Healing After Backcountry Misadventures and Loss
Written on Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Experienced on Sunday, May 7, 2017
I have started this blog post countless times. I have multiple versions that were started but never finished. Drafts. Random sentences, thoughts, memories. Even my journal never has beheld this entire story. It’s only lived in my mind, in my words, and my heart. Today, I finish the written story. For my heart and I.
I’ve stared at the damn blinking cursor on my screen more hours than I could count. The title to this has ranged from “The Day I Don’t Want To Write About” to “I Give Up On Backcountry Skiing.” It’s seemed useless to sit and dig up this rollercoaster of emotions. Who could possibly benefit from reading this story? Is it good for my heart and soul to dig up these emotions? Spoiler alert: This is a necessary release.
The crazy thing is, I wrote all of this in the last few days. A full
365 730 days later. When I close my eyes, I can feel every emotion, visualize every moment in disgustingly crispy details. I’ve battled with how I could even label this day. Was it the worst day ever? Perhaps. But especially looking at the last 730 days, I feel like it’s been more than just a “bad day,” because there’s something about my faith that’s still trying to shine through. My friends and I went through the largest roller coaster of emotions on May 7 and the days that followed. Somehow, we’ve all come out stronger, and though I don’t feel the events of May 7th 2017 can ever be explained or completely understood, something in my heart tells me I’ve grown from these experiences.
So, this is May 7, 2017. The day I really didn’t want to write about, but simply can’t tolerate another moment with all this weighing on my memory without release…
A bluebird day. The first one after months of rain in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone was heading outside for their chosen destinations: chasing peaks, summits, and views worth the effort. Even the drive towards the mountains were breathtaking. There was something in the air this day, and I felt pangs of doubt early on, but decided to disregard some intuition – labeling it as irrational fear. I wonder how others felt on this day…
In reflection, I open my journal to May 7, 2017. I write:
A living nightmare…
Sunday, May 7 – Sunday, May 14
I had a bad feeling about going to Camp Muir with only Sarah because I didn’t trust my navigational skills, but somehow, I also felt like I’d be able to handle it based on my studies of the route, and input from others. It was the first bluebird day of the year on May 7th, but I wouldn’t say I was blinded by the light.
It was a recipe for disaster on all accounts, I write.
Sarah and I were not entirely on the same page from the beginning. She had a time she wanted to be home by and was on snowshoes. I was on my skis and skins for the first time, knowing it’d not only be an uphill battle but also a fight with my gear. I was awkward on my skis and generally uncomfortable. I downloaded Gaia and all the maps for the route to Muir… and my phone died before descending. I sacrificed my layers in the interest of decreasing my pack weight as my skis were transferred from my feet to my pack… and back onto my feet again.
One moment of confusion led to a wrong turn and journey into the very unknown Mt. Rainier backcountry and a 7-hour journey back to my car at Paradise. I got back to my car at 2am, only to drive toward cell phone service and get struck by the news……
I couldn’t write any more.
John Jenkins died on Mt. Hood made it onto the page, but that was all. Two empty pages have lived in my journal, holding the weight of memories.
I’m sure you have experienced (or can at least fathom) the fear-avoidance cycle of trying to drive after a life-threatening car accident. The idea of getting behind the wheel sends shattering images through your psyche as you get transported back to the accident’s scene. You hear the smash of your windshield wake you up at night, feel the uncomfortably warm pressure from the airbag upon your chest. You can smell the rubber burning. The fear and hurt surfaces in your heart racing, face flushing, and gut-wrenching sickness. You can’t seem to stop thinking about all the pain, so you avoid it all together. You don’t get behind the wheel, and you hope you never have to again.
The days after May 7th felt a lot like the days after a car accident.
Your brain is foggy, you experience deep physical and emotional pain. The memories come flashing in front of your face, and you close your eyes to flinch, but it only makes the memory brighter. The sounds, feelings, sensations, can pang you at any second.
I wish we could have avoided facing the truths of this day. I wish we could have just stayed home, never gotten behind the wheel again, and this would have been enough to heal the pain. Yet, it could have never been enough. Our fighting spirits helped us to act on the pain, the suffering. As the frequency of sleep-interrupting jarring memories decreased, sleep-wake cycles normalized, and we returned to the routines our life demanded, we began to heal.
We us took action in small ways, then found our strength growing and began making larger strides in healing. What started with weekly dinner parties transitioned to summits in John’s honor, and cabin trips in his memory. Two years later, we have all climbed a path to separately, yet together, return to the mountains and, therefore, ourselves.
Defining my climb to Camp Muir as a “struggle fest” would be a severe understatement. I was on my new backcountry skiing set up I purchased at a local shop in Yakima, WA. My Lange XT 110 LV Ski Boots clipped into the Salomon Guardian bindings on my K2 Fulluvit 95 skis, and I began dragging my heavy legs towards Camp Muir from snow-covered Paradise. As I stuck the skins to my skis, I felt like I was living a dream! I had seen a skier and snowboarder descending towards paradise during my FIRST trip to Mount Rainier in August 2016. I didn’t know when/if I’d EVER get to be that person… and here I was, on Rainier, with SKIS on my feet! In MAY! I was feeling badass, not gonna lie.
Starting at 5,420 feet, I knew I had 4,768 feet of gain to reach 10,188 feet at Camp Muir over the course of 4 1/2 miles. I had done my research on the Muir snowfield. I knew navigation would be important, as this would be my first backcountry experience. Yet, I was reassured by many that the boot pack would be clear and there’d be no way to get lost! I felt nervous, but excited to finally try out my new gear.I had asked many people to join me on this trip, including Simon (30-mile club co-member), John (who I had just met climbing Mt. St. Helens & watched tear up the pond skim), Robert (who I also met on Mt. St. Helens), JT (who I met during my first snow camp, and was planning to climb Mt. Stuart). Everyone else had other plans. So, Sarah and I were the lone souls heading out to chase the sun!
My ascent was a sight to see. My bindings and I were in a constant fight, as my heels kept clicking back into the bindings and I’d have to release them every few hundred feet. Knowing that my feet are always a challenge and I wasn’t confident in my new ski boots, I had packed by 3/4-shank boots “just in case” I wanted to walk instead of skin. Below Panorama Point, I finally took my skis off and decided to boot pack. I couldn’t manage to get enough of a grip with my skins on the steeper terrain. At Panorama Point, I was surprised to run into some other friends – Analisa, Andrew, and Tiffany were planning to descend via Nisqually Chutes. I was invited to tag along, but I didn’t feel comfortable given my lack of avalanche training/equipment.
Sarah decided to keep climbing on snowshoes, as I took my time continuing up to Muir. I recall seeing Tiffany again near Anvil Rock, and she asked where Sarah was, making sure I didn’t want to do the Chutes with the group. I knew I’d catch up to Sarah, but I was really struggling with my gear. I decided to hand off some equipment to Tiffany in order to “lighten my load.” I surrendered my telephoto camera lens, heavier clothing layers, and North Face mittens. It was too hot to need any of that gear!
About 300 feet below Camp Muir, I crossed paths with Sarah. She was glissading down towards Paradise, and I shouted to her. We discussed our plans. I was ready to turn around and go down together. I didn’t feel like I needed to make it all the way and wanted to stick together. Yet, she felt I’d ski down much faster than her and I’d catch up to her if I were to continue to Camp Muir.
I really wish I had listened to my gut. I NEVER wanted to separate. I will NEVER EVER EVER allow a mountain trip to progress in this way again.
With a little encouragement, I continued on… Luckily, I met two young men on the way who were planning to ski down the Muir snowfield. They agreed to descend with me, and I felt reassured that I wouldn’t be alone. A sigh of relief!
When I finally made it to Camp Muir, I felt accomplished! I ripped off my jacket and stripped my boots from my sweaty feet. I sat upon the ground, looking into the horizon. There were people settling into camp all around me. I started chatting with some of the mountain guides and climbers, hoping to get a refill of water before descending as I was low on fluids. It was the first day of climbing for both RMI and IMG!
As I sat looking into the horizon, I felt this sense of gratitude come upon me, soaking in views of Mt. St. Helens, Adams, and Hood. I sent one photo to my friend from Camp Muir, marveling at these peaks. He was on a ferry returning from the Olympic Peninsula where his attempt at climbing the Brothers was cut short by his gut feeling, and he dodged an avalanche. When he received my message from Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier, he was actually looking at Mt. Rainier from the ferry. The photo I sent him featured Mount Hood. This was around 5PM on Sunday.
Thankfully, I was able to snag some extra water. But… when I returned to meet up with the duo who promised to ski with me… they were gone. It was just me. When I looked down at my phone, I realized it was dead. I had no GPS. A map and compass, but no GPS. Part of me wanted to ask for a spot at the Muir camp, but I didn’t have an overnight permit, and I didn’t have any sleeping gear. I needed to get back to Paradise, catch up to Sarah, and get to work on Monday.
Without my phone GPS, I had a pang of nervousness. I looked at the slopes below me, and they felt unfamiliar. There was no longer a bootpack. The suncups began solidifying as temperatures were dropping. On the descent, I was hyper-aware of the pitfalls. I knew I had to avoid the trap of Nisqually Glacier, and couldn’t stay too east or I’d end up in Cowlitz Glacier. Stay west at Anvil Rock. Don’t follow the slope of the hill to the right, or you’ll end up in Nisqually Glacier. I had my map and compass, but that was it. I didn’t yet have any avalanche training (with the exception of an Avalanche Awareness course), so I didn’t have a beacon or probe. Not that it would have helped anyways… considering I was alone. Very alone.
I stopped at what I figure was 8,400 feet and started blowing my whistle. Maybe someone else was out there? I saw ski tracks, but I didn’t trust them. The voice in my head was reminding me not to travel other tracks… just because someone else went there, doesn’t mean it was right.
I tried to get my bearings. I couldn’t see the visitor center. I knew the view of Adams and Hood I was supposed to have, so started to look at terrain and aim towards getting to Panorama Point. Yet… I missed Panorama Point. When studying a map in retrospect, I think I ended up near Pebble Creek via Sucker’s Gully, just East of McClure Rock. . I remember skiing past a large field of avalanche debris, and my “oh shit” meter was at an all-time high. I knew I was in avalanche terrain. I knew I didn’t have a way to tell someone if something happened, and holy shit, this could be it. I moved as fast as I could through this terrain.
I just kept going west, avoiding avalanche terrain and trying to get out of the trees so I could get some bearings. Eventually, I realized the features on Mount Rainier were completely unfamiliar. I didn’t have the same vista I would have at Panorama Point, as I could barely see Adams anymore. I knew I had overshot the visitor center and had to pick a new bearing. I decided that, if I headed for Pinnacle Peak in the Tatoosh Range, I would get to the road, and then I could hike up to Paradise. Getting to the visitor center seemed unachievable, as I was also losing light and would soon depend on moonlight. Fortunately, the sky was clear, and the moon was bright. I barely even needed my headlamp…
I stopped every 20 minutes to get my bearings. I seemed to be heading in the right direction. I was grateful for snacks and the extra water. I maintained a pace to keep a comfortable body temperature. I was warm, so I kept switching my Smartwool around in order to not gather sweat and get cold when I stopped moving.
I thought about spending the night. I was grateful for my knowledge as a Wilderness First Responder and knew I could build an emergency shelter if needed. The thought crossed my mind a million times: I might be spending the night out here.
As time ticked on, it was now around 9pm. I was in the trees and was getting more tired and confused. I felt the fatigue of hyper-focusing. Of not really trusting myself. I felt doubt and self-defeat. I thought of Sarah, people at home… did I even tell my parents where I was? They probably wouldn’t even know to worry. Who would know to worry? Would anyone think of me?
I threw my pack off in a huff of complete confusion, frustration, and self-doubt. I looked up at the sky, asking why? WHY couldn’t I be out here with someone who knew the way? WHY was I needing to navigate myself? I felt completely idiotic. I knew this was beyond my knowledge, but I HAD to hold it together. The only thing I could do was pray.
I think I had almost forgotten how to pray… it had been a while. I remember looking up at the moon and knelt down on my pack. I prayed that God would find a way to guide me. That angels would bring me home safely, so I can learn from this experience. I cried. My tears were exhausting. I told myself I needed to keep trying. I knew I could do this. I would try for another hour, maybe God would be by my side.
So, I left my pack and walked around the trees to get some more bearings.
This is when my faith was renewed. As I walked around a tree, two boot tracks appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The funny thing is they were headed uphill – meaning they had to come from the south and, most likely, from the road. The path had ended close to my feet, and I didn’t see any tracks in the opposite direction. My heart told me I could follow this path, and it would guide me home.
I was not blind in my following, but exhaustion started kicking in. I found myself walking in a few circles around trees, following the boot pack, and then ending up in the same spot again. I kept taking breaks to breathe, pray, and check my bearings. Somehow, it was all seeming to make sense. This boot path was carrying me in the direction I wanted to go…
At around 10:45pm, I heard the sound of running water.
The view of Pinnacle Peak was larger, and I felt I was getting closer. I was so close that I felt I could comfortably spend the night, and then use the morning light to guide me if I needed. I was wise enough to recognize that I had drifted SO FAR from my starting point that I KNEW a search party wouldn’t find me here. How the hell did I get here, I wondered? No time for these thoughts, I needed action.
The sound of running water was coming from the west. I saw a huge clearing in the trees in front of me and was wondering why there would be such a void. It was either an avalanche path (nope, not steep enough), or a clearing for something like… a lake?
Oh my word. Could it be?
I walked gingerly forward, then turned around to see behind the trees I had been engulfed in.
I had never been to Reflection Lake during the day, but I’d seen photos of the view many times. I KNEW this view I had of Mount Rainier. I recognized it immediately.
I found myself at Reflection Lake, which meant… I was almost at the road. I put my skis on and made haste as I crossed the lake to the other side where there was a HUGE wall of snow boulders. As I drew nearer, I started running. As I peered over the edge of the boulders, right in front of Pinnacle Peak, I saw the concrete road.
Relief, joy, and tears rushed over me.
It was 11pm on Sunday, May 7th, and I would NOT be spending the night in the Mount Rainier backcountry.
I then walked the 3.5-mile Stevens Canyon Road to Paradise Road East towards the Henry M Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. The Stevens Canyon Road was closed to foot traffic, and no cars passed me along the way. I don’t think I’ll ever have the same experience driving the road to Reflection Lakes, knowing I walked it…
I got to my car at 2am, which had a note on my windshield from Sarah. She wrote saying she was leaving and would like me to call her when I got to cell service.
First, I called my family in New York, knowing all well that it was 5am, but unsure if they had gotten word of my delay in getting to safety. They had no idea and were quite confused through my broken words and audible tears. I let them know I was safe and would talk to them in the morning and packed up my car to head out.
I knew I wouldn’t be working on Monday (by the time I’d get back to Yakima, it’d be the EARLIEST 5am), so I decided to head towards Seattle to be with friends.
When I finally got to cell phone service, I messaged Sarah to let her know I was safe. Robert had sent me a text of concern, given he didn’t hear from me after my photo sent from Muir. I also received a missed call and some texts from Simon, who requested I call him when I got his texts. Given Simon’s involvement in Search and Rescue, I figured he heard I was delayed in coming down from Camp Muir and wanted to make sure I was safe. I texted him at ~3am saying I was safe, and it was probably too late to call.
He responded immediately and called me.
He asked if I heard the news. I don’t even know if that registered. I told him I was safe, and he was confused. “What happened to you,” he asked? I told him I was lost on Mount Rainier and he had NO IDEA.
What was he calling about then…?
He said it simply: John died. On Mount Hood.
John? I didn’t understand. I was sucked out of my body. I think he said more words, but I don’t know what they were. The road before me started being pulled away. I sat in my car and started to cry. The emotions of my journey on Rainier didn’t even compare to the eruption of questions I had, the storm of doubt stampeding over my faith. Why John? Why now?? I thought of Shawna, Robert, Eve, JT… everyone else connected with John, my circle of mountain friends, and my heart shattered into a million pieces.
I drove straight to Seattle on pure adrenaline to be surrounded by those who could understand the complexity of the past 24 hours…
My thoughts were paradoxical. I felt I had no solid ground to stand on anymore. What could I possibly believe in? When I had arrived safely to my car at 2am, I had a feeling of faith. I felt safe, and I felt that there was a higher power. I remember looking at Mount Rainier, sensing that she was far more complicated that I could have fathomed. I thought of my prayers, and how God had presented me with a path to follow. But then to find out that a young 32-year-old man who was so full of life had died seemed unfair. Just when I had felt undying faith for our higher power, I started to doubt Him.
I couldn’t help but think that it could have been me today. I could have gotten lost, and never found my way. Yet, I made it to safety, and all it took was one slip – one misstep – and John was gone.
When I made it to Seattle, I was surrounded by others who have known John far longer than myself. I had only met John twice but knew the magnitude of his effect on others. The week following John’s death was (and is) a complete blur. Every day, we gathered at Shawna’s house, finding food to eat, sitting outside with family and friends. We built a community together, and I had never felt so supported or rooted in my life. Sometimes, the most mundane tasks would stop me in my tracks. Heating water for tea… turning on the shower water… just brushing my teeth, I’d find myself sucked away from this life, fiercely doubting my place, our place, on this Earth.
John’s smile and laugh were audible as we all sat at Shawna’s house, sharing stories. He was truly the most heartwarming person I’ve ever met. Hugging him at the trailhead of Mount St. Helens, I felt like I’d known John for years and we had only known each other an instant. He was the kind of person who left an imprint everywhere he went. His voice and heart carried farther than anyone else’s.
In July, my friends climbed Mount Rainier to scatter some of John’s ashes. I was at Paradise while they climbed due to a knee injury, but you can read the climb through the grieving process as written by Eve here. Amazingly, JT somehow snuck “a grill, cast iron skillet, 24 burgers, buns bacon, cheese… (and) Capri sun juice boxes” into his pack for a meal at Camp Muir! With everyone fueled, the team summited Rainier, and the ripping wind took John to every peak in the Cascades.
Sometimes, healing has felt wrong. It can feel like forgetting. Though I’ve recounted this story dozens of times, it feels strange to be moving forward. When I’m on my backcountry skis, I sometimes flashback to my moments on Rainier and am grateful to be so alive… but then get a pang of hurt, remembering who we lost. I remember having to justify why I’d get back on my skis, wander back into the backcountry. It took me some time to even WANT to go outside again… and I’ve found myself forming new relationships with the mountains ever since.
I still haven’t even been back to Camp Muir. But I know I will someday soon.
While I can never find the answers to why this happened, I must keep climbing and moving through the healing. I’ve gotten back behind the wheel of my car and haven’t let fear take over. I know everyone who was close to John has healed in different ways, and we are all climbing through life as a way to stay connected to our own “why.” With two years passed, we are all leading different lives now. We don’t gather together for weekly Wednesday dinners, nor do we speak much of the Mountain Bastards. Yet, I can still feel the legend of John and our mountain community living within me. I know the knowledge I have gained from these people is invaluable. I know we are still connected, though the connection may not be physical; it is there.
Somewhere in my heart, I know I was guided by angels the day I was in unfamiliar backcountry terrain on Mount Rainier. When I called upon God, He answered. I followed two boot paths that circled around each tree, always meeting together, walking together. I felt safe, as if I was in the company of an old friend. My fear had lifted, my doubt subsided. I wasn’t alone anymore.
Maybe, just maybe, that was John. Maybe he’s here with us, guiding us all to safety and giving us the strength to persevere. To Climb On.
I am forever grateful for my community here in Washington, my family back home who supported me through this hard time, and my growing support system, near and far.
Though it will be your instinct to say “I am sorry for your loss,” I am not sure I know what to say in return… I don’t feel like it was only MY loss, and I do not feel sorry for myself. Rather, I feel sad for our mountain community. For the people who John was closest to. For the fact that I didn’t get more time with John. For the humbling fact that life is unpredictable, accidents happen, and the reality is that we can never plan for the unexpected.
Let this give you faith, teach you a lesson, and remind you of our precious life. Live life with a smile on your face, embrace every moment, and live your life to the fullest… we never know where our next step will lead…
Rest In Peace, John Jenkins.
I don’t think I could ever feel these words are enough, but I must tell myself they are. I am sending love to everyone who I have known and understands the meaning of May 7th. Whether or not we have communicated recently, I am thinking of you.
Thursday, May 9, 2019 @ 12:40 PM
Your friend will not be forgotten as long as any of your circle is alive. What a great tribute to John that you all still hold him so dear. You are so right that ‘sorry for your loss’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. And know that his spirit is still with you even if you cannot see him.
Monday, June 10, 2019 @ 6:53 PM
Thank you so much for your kind words. Everyone who knew John I’m sure has carried a part of his spirit with them! I feel blessed to have known someone so spirited.