Have you ever tackled a hike that you knew you could complete, but you just didn’t want to? I love how Contributor Sarah Kyllo put it in her story here. There are days you simply show up and see how the trip unfolds. Even though she didn’t complete what she set out to do, Sarah’s story is a great inspiration on how to be ourselves.

When I was in grade school, my favorite thing to bring to “Show and Tell” was a small glass jar my Mom kept in our hutch which contained ashes from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Living in the flat prairie of North Dakota, it seemed unimaginable to fathom a mountain that could, not only explode, but send ashes over a thousand miles away. Each time I would shake the jar, the ashes would stay suspended, and slowly fall back down. I would try to picture the eruption, and think about the way the dust dissolved and traveled back to earth miles away from where it began. The jar was a relic of history, a reminder of impermanence, and the ever-changing landscape of our world.

Back then, I’m not sure I would have even imagined being able to see the remains of the mountain one day, and certainly wouldn’t have thought of trying to climb it.

This past Mother’s Day, on my Mom’s 68th birthday, while she celebrated her day back in Fargo, I attempted to summit Mount St. Helens. New to mountaineering, this was set to be my 2nd mountain summit on snow.

Since 1989, groups have been summiting on this day in dresses and skirts, to honor their mother’s and all the outdoor women. The idea of joining a 499 crazily dressed hikers, skiers and mountaineers on a mountain seemed like a good way to spend the day. I was hoping to get more experience on snow to feel more comfortable with descents and glissading, and the non-technical climb at Helens seemed like a great way to get that in 12 miles and over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

The week before the scheduled climb, the weather forecast got worse and worse. Several feet of new snow was predicted to fall over Friday and Saturday, with wind and low visibility. Sunday’s forecast was a bit better, but still included rain and snow, in addition to dealing with all of the snow that was supposed to fall on Saturday. On Thursday, I spent the afternoon deciding whether or not to go with the group of 12. On one hand, there was a small chance of summiting, a great likelihood of unpleasant conditions, and the expense of time and money to go. On the other hand, it was a challenge, a chance to train, and to experience something new. “Adventure wins”, I thought to myself, as I handed over my money to rent crampons and ice ax on Friday afternoon.

I packed my rain gear, snacks, and extra layers into my day pack and all the other camping gear in another bag and headed up Saturday afternoon with one of our climbing team members to meet the others. We arrived around 7 p.m. at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, which had direct access to the Worm Flows trailhead where we would set off to climb the next morning in just 12 hours. We setup the awnings on the RV vans that two members had, and did some introductions. I had met a few of the people who would climb, but several I had not. We all setup tents, ate our dinners, and tried to stay out of the rain as we talked of future adventures and past experiences.

As I got ready to sleep, I thought about how the story of the next day would go. In my mind, there were two scenarios: we got a break in the weather and all summited and celebrated, or the weather won and we all came back down and called it a good try.

It rained all night into the morning as we set off towards the trail at 7 a.m., taking a group photo in the rain. There were 11 of us, including 2 leaders and one assistant leader. Everyone wore a dress, tutu or a skirt, and despite the rain, were in good spirits. Only about 150 of the 500 permitted people showed up to climb. Most people had seen the forecast and decided not to go. Only about 10 or 12 people had successfully summited the day before. Our group set out with an attitude of seeing how it went and making decisions about whether to keep going along the way.

The start of the climb through the trees included light non-stop rain, as I kept my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes and to make sure I wouldn’t slip on the wet snow. We trudged upwards and after a couple of miles, the elevation got steeper as the trees got less and less. There were no grand mountain views, everything was covered in snow and fog. The rain had changed to light snow. I just focused on putting one step in front of the other, looking at the line of guys in dresses that were ahead of me.

After we passed Chocolate Falls and got to 5200 feet, one of the members of our group, who was further behind the others, and one of our leaders yelled ahead to ask everyone to stop. We regrouped.

The member had decided she couldn’t continue due to stomach cramps and not feeling like she was able to eat or drink much water. It was her first time on a mountain, but had been excited to test her limits.

At that point, with the fast pace of our leader, I had been starting to struggle to keep up with the group on the steep snow. I was also worrying about what was ahead, if it would be icier and if so, how going back down would go.

It was one thing to struggle to breathe and continue to go up, but for me, I’m always more nervous about the way back down. It seemed to me that the group would probably continue for another few thousand feet and then just call it a day without a summit push. Was it worth it? I was sweating and couldn’t take any more layers off. My rain gear was holding but wet and damp. I wasn’t quite in mountain shape after the long winter and I felt lightheaded. When one of our group decided to go down, my first thought was, “Yes, I want in on that too.”

As the group discussed logistics, I caught my breath and wondered for a minute if I should continue. I felt better now, and there was nothing specifically wrong with me.

Could I physically go on? Yes. But, I honestly didn’t want to.

Even if we summited, I assumed it would just be cloudy and snow covered.

There was likely stronger wind and more steep ice and snow ahead. The further I went up, the further I would have to navigate how to get back down. We were only at about 5200 feet and the top was over 3,000 feet higher. After hearing how much further it was, after two hours in, I reaffirmed my decision to go down. The mountain would be there another day and I knew that if I didn’t take this chance to go down, I wouldn’t likely have another one until the entire group decided to go down.

One of the guys in our group chose to go down as well. He had already summited last year, and felt the sweat and rain made it not worth it. His decision reinforced mine. One of the Mt. St. Helens’ Institute volunteers was nearby and volunteered to take us down since we didn’t have any communication devices. He assured us he was happy to, mentioning that he really wanted some coffee from the canopies at the trailhead.

Going down, plunge stepping on the first steep slope, I felt I had made the right decision. I didn’t want to think about having to navigate all of those steep slick slopes that I would have been faced with had I continued. The way down was mostly easy, as we traveled the 3.5 miles back to the trailhead. My head began to hurt and I was grateful when we arrived at the parking lot by 11 a.m. We changed into drier clothes and spent the day hanging out in a van, snacking and talking while we waited for the others to arrive. We read books about trails in Oregon and Washington, and ironically, talked about all the things we wanted to see and explore, while we sat in a parking lot, surrounded by a mountain, waterfalls and trails. It rained off and on throughout the day with patches of blue sky and we wondered how our friends on the mountain were doing.

Slowly, by afternoon, those who had traveled up to summit with skis had started to arrive back, telling us how the weather at the top hadn’t been bad. We were surprised to learn that our group had made the summit and had even gotten some sunshine. The rest of our team arrived back at 3:45 p.m., with exhausted smiles and jubilation.

I greeted them with my congratulations, but after seeing them and hearing of their day, I felt envious and disappointed with myself. I wanted that feeling of accomplishment, of pushing my limits, reaching my goal, of being a part of the team, and feeling like I pushed my body and mind to be stronger.

Instead, I felt sad. As the group stood around, sharing beers and snacks after a long strenuous day, I just wanted to leave and go home to my shower and bed. I felt like an outsider and wondered if I really belonged to this kind of group. I didn’t really want to think about doing it next year. I wondered if I ever really wanted to do another snow climb at all. The one I had done the previous year had been amazing, but pushed my comfort level. I didn’t seem to be any more comfortable and on top of that, clearly I was out of shape.

We finally all split up and drove in our carpools back down to Oregon. I was quiet on the way down, wrestling with my thoughts and decision on the mountain. I never want to be someone who lives in fear and avoids challenges. I want to be strong and capable. A strong team member, with a positive attitude and good sense of humor. A strong woman who can accomplish what I set out to do.

Should I have just continued? Did I miss a chance to be there on that summit in the sun with a great group of people? Did I make a mistake? Why couldn’t I summon the desire to do it? The weather wasn’t terrible, I wasn’t ill or injured, but my mind just didn’t want to make my body continue. These were the thoughts I had on the four hour drive back home.

Reflecting on the climb a few days later, here are my thoughts. The thing is, I set out on a hike and I accomplished that. Even if I did only 2300 feet of it, I still was there. I have successfully summited three other mountains in the past 2 years, and never once, on those climbs, did I think about quitting before the summit. There are days when you just show up and see how it goes. There are days when you show up and it is epic and amazing, and then there are all the other days in between.

This ended up not being one of those epic days, but I will remember the dresses, the snow, and the laughing in the van while we waited for the others.

There are lessons to be learned on every hike or climb. There have been hikes that I have pushed myself on, and there are hikes that I cut short due to weather, time, or desire. And that’s OK. There’s this silly ideal in our culture to pull yourself up, get through it no matter what, and not complain or appear weak.

I think this is especially true for woman, who are often already assumed to be the “weak” ones when it comes to the outdoors. It takes more strength sometimes to admit you need to quit than to just keep suffering through.

It’s OK to say that it just isn’t your day.

That you maybe didn’t train enough or want it badly enough. That this day isn’t the day to face your fears and apprehension. If the first person on that climb hadn’t decided to not ascent, I know that, at the time, unless I was hurt, I wouldn’t have admitted I didn’t want to go on. I think that’s a lesson I needed to learn. It really is OK sometimes to admit defeat. People don’t think less of you (or if they do, why does their opinion matter?).

There are multiple peaks and climbs and hikes in my summer plans. I plan to finish them all, but all plans are subject to change. Control is an illusion we harbor against the weather and forces of nature, both outside and within. Eruptions change the landscape. Forests burn and ashes fall. The dust is carried and life renews again. By going outside, we are changed. Dissolved, built up, and renewed. And it’s OK to have struggle and stumble along the way. There are always more days to find that adventure wins.

Read more from Sarah on her blog.

2 comments on “Chasing The Ashes

  1. Hi Sarah,

    In 2005 I was on my way up Mount Katahdin after thru hiking the entire rest of the Appalachian Trail. It was July. I had over 2,000 miles under my belt. No reason not to summit. But as the weather got windier and rainier, I eventually turned around with less than 2 miles to to summit. And I felt all those feelings, despite my experience. The next morning I woke up and tried again, this time in brilliant sunshine. I was the first one at the top and the only one there for about an hour. It felt like I had dreamed it would. Sometimes we need to feel the wind and the fear in our faces and step into it with arms outstretched. Other times we need to be brave enough to disappoint ourselves in the moment. The line is as thin as knife’s edge, and with something so dangerous, it’s important that you are the one in control of it. Whether you now regret or approve of your decision then, you certainly were in charge of it, you have learned from it, and you are a better and more experienced hiker because of it. Good work.

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