Modern Romance, part 5

I intend to write about my week-long trip to the Yukon, but something happened on my "commute" back to Anchorage via Skagway and Juneau, and it's cathartic to write about it. I've written a series of posts about conversations with Thunder Mountain in Juneau, now spread across seven and a half years. You can read the first four parts here: Part onepart twopart threepart four.

 The Piper Navajo bucks violently amid swirling flurries, just a few thousand feet over the Lynn Canal. It's just me and one other passenger, and the pilot of course, in this eight-seat airplane. After spending the past week in Whitehorse, work schedules prevented me from driving back to Alaska with my friends. This is my convoluted commute — Canadian friends shuttled me over White Pass to Skagway, where we enjoyed smoothies and a walked around the mostly shuttered tourism town. This small plane will take me to Juneau. I'll catch a jet to Anchorage tomorrow. I had been looking forward to this scenic flight, but now I think I'm going to be sick.

I used to be frightened of flying. I like to tell the story about the day I lost that fear. It was after I boarded a flight out of McGrath following my first Iditarod ride in 2008. As the jet hurtled through the sky over all of the places where I struggled and shivered and huddled in terror, flying no longer seemed so bad.

As this lightweight plane lurches and shudders through a narrow corridor of mountains, I think maybe I should try being afraid of flying again. Nothing comes. It's weird with me these days. Anxiety is skewed toward the frivolous. Fear isn't firing at normal moments. I can become incredibly stressed about nothing. Two days ago, I had to pop a beta blocker after I became unnervingly worked up because I couldn't find transport for my bike. But right now I almost believe this plane will crash into the mountains, and my body doesn't seem to care.

The air smooths out as flurries clear. Over Juneau the sky is blue, despite a high chance of rain in the forecast. As the plane descends into Juneau Airport, I catch a glimpse of that lowly, flat-topped, 3,000-foot hill that holds a special place in my heart. Hello again, Thunder Mountain.

 I leave the airport and start walking toward the trailhead. Outside it's 45 degrees and the air tastes like springtime — crisp with hints of dirt and moss. What serendipity is this? An unplanned trip to Juneau on a beautiful day, a great trail within walking distance, and a whole afternoon to myself. Still, I'm not excited as I would expect to be. Just as a turbulent flight didn't make me fearful, this excursion feels surprisingly meh. It's been a fun but long month here in Alaska, and perhaps I'm just tired. Worn by a stress-sensitive body and the chronic uncertainty of traveling. Ready to go home to Colorado. Still, I don't want to waste this opportunity. Thunder Mountain doesn't fall into my backyard every day.

 The lower trail is a maze of footprints — that never changes. But I'm carrying a GPS this time, with a track downloaded from my last visit, in 2014. Three years. I smile at still-familiar scenery — towering Sitka spruce trees, carpeted in dazzling green moss. The snow is much deeper than the last time I was here, and the creeks are entirely iced over — they were open in 2014. There are trail improvements, too. I smirk at a "trailhead" sign that's still a half mile from the end of the road, its helpfulness limited by the footprint maze.

 And who put these ropes on the root staircases? Strange to see a modicum of accessibility added to Thunder Mountain. I'm accustomed to a trail no one can find — a muddy, root-choked, faint path trundling over dead trees as it shoots directly up a steep spine without a hint of a switchback. Snow just makes everything more invisible. I grip the wet nylon and pull myself forward. My shoulders shudder and biceps burn. Where has my strength gone? Is my physical capacity still declining, or am I just more aware of it these days? I climb the root steps on my knees because my quads aren't strong enough to lift my upper body. The route becomes steeper. "Thunder, you are a mountain for strong people," I say out loud. I feel something now, but it's melancholy. It doesn't help when I listen to the lyrics to "Moonn" by Radical Face.

No sleep.
There is no comfort in the pillow 
My mind starts drifting through the woods 
Climb up the moonlight, ground beneath me
'til I find myself all wrapped up 
in the fog above the world

I ponder the question I often ponder now. How much of my identity is wrapped up in an ability to move freely through the outdoors? It's not just endurance racing. I could walk away from racing and live a happy life, although I'll always miss the early days — back when it was easy to believe there were no limits. But what if my limit drops so low that I can't even haul myself up a mountain? What then? Much of my adult life has been centered around this — working to play, spending large blocks of time in the mountains, in the desert, on the tundra, outside. I've formed many of my relationships around these shared interests. I've bonded with my family through this. I developed into a writer who mostly writes about this. Who even am I?

And up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone

The packed trail peters out after just a thousand feet of altitude gain, and then I'm trudging through unbroken snow. The saturated surface feels as heavy as wet cement. I want to turn around. It feels like something is urging me to turn around. It's that quiet little voice that tells me I can't do the things I want to do. I hate her.

I focus on keeping my heart rate down. It's the opposite of what most workouts aim to achieve, and thus not easy. I trudge a few steps and rest. Trudge a few steps and rest. The spruce forest begins to thin, and views open to the Mendenhall Valley and Douglas Island. Dark clouds are gathering from the north. The storms have followed me from Yukon. Rain is coming.

My stomach grumbles. "Just a few more steps," I lie. Trudge, trudge, rest. Trudge, trudge, rest.

Do I cling to this motion because I'm fearful there's nothing else? That Beat won't love me anymore if I can't handle big outdoor efforts? That all inspiration will fade, and I'll no longer have any interest in writing? Or taking photos? What will I do with all the quiet, empty days? I kneel into the snow to give my quads a rest. "Today is a bad day," I think. There were actually a lot of good days before this one.

I take a selfie in that same spot I believed I took this photo seven years ago. Turns out, this time around I was a fair amount lower. "She had it pretty together," I think of 2009 Jill. After all, she was residing in Southeast Alaska where it rains 90 inches a year, living on a fairly small budget, suffering through middle management, working upwards of 60 hours a week until 1 a.m. most nights, bike commuting from Fritz Cove, venturing far outside her comfort zone to date new people, and still finding the energy to venture into the mountains at every opportunity.

Of course she was miserable. She was definitely miserable. I think about Colorado and Beat and smile. "I'll spend afternoons by the pond watching the goldfish," I think. "Maybe find a way to plant a garden and somehow keep out the deer. And hike up Bear on good days."

I wouldn't trade the present for the past, at any moment. I prefer everything that's happened since. This realization brings me comfort.

 I watch myself there as a little one 
And wonder why they could never hear me 
I watch them hold me down beneath their calloused thumbs 
To hide the fears deep down inside me

Trudge, trudge, rest. I look up at the summit and think about rounding the last stand of trees for an unobstructed view. I have no intention of ascending the final headwall — it's too steep to risk without an ice ax, and I hadn't checked the avalanche forecast before I left. Right now I'm not worried. The snow feels like concrete underfoot, incapable of going anywhere. I'd turned off my iPod after I started breaking trail, and I haven't heard any evidence of collapsing snow layers. Sticking to low-angle terrain should be safe. I feign confidence I haven't earned.

I reach the plateau below the headwall and venture close to the edge for the view. "This is fantastic," I think, letting a hint of satisfaction seep through my emotional iron wall. At that moment, I'm startled by a loud "whomp" from above. I look up to see a slab of snow peeling away from the ridge a couple hundred feet directly overhead. I leap into a sprint; it feels as though I'm running in slow motion. My legs have no spark. There's nothing there. No adrenaline. "I can't run and I'm going to die because I have Graves Disease," I think. Some of these words escape in a scream.

My entry point and exit point — this is how far I was pushed
It's too late. The avalanche is nearly on top of me. I turn to face it, arms raised. "Time to swim," I think, and jump toward the onslaught like surfer plunging into a wave. I feel no emotion. No terror, no regret, no acceptance of fate. No, just "time to swim." I manage to remain upright, lunging forward in a skittering motion atop rumbling blocks of snow. The moments feel eternal. Then, suddenly, the mass lurches to a halt. It takes several shorter seconds to register that the slide is no longer moving. I'm not going down the mountain beneath a crushing avalanche. This is an incredible outcome. And yet, I don't feel relieved.

The fracture line in the upper lefthand corner. The fracture was much larger to the right. That whole slab slid.
I lunge forward again, but my right leg is buried to the shin. I can't pull it out — the snowshoe is trapped beneath a layer of compacted snow. I chip at it with my trekking poles, but it's harder than ice. Finally, panic burbles to the surface. "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God." I chant. Danger isn't yet averted. The weight of this snow plus my movement could trigger another slide. As I glance over my shoulder, I notice the steep horizon line and realize how precariously close to an edge I've been pushed. I start manically pounding with the sharp end of the poles. If they break through the ice, I'm going to stab my foot, but I don't care. Another seeming eternity passes, and I've finally chipped away enough concrete to yank out the snowshoe, The broken snow slab is slumped against a sheer dropoff. I tiptoe along the edge with frantic carefulness. "Please, God. Please, God."

I'm marching in autopilot, whirling between sputters of panic and strange robotic indifference. I shuffle quickly, barely lifting my feet off the snow, as though soft steps could prevent another avalanche. Although I know it would be better to keep an eye on the higher slopes, I don't dare look up. In a flash I'm off the plateau, paddling down the ridge, winding through scrub spruce, descending into the towering forest. Ground disappears beneath me as though it were a cloud.

This photo shows the steep dropoff just meters below the avalanche runout.
As the objective danger lessens, the floodgate finally opens. Tears stream down my neck and soak into my hair. First I feel shame for having carelessly gotten myself caught in an avalanche, for not being more cognizant of conditions and terrain, for foolishly ignoring my intuition and being so indifferent to one of my worst fears. Shame dissolves into embarrassment, and then sadness at the odd thought that because of this, I can never return to Thunder Mountain. This sparks a jolt of anger. I feel deeply betrayed. How could Thunder Mountain do this to me, after all these years? Of course I know that Thunder Mountain has never cared.

Anger collapses into aimless rage. The pulsing fury causes me to make careless mistakes. I slip down a series of roots and tumble onto my head. My soaked hair fills with snow. Psychological coping mechanisms rush to the rescue, demanding gratitude. The memory that rises to the surface is soothingly random; I'm 17 years old, running my fingers through the red dunes of Sand Hollow, near St. George, Utah. Intense sunlight turns the sky white. I can feel its warmth on my skin. This gives way to more happy memories. There are so many, filling empty spaces with the depth and richness of existence. And yet everything I am, and everything I've been through, could be obliterated in an instant.

There is no son there is no daughter 
There's only arms they've never named 
You are not you, you are a mirror 
You only work when you're the same

The sun begins to sink into the horizon. The maze of footprints finally reaches an end. Back on quiet neighborhood roads, I walk backward. I can't take my eyes off Thunder Mountain. The memory barrage has stalled, and I'm looping through the most recent: A slab of snow tumbling toward me, and when I turn to run, I'm unable to run. It was such a terrible dream. Did it actually happen? I can't be sure. Even squinting, I can't locate the fracture on the mountain. I think it's off to the right, hidden from view. But I can't be sure.

I hold up my hands; they're trembling forcefully, just like the airplane this morning. Was the flight just this morning? Was it only a few hours ago that I was consumed by petty insecurities? Worried that I'll lose my identity because I'm shallowly defined by what I do? Another lifetime has passed. There's nothing to fear. My heart swells with love for everything around me, with the joy of being alive.

"Thank you," I say to Thunder Mountain, because I'm not angry anymore, because I'm grateful. This could have been the afternoon I did not come down from the mountain. But it wasn't.

But up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone

Comments

  1. Jill, be kind to yourself. People make mistakes. Our Avalanche Center Director died in a freak avalanche/cornice accident two years ago. My husband has been caught in two. This must have been really frightening and you might end up with some PTSD for awhile.

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  2. Wow Jill. So powerfully and beautifully written. Like always you've managed to make me feel as if I'm right there with you, caught beneath that snow on Thunder Mountain. So very glad you are physically safe and here's hoping that soon you will again be safe mentally.

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  3. I love the way you write. I'm glad you are okay. Be careful.

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  4. Oh wow! Glad you are still with us. Harrowing.

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  5. WOW! Glad you are okay. As usual, beautiful writing. Be good to yourself the next few days. See you soon.

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  6. What a horrifying experience you have been through Jill. So relieved when you walked off the mountain. Take care and don't berate yourself.

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  7. Holy s**t glad you're OK. Did you trigger that, from 200 feet below? That's freakish.

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    1. Hard to say. Possibly the wrong place and the wrong time? Or conditions were so volatile that my far-away disturbance made the difference. I also saw a bald eagle flying close to the ridge shortly before it happened. One of those things I'll never know.

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    2. Anonymous12:31 PM

      It's safe to say that when an avalanche happens and a human is near it, the human triggered it. So yes you probably did trigger it by approaching the slope from below. It's not at all "freakish" which is why education is so important before venturing into Alaska's mountains in winter.

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  8. Thank God you are ok. As far as your fears and loves and identity wrapped into the ability to scale mountains in one way or another - I hear you. This part written so wonderful, words escape me, and for that - thank you. Stay upright, girl. Stay upright. p.s. because of one of your recent previous posts I insisted to have my doctor prescribe me thyroid meds despite normal tests (since I am out of options on figuring out causes of my own fatigue), and after 3 weeks have to say I am feeling somewhat better. Although pretty much scared to be optimistic or even remotely hopeful, after almost 4 years of "going down, down".

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Olga. I hope the thyroid meds help you. In my research on this issue, thyroid levels can be more specific to the individual than previously believed. The "ranges" aren't always helpful, and it's good to find a doctor who's willing to work for you. Keep us posted!

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  9. The Universe has ways of reorganizing priorities and shutting down one's pity party...
    Once, after a back surgery that didn't have a favorable outcome and left me with a useless disconnected calf muscle, I was soaking my broken body at a hot springs pool and feeling sorry for myself about this sudden dent in my outdoor mountain life, and running, and who knows what else.
    In comes 5 Veterans, Marines with "Semper Fi" tattoos, missing arms... legs, and some both arms and legs.
    Remember your brush with death on Thunder Mountain... it will help you through the trails of life, which you so deftly describe and share with us.


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  10. Damn. Damn! I could easily see myself getting into that situation. I'll think more carefully in the future. Glad we'll be seeing you soon!

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  11. Jill - So glad that slide didn't sweep you down the mountain and over the edge! A beautifully written account. I'm glad your range of emotions ended with love and the joy of being alive. I have a frig magnet a friend gave me that says "Do one thing every day that scares you." (Eleanor Roosevelt) I'm glad the thing you did that day ended in a positive outcome and being grateful.

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  12. That was lovely, and then terrifying. So glad you were ok.

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  13. Thanks for the reminder to listen. Most importantly to our intuition and the voice inside ourselves. Thunder mountain, an apt name All the best to you in the mountains always.

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  14. This post brings up so many feelings about so many different aspects of life. Thank you for writing it (and man am I glad you're here to do so). Stay afloat, Jill. <3

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  15. Amazing post..I appreciate what what you must come to terms with your illness and who you have always thought you are. Clearly, you are blessed...and lucky!

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  16. Anonymous11:52 PM

    The snowpack in the Juneau mountains was very unstable a short time ago, although it's unclear if your hike up Thunder was during that stretch. There were large and small avalanches releasing everywhere and at least one snowboarder got caught (and survived). It's scary to think you went out alone in those conditions with no safety gear and no one aware of your plan for the day. You are one lucky girl.

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    Replies
    1. Those incidents were three weeks prior, after a major snowstorm. I was visiting Juneau at the time, but this was a different trip.

      Had I checked the forecast beforehand, I would have known avalanche risk around Juneau was listed as "considerable" (3 on a scale of 5.) That alone would have changed my decision making. I was far too complacent in this case and recognize how lucky I was.

      I do plan to advance my avalanche education in anticipation of continuing to hike in Colorado mountains next winter. Safety gear is good, but obviously it won't save you when you're alone, and two hikers walking in close proximity aren't likely to be in a position to save the other should a slide hit. Hikers also have more interest in avoiding avalanche terrain altogether, which is why I need to better educate myself.

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  17. Anonymous11:01 AM

    Wow, just wow.

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  18. Anonymous4:32 PM

    I've followed your blog fairly regularly for about 10 years now and feel that I've walked along with you through some tremendous ups and downs in your life; a friend that I've never met. I appreciate the way you invite your readers into your deepest being with amazing transparency. I wish you well as you continue down your path.

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  19. Wow. Don't waste time beating yourself up, just be happy to have survived, with lessons learned (or re-learned) and able to return to Beat, Colorado, and that garden that you need to start planting.

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