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The Accidental Mountaineer

Posted on: September 8, 2017


This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 59, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store here.

[Photo] Eliza Earle[Photo] Eliza Earle

APRIL 8, 2017. DESPITE THE WIND and clouds, our small plane glided smoothly toward an amphitheater of snow and ice, coming to a stop on "Glacier One"—the name that local climbers and pilots used for a fork off the Ruth Glacier on the southeast side of Denali. As far as I could see, the Alaska Range consisted of one towering ice and snow-capped granite cliff after another. For the first time, I was wearing my bulky mountaineering boots. To me, they resembled what an astronaut might wear on the moon. I climbed down the wobbly, metal ladder of the plane, willing myself not to misstep, and then I sank into the deep, soft drifts.

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I was one of six female military veterans who had traveled to this place to learn glacial travel techniques in preparation for climbing Denali the following June. From here, my home city of Los Angeles, with its barrage of noise and exhaust fumes, seemed almost unimaginable. The forty or so miles between us and the town of Talkeetna might as well have been four hundred. There were no trees for miles around—only a series of jagged, snow-covered rocks that formed a single track around our base camp. Flurries whirled so thick that the world seemed on the brink of vanishing. Gradually, the snow stopped, the wind stilled, and everything became quiet and calm, much like an infant falling asleep.

Two days later, our group headed to an area that overlooked the Great Gorge, a wide valley teeming with aqua-blue crevasses. I caught a glimpse of Denali through a layer of delicate clouds. From this vantage point, it faded into a background of other nondescript peaks.

"It doesn't look like all that," I remarked to Rob Gowler, an Alaska mountain guide who was our videographer. He chuckled. "That's called the Alaska factor. The Alaska Range is so big that it makes everything look small."

I let that idea sink in while I gazed at the mountain. The broad, west shoulder seemed to form a gleaming boulevard to the summit. Despite Rob's logical explanation, I refused to feel intimidated.

The author in Alaska. [Photo] Eliza EarleThe author in Alaska. [Photo] Eliza Earle

Over the next several days, as we practiced with avalanche beacons, knots and crampons, and learned how to perform crevasse rescue and create snow blocks, I felt as if I'd been given access to a secret and exclusive world. On our last night, Beth Cleary, one of our guides, declared that she was going to sleep outside because it was "warm." I wasn't so sure. I'd felt cold overnight even while wearing multiple layers of clothing and an enormous puffy down jacket under a minus 40-degree bag. "Warm" was on a sunny beach about two miles from my house. But how often do you get to sleep out on an Alaskan glacier? I trudged to my tent and pulled out my sleeping pad and bag. The others had already packed themselves into what had been our kitchen: a shoveled-out hole in the snow.

Later that evening, I poked my head out of my sleeping bag. An unnerving rumble punctuated the stillness of the night—small avalanches were tumbling down the snowcapped mountains that encircled us. Enormous chunks of ice exploded in the distance as the moon cast an eerie glow. An occasional giggle from one of the other sleeping bags and the muffled sound of boots shuffling through the sugary snow blended into the soundtrack of a place that was beginning to feel more familiar, almost like home. I wish my three children could see this someday, I thought.

THREE SUMMERS BEFORE, I'd flown over Denali after a race I ran in Anchorage. I couldn't see the summit through the clouds, but the pilot pointed out base camp, where I could barely make out tents in neon green, bright red and tangerine orange. "They can spend weeks out there waiting for a weather window," he said. I could never do that, I thought. Or could I? I was a single mom with limited free time. Yet the dream of climbing the mountain lingered in my mind.

Then in February 2017, I received a text from my friend Graciela Cabello, the former national director of Latino Outdoors, a national nonprofit I volunteer for. "Check out the email about Denali I sent," she wrote. A small group of female military veterans, including Kirstie Ennis, a retired Marine with an above-the-knee amputation, was planning to climb Denali as part of a program to inspire and empower women in service. Funded by Building Homes for Heroes, the organizers were looking for more women to join their team. Only three months ago, I'd summited a technical snow climb for the first time. I applied anyway, even though the other team members were half my age. I felt as if the rest of my life hinged on this trip.

I spoke with the expedition leader, Katelyn Sheehan, over the phone two days later. When I heard her throaty laugh, it was as though I'd found a younger version of myself. She was loud and had a penchant for silly humor. Before the Easter holiday, she texted me an image of two chocolate bunnies facing each other. The one missing a bite out of its backside said, "My butt hurts." An Air Force veteran, Katelyn spent four years as a frontline crisis counselor for rape victims in Mumbai and Nepal. When she told me she had already decided to add me to her team, I screamed for two minutes.

Months later, when the expedition members were chosen from the training team, I asked her, "Did you only pick me because I'm Latina?"

"Hell no!" Katelyn replied. "I want you on the mountain because you are qualified, you have the right attitude and the right energy.... You're right for the team." But, she added, "I also love the fact that you entered boot camp the year I was born."

[Photo] Eliza Earle[Photo] Eliza Earle

I AM THE MOST ACCIDENTAL of all mountaineers. After graduating from high school, I spontaneously joined the Navy. I spent two years living on a ship in Scotland tending to the supply needs of nuclear submarines, and another two years managing a construction warehouse and driving a forklift on an air base in Puerto Rico. When I returned to civilian life, right before starting college, I had a shotgun wedding on my then-husband's family dairy farm in Tennessee. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade before I transitioned to media relations. Since then, I'd been living a busy and, for the most part, domesticated life with my four-year-old autistic son and his dad. My two older kids had recently graduated from high school. If it weren't for two major events in 2012, I'd probably still be taking afternoon walks to Main Street in a quaint beach town in Orange County and sitting down for dinner every night with my son and his father, planning family car camping trips to Yosemite.

In July of that year, my mother discovered she had Stage IV lung and bone cancer. My mother had immigrated from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to New York in 1965. To her, family was everything. Framed photos of aunts, uncles and cousins adorned my childhood home. An old cuckoo clock kept the time, a gift from a Colombian aunt who lived in Germany. Images of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa lined the walls, along with framed platitudes that spoke to the power of persistence and positive thinking. My youngest son adored his grandmother, and she adored him. She was teaching him Portuguese, and he was beginning to understand everything she said. She was proud of the stainless-steel stove in the cramped, slightly cluttered kitchen. In her flowered housedresses, she was always the last to sit down to eat, and the first to get up to clean. She'd don yellow rubber gloves to scrub the pots, wipe the stove, and wash and dry all the dishes while the rest of us watched, sluggish after a heavy meal of arroz com feijao or bife a milanesa.

After her diagnosis, I took unpaid leave from my job at a statewide community organization, and I dove into a new role—acting as my mother's chauffeur and navigating oncology appointments and health insurance hassles. Her voice, once strong and authoritative, turned into a hoarse whisper. Her frame thinned, and she developed a stoop from the back pain.

One day, while we stood in her kitchen, I felt an intense need to touch her, to know she was still there. I put my arm around her, though I knew her entire body ached. "Aninha, doi," she said in Portuguese using the diminutive of my name. "It hurts."

She reached into the cupboard to find my mug, the one that had my name spelled right (Ana, with only one "n"). It felt as if we were participating in a final ritual: The Last Time My Mother Made Coffee For Me. I watched her pour the coffee, spoon out a large quantity of sugar and lots of cream.

"Ve se voce gosta." See if you like it.

It tasted like warm coffee ice cream.

"Voce e a unica que sabe fazer como eu gosto." You are the only person who knows how to make it how I like it. I turned away to hide my tears.

On the night she entered hospice, I curled up into a ball on the living room couch as my partner held me and did his best to comfort me. The next day, I asked him if he would be there for me at the end of my life. He said he couldn't. He was unhappy. The following day, my mother slipped into a coma and died two days later, and there was no one to hold me.

Trauma wasn't new to me. When I was a Navy sailor, I was raped. Afterward, I made a suicide attempt. For years, I didn't talk about my experiences because of the shame I felt. It was as if I were trapped in a dark underpass with no light at the end. Or maybe it was a hole. Now its walls seemed to close over me again. Whatever it was, my mind couldn't escape. Hadn't I gotten better after all these years? After becoming a mother? At times, now, I forgot to breathe, and I caught myself gasping for air.

Because I'd taken unpaid leave, I was unable to afford a separate apartment. My former partner slept on the couch. Friends told me to take it one day at a time. They had no idea that I was trying to survive from one minute to the next. My youngest son was my only solace. It was a full-time job to calm his outbursts and teach him how to play like other children. With him, however, I felt useful. On weekends alone, I didn't know what to do with my spare time. One day, I took off running. A chilly gloom had settled over the San Gabriel River Trail, a place where I'd spent many happy hours riding bikes with my son and his father. An industrial power plant loomed over the trail as my feet thudded against the pavement. At my core, I knew I had to rework the story of my life.

[Photo] Eliza Earle[Photo] Eliza Earle

TRANSFORMATION CAN BE SLOW. Mine had started in early 2012 when I took my first backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park, before my mother became sick. I felt a foreboding sense of fear and an inexplicable and intense desire to build up my defenses in the outdoors. Despite my body's experience with military exercises and childbirth, I still felt jarred by the two-mile hike to our campsite. Within three years, however, I was climbing fourteeners in the Sierra. In late 2016, record-setting snowstorms turned our local mountains into an alpine paradise. Every mountain above 5,000 feet was blanketed in white, including Mt. San Antonio, commonly known as Mt. Baldy, the highest peak in Los Angeles County. I had climbed it during the summer, but never during winter in heavy snow.

The day after Christmas, I headed up Baldy with my friend Josh LeRoy, stocky and blond, with pageboy locks and a peculiar charm that comes from living a seemingly unencumbered life. Childless and single, he spends most weekends climbing. Past the parking lot, the winding fire road was slick with black ice. I strapped crampons onto my old backpacking boots. Instead of drinking from my water bottle, I dug my hands deep into the fresh drifts, wanting to absorb part of this wild place into my body—the pine trees and rocks, the dirt and snow—as if I were still a Catholic schoolgirl taking communion in church.

Still 1,600 feet below the ridgeline, we tried to take a shortcut, only to flounder in knee-deep drifts. "Look at it this way," Josh called, "You're getting more of a workout." I don't need more of a workout, I thought. I'm already getting plenty. I started making my way over to a trail where other climbers were kicking steps upward in single file. I sunk into pockets of even deeper snow. This is probably what it feels like to be in the ocean and not know how to swim. I tried to remain calm while I dug myself out.

Gauzy gray and yellow clouds materialized on the horizon to block the light. It would be dark in a few hours, and Josh told me that he was thinking of turning around. My feet throbbed, and my quads ached. I was so out of breath I could barely speak. I planted my ice axe firmly, and I looked below to see how far I had come. The San Gabriels spread out in a tableau behind me: smaller mountains amassed, one on top of another. Towering pine trees looked like tiny scrub brush.

"Let's keep going," I urged. I didn't have my son that week, but I would have to return to work the following day. Who knew when we would get another opportunity with such perfect snow? And for the millionth time, I wondered if I was selfish to climb in pursuit of my mental well-being. Yet each step represented a minor victory: the kind I needed, now, as I faced my future as a single mother of a preteen autistic son.

It was bitterly cold at the summit. In each direction I turned, I saw white. Our local mountains, including San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, seemed unrecognizable, unlike the grass-tumbled hillocks I was used to seeing in the summer months. This was Josh's third attempt. Giddy that he had finally made it, he talked nonstop, but I kept thinking of Denali. If I think this is cold and tough, what would Denali be like? Would I ever be able to handle it?

Ana Beatriz Cholo. [Photo] Eliza EarleAna Beatriz Cholo. [Photo] Eliza Earle

MORNING LIGHT GLISTENS over the vast Ruth Glacier. It's our last full day of the course. Beth calls us to attention. "OK ladies, let's get roped up." A few minutes later, we are all clipped in to our rope and traversing across a glacier. It's slow going—one snowshoe in front of the other. The air feels crisp on my nose, the only part of my body that is exposed. I focus on matching the pace of the person in front of me and keeping the rope in front of me looking like a smiley face—where it's not dragging and it's barely touching the snow.

A few times, I need to remind myself just to glance around me. I'm still surrounded by endless mountains, but I've begun to notice how the contours of each one are unique. I feel an intense gratitude for simply being on this glacier. A dozen more peaks emerge on the horizon. The sky is an azure color, like the warm, jewel-toned waters of the Caribbean, and the snow is a dazzling white. I want to jump for joy, but I can't. I'm part of a rope team, and I have snowshoes strapped onto my feet. The thought makes me giggle, and an image of my mother flashes through my mind.

My son's fourth birthday party, and my partner and I had rented a bounce house for the backyard. The doorbell rings and my mother and father appear holding a pirate cake and presents. She gives me a warm hug and kiss and calls for her grandson. He runs straight into her arms. He won't go in the bounce house without my mother, so he grabs her hands and leads her inside. I double over laughing as I watch them become a frenzied blur of synchronized motion. Beads of sweat run down their flushed faces. She's laughing, too—a roaring, boisterous laugh that brings tears to her eyes.

As I set one foot in front of the other, the monotonous rhythm lulls me deeper into reveries. I see a lonely girl in her bedroom lying on her bed, reading and dreaming. A chaos of noise bursts outside the plain wooden door covered with stickers of rock bands and clippings of favorite movies. Her parents are fighting—again. On windy nights, while everyone is asleep, she sneaks into the backyard to stare at the sky and listen to the melodic rustling of the leaves on the orange tree. She wishes that she could step inside her books, into remote lands filled with stories of adventure and brash heroes and heroines overcoming adversity with aplomb.

Ahead of me, now, the orange dots of our base camp appear. The light is fading. I'm fulfilling a promise made to myself years ago that I would abandon the fear and hesitation of my past, that I would consciously jump into the pool of life with no regrets and swim with my goggles off and eyes wide open. Snow crunches beneath my boots, and I look down to where they are surrounded by tiny yellow diamonds, glistening in the sun. The lead on our team calls for us to stop and I reiterate her command. My voice rings out, strong and clear as crystal, soaring across the glacier and into the coming night.

—Ana Beatriz Cholo, Los Angeles, California

After four years in the US Navy, Ana Beatriz Cholo became a news reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. A single mom of three, she's a writer, diversity advocate and volunteer for Latino Outdoors, a national nonprofit. She dreams of climbing rock and snow around the world.

[Photo] Eliza Earle[Photo] Eliza Earle

This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 59, which is now available on newsstands and at our online store here.

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.
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