Wednesday, August 15, 2012

1989: Part One

The Tooth from Snow Lake
Here is the first installment in a novella-sized account of a year from my life. This is another post in celebration of my 25 years of living in Seattle.

Nineteen eighty nine. A big year, full of doing a lot of everything, screwing up at a few things, while trying to have fun, pushing myself to my physical limits.

I was 23, a young bull-headed woman, thinking I was strong and tough and indestructible. I was working as a claims processor at what was then King County Medical Blue Shield (that's a mouthful, no wonder they changed their name to Regence). The work was kind of dull, but it was a decent paycheck and had benefits, most important of those being health insurance. Even then, in my carefree youth, I knew the importance of having insurance. And, by the end of the year, that knowledge would really pay off.

At the end of the previous year, I had enrolled in the Mountaineers climbing class, to fulfill my dream of becoming a climber. Looking back, I'm not really sure what I had pictured for myself in terms of climbing, but I remember admiring the climbers I saw portrayed in the Patagonia catalog so much that I enrolled in the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School for their Desert Mountaineering 2-week course while still in college (Indiana University) in 1986. We climbed boulders and walls, all with top-rope belay. It was the desert in winter so it wasn't warm, but at least there was no snow to contend with.

My first climb with the Mountaineers was while I was still enrolled in the course, the first of three climbs to complete the requirements. The peak I had chosen was called The Tooth, a narrow-ridged summit visible from I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. The climb went well and I stood on the summit with my climbing partners, 3 guys whom I had never met before, feeling pretty good about myself. Then we started to descend and were traversing a steep slope without ropes, just depending on our boots and the snow giving way to them. It was early June and the snow was fairly soft, even runny in some places, like a slushie. I didn't have a care in the world, full of myself at that moment and so I wasn't tensed up when I slipped and started to slide down the angled slope. Part of the training we had received was in self-arrest with an ice axe and I immediately got into position to roll onto my stomach to stop myself by digging my axe in the snow. It's not clear to me whether it was my heavy pack that kept me from rolling over completely or the quality of the snow that wouldn't allow my axe to get a grip, but it was probably a combination of those two. I couldn't stop.

I was completely out of control, unable to even slow down and fearful as to what would happen next. The worst feeling was the anticipation of what was to come. My world started to spin and, though I didn't realize what was happening at the moment, it would become clear later that I was bouncing down a boulder field that had been exposed by the melting snow. I remember seeing gray, just gray, the gray color of the rocks and boulders. I realized what was going on and I was relieved to think about the helmet I was wearing, until I realized I had tied it to my pack and I was listening to the clanging sound it made, bouncing off the rocks. I seem to remember hitting the rocks twice, becoming airborne in between before I came to a stop, several hundred yards later.

I came to a stop, landing on my butt in a creek below the level of the snow. It was surreal and I was confused; perhaps I had also hit my head a few times and had a concussion. Three faces appeared above me and began to ask questions like, "can you feel your legs?", "can you move?". I looked up at them and replied, "I'm alive? I thought I was dead". There was silence. Later, one of them confessed that they all figured they would be finding my dead body, changing the trip from a climb to a rescue mission. After a few minutes, I was fully aware of what was going on around me and, once I realized I could move without pain, I worked to get up out of the creek and up to snow level. Walking out was slow, as I had become terrified of snow, since it had let me down. When we got to dry ground, I was too tired to bend down and kiss the earth as I had imagined. At the trailhead, I stopped to use the toilet and nearly got stuck on the seat as my muscles seized up once I sat down. Good thing for all that climbing training, as I used my chimney-climbing skills to get up and out the door.

To my climbing partners (to this day, I can't remember who they are), I looked fine, except for a cut on my right shoulder and left leg, the latter from my own ice axe that went flying as I was bouncing. They figured I didn't need to go to the emergency room and instead drove me home. Luckily, I had housemates and the moment one of them saw me, he knew something was wrong and we set off right away for the hospital. They took x-rays of every part of me and found nothing broken, but I still felt broken inside, as though I wasn't really alive, like I was in some type of limbo, my fate yet to be decided. Apparently, they had seen their share of climbers at the hospital and one of the nurses commented to me, "It just wasn't your time".

stay tuned for Part Two...

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