I believe the best things in life are terrifying and beautiful. This was something I thought a lot about on my most recent trip into the mountains.
I just returned from ten days of mountaineering in the Cascade mountain range of the Pacific Northwest. I was on an instructor seminar, which is designed as staff development for NOLS faculty. It's an amazing opportunity to learn new skills and spend some quality time with knowledgeable outdoorsfolk. This particular seminar was all-female. It was a cast of two seminar instructors and ten students - from brand new instructors to seasoned senior NOLS faculty.
The trip was one of the craziest adventures I have had in a while. Every day provided a new story: from having a National Geographic photographer follow us around for a couple days, to having a backpack roll far, far, far down the side of a mountain, to being brought donuts and extra fuel by a friendly climbing guide, it never got boring. This “terrifying and beautiful” paradox brought up by fellow instructor Ashley Schmid at one of our evening meetings, and I think it applies well to our experience.
The first day we roped up for glacier travel, the weather was building and clouds were swirling. We aimed to climb up the front side of Inspiration Glacier to make camp at the base of Eldorado Mountain. It was my first time traveling on a glacier and I felt some pangs of nervousness looking at the spiky things on my feet (crampons), in my hands (ice axe) and my umbilical cord attaching me to my friends (the rope).
If you are not familiar with glacier protocol, it is typical to space four people over the length of a standard climbing rope, so that if one person were to fall into a crevasse, the others can help arrest the fall and/or rescue the team member. As we started up the steep entry to Inspiration Glacier, thoughts like "well, if I slip my whole team might go tumbling down this ice sheet" popped into my mind. Some absurdly dramatic rendition of the movie Vertical Limits played in my head.
"Keep it together, Alexa."
I glanced into a huge crevasse that we casually walked by. "It goes down forever! What is in that blue abyss?" It was magnificent, but I didn't want to get an inch closer to it.
As we kept walking it started to rain. The cold set in and we heard some distant poundings of thunder. Our instructors had said the previous night that "thunderstorms aren't really a thing in the PNW." They had rarely experienced lightning in the Cascades. As we kept glacier-traveling and crevasse-weaving, the lightning got closer.
We traveled for about 15 minutes with the lightning at a safe distance away. As we reached the concave section of the glacier (a safer, flatter section of glacier less prone to have crevasses) we heard a "FLASH BOOM" of lightning and thunder. Time to get serious. Our fearless leaders yelled out "UNCLIP!" Our now drenched glacier travel rope increased our risk factor for a lightning strike, and we fumbled with our carabiners and butterfly knots to get out of the rope system. In good lightning style, we all sat on our packs and ducked our heads into our knees.
For me this was one of those terrifying and beautiful moments. We were totally exposed to lightning and couldn't see where we were. The fog was so thick that it was hard to see the whole rope team. The rain fell harder and faster and many of us were shivering. But sitting on a glacier, in a whiteout, with lightning decorating the sky, and colorful jackets dotting the landscape—it looked epic! Something hard to imagine.
We decided we were in a safe glacier zone and efficiently set up camp in the storm. Eventually the lightning stopped and we re-warmed ourselves with hot drinks and ramen. The whiteout cleared the next morning and we made our way to the original destination. In debriefing the day, there was a buzz of excitement among the group. It had been an unforgettable experience.
So many good things in life have this terrifying and beautiful paradox, and not just in the backcountry. Frontcountry life has its own risks and rewards. Thinking about that deep, deep, deep crevasse and dazzling lightning storm, I realize how most worthwhile things are both.
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Alexa is a NOLS instructor. She really likes rocks and snow.