It’s just a few minutes past 1pm and I have spent the last thirty minutes leaning back on a pile of pumice rock relaxing and enjoying the scenery. My legs are out stretched with one leg over the other balanced on another small pumice rock and my hands are sleeping in my pants pockets. The sun is just over head and I know it going to leave its mark on me after this little adventure. I just can’t seem to ever get every exposed inch of pale white Irish skin covered in sunblock. Oh well! Any sunburn is worth this moment. Other than what I will manage to sunburn, which will be a tiny patch of skin right where my clavicles meet, I am covered in waterproof pants, gaiters, mountaineering boots, a lightweight waterproof jacket, glacier glasses and of course a beanie.
I am basking in delight at an elevation of 7700 feet on a rock island just 600 feet below the cornice covered summit of Mount St. Helens. My car sits 5 miles and 5000 feet below me. I can see Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood and hundreds of other smaller peaks getting overshadowed by these volcanoes. Below me awaits thousands of feet of snow descent followed by a couple miles of dirt trail before I sit in the comfort of my car with an ice cold gatorade. Twenty to thirty feet to my right is the ascending trail to the summit and the glissade chutes for descent. People are still trudging up to the summit and we yell words of encouragement because I know from all my previous summits on this mountain…the last few hundred seem relentless and more difficult than all the rest.
Besides the amazing beauty of this mountain and the brilliant design of the mighty cascades all around me, the reason I can’t get this permanent grin off my face is the two people sitting next to me. I had the honor of climbing this mountain, on Mother’s Day of all days, with my son and daughter. This was a true blessed moment for me. Sitting up on top of a snowy peak with two of my kids. They immediately starting getting dressed when the 4:15 am alarm went off in the car. Everyone got dressed, quickly ate oatmeal and bananas, deflated air mattresses and checked over the backpacks to make sure we had everything we needed for such a big day. We set out on the trail with a group of friends at 5am and spent seven hours climbing up to this spot we came to rest on. They were such a joy to climb with and I was excited to see their day long commitment to this big climb and their mental strength to continue to push past being tired and uncomfortable. They are really maturing in the mountains these days and I’m excited about our next climbs together.
Lesson 1: Turnaround Time
We discussed a turnaround time the day before and reiterated it as we set out on the trail. There would be a set time in which we needed to reach a certain elevation or we would turnaround and head down. This can be one of the toughest calls to make, especially if the summit is so close and you have worked so hard, but I felt it was very important to impress upon them if I wanted to keep climbing with my kids. After all, in some climbs we do as adults, we abide by the same standards. I told the kids that that we had until noon to get within 1000 feet of the summit. If they made it by that time, then we had two hours to climb the next 1000. We did make the first cut off time, but barely. As we continued to climb, the pace reflected that of a 10 and 12 year old that have been climbing vertical snowfields for seven hours. We climbed up within 600 feet of the summit and the kids decided they really wanted a good fifteen minute break.
Fifteen minutes turned into thirty and thirty minutes revealed that we were really going to need to pick up the pace to make summit time. However, the kids didn’t look like they were going to be picking up any pace, but merely slowly approaching the summit because they didn’t want to quit. They just couldn’t go any faster. So, I determined it was turnaround time knowing we would not make our summit in time. The kids were disappointed but they learned a few lessons in this moment. First, we stuck to the plan. If I had ignored our original agreed upon plan, I would be setting a lousy foundation for future risks and climbs. Second, if it was disappointing coming so far and almost reaching the summit, next time they will work harder to reach their goal or summit. Third, even when we don’t make it to the summit, what did we achieve, gain or learn. Upon descent, when I taught my daughter how to glissade, she momentarily forgot about summits and thoroughly enjoyed all 4000 feet of glissading.
For the record, had I let them continue the climb toward the summit, they would have reached the summit a half hour to an hour passed the turnaround time. The descent would have been just as safe and we would have just hiked out in the dark on a well marked trail. I could have let them do this and they would have been super excited about a summit and all the success/hard work it took. I really had to weigh this out in my head: summit and success versus sticking to plan and learning a few other lessons. I don’t think there is a right call, necessarily. I mean, it’s not like you can’t adjust your turnaround times. This is just what I chose based on their pace, how much energy they needed to get back to the car and what experiences I could afford for them to learn.
Lesson 2: Trust, even when you are so incredibly scared
Back to enjoying my relaxed state of being on rock outcrop island at the 7700 foot level of a snow covered active volcano that still has steam coming out of its slowly rebuilding cone. After an enjoyable hour of soaking up alpine life on this volcano and watching my kids build tiny forts out of pumice, I turned to the kids and told them to remove their crampons, place them back in their backpacks and let’s get ready to descend. My daughter’s face immediately lost all color. She was terrified of what was to come.
The plan was to glissade, or slide on one’s butt in a controlled manner down defined sliding chutes produced by others who have descended. However, when you are ten, haven’t spent too much time on snow, just walked in crampons and used an ice ax for the first time four hours ago, you might be a little intimidated by a 25 to 30 degree slope of snow and the tiny trees thousands of feet below. We stood on the edge of the rocks and I quickly talked about our plan of walking horizontal across the snowfield for 20 feet to the chute. Then I talked about how to use the ice ax to steer while in the chute and that I would lead the descent. By this time, my daughter was shaking, crying and pleading with me to not do this. She said she simply would rather walk down. She had no idea how much actual fun she was about to have and how simply long and boring it would have been to walk down 4000 feet and three miles down a mountain. We will have plenty of that type of descending in future climbs. Instead of trying to convince her, I simply looked at her and said “I need you to trust me and I promise you will be fine.” She would later tell me that as we walked across the snow field to get into the chute that she kept repeating “I trust my mom, I trust my mom.”
I sat down in the chute ready to start sliding down and my daughter sat right behind me, still shaking and now bear hugging me. Later, she told me on this first part of descent, she buried her face into my backpack and didn’t want to look up. My son stayed just behind us but he has climbed and glissaded with me before, so I wasn’t concerned about him. After a hundred feet or so, we stopped and briefly talked about what we had just done. This time, I glissaded thirty feet ahead and told her to try it on her own as I watched her slide toward me. When she slid down to me, suddenly she replaced tears with shrieks of joy. From this point on, we continued to slide down as far as the snowy route would take us. Each glissade happened to get steeper and bumpier and my daughter could be heard yelling “no, wait, this one was the best one ever.” I couldn’t have been happier. My daughter conquered her fear and found joy in this huge moment.
She isn’t going to look back on barely missing the summit top of Mount St. Helens. Instead, she will look back on spending the day climbing a mountain with her mom on Mother’s Day, remembering how scared she got and how she overcame it and then the exhilarating experience of sliding down a roller coaster snowfield at lightning speed. What took 5 hours to climb took 30 minutes to descend. She will also tell you that “freezing your butt off” is totally worth all the fun of sliding down the mountain.