carry as high as I could on the mountain. Dreams don’t always come true…at least on the first go…sometimes needing two, or three, or hundreds of goes. Sometimes dreams shift. They morph. They meld. Sometimes we give up on them. Sometimes they give up on us. Mostly, they are there as beacons asking us to climb high, climb far, and reach for an unknown sky. The summit is just one piece of topography, much like all the others, and I’m grateful for all of your love, care, and compassion as I traverse much of life’s topography climbing, skiing, paddling, and walking towards my dreams.
Arms Wide Open and Other Lessons I Learned from Jim
Originally Posted on May 31, 2015
Jim Price lived his life with his arms wide open. He met everyone and every experience with a grand hug, a broad smile, and twinkle in his eye. You always knew the moment Jim arrived at any gathering. The energy in the room was immediately uplifted by his buoyant spirit and you knew his booming laughter would soon fill the space inviting you to draw closer to hear what he had gotten into lately. Since Jim’s death on Wednesday, we’ve all been overwhelmed with shock and grief that he was taken away from us so suddenly and without warning. Between these huge waves of emotion, much like the huge waves off the coast of Newfoundland that Jim loved to paddle so much, we’ve been telling stories. Stories of Jim, stories of our adventures with Jim, and most poignantly, we’ve been telling the stories of what Jim taught us through the way he lived his life. Arms wide open.
Jim was a teacher. I swear that he taught half of the province to paddle. Paddle a kayak. Paddle a canoe. Even a paddle board. I remember seeing him just after he completed a paddle board instructor certification course. He spoke with great excitement of having another paddling sport to instruct, another way to encourage others to join him in his beloved outdoors, on his beloved waters. Jim taught me to whitewater kayak soon after I arrived in St. John’s twenty years ago. It was the beginning of a dear friendship that spanned rivers, waves, peaks, and canyons. I followed him down rivers that were likely beyond my skill level but I knew he had my back, that he could pull me out of any situation that I got myself in. He was like a mother duck leading her ducklings into the current for the first time. He picked the right course, showed the way, looked back over his shoulder, and called out a deep belief in what you could do.
You see, another gift that Jim had and gave, was a deep, abiding confidence in himself and in you. I’ve been watching videos of trips that Jim and I shared. He was often the cameraman because of his skill. He could go out ahead and position himself to catch the action. As he captured the scene, his commentary was a mix of sportscast and encouragement. He could both comment and coach. In hindsight, you could tell how close you’d come to capsize or other disaster by how quickly Jim was calling out instructions. The harder and faster he called out for you to paddle, the harder and faster you’d better paddle. Once the excitement had been mitigated by your newfound paddle speed, his voice immediately returned to calm praise for what you had just accomplished.
Jim was a “yes” man of the finest kind. We can hardly remember a time he said no. “YES, you can run this rapid!,” Jim must have said to a hundred or more of us. “Yes, you can borrow my boat,” he answered many a time. “Yes, I’ll share all the beta I learned last week on my scouting mission–come on over and I’ll show you the maps,” Jim said to anyone who asked. Generous. Gregarious. Gracious. Jim gave much and often. He gave of himself, his knowledge, his skills, and his leadership. He completed many first descents of rivers around the world and throughout Newfoundland. He also completed hundred’s more descents of the same rivers while teaching and coaching others. Whether you were meeting Jim for the first time or for the hundredth, you knew Jim was fully in, fully present, and fully ready to do whatever the moment demanded/requested of him. From Jim, I learned to say yes every when every fibre of my fear was yelling no while at the same time, respecting the water and the hazards and knowing when to get off the sea or when to walk around a rapid. One time, while we were in the Grand Canyon, I was totally spooked by a rapid. He gently tried to coach me through it but when he realized that this one had too much of a hold on me, he volunteered to first take his kayak through, and then walk back and row my raft. A big hole managed to grab the raft for a spin but Jim calmly and skillfully coaxed it out and then gave me back the oars and said, “You got this-let’s go down river.”
Jim was a storyteller. His love of telling stories and jokes is legendary. Whether he was cooking for clients on a trip he was guiding or teaching a paddling class for my students, he livened the moment with a story or two. Jim loved a campfire. He could turn out a gourmet meal over one but mostly I remember how much he liked to relax by the fire telling stories and spinning yarns. Long into the night, either with friends or alone, he would keep the fire burning and the next morning tell stories of the blazing white moon, the magical starlight or the dancing of the colourful northern lights. Jim sucked the marrow of his days’ bones. He savoured and reflected on the day, on the trip, on his life through the art of story so it seems fitting as we celebrate his life that we tell stories, lots of stories, of Jim and his deep and profound legacy he has left for his family, for us, for the province. Rest in peace Jim-though it’s hard to imagine you resting as it’s something we never saw you do much off. Wherever it is you or your spirit is, I hope there is plenty of firewood, water in your kettle, and a story to tell.