elevations and depressions

A lot of people say that mountains are dangerous and that they take lives, and although I know that is true, somehow climbing a mountain saved my life.

 I always wanted to climb Rainier. From across the Puget Sound I admired her and her prominence from the rest of the Washington landscape. So naturally, when I decided that I wanted to end my life, it became an objective that I wanted to accomplish, for myself, before I was gone.

See, I had come up with this idea that I was a burden more than anything to everyone in my life—that I was not worthy of life and that I was a waste of resources and energy. It’s easy to convince yourself that this is true when you constantly tell yourself that you are not good enough. So when I decided to finally put into action a plan to climb Rainier, I was setting my expiration date. Of course there’s a lot that had to go into this plan. I had never climbed a mountain before. I wasn’t in mountain climbing shape and wasn’t sure what over 14,000 feet would feel like since I had lived at sea level my whole life. I didn’t know anything about glacier travel, how to self-arrest, or even how to put crampons on. So I started training. Not having a clue what training should really entail, I ran more than I had ever run before, I hiked with a heavy pack on every weekend that I wasn’t teaching skiing and I tried to challenge myself in everything I did.

I didn’t realize it at the time but when I was training I was really happy—or maybe not happy, but I wasn’t sad. It was a therapy that I didn’t realize I was giving myself. On my runs I would see the sunrise behind Rainier and the reflection of the pinks and oranges in the sky on the water, the waves only small ripples on the surface in the calm morning. Exploring the Olympics on my hikes I would go for distance and elevation through lush green, mossy forests that led me to alpine lakes in snow covered bowls. It pushed me and my friends that joined.

It was great; those moments in the outdoors, my break from reality and the city. The talks with my friends on my hikes gave me another form of therapy. But when I was done pushing myself and I got home, that high went away and I was left with an empty feeling and a strong desire to disappear.

It was May. I was almost done with my senior year of high school. Everyone was excited to be done, get the hell out of Olympia. And I was actually looking at a future, or telling myself to pretend to look at a future. I committed to MSU and acted as if I was planning a life after climbing Rainier. While my peers daydreamed about their summer and moving away, I daydreamed about climbing a mountain and ending whatever pain or sadness I was feeling that day.

The time came to climb and I thought that I was prepared. I packed and repacked, laying out my gear… crampons, ice axe, boots, extra socks… I looked at it all and contemplated every item. I had everything I needed. It was time to go.

When you get to the base of Rainier you don’t really grasp how big it is. There’s so much more than meets the eye. It was stormy as we drove to the base and we were told once we got there that we might not be able to make it to the top. But still it was time to boot up and trek to camp Muir. Step by step we made our way up the mountain through the mist that we could barely see through. Unsure of where we were at around our third break to get water the clouds began to part a little way above us and I caught a glimpse of blue sky and Camp Muir not too far above. I was feeling pure joy. And I told myself to enjoy every moment on the mountain. That night I watched the sunset. It was quiet. There was no wind. The pink sky reflected off the snow, and we were high enough above the clouds that I could only see the top of the peaks pushing through the cloud cover.

We started early in the morning—or night—for a summit push. It was painful and it felt like forever. I was also terrified by the snow bridges we had to cross and the crevasses I looked into and couldn’t see the bottom of. We made the summit and I was overjoyed and in so much pain. Not from the physical push but from altitude sickness, dehydration, and the cramps that were telling me that I was too weak to make it all the way down the mountain. But I did. I made it all the way down the mountain smiling through tears of pain and slight delusion because I had made it and had accomplished my final goal.

But when I got down to the parking lot and got rehydrated and thought to myself, “Okay that was it, you can be done now,” I also thought that I no longer wanted to be done. Despite all the pain  I had felt climbing up and down Rainier I wanted to do it again, or something like it. I wanted to live and experience things like that more often. I wanted to meet good people that liked to do the same things I did and push themselves and push each other and be kind to people and kind to myself. Because that is what life is about. I wasn’t selfish or a burden. I saw that when I got down and my mom was waiting for me with a huge hug of pride and tears in her eyes.

Depression doesn’t just go away but it is easier to push unhealthy thoughts away. My life has become focused on living in the moment, like I was every minute on Rainier. A lot of people say that mountains are dangerous and that they take lives, and although I know that is true, somehow climbing a mountain saved my life.

Author:Abby Westling