What Mount Baker taught me about failure

July 2016. Chris & I were preparing to embark on a(n ambitious) 2-week trip to Washington. At the top of our agenda was to summit Mount Baker in the Cascades; our first experience with glacier travel as a team. To prepare for a big adventure like this one, we took all the steps:

  • Attended a weekend-long training on glacier travel/rescue
  • Practiced weekly knot-tying and rope management skills together
  • Stuck to physical training plans (i.e. running, strength training, etc.)
  • Chris even took a 3-week long climbing trip in Peru to learn more about glacier travel and international expeditions (it just happened to work out well for us timing-wise)

Despite all of our planning and wishing, our attempt at Mount Baker proved to be less successful than we hoped…

Day 1 was hectic. We landed in Seattle the night before, picked up our rental, drove to the hotel, and crashed for a few hours. In the morning, we grabbed breakfast and drove the approximately 2.5 hours to Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, checked in at the ranger station, and spent the rest of the day hiking to our base camp. We were jet-lagged, generally tired, and possibly a little extra winded from the altitude change.

Our tent site, however, was INCREDIBLE. It was well-worth the struggle to get there.

DSC_0231DSC_0237

Due to the jet-lag, I woke up naturally around 3:00 am (6:00 am EST), which is one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. The mountain was silent and the moon bright. I could see the lights of what I assumed to be Bellingham, WA speckled in the distance, as well as a few dots of light from climbers’ headlamps who were making their way towards the summit. I sat outside our tent for a while gazing up at the endless sky of visible stars before I was struck with another wave of drowsiness. It’s amazing what surprises are revealed from the landscapes at night.

Day 2 was all about getting our systems down. We relaxed, re-hydrated and re-fueled, and practiced our various rope skills. We did a practice run up to one of the next base camps on the glacier so that I could get more practice identifying crevasses, and feel more comfortable with how well-traveled the route was. The weather was gorgeous and we were feeling excited for the next day’s adventure.

Day 3. Our alarms went off around 4:00 am so that we could get a head-start before sunrise. Seeing other headlamps in the distance made me feel a bit more confident, and honestly having practiced some of the trek the day before made me less nervous about navigating crevasses in the dark. I knew where some of the tricky spots were already.

As day broke, however, the weather started to change. Clouds rolled in, winds picked up, temperatures dropped, and my feet began to feel heavier and heavier. We found ourselves in a field of debris that was hard for me to navigate. Impatient backcountry skiers wove around us, but I was beginning to feel paralyzed by the fear of not knowing where I was going. Our pace was getting slower, and I could tell Chris was getting frustrated.

After what seemed like ages, we reached the headwall, aka the steeper point of the climb. Despite the wind and low visibility, other climbers were un-roping and freeclimbing the snowy face, as it was potentially dangerous to your partner if you slipped. Chris could see it on my face: I was not comfortable doing this given the conditions. We decided to turn around.

DSC_0257DSC_0252DSC_0258 Isn’t it funny how much of a release your body feels when you decide to turn around? Admittedly, I completed our descent with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. My heart felt heavy. No amount of training could have helped me, I thought. I failed us.

What I learned from this experience, however, is that an experience is only a failure if you fail to use what you learned to improve yourself in the future. Despite the fact that we didn’t bag a summit, Chris and I shared an awesome experience on Mount Baker. I pursued an ambitious goal of Washington’s 3rd highest peak as my first glacier, learned to navigate crevasses, and practiced my self-arrest techniques. I gained confidence in a territory that is incredibly foreign to me, and built trust in my climbing partnership with Chris. These are all important skills to build; reaching the summit would have just been the cherry on top.

This was a very long-winded way of saying that I have been slowly learning to stop being so hard on myself. When we get caught up in having to meet certain expectations or wanting to have perfect stories to tell, we often lose sight of the moments in-between that are just as important.

Hopefully you remember this bit of advice when you’re facing your next big roadblock. It’s ok to fail sometimes. Just use it as a learning experience.

Happy trails,

Kait

(For reference, the credits for all of these photos go to my favorite climbing partner Chris. He often beats himself up for not taking great pictures, but I think all of these moments were perfectly captured.)

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