By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly
If you had told me two years ago that I would climb the third-tallest mountain in Oregon, by choice, I’d have said you were crazy. But this summer I did, and I’m so glad I did it.
There are things in life we watch other people do. “Other people,” who may be more outdoorsy, more athletic, skinnier, younger—take your pick—and we watch with awe where they go and what they do. Not being enough of one thing or another, or living more based in fear, or simply not knowing where to start to begin to do those things, keeps us from adventuring into these arenas. At least it did for me.
“There is a special energy when experiencing something so physically and mentally challenging as climbing a glaciated peak with a group of like-minded women,” says Nikki Becker, owner of Miss Fit Adventures. “This year’s South Sister’s climb was comprised of lesbian and queer-friendly participants determined to scale their first mountain, and not all of them were necessarily ‘jocks’ as history or stereotypical labeling would express.” This was my team.
We began training in the spring, beginning with easy hikes, four to five miles long, and with little elevation. Every other weekend, this group of women gathered in the early morning hours to head out to our playgrounds, the Columbia River Gorge or Mt. Hood, to tackle a new, and always slightly harder, hike. What began as a jaunt around the waterfalls at Silver Falls transformed into a hike to the top of Hamilton Mountain, Dog Mountain, and the notorious Ruckel Ridge. We talked while we hiked, learning about each other’s families, jobs, histories, and discussing in detail the pros and cons of hiking gear, especially boots and backpacks. We learned how great hiking poles were, the importance of water, fueling our bodies for hikes, and the constant reminder that it’s never, ever a race. We took breaks to care for ourselves and each other, greeting other hikers and learning the etiquette of trail passing (those coming uphill always have the right of way).
There was talk about safety, and we rarely were confronted with the realities of hiking, but the morning we gathered at the trailhead at the same time as the search and rescue teams out looking for a stranded hiker we had read about in the news, it felt a little close to home.
But then there was a hike at Nesmith Point. Narrow, winding, and climbing in altitude, the trail was overgrown on the mountain side, and I ventured too close to the outside edge. The trail gave way beneath my feet, sending me down the side of the mountain. While it was only a few feet of tumble, I grasped at the mountain as rocks and dirt gave way and rolled down the side of the mountain. I looked up into the faces of my hiking companions as they grabbed each other’s wrists and one scrambled down to grab me and my pack and pull me back up. It was calm, surreal, and fine, and it wasn’t until later I realized how bad that could have gone if I had been by myself. I learned a lesson right then and there: never hike alone.
This element of teamwork continued throughout the season, and showed itself again when hiking South Sister. We were on the trail at 5:30 a.m., in the dark and with our headlamps on, as we began our ascent. By 7 a.m. we arrived at the plateau, peeling off layers and having the first snack of the day. As the day continued and we continued to climb—that day we would climb 4,757 feet of elevation to a height of 10,358 feet at the summit—the altitude took its toll. Mild nausea hit me, but strangely enough, I lost my words. I just couldn’t talk. I stopped eating and drinking, and I couldn’t look around as the trail became steeper and more exposed. Teammates recognized altitude sickness was affecting me, and stopped to make sure I was eating, forcing me to drink my water. I began to feel better.
When we reached the top, we stood in in awe of the glacier and the view all the way south to California and north to Washington. Many of us couldn’t believe we had actually done it. Lisa Wallis, who doctors gave a 3 percent chance of walking again after suffering a pierced spinal cord and surgery 10 years ago, stood at the top, tears on her face, and looked out at where we had come. Where she had come. And vowed to keep going. Next year she plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and now she knew she could do it. We had done it, together, climbing a glacier-topped peak. We may have called ourselves the Turtles, but dammit, we did it. It was never a race, but it was completely a success.
Photo credit: Nikki Becker, Miss Fit Adventures
LeAnn Locher is preparing for her next hike: the Grand Canyon this October. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org@pqmonthly.com.