Yeah, we are star matter from the big bang
And that love ain’t far behind you
Love ain’t far behind
—Ani DiFranco, “Star Matter”
We looked for god in the wet heather, the crumbling talus, the heinous gully, and the father-son fishing trip. How can the same god that crafts this landscape let the good ones die early on a ski tour that wasn’t worth it? We are given the edges of the world to push. Push to the limits of us, where death waits as the consequence? Choice? How do we choose this, with all the life back at home?
Note: this piece is published in Volume 22, now available
Banner art by Rhiannon Williams
The drive into the North Cascades is a familiar one for me. The green tunnel from Darrington to Marblemount always feels endless, though the Sauk River winds back and forth to meet you near Highway 530 every so often. At the confluence of the Sauk and Skagit, you head east, and if you keep your eyes on the sky, you get a six-second view of Eldorado Peak after passing Rockport. As you drive toward the mountains, the Skagit flows on your right, a reminder of the hundreds of glaciers beyond, feeding the waterways down below.
At Goodell Campground, I pulled up next to the river, and you were there, sitting in a camp chair, doing “computer work.” I’m always amazed at your ability to work from the weirdest places, to turn the world into your office. You once told me that your favorite place to work was at a Mariner’s game, pint of beer and hot dog in tow. This time your desk was next to the Skagit, near the mouth of Goodell Creek. You speed through life at an efficient “all-day pace,” eating snacks to refuel while remaining in constant motion.
You had almost sold me on a two-day push on Mt. Goode. You were drawn to the poetry of that climb, as a homecoming, a decade after your first four-day ascent in too-big plastic boots. I have some friends who got lost during the technical descent off of Goode a couple years ago, and they came home a full day late. I’m not particularly fast, and neither of us had really been training. When I suggested Mt. Triumph, I think we were both a bit relieved and excited. It’s a 5.7, 1,000-foot ridge, full of creative options for moving along it, nestled at the edge of the Picket Range.
We drove to the free-camping spot up a little creek that flows into the Skagit, the spot with the perfect swimming hole. We sorted our dried food, debated which sharps to carry, listened to Ani, and talked about God or maybe god. We’re both “raised-Catholic” skeptics but still hold on to some of the mysteries of faith. You told me about the people whose star matter was close to yours at the big bang. I told you about a new star-matter person I had met the previous week, one whom I’m still sleeping next to these days.
“Jeff called those echoes,” you said.
You know those moments where you meet someone that you knew all along? All those serendipitous stardust-meeting moments, when we run into the ones who were around us at the big bang, those are the echoes of the universe moving through us in waves. These are some of the “mysteries” we still like to entertain, hanging out in the woods, drinking a beer.
I didn’t know Jeff like you did. I had just met him once, but his recent passing in the mountains had reverberated through almost everyone around me at that time. I was on what I maybe would call the second tier of grief. One of the ones who called people to let them know what happened so they didn’t have to find out on social media. I felt my community in pain, but my grief was not the same as yours.
It turns out that a two-door Hyundai Accent doesn’t provide the best sleep, even if it’s a hatchback and the seats fold down. We started up the trail the next morning, and my legs felt a little hungover. Like I got too much sun, had a couple beers, and slept in a car shaped like a jelly bean.
But we had grand plans! We would climb this ridge and go on to climb lots of remote 5.7 ridges! All that the Cascades had to offer! And they had so much to offer! A lifetime of ridges! And then we would do a slideshow and share our climbs with our friends and maybe curious strangers! Our visuals would be beautiful, and it wouldn’t just be a trip report; we would share with the audience how our climbs brought us closer to the edge of the universe where we could almost hear the echoes!
We just didn’t really wake up early enough that morning.
The first leg of the approach to Mt. Triumph gains about 3,000 feet in 5 miles along the popular trail to Thornton Lakes. We passed a trio of hiker-men near the first lake who told us, “You’re almost there!” We weren’t though; we were just close to the part where the trail ends. We passed a father-son fishing duo who had hiked up with pack rafts to float and cast their lines. Their plan looked really dreamy from where we were standing.
At that point the established trail ends, and the route traverses around two lakes to the base of a steep gully that climbs another 1,000 feet to gain a good bivy site at the top of a col. We could see the approach gully in the distance; steep and filled with crumbling talus, it looked improbable from there, but we reminded ourselves that features are hard to judge from far away in the mountains.
We went the wrong way around the second lake, taking the left-side shore instead of the right. At this point we were deep in the classic North Cascades’ subalpine bushwhacking, fighting scraggly fir trees along the rocky slopes next to the lake. We found ourselves high above the lake, trying to maintain our footing on steep, wet heather, and you slipped, just catching yourself above a cliff. I saw the fall, but it didn’t shake me like it did you. You seemed okay, I thought, and I was looking ahead to the gully. We were a bit behind schedule at that point, needing to backtrack and take the right-side shore.
Our experience of risk is far from static. We experience trauma; we become parents; we grow older. Our reality changes and can become very different from that of our climbing partners. You have a child at home, and so did Jeff. You have a full menagerie of living things in your home—two humans, several dogs, and at least one cat. I have some memory of a bird being at your house at one point too? I left my empty apartment yesterday and didn’t say goodbye to anyone.
We backtracked and kept going along the right side of the lake, traversing along a moderately steep talus field. The boulders were easier to navigate than they looked from farther away. We talked through our timing as we walked; we had planned to climb the full ridge that day and return to camp at the top of the col. We still had miles of approach left to go, including the improbable gully. You were saying that we were too far behind, and I didn’t believe it yet. It was July; the days were long. We were fine, I thought.
When we got to the other side of the lake, we reached the base of the gully. As we picked our way up the slope, our feet had two options: crumbling talus or wet heather. If you choose talus, you will more than likely sink a few inches with each upward step. On heather you might stick, but your feet could slip, sending you down a jagged slide to a rocky landing far below.
I kept moving forward and up. Didn’t look down. Didn’t assess the runout. Felt stable enough on my feet. My Hyundai Accent night-of-sleep was catching up to me, but I was holding on to the plot, jabbering away about backpacking trips I had done in the past. Eventually I noticed you weren’t responding, which is when I understood that we were not sharing the same experience.
We stopped and took a breath, and somehow we transitioned quickly from upward momentum to talking about risk and death. It was still soon after Jeff’s ski tour, and you were feeling it physically, more than I could understand. “Everything changes when you have a kid,” you said. You question more loudly whether this is worth it. I heard you and believed you, but I didn’t understand it in my body, like you did. I did start to understand that we didn’t time this climb properly.
All the pain that you feel is real. It’s real because you feel it, and it has a source. Do we need to go to the source every time? Or do we just learn how to manage it? Manage our personal trauma and grief like I manage my shoulder tendonitis? Does it always settle into our bodies deeply? Does it ever go away? Do we want it to?
We feel pain because we loved fiercely and lost. Or we tried so hard that we pushed beyond our limits and maybe broke something. Would we give this back, just so we can climb mountains unencumbered with how the past settles into our bodies?
I’ve never really had summit fever; sometimes I wish I had more of it. If anyone in the party isn’t stoked, my motivation quickly dissipates. I’m pretty good at bailing without regret, and this time was no exception. We started talking about how we would change our strategy for this climb next time. We’d start hiking the day before, sleep at Thornton Lakes or even the bivy at the top of the col. We would start early the next morning so we could finish the climb and descend the heinous gully in the daylight. We would also sandbag several of our younger coworkers into coming out here in the meantime to stomp out the approach trail a bit better.
This was not the first time I had taken my cams for a hike in the Cascades. We chalked it up to good training and drank a beer at the trailhead later that afternoon. That night we listened to Lauryn Hill while I made mac and cheese and you poured boiling water on your freeze-dried dinner. We didn’t pick another objective the next morning. Instead we sat in the sun at the coffee stand in Marblemount for hours, drinking lattes and scheming our future ridge climbs. Your life is big and full of lots of other lives, and it felt like an improbable gift to have two full days to hang out. That’s what big climbing plans allow for I suppose.
We drove home separately. I lived alone then. Not lonely, really, happy to return to my own space and spread out my gear to dry without bothering anyone. You were going to have another baby in a few months; this felt like the last time we would be able to climb together for a while. It was the end of July, and in those days I felt a frantic energy, something burning and alive, a thirst that would keep me up at night, that could sometimes be quenched by putting pen to paper for a few minutes before falling back asleep.
If I wasn’t alone, would I be writing?
Can we share our lives and keep them too? Living things waiting for us at home while we are out trying to hear the echoes at the edge of the world? Can we balance on crumbling talus and rock a baby to sleep at night too? Can we wake up thirsty in the middle of the night and write while listening to the deep-sleep breaths of the person beside us? Can we return to Triumph and have two additional living things between us that we say goodbye to at home?
Both, and. I had a professor in college who described the Catholic faith that way. There can both be senseless suffering in the world, and the beauty of creation can stop us in our tracks. The mountains can be sources of deep joy and take the people we love most. We can pursue the limits of our existence and return home to take out the trash, feed the dog, and put in a load of laundry. The kind of faith that’s expansive but rooted in the mundane human stuff down here on Earth always made the most sense to me.
Katie is a reluctant desert resident of Southern California who feels more at home getting rained on while walking uphill in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent most of her life taking other people outside, which she still does as a climbing guide in Joshua Tree. She likes to write about relationships between people and places, and she sometimes gets paid for it. Read more of her work at ktgriffith.com.