Fear and The Long Walk Back

Fear and The Long Walk Back

I love playing outside. I love teaching people how to play outside. I especially love teaching kids how to play outside. By outside, I mean rock climbing, caving, rafting, hiking, glacier climbs, backpacking, kayaking. I mean, if we are going to play outside…let’s make it an adventure.

More specifically, I love the sound a carabiner makes as I clip my rope into it. The sweet sound of the metal on metal and the visual of my climbing rope inside the carabiner to attach me to the side of the rock. I love the sound of 2am anticipation as we tie into the rope on a frozen glacier by headlamp and other than a few small conversations we have, the only sound is the quiet mountain and our metal crampons chipping away at the snow. I like being huddled together, eating lunch and riding out a storm halfway up a route wondering if we should keep going or head down. I enjoy the pushing of my lungs as I charge up the mountain on a trail run and the screaming of my knees as I run down. I love seeing little kids bounce down a trail with little backpacks and enjoy eating macaroni and cheese as the sun sets over an alpine lake. I love seeing little kids with little rock climbing harnesses on belaying each other on routes I wish I could climb. I love the push, the grit and the all out war with my body and mind on trying to complete an outdoor goal like hiking a thirty mile day with thousands of elevation gain and loss.

I embrace the skills of the wilderness, how and when to cross a river, how to read the snow for avalanches or crevasses, how to splint a broken arm and how to find your way out. I enjoy the humbleness and honor of being on a mountain rescue team and the ability to retrieve those that took their last breath on the mountain and return them to their family. There is this sweet moment we get to share with the dead, pay our respects and lower them off the mountain with grace and dignity.

I pour myself into route selection, terrain geography, weather forecast, and essential gear. When I’m on my own, I remove one of these factors and I learn how to cope and manage the situation. When I’m with others, I talk through these factors so everybody has an understanding of the goal or destination.

However, sometimes our passion, our love, our knowledge and our planning are not enough. The control that I thought I had was gone.

In this quick moment, no amount of preparation was going prohibit a tragedy.

It was an unusually cool northwest summer day. So surprisingly cool that we found ourselves scouring weather maps and guidebooks, searching for conditions more suitable for a backpacking trip with kids. Ultimately we would settle on Eagle Creek / Tunnel falls, just east of Portland. The Eagle Creek trail winds through a lush canyon visiting numerous waterfalls along the way.

Excited for the chance to visit this beautiful area, we loaded up. Cousins visiting from out of town necessitated the rare use of the third row in our family SUV. With a deficit of space, gear had to be stowed between passengers and under foot. In the front seat sat reinforcements, a friend who my kids knew as Teacher M.

We pulled up to the trailhead about 2pm. As I opened the door, kids and gear spilled out onto the ground. Just before heading down the trail I rounded up the kids for a briefing. Knowing the steep and winding nature of this trail I reminded them to stay close and always keep their distance from the trail’s edge. Our plan to hike 5 miles and set up camp. The next morning, we would hike the remaining mile, visit Tunnel Falls, and return to pack up camp; before heading back out. The events that transpired would ultimately vary drastically from our plans.

Around 5:30 pm, we passed over High Bridge. Sitting at least 100 feet atop the canyon, it marked mile 4 on the trail. After spending a few minutes admiring the bridge and taking in the view, we pressed on knowing we had only a mile to camp. About a half mile past the bridge, we came across an available campsite. Having hiked this trail before, I let the group know there were better campsites ahead. A little further down the trail, we discovered a campsite on the canyon side of the trail. We stopped for a moment to check it out.

While the kids explored the campsite,  Teacher M meandered toward the nearby fast flowing creek. Awestruck by the view, she called me over. As I made my way down the short makeshift trail toward the sound of water, I could see the top of the waterfall but not the bottom. Pausing a safe distance away, I pulled up my camera and zoomed in to snap a couple shots. As I watched Teacher M continue  around the cliff’s edge toward the creek, my anxiety grew. “You should probably not…”, the words seemed to crawl off my tongue like thick molasses. As she turned, time seemed to stand still. Her feet seemed to kick out from under her as if she had landed on a spinning treadmill. Before I could finish my next word she started sliding. Her arms flailed about as her hands tried desperately to grab hold of the slippery, algae covered rocks to no avail. She grasped for anything that might hold her. As the creek carried her over the edge of the falls and out of view, I screamed out, “No, No, No!!” It was all I could do. I screamed as if somehow doing so might have the faintest chance of reversing the events I had just witnessed. As I stood there helpless, I felt as though my chest was going to implode.

This is the defining moment. The moment I look back on a two years later. I am standing halfway between an tragic accident on one side and 4 confused kids on the other. My kids’ teacher has just been swept over a waterfall and I have to manage this moment. But this moment will imprint on me like a permanent tattoo. This moment will bring me to my knees and make me question everything about myself and my decisions. This moment will haunt me and control me for a very long time. People will walk into my life, tell me about near misses in the outdoors and I will find myself vomiting in the bathroom. Without having knowledge of this incident, people will relate to the outdoors by telling me about falling during a river crossing in Northern California and being carried down river for a while, or misjudging tides on the Olympic coast and almost drowning.

After my friend was swept over the waterfall, I ran toward the small campsite that originally caught our attention. The kids were standing there unaware of the events that had just transpired, confused and and wondering why I was screaming. I yelled for three of the kids to stay put and not, under any circumstance, move away from the fire pit area and I told my son to follow me.

We ran out of the campsite, to the trail and back in the direction we came from. I was desperately searching for a way down to the creek below. The canyon was just getting deeper and deeper,there was no safe way down. Eventually, I realized my searching was futile and we ran back to camp. By this time, the kids were terrified.  I told my son to sit with the other kids and I carefully started walked thru the campsite, toward the cliff edge yelling her name. After a few seconds, I could hear her yelling back. I carefully scrambled down to a small ledge which gave me a view of her without putting myself at risk of falling. She had worked her way to the canyon wall and had climbed up a four foot by four foot moss covered rock outcrop. She was pinned to this rock and if she were to slip she would fall about twenty feet down the second tier of the falls. She was only about twenty-five feet below me, but the walls were vertical and covered in wet moss. We hollered back and forth, she indicated she was cold and thought her arm might be broken and that she may have a head injury. I told her I would call for help and be right back.

I scrambled back up the hill to grab my locator beacon and activated the SOS emergency rescue alarm. While activating the device, I grabbed the rainfly from my tent, thinking she could use it as protection from the  freezing waterfall spray. At this point two backpackers happened to pass by. The kids told them that someone had fallen and they jumped in to offer assistance. They just so happened to have an actual tarp and were willing to lower that down to her instead of the tent rain fly.  Aside from sending down the tarp and later some hot water, all I could do was occasionally check in and reassure her that help is on the way.

After returning from lowering the tarp, I was finally able to stop and catch my breath. My daughter was crying hysterically and begging me to stop moving and hold her. I pulled her close and she just balled her eyes out. She was shaking so much and nearly hyperventilating. I looked up at the other kids, they were in shock. They didn’t witness the fall but they were close enough to hear Teacher M’s cries for help.

Thirty minutes had passed since she fell and it was now 7pm. After giving each child strict instructions  to keep within a small designated area, I began to focus on the well being of each child individually. At all times while managing this emergency, I made the well-being and safety of the children my top priority. While I care for my friend and wanted to do everything I could do to help her; I could not, at any time, allow doing so to put the children at risk. This includes risking injury to myself, because by doing so I would not just be risking my safety but that of the children.

Four hours after I sent the first SOS message using my personal locator beacon, I was watching a skilled rope rescue team extract Teacher M  from the canyon. The rope team and EMT’s arrived at the trailhead at 9pm and were to us by 10:15. Within 30 minutes of their arrival, she was pulled to safety and covered in coats and sleeping bags while a paramedic looked her over. Fortunately, she had only suffered mild hyperthermia and a pulled muscle. However, if we had not been able to call for help, she would have died in the night due to hyperthermia. She had been pinned to a rock only ten feet away from the waterfall. The freezing waterfall spray on her soaked clothing would eventually lead to a deadly fate. Instead, she was rescued and able to walk out on her own that night, escorted by a dozen rescuers. I cleaned up camp, hung our food bag, tucked kids in for the night and attempted to get some rest. The next morning, we quietly packed up camp. We were eager to hike the four miles back to the car to call loved ones and pick up Teacher M at the hospital.

I spent the rest of the summer doing three things. First, I kept a busy outdoor schedule. I was guiding backpacking and caving trips, teaching outdoor classes and I was still out adventuring with my kids. But, I intentionally filled my schedule because it gave me very little time to think about things, things I wasn’t ready to think about. Second, I continued to help with body recoveries in the mountains with my mountain rescue unit. My hope was that this would somehow start to heal my mind. It did not. In fact, it was a constant reminder that bad things happen in the mountains. Third, I loved on, snuggled, and prayed for my daughter more than I ever had. Of the four children, she was affected the most being that she was the youngest, she had a close personal relationship with Teacher M and she has a very loving and nurturing spirit about her. Eight year olds should not have lay in their sleeping bags listening to someone scream for help all evening knowing that if she stopped screaming it could be for more tragic reasons.

Prayer, time, and more prayer would eventually heal my daughter. Night terrors faded about five months later, mostly due to the academic school year starting. By Christmas she was no longer wondering if I was going to die every time I went out on a hike or a run.

My path to recovery wasn’t so clear and neither was the issue.

I filled my schedule for the remainder of the summer. In the days before a guided trip was to begin, I began looking for reasons to cancel it. How was the weather? How was the trail? Are there any reasons/factors that I am not seeing that could cause a near miss or result in death? Is this the trip that I’m going to die? I was mentally falling apart. The very thing I loved became the thing I feared. Fortunately, I would muster up enough courage, follow through on my commitments and have a great time and meet some really cool clients. Yet, at the heart of it, I was hurting and couldn’t see my way out.

As fall set in, the trips dwindled. Wintertime came and even the day hikes were minimal. Yet, even when I would day hike, an anxiety would set in and fear was owning me. I figured if I just hiked more, I could get over this…whatever this was.

Spring time came and I was filling up my summer calendar with fun backpacking trips and mountain climbs I would be doing with friends. This incident was behind me and I was back to normal.

But things did not go back to normal. I would have to fight through anxiety attacks as the days led up to trips. When we embarked on our trips, I wanted it over as soon as it began. I wanted to enjoy everything I had before, but with a 100% guarantee that nothing bad would happen. I feared all thing, things I couldn’t control but I wanted a way to control all of it.

One of my first solutions was to revamp my fitness and nutrition. I started trail running more consistently and finding some healing in taking to the trail and pushing my physical limits. I became educated to various ways to increase or maintain high energy levels at different altitudes or big milage days on the trail. The news reported that Ueli Steck died from a fall near base camp on Everest on April 30th. While I don’t compare myself to Ueli and definitely don’t have his climbing resume or fitness achievements, I adored his ambition to push himself to attain more and go faster. I had recently attended one of his events, he signed my book and took a picture with me. He was only two years older than me. In my head, this accidental death registered like this, “If a supreme athlete, extremely skilled in the activity that he died doing, can slip, fall and not stop falling until death, then it is completely feasible that I can or that I can watch my friends fall too. My fitness level will have no impact on controlling bad outcomes. The silver lining was that I did get stronger, faster and develop a love for running big trail miles in a day.

By mid summer, my mind was a bit out of control or at least not thinking rationally about my outdoor experiences. I was cancelling climbs with friends thinking I wasn’t going to be mentally strong enough on the climbs.  On one particular climb, I panicked all night and then tried to bail halfway up the trail to the destination. I was losing my mind and affecting my friends. I was no longer a reliable climber when you need each other to safely climb an objective. After seeking Doctor Google for advice, I decided it was time to seek counseling,. I briefly sought the advice of a psychiatrist where we focused on CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) and tried to change the way my mind was thinking. While I didn’t stick around long enough to complete the program, I learned quite a bit. Dr. P. was impressed that I was keeping 20% of my commitments, where I was beating myself up for bailing on the other 80%. He told me, after a few interviews, that I had spent a lifetime trying to control my environment from bad events and despite my best efforts, sometimes the carpet was just going to get pulled from under my feet. He explained that this incident wasn’t any different then the childhood abuse I had endured or my deployments in the Army. His last piece of advice was for me to figure out if I should stop these adventures or continue.

A few weeks later, I was out climbing one of the glaciated peaks in the North Cascades. I still had a lot of anxiety, but I was also teaming up with some really skilled climbers. We spent the day hiking up to base camp, set up camp and started scouting our ascent the next morning. I was in heaven. I was sleeping on a snowy ridge with a beautiful sunset. I was hanging out with friends deep in the backcountry. There was a grouse near my tent that was trying to mate call all night. What could be better?

The next morning, we split up into rope teams and began to ascend a steep section. An hour later, we were traversing around a snow covered knoll and we were greeted with amazing views of our upcoming summit and the volcanoes that sat behind it. We were lock step and I was in my groove. I love to be out on the glaciers. Two hours later, we were celebrating on summit. On the descent, everybody was riding high on personal stoke and we were all dreaming of the menu at the local mountain pub we passed on the drive up. We skirted around the knoll and we could see our tents sitting up on the snow ridge. All we had to do was descend the steep 600 foot snowfield. A member on the team slowed down as we approached the steep slope and let the entire team descend in front of him. Even I walked a good 20 feet in front of him. But then he panicked and said he could no longer descend….which was the only way off the mountain. He became terrified of slipping and going for a long painful fall and I wasn’t going leave him. We sat down in a snowy tree well and I began to discuss our options. I tried to throw out some encouragement but my words had no power. After he calmed down a bit and rested, I told him what he needed to do to get out of this sketchy situation. He debated with me for a moment but ultimately decided to take my advice. I gave him some space by descending a good two hundred feet down the slope and waited on him to modify his boots and descend toward me. As I stood there on this steep, icy snowfield, I questioned why I was doing this. I mean, today had been fun, but now I’m with someone who is not having fun and is ultimately terrified. So am I having fun? Is this all worth it? Is my ego clouding my thought process?

In this moment, where I’m waiting on a climber to descend toward me so that we can catch up with the rest of our team, I began to pray and ask God to remove this passion and my love for these adventures. My prayer was to “Please take this away from me or tell me to stop.” I am obedient. If I heard God say no more, I would hang up my boots and be joyous for another calling in life. But He didn’t. I continued this prayer for the next month. Instead of doors closing, He began to open doors and opportunities for me to share my passion and guide trips.

I closed out summer with a family backpacking trip to the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon. My anxiety was at an all time high because I was bringing all three kids on a trail and destination I had never been to. This was the unfamiliar and it was haunting me. Yet, I had wanted to go here for years and it seemed like a great adventure destination with the family. We were camped below Eagle Cap Peak with cascading streams emptying into a beautiful alpine lake at 8,000 feet. It was just us and twenty other tents scattered throughout this massive plateau. It was so peaceful and serene. You could just sit on a rock and soak up all the beauty around you. This is what I did for two days of the days. My anxiety had subsided and I was enjoying these peaceful moments with my family. The kid were climbing everything, digging all over the place and enjoying the alpine environment just as much as I was.

The evening before we left, I turned to my husband and asked him if all this fear over the last year was God trying to tell me to stop playing outside. Perhaps I wasn’t hearing God because I had all this anxiety or maybe I just wasn’t listening close enough. What was I missing? He reminded me that God doesn’t talk to us though fears. He may ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable, he does not desire that we have a spirit of fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Although backpacking season was coming to a close as colder weather moved in, I continued to trail run. Many of the organized races are in October and November and I was finding comfort in the physical pursuit, the challenge, and the solitude. I spent the Fall of 2017, praying about fear and came to the understanding that bad things can still happen, no matter how much we prepare for them. I spent my moments on the trail thanking God for slow healing, relentless love and the beauty of the mountains.

The reality was that the fears I was having were not real but rather a mental acceptance or rejection. Bad things are still going to happen. God didn’t allow me to go through the incident, two years ago, so that I would walk away from everything I loved, or to invoke a permanent fear in me. It wasn’t a wake up call to be more safe or a reminder of how short and precious life is. For me, this was a chance to experience scarring in my heart, and to feel its tenderness from time to time. These moments were for me to understand that bad things do happen, people make poor decisions and for some the cost is very great. However, fear is not be the end result.

The trail, it’s mountains, the valleys,  and the rivers create this beautiful symphony of music when I pass through. I have walked out life’s most difficult heart wrenching decisions, deep depressions, loss, and heartache on trails and the wilderness feeds and refreshes my soul. I can stand in the middle of a meadow full of July alpine flowers with snow peaks around me and creeks flowing by and feel God’s love wrapping around me telling me He has me, it’s going to be okay and I need not fear. I can feel the scar and remember slow healing and the long walk back.

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