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The Unclimbed

Posted on: October 18, 2019


[This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 67, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. This story is a sequel to "The Accidental Mountaineer," by the same author in Alpinist 59. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

MY FATHER APPEARS SMALL, vulnerable and scared. His dark brown eyes are orbs of sadness. We're inside a cramped, sterile room in a medical clinic of a suburb of Bogota, Colombia. A young doctor is describing, in Spanish, what appeared in the lab tests and the X-rays. He's not saying anything definitive, only that more tests are needed and that the ones they have don't look promising. He lightly touches my father on his arm and escorts him out the door. My father's partner, Maria Ines, follows behind. I'm confused. The other two doctors motion for Andrea—Maria Ines's daughter—and for my younger sister, Nancy, to stay.

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The first doctor comes back. As soon as the door shuts, he turns to the three of us, and he says, "Tiene cancer de pulmon y es grave. El no va a vivir mucho mas tiempo."

He has lung cancer, and it's serious. He's not going to live much longer.

We look at each another in shock, and then we bombard the doctor with questions. His answers aren't good enough. They provide us with neither comfort nor hope.

The author's father, Ricardo Cholo, in Cogua, Colombia, January 2018. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionThe author's father, Ricardo Cholo, in Cogua, Colombia, January 2018. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

It's January 30, 2018. The following day, I'm scheduled to fly to Quito, Ecuador, on my way to climb Cotopaxi, a 19,348-foot volcano. A week later, I'm supposed to fly home to Los Angeles to start a new job—one that could turn into a dream career in the outdoors—and to go back to being mom to my youngest son, Jude.

The Cotopaxi expedition is a mandatory part of my training to join a fully sponsored team of female military veterans on Denali. Two years ago, after my mother's death, my father had returned to live in Colombia, his native country. I'd agreed to visit him while I was in South America. I never imagined that I'd learn, here, that he was dying of cancer. He's seventy-eight.

In the clinic lobby, my father peers into my face as if searching for clues. Family members have explained to me that Colombian doctors don't typically share the news of a terminal diagnosis with patients. Relatives decide if their loved one can handle the knowledge. If they think the truth is detrimental to the patient's mental health, they may not give it at all. We'll wait until my father is home before we say anything.

I try to keep my expression blank as I reach for one of his smooth, brown hands. I squeeze it tightly, and he squeezes back.

We walk out under clouds that bulge like massive gray hills. The damp air chills me, like wind off a glacier.

Ana Beatriz Cholo on the Easton Glacier of Mt. Baker, Washington, September 2017. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionAna Beatriz Cholo on the Easton Glacier of Mt. Baker, Washington, September 2017. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

FOUR MONTHS EARLIER, in the North Cascades of Washington, I faced west with a tent to my back. The pinks, yellows and oranges of the sunset blended into a cyan-blue sky. Nearby pine trees formed black silhouettes. Slate-hued clouds settled in the valleys. I took a deep breath and then sharply exhaled. Plumes of smoke rose from a forest fire, but the haze didn't diminish the beauty of the land. That night, it seemed that nothing could.

"We'll be doing an alpine start at 2 a.m.," Alejandra Garces told our crew over dinner. We were here to climb Mt. Baker, a glaciated 10,781-foot peak. This was Alejandra's first season as a guide. It's heartening to see a young woman of color leading an ascent, I thought. A volunteer with Latino Outdoors, I'd organized the Baker trip as an adventure for others in my community—people who had few chances to take part in expensive sports such as alpinism. Both Alejandra and our other guide, Richard Riquelme, spoke Spanish, and we had a grant and a discount to cover the costs. I was hoping to prepare myself for Denali. By then, I'd practiced snow camping in the Sierra, snowshoeing in the San Jacinto Wilderness and ice climbing at June Lake. I'd summited 14,000-foot peaks in the summer. Yet I was also a forty-seven-year-old single mom with a full-time job, a long commute, a special-needs son and two other grown children. My more regular training included running up and down the Avenue C stairs in Redondo Beach.

When I was picked for the Denali expedition, I thought I'd been offered a life-changing gift: I could never afford such opportunities on my own. In 2017 my teammates and I had been able to take a free mountaineering course on the Ruth Glacier. As our small plane circled above the Alaska Range, mile after mile of snow-covered crags rose sharply into the sky until it seemed that the summits could touch the bottom of the aircraft. Once we reached the ground, I felt as if the mountains drew me into a mysterious realm with its own inexplicable powers. In a span of just a few minutes, sun-dazzled slopes could vanish behind a whiteout. One night, when I slept outside in the snow, I woke to moonlight streaming through distant avalanches that appeared much closer than they really were. Instead of fear or loneliness, I experienced an overwhelming sense of belonging and peace—greater than I'd ever experienced in my life.

Now, on Mt. Baker, with my companions, I'd spent days refining skills in glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and snow and ice climbing. When I woke at 1 a.m. in the pitch-black air, my heart seemed to be beating inside my stomach. But I felt strong.

As we crossed the Easton Glacier, I cursed myself for not checking my headlamp before the ascent: its faint beam made a wan reflection off the ice. It was late season, and I knew that crevasses were all around us. I tried to rely on the wavering glow of a teammate's headlamp, while I imagined the deep, cavernous pits invisible in the night. I pictured how we might appear from far away: strings of tiny lights flickering against the vast alpine dark. The crunch of boots on snow had a familiar cadence. It now sounded like home to me.

At last, a faint glimmer came over the horizon. Soft outlines of mountains crystallized ahead. Edges of crevasses sharpened against the slopes. Each time I gazed into the depths of chasms, I felt as if I'd entered a trance—terrified, fascinated, by blue ice fading into black. A single refrain kept playing in my head: Respect the mountain. My body tensed while I focused on not making a misstep. An enormous wall of ice came into view. I considered what physical forces might have created this massive ice sculpture: the gusts of wind and the rising and falling of temperatures; the accumulation of snow from winter storms; the steady churning of the glacier; so many layers of past time melded and re-formed into the present.

When we stopped for a break, the guides discussed whether a couple of my teammates might be developing signs of altitude sickness. About two hours below the top, we turned back. I tried to brush aside my disappointment. It doesn't make sense to take unnecessary risks for a summit that isn't going away anytime soon, I thought. I've got other mountains to climb. This one won't be my last.

ZIPAQUIRA, WHERE MY FATHER LIVES, is known for its underground cathedral of salt. A dark entrance appears, cut into the slopes of emerald, grassy hills. Hidden 650 feet within the earth, the church is carved from the walls of old salt mines. Indigenous people first discovered the mineral deposits more than fifteen centuries ago. Salt became a valuable part of their trade with other regions. During the colonial era, Spanish conquerors forced local Muisca people to labor in the mines. Later, in the 1930s, Catholic workers built a shrine in one of the tunnels, where they prayed for safety. In 1954, when my father was fifteen years old, the first Salt Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary of Guasa, patron saint of miners. Over time, nearby blasting and drilling caused its structure to become fragile. In 1995 the government built a new cathedral in a closed section of the mine. This building, too, may not last.

Although I'd visited Colombia before, I saw the salt caverns for the first time in January 2018. I felt as if I were entering a gigantic crevasse. The magnificence of these crystalline walls evoked the icy chasms of mountain ranges. Here, the long, dank tunnels gave way to eerie blue and purple lights that illuminated statues. The Stations of the Cross told the story of Christ's last day on earth before the resurrection and invited visitors to contemplate images of suffering and death.

My father was born in Zipaquira on March 17, 1939, the oldest of seven children. His parents were shopkeepers. My father rarely talked to me about them. Black-and-white photos display grim faces. Later, I heard from other family members that when my father wet the bed as a boy, my paternal grandfather used to pull him by his legs and dunk him upside down in a barrel of cold water. On one occasion he nearly drowned, but his mother intervened to save him.

In his mid-twenties, my father immigrated to the United States. He met my mother during an ESL class in New York City. My mother, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, spoke Portuguese, and my father spoke Spanish. I grew up speaking a hybrid version of both languages. It wasn't until I was in kindergarten that I became immersed in English. Back then, my father, despite being a Roman Catholic, was a fan of Robert Schuller, a televangelist pastor who hosted a weekly "Hour of Power" television show in Garden Grove, California. From our dining room TV set, Schuller seemed to be beckoning my father to go West, far from the snowy winters of the East Coast.

In 1977, when I was seven, Schuller started building an enormous church of reflective glass that would be named the Crystal Cathedral. To me, it seemed more like a sterile office building than an architectural wonder. From a distance, however, its mirrored facets reflected the deep blue of the sky, a color that looked like eternity. That same year, my family loaded up a U-Haul to make the cross-country pilgrimage to my father's promised land. The weather was indeed warmer in the Golden State, but our household remained an unhappy one. At dinner, my father kept his belt to the left of his plate—to strike my sister and me if we failed to eat everything my mother had cooked.

"At least he doesn't treat you as bad as he was treated," my mother often said.

At morning and at night, as she'd carefully instructed me, I kissed him on the cheek. A practiced smile on my face, I said either bom dia or boa noite. I was not allowed to express extreme feelings of sadness or anger. But sometimes I saw my mother hiding in our dusty, cramped garage in Stanton with a phone in her hand. Puffing on one cigarette after another, she'd complain to Brazilian relatives about her life.

When I was sixteen, my mother found out that I was planning to attend a rock concert with a boy who was not even a boyfriend. We got into a fight, and I walked out the front door and kept walking until I reached the pay phone at a liquor store on Beach Boulevard. I called the Mexican busboy I worked with at a local restaurant. He picked me up, and we parked not too far from a busy street lined with seedy motels, strip joints and pawnshops. I spent my first night away from home camped out in his car, surrounded by the orange glare of streetlamps.

When I returned the next morning, I found the entire contents of my bedroom stuffed into three black garbage bags near the front door. The rock posters that adorned my walls were now shreds of colorful paper.

My father slapped my face, and he unbuckled his belt as if to hit me. No longer afraid, I screamed back at him while he called me colorful names in Spanish. My sister cowered in her bedroom. My mother, on her knees, wailed for us to stop.

I can't remember if I made it to school that day. I know I came back to the house that night because of my mother. She wanted me home.

At seventeen, I finally escaped to join the Navy—the start of a life marked by wanderlust. After four years of service, I was honorably discharged. At twenty-two, I became pregnant. My father didn't attend my shotgun wedding on a dairy farm in Tennessee. Instead, my mother walked me down the grassy aisle.

Later, I transferred from St. Mary's College of Maryland to the University of Southern California to finish a college degree, and I began working as a newspaper reporter. My mother became a doting grandmother to my young children. My father seemed more comfortable as a grandfather than as a father, though my oldest son later told me he was spanked for some small infraction on a day when I wasn't around, and my daughter said he'd yelled harsh words at her. When I got a divorce in 2001, I packed up again. This time, I went halfway across the country to work at the Chicago Tribune.

Before I left, my father pulled me into the garage of my childhood home. Under the bright illumination of a ceiling lamp, between the extra refrigerator and the washer-dryer, he pulled out a fuzzy photo.

"You're actually not the oldest," he told me. "You have an older sister named Patricia." I could discern no emotion in his voice. I examined the photo and recognized a younger version of my father, kneeling in the grass. Next to him, standing stiffly, was a dark-haired little girl who wasn't me.

In private, my mother wondered aloud to me if there were others.

After five years away, I returned to California to take a job with the Associated Press. I decided to turn this move into a three-week-long, cross-country road trip—with my two kids, ages twelve and fourteen, in tow. It was our first experience camping in state and national parks. Neighboring campers showed me how to pitch our tent. In Yellowstone, I stayed awake all night wondering if we were going to be eaten alive by a grizzly bear. On a wet, windy day in Wyoming, our cheap tent blew away, and we giggled with delight as we chased it to the precarious edge of a lake. On the Rio Grande, my kids and I went on a guided kayaking trip. As the current whirled around us, my daughter's boat tipped over once, mine twice, but we emerged from the waters unharmed each time. By then, we'd realized how much simple joy could be found in the outdoors: splashing around in a rushing, boulder-strewn river surrounded by rock walls and tall trees; watching as prairie dogs popped out of underground burrows or as bison approached our car. I'd never felt more alive.

About a year later, I became pregnant with my youngest son. Although my partner and I planned to get married, he eventually left. In arguments with my father, familiar words resounded: Worthless, unaccomplished, unmarried. After my mother died, my father and I had little reason to talk with each other. I didn't tell him about my outdoor adventures: he couldn't understand how a mother of three could take any risks, or how the afterglow of such moments could help me face the increasing responsibilities in my daily life. He would have found it shameful that I'd spent a weekend on a Sierra ice-climbing trip with male friends. How could I explain to him the exhilaration of kicking into a frozen waterfall with crampons and swinging an axe with all my strength, while ice chips hit my face? There, I played as I wanted to—with abandonment—free, for a moment, of the restraints of living the way others thought I should live. Who was this middle-aged woman clinging to a wall of ice?

I was a foreigner to him.

IN JANUARY 2018, when I arrived in Colombia, a cold rain dimmed the forest-green hills of the countryside with a thick, gray mist. On the first day of my visit, we decided to walk from the modern apartment that he shared with his partner, Maria Ines, to visit an aunt. Zipaquira has an elevation of around 8,700 feet, and I felt giddy, breathing the thin air as we headed down the rough, cobblestoned streets of a centuries' old Andean city. I imagined the snowcapped mountains miles away beyond the clouds. We passed the Casa del Nobel Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a large colonial building with whitewashed walls, a blue wooden door and blue balconies. "I went to school there," my father said. On a plaque, I read that Marquez, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, graduated there in December 1946.

"You went to school with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and you never told me?" I asked.

"No, he was about ten years older than me," my dad replied.

I realized how little I knew of my father's past. Delighted to learn of his connection to one of my favorite authors, I asked him to show me around the building. With his slowed gait, he escorted me into the expansive two-story courtyard below a terracotta-tiled roof adorned with large cutouts of butterflies. Maroon posts held up the balconies, and the windows were trimmed in royal blue. It was the perfect setting to take photos of him posing in his flat cap. Despite relentless bouts of coughing, he looked debonair and youthful.

My father is not the same man, I thought.

Meanwhile, he kept coughing. Maria Ines fussed over him with a constant tenderness. She called him "mi amor" and made sure that he was appropriately dressed for the cold. He responded by reaching for her hand. A cousin claimed that drinking goat milk, sniffing goat hair and rubbing it all over the body could cure bronchitis. We immediately began a quest for suitable goats around the Colombian countryside. I ended up as the chauffeur for my father and Maria Ines. Sometimes other family members joined us. On one trip, we spotted the rundown facade of a restaurant that advertised leche de cabra. After speaking to the owner, my father made his way to a goat in a metal cage. He approached the animal cautiously and asked, "Puedo tocar tus tetas?" Can I touch your teats? The goat looked at my father and bleated loudly. We practically fell over with laughter.

My father petting the goat he thought would help him restore his health, January 2018. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionThe author's father petting the goat he thought would help him restore his health, January 2018. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

My father drank the "miracle milk" straight from the animal. He plugged his nose and made gagging sounds. Maria Ines's son-in-law tried to convince everyone to try the frothy, warm, pinkish liquid. He chased his mother around the parking lot holding a cup. To acquire the tufts of goat hair, my father and Maria Ines got into a horse-drawn wagon, crossed a busy highway and climbed up a hill toward the rest of the herd.

But despite drinking the goat milk and sniffing the goat hair, despite all the doctors' appointments, my father's coughing became worse. The day before we found out my father had lung cancer, Maria Ines came to the door of the guest bedroom, where I was catching up on New York Times stories. She asked me to go into the kitchen, where my sister and father were talking.

"You need to hear this," she told me.

My father stood with his back against a wall, and my sister faced him. I listened as she described a painful memory from our childhood.

He raised his shoulders in a submissive gesture. "I'm sorry," he said, and he looked up at her with mournful eyes.

I remembered another conversation with him, when he apologized for yelling at me for some overdue library books. I'd practically forgotten about the incident, but he'd remained haunted. Tears had welled up in his eyes when he mentioned it, decades later. "You became a writer," he said in a faint whisper. It was the closest he'd come to recognizing who I was.

How little we know of one another. The clock in the kitchen chimed that it was already 10 a.m. How much time has been wasted by suffering? Layer upon layer of words and actions accumulating, freezing, thawing and refreezing into a colossal ice formation, blocking out the sky. It seemed surreal to think that some form of reconciliation—or whatever was now happening between us—could take place in a cramped, tidy kitchen.

My father still stood slumped against the wall. Unknowable thoughts seemed to drift across his face, like the shadows of clouds passing over a snowfield or ghosts through memories. Nothing could prepare me for his next words: when he was about thirteen years old, he told us, a nanny began sexually abusing him; he might have conceived three children with her while he was under the age of eighteen.

"So we might have other siblings we've never met?" I asked. I thought of my half-sister, Patricia, who now lived in Spain.

"Who knows?" he said. "I was so young."

We hugged one another, and we sobbed.

I knew that I might never learn all our family secrets, but a new image of my father emerged: a boy who had been robbed of his childhood.

The author with her father at El Neusa Reservoir in Cogua, Columbia, while looking for goat milk. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionThe author with her father at El Neusa Reservoir in Cogua, Columbia, while looking for goat milk. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

AT SOME POINT BEFORE we get back to my father's apartment, the others give me the task of telling him that he's going to die from lung cancer. We stop at a grocery store on the way because I feel the need to cook his favorite meals—the ones that my mother would make. Soon, I'm examining the cuts of steak I'll use for one of the last dinners he'll eat in his life. I'm trying not to panic.

While in the meat department, I call a team member. "Hey, um, my father has just been diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer."

First, there's silence; then, words of sympathy. She pleads with me not to miss our long-planned Ecuador trip. This training is required for the Denali attempt, she reminds me.

I tell her I will get back to her.

After we return to the apartment, our family files into the small living room. I sit on one of the fluffy rugs on the floor. The whites of my father's eyes have turned red. He gazes at me as if lost. Maria Ines sits next to him, clutching his left arm.

I hold both of his hands. I tell him gently that he does not have that much longer to live, that he has the same thing that killed my mother.

What follows is a long discussion about faith, miracles and hope, but this conversation does not involve me. I'd lost any religious beliefs years ago. We talk of flying my father to the United States, where he is still a citizen, for medical care. We consider the likelihood of getting a visa for Maria Ines. Maybe I don't need to be here, I say aloud. My sister could take care of these details. I want my father to absolve me of guilt, to urge me to follow my longing to Cotopaxi, and then to Denali.

I say to him, "What do you want me to do?" His answer is simple. He asks that I stay.

IN MY DREAMS, SOMETIMES, I'm back in Alaska. I zip out of my sleeping bag, anxious to see what an early morning on this glacier looks like, though my hands seem chilled to the bone. The sky is a light indigo. The sun is still hidden behind us, but a few rays touch the highest peaks. Distant summits flash with gold. The smaller ones remain in shadow. I've never witnessed a view like this. I stop breathing for a moment to take it all in. I may never see it again.

Less than an hour after he learns that he is terminally ill, my father proposes to Maria Ines. He uses a ring that is already on her hand. She takes it off and hands it to him. My sister prompts my father, light-heartedly, as he pretends not to know how to say the right words or which finger to place the ring on. Maria Ines laughs, and she says she has no idea either. In her sixty years of life, she has never gotten a marriage proposal before. I record the moment on video.

My father with his partner Maria Ines Barrera in January 2018, before they were married. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionRicardo Cholo with his partner Maria Ines Barrera in January 2018, before they were married. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

The ceremony will have to take place three days later, before my sister's flight back to LA. Instead of climbing a volcano in Ecuador, I prepare for my dying father's last-minute wedding. We visit a grand, old banquet hall and hotel on the large, verdant grounds of the salt mines. There, my father asks my sister and me to help pick out a menu for the wedding. With my soon-to-be stepmother, Maria Ines, and step- sister, Andrea, we select a typical Colombian dish—pollo a la parrilla (grilled chicken), papas criollas (small, yellow, round potatoes) and an ensalada fresca (fresh salad).

We go to the most reputable tailor in the old part of town, and we choose the sharpest looking suit and tie for him. Then my sister and I join Maria Ines and Andrea for dress shopping. Outfit after outfit, nothing seems to look right or to fit right, but we keep laughing and trying. At last, Maria Ines finds an elegant white dress that she pairs with a simple, ivory-colored shawl.

During the ceremony, my stepmother asks God to give them many years of joy. My father follows up with a more realistic request: he asks for happiness for however long he has left.

In one of the photos from that day, my father and I are dancing together. My eyes are closed, and my expression is peaceful. We are barely moving. My father tightly grasps my hand that is placed on his shoulder, while my other hand is wrapped around his neck. Of all the pictures from that day, this is the only one in which he is visibly weeping.

The author dances with her father on his wedding day, February 2, 2018, in Zipaquira, Colombia. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionThe author dances with her father on his wedding day, February 2, 2018, in Zipaquira, Colombia. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

MY FATHER DIES on March 1, 2018, one day short of his one-month wedding anniversary. By then, I've returned home to my youngest son, and I've been at my new job for a couple of weeks. That morning, over the phone, I'd begged my father to hold on for one more day. It's my son's tenth birthday. Later, my stepmother, Maria Ines, tells me that the last word my father uttered was my name. That is his parting gift to me. When I think of forsaken dreams, now, I think of him. He wanted to visit Cuba with his new wife, but he never got to go on his honeymoon.

I miss my son's birthday party, and I fly to Colombia for my father's funeral.

My father loved music, and he danced until the very end. Soon after he died, my stepmother posted a video to Facebook. In it, my father is in front of the TV watching a video of his favorite Santana song, "Smooth." His body sways slightly, and his arms move up and down to the beat. He holds the remote control in one hand. When he sees that he's been caught, he smiles at her shyly, but he continues to dance.

Back home, as I try to push away the grief, I immerse myself in working and exercising and in taking care of my son. I try to make up for the training I missed in Ecuador. On April 2, however, I learn that I'm no longer invited on the Denali expedition. I print the email and pin it to the board behind my computer as a reminder to stay humble. I know that I may never get such a chance again, though I also know I made the right decision to stay for my father's wedding.

I have no regrets. But sometimes, I'm still awakened by those dreams that I'm on the glacier. I can hear the rumbling of small avalanches racing down to the surface, and I'm crunching on the snow in my bulky mountaineering boots. My cheeks are cold from the wind, and with my gloved hand, I'm tightly gripping my ice ax.

In the darkness of my bedroom, I smile and imagine the lights of rope teams flickering up the mountain. In my mind, the snows rise ever higher, sparkling like the walls of a giant cathedral made of salt, all those numerous tiny crystals converging toward some invisible summit, still unclimbed against an infinite night sky.

A sunset view of the North Cascades in Washington from the author's tent, September 2017. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collectionA sunset view of the North Cascades in Washington from the author's tent, September 2017. [Photo] Ana Beatriz Cholo collection

—Ana Beatriz Cholo, Los Angeles, California

[This story is a sequel to "The Accidental Mountaineer," by the same author in Alpinist 59. This story first appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 67, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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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