Two years ago I turned 30 on top of my favorite mountain. I effortlessly walked to the top of Glacier Peak and held up my ice axe in defiance and celebration. I was in the best shape of my life and 30 felt so good. My husband pulled cupcakes from his pack, the vanilla ones with confetti inside AND the confetti icing and they were surprisingly intact. My brother-in-law revealed a bottle of champagne and he shook it and we all screamed as it exploded and we drank straight from the bottle in celebration. As we posed for pictures my normally frizzy hair was miraculously smooth and I looked amazing and refreshed. It was everything I wanted it to be. It was perfect.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, that’s because it’s not true. But that is what I wanted it to be like, a total dreamfest. In reality, the only thing that happened is the part where we made it to the top of the mountain. My husband wasn’t toting cupcakes nor was there champagne, of course. I was certainly not in the best shape of my life. 30 hurt. A lot. My hair was a mess and we didn’t even summit on my actual birthday. And to be honest I was pretty terrified on that mountain and I couldn’t wait to get off of it. Like usual there were mishaps, misapprehension and a good dose of reality checks. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but in it’s own special way, it was better than perfect.
In 2013 I decided I wanted to hike up 30 mountains before I turned 30 years old. I’ve told you this before and I told you how my husband thought it would be a great idea to climb up Glacier Peak on my 30th birthday, my favorite mountain in the Cascades. I was a little reluctant but I agreed and we poured over the maps to find a good route. We would have to go a long way just to get to the mountain so we thought why not make a big loop of it while we are out in the remote Glacier Peak Wilderness? Why not? So we planned out a 6 day, 50 mile route complete with Glacier Peak summit and invited my brother-in-law. I thought maybe the plan was a little ambitious, but it was winter and August felt forever away. Surely we had plenty of time to prepare.
Well, August came around and I didn’t feel all that prepared. I had been hiking a ton that summer but we only went for one backpacking trip in the spring. I was worried about the pack weight and mileage. Not only that but I had never climbed a big glaciated mountain before. I knew how to use an ice axe and how to tie knots. The rest we learned from The Freedom of the Hills and a guided glacier trek on Mt Baker. We practiced roping up in the backyard. We made prusiks and learned crevasse rescue. We showed my brother-in-law these things when he got here. Even after all that, I was still nervous. But soon enough, we were packing our bags and my nervousness turned to excitement.
On the first day we had 11 miles and a 4000 ft climb up to White Pass ahead of us. We strapped on our packs (mine was 40 pounds, a good 10 pounds more than I’ve ever carried) and climbed through the trees to open meadows. We passed a group on their way down carrying climbing gear and asked them if they made it to the summit. They had, but they said it was tough. And long, so long. Their eyes looked tired and I tried not to think of them as I climbed the switchbacks.
It was unbearably hot even in the early hours of the day and I was slow. I had to take many breaks and sit in the little available shade to give my shoulders a rest. I felt like I was going to pass out. This was not like me, I was tougher than this. I hated making the guys wait for me. The sun beat down on us, the horse flies were feasting on my legs and we were running out of water.
The trail finally leveled out a bit into a boggy meadow with even more bugs. I felt like we had to be getting close to the pass. Then I looked up. The ridgeline towered above and I realized that we still had a long way to go and at least another 1000 feet. I took off my pack and sat down killing as many flies as possible and holding back tears. What was I doing? If I can’t even make it to the pass, how was I ever going to climb the mountain?
We kept going. We found a stream to replenish our water and eventually made it to the pass. We set up the tent and made some food and shared a liter of gatorade which made me feel better. From the pass we could see just the very tip of Glacier Peak peeking out over the ridge above us. We stared at it for a long time. It seemed so impossibly far away. There was a group with horses camping near us and we watched them trot by in the alpenglow. We snacked on gummy bears as the sun disappeared behind high mountains.
As tired as I was I didn’t get much rest that night. We all woke up to a hellish thunderstorm. The ground we were sleeping on rumbled as lightning lit up our tent. Then the rain came. Big loud drops evolved into sheets battering the tent. We could hear the cries of the nearby horses in the storm and my heart broke for them. We looked outside to make sure water wasn’t pooling beneath the tent. Thankfully we were in a safe spot.
The next morning the horses were gone. The campers must have packed out early with the terrified animals. We packed up and prepared for our first day off trail. We studied the GPS and the map. There were lots of ways to get up over the ridge but only a few good ways down the other side. We did our best to find a good route but still had to scree slide down the other side. We ran into two guys and they gave us some tips on camping spots. We crossed a snowfield and found a nice spot near a glacial lake. It was lunch time and I was thankful for the low mileage day even if it was over some tough terrain.
All day we watched the clouds build up and we waited for the storms to return. They did. This time it hailed on us before it downpoured and we didn’t pick a good spot. We had to get out and move the tent to higher ground. We cooked in the vestibule and ate and played Yahtzee as the bands of storms came by one after the other. I relaxed a little bit because I thought there was no way we would climb the mountain the next day.
The next morning after getting battered by more storms, my husband woke me up at some ungodly hour. Hey, the storms are gone and the clouds are clearing, let’s give it a try. I grumbled and rolled over. Can’t we take a zero day and just relax? I replied. I wasn’t ready to go up the mountain. But deep down I knew I never would be. He poked and prodded before I finally rose and went through the motions, the ones I had been preparing for all summer. Put on hat, jacket, headlamp, check and re-check gear. Start up GPS.
We walked silently in the early morning glow over the rocks. So many rocks. Big rocks, little rocks, giant rocks, all types of volcanic rocks. We walked for miles over rocks, we climbed up rocks and down rocks until we finally hit snow. The going was much easier on the snow. We climbed and climbed until finally the full view of the mountain and the route was in front of us. It was truly a beautiful sight. We looked around for other climbers but there was no one around. We switched back and forth between snow and ashen dirt and scree. Crampons on, crampons off. Rope on, rope off. We crossed an icefall on pure blue ice that did not seem real. We looked down into crevasses that seemed infinite. It was so quiet up there. The only noise was the snow crunching under our boots.
After countless hours we were climbing up the last bit on rotten rock and snow. We were careful not to loosen rocks down onto each other. And then we were at the top. At 10,541 feet we were the tallest things around and it felt like we were on top of the world. We took some photos and tried to eat some food but I wasn’t hungry. My adrenaline was pumping and I felt happy, strong, scared and tired all at the same time. I didn’t think it was possible to feel so much at once. But I knew one thing and that was that the clouds were building up and the storms would come again. I wanted to get down and fast.
We reversed our route and glissaded down on our butts when possible. I was amazed at how fast we descended something that took all day to climb up. But when we hit the rock fields again we slowed down to a glacial pace. It was rough going and we were so tired but we could see the clouds settling in so we tried to hustle. Soon enough though we were in a whiteout. We had no choice but to ignore our intuitions and trust the GPS. Thankfully, after a little searching, it led us back to our tent.
We celebrated with a big dinner and Yahtzee but as thunderstorms battered the tent for the third night I was unsettled. It was as if the universe was reminding us that although we may have climbed a big mountain, we are still just little itty bitty breakable humans. Two days later we celebrated my 30th birthday at Blue Lake on Pilot Ridge. The lake was freezing but the guys jumped in to wash off the dirt and sweat. I rinsed my arms, feet and face but didn’t go in the frigid water. There was a mysterious small red bag at the bottom of my pack that I was instructed not to open until my birthday. I got it out and my husband told me to go away for a bit. I smiled. Fine. I came back and found that they made me a cheesecake topped with freshly picked blueberries. It was such a great surprise and oh so delicious. There was a duo of men camping nearby and we invited them to share our dessert. They were surprised to see such a delicacy and happily dug in as we swapped our hiking stories.
When I got the idea for Alpine Lily I was so excited, but I recognized a feeling I felt on Glacier Peak and it made me uncomfortable. It was vulnerability. I enjoyed telling my friends and family about my adventures and climbing Glacier Peak, but I always left out the parts where I was scared and weak. I left out the bugs, the pack weight, the struggles, the storms and the fear. I told everyone about my goal to climb the peak like it was no big deal. But it was really hard and I struggled on the mountain.
I didn’t tell anyone about Alpine Lily at first, not even my husband. I was scared of putting myself out there, sharing my weaknesses, free to be judged by anybody and everybody and especially my friends and family. Then one day I just decided to put Lily out there, just like the day we decided to climb Glacier Peak. And I did it. I climbed the mountain, created Alpine Lily and now I told my story. The story isn’t the perfect tale I had in my head, but it’s better than perfect because it’s real and it’s mine.
As I publish this post I will be on my way to celebrate my 32nd birthday on a mountain. A smaller mountain than Glacier Peak and one with a lookout on top. I will certainly be snuggling with a blanket, reading a book and sipping tea. Nali will be incredibly well behaved, and when the sun sets my husband and I will lay on the rocks with our heads together as meteors blaze before our eyes into the atmosphere. He’ll take out a perfect little vanilla cupcake with confetti inside AND the confetti icing and I will smile and say, how did you know, and how did you get that up here intact? And it will be perfect.
When I get home I will tell you the real story, and it will be better than perfect.
“It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how
the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust
and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly…” – Theodore Roosevelt
See Also: Setting Goals: 30 by 30
Note: We found out later that the hail and thunderstorms on the night after our summit climb ravaged the North Cascades. 70 people were stranded at the Cascade Pass trailhead when the Cascade River Road was washed out and a separate landslide blocked Highway 20.
Cascade River Road Washout
Slide Blocks Hwy 20
Bonus Camp Read!
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
In this profound and eye-opening book, Brené dispells the myth that being vulnerable is a weakness. We are bombarded with so many messages these days that perfection is ideal, so we often hold back on putting ourselves out there for fear of being not good enough or being criticized by others. I’ve certainly felt that way, but this book and Brené’s TED talk helped me to realize that the people I most admire are bold and never play it safe, they dare greatly, and if they fail at least they did so by giving it their best, and that is better than perfection.
Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack? Backpack
Take this book with you, read it, re-read it, dog-ear it, highlight it, memorize it and then pass it on to your best friends.