Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 266th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born June 24th, 1987, in Fallbrook, California, though I only have very dim memories of the house my parents built to sell. I spent most of my childhood in Washington, our new house situated among the forests, which probably gave way to my fascination with climbing trees when I was young.
I would weave in between the brush and branches of the pine and cedar trees until I reached the top. I’d look out across the yard and valley beyond and feel victorious. These trees were mine and no one else’s. And when I think about it, it wasn’t just trees. I’d climb on the roof of the house. I knew it was forbidden, but it felt like a faraway and mystical place. It still kind of is in its own weird way.
I eventually became too big to fit between the branches of the trees in our backyard, so I started climbing boulders and rocks. We lived near Washington State Park and it had these tall sandstone cliffs above the shoreline that offered the best adventure and viewpoints. Again, all for the thrill.
As I grew up, I was the small guy with large glasses, so when I joined Boy Scouts, the other kids wrote me off as being weak. But they were sorely mistaken and realized that after I worked hard one summer to achieve a rock climbing merit badge. That’s when I felt confident that climbing was my destiny. That’s what I cared about. I never really considered what kind of job or life I would lead as an adult. I guess I thought my childhood would last forever and there was no reason to think so far ahead.
In 2009, I joined the Mountain Stewards, a program hosted by my local National Forest agency. Basically, I got to spend my days racing along the trails at the foot of Mt. Baker, our local glaciated volcano. On one of my shifts that summer, I remember being given a pair of rusty old glacier hiking crampons (bear claw-like traction devices you can attach to shoes) by a ranger who found them abandoned on the side of Mt. Baker.
They weren’t anything spectacular, and it wasn’t like I’d never seen a pair before. But, that moment felt bigger that day. As I sat on the edge of the glacier, I dreamed of summiting Mt. Baker with those crampons on my feet and the buzz of the thrill inside my soul.
Over the next several years I continued going on hikes and camping trips. Around the summer of 2014, I started dating a girl who lived down in San Diego. After just a couple months of dating online, I decided this was the woman I wanted to spend my life with, and we made plans for me to move to her.
About three weeks before I left, I decided to give the Pacific Northwest a proper goodbye: climbing Ruth Mountain, a snowy heaping glacier. Yes, it would require a lot of stamina, but I could summit it. And so, with a big old Gandalf walking stick, some food, a can of beer, and the old crampons in my small pack, I set out solo for Ruth Mountain. After climbing a 7000-foot high mountain, I was miraculously victorious. I felt I could do anything, including living in San Diego and finding a job down there.
But as it turned out, for the 15 months I lived in Southern California, there wasn’t much crossover between mountain climbing skills and retail job skills. And as time wore on, I became increasingly resentful of the busy, noisy, smelly, urban life. To put plainly, I was missing the climate and wilderness of the Northwest and wanted to become a mountain guide. I couldn’t do that from suburban San Diego.
My girlfriend and I became unstable as I grew restless, we inevitably split up, and I moved back home to mountainous Washington. I knew that I could accomplish more than a lame delivery job at Dunkin Donuts.
Back home, I researched larger mountains that required more technical climbing skills, so I could conquer them and work up to taking others up these mountains as a guide. I had taken friends up on mountain adventures in the past, so this seemed like a natural step in the progression of my interest in mountain climbing.
Less than six months after being home, I took my brother with me up to Mt. Watson, a 6000-something foot-high mountain east of Mt. Baker. It was supposed to be a fairly easy climb.
We hiked into the lakes basin at the foot of the mountain where we then set up camp on top of the snow between the two lakes. From there, I triumphantly set out for the mountain while my brother opted for meandering around the lakes and photographing around the shoreline since he had neither the desire nor equipment to join me.
I wandered through a steep gully, looking for a snow-tongue route that would take me up to the top. With my newly purchased ice ax, I started stepping my way up the snowfields, though at some point, I accidentally took a wrong turn and found myself inside a loose gully that was steep and lined with loose, slippery rocks and moss. I felt increasingly unsure about the route I had chosen, but I had gone too far—200 feet too far.
As I reached the top of the gully, I began to realize the sheer volume of moss and heather around me. Water was dripping onto the rocks. There was no way I’d make it. I would have to climb back down.
But as I began to get my footing just right, my hands slipped.
I fell 200 feet, twirling to the ground like ribbon. In a matter of seconds, my view panned from the cliff face to the sky and to the ground. I landed on a snowfield, bounced, then rolled down over the edge of another cliff. I managed to grip for dear life on the edge of that for a few minutes, blood spilling everywhere on the rocks from my ripped-open arm while I called for my brother. I realized he might be too far away to hear me, so I tried my whistle hanging from my neck. After no answer, I tried to climb down the cliff so I could reach the campsite, but I slipped on my own blood and fell another 30 feet.
Too weak to climb the rest of the way, I glissaded with my ice ax to the bottom of the mountain. I stumbled around blindly without any real idea of where anything was because I’d lost my glasses in the first fall. I was losing blood fast and could feel myself fading.
Among the blur, I spotted our bright orange tent and staggered over. I told my brother what had happened, still clutching my torn arm. He quickly and calmly took down camp without saying much. Then, he wrapped my arm in one of my extra shirts, using extra bungee cords as makeshift bandaging tape. Then we had to hike the two miles back to the car so I could get to an emergency room and get stitched up. The hike felt more excruciating than the fall itself.
For the rest of the summer, I suffered from a variation of PTSD, with recurring flashbacks of falling off the mountain. My dreams were laced with falling sequences that always left my heart racing. I didn’t do too many hikes or climbs that summer. The humiliation of experiencing such a life-threatening incident made me rethink whether I was cut out for being a mountain guide after all. I clearly wasn’t good at navigation. I wondered if maybe I was only good for a Dunkin Donuts after all.
For the next year, I decided to try a new path as a social media manager at my local radio station. But when you love something, it has a way of creeping back into your heart. Outside of work, I began making connections with mountain climbing groups around the area and gained a wealth of knowledge on what mountains to climb, the geology of them, and how to approach them. Through those groups, I began to get my confidence back.
With more knowledge and regained confidence, I faced the mountains once again. I started guiding my friends and girlfriend on hikes. Slowly, surely, like small steps along a journey, I found my footing again. I had to practice having confidence during each hike, long or short, easy or dangerous. Eventually, I didn’t have to practice anymore.
I summited Sourdough Mountain and then Ruby Mountain, the tallest mountain I’d climbed yet (11,387 feet). When I reached the top of the mountains, I felt that not only had I reached the top of the world; I had conquered it and placed it in my pocket like a stone.