Friday, September 16, 2022

One last summit with Dad

Dad and I stand on the summit of Lone Peak on July 27, 2011.

Journal entry from August 27, 1999: 

Today I went hiking with my dad. Finally, finally, after two years of trying, I made it to the top of Lone Peak. We started up Jacob’s Ladder at 6:30 a.m. We were well up the serious incline when the sun rose. It’s such a grueling, unforgiving hike. When we made it to the valley at the base of the mountain, I was exhausted, but we kept going. 

It was beautiful — a vast meadow of grass and rocks at the cirque, before a long climb up the peak, scaling boulders where one slip would send me spinning down into oblivion. Thunderstorms were moving in but we kept climbing. The wind was blowing and the Salt Lake Valley was miles below. 

And then we made it, finally. Lone Peak is a tiny peak, just a point. Dad and I sat up there eating bagels and signed the guest registration — a Tupperware box bolted to a rock. All is beautiful at 11,250 feet: Scrawny trees winding down the mountain, the urban sprawl only a blur of lines. We watched lightning creeping into Sandy, so we had to book it down.

Dad and I pose at the Jacob's Ladder trail junction on July 27, 2011.

Lone Peak was my dad's soul mountain, so I made it mine. He spoke of the summit with reverence, calling Lone "The hardest hike in the Wasatch and also the most beautiful." We made at least two unsuccessful attempts during the summers of 1997 and 1998, turned back by the threat of thunderstorms and heavy fog. Dad was always cautious, and I felt completely safe when I was with him. After we finally reached the summit in 1999, I was understated in my journal but gushed about the experience to my friends. 

On my first personal Web page, which I designed for a class at the University of Utah, I displayed Lone Peak prominently as "my favorite place in the world." I told friends that if I married at all, the ceremony was going to be on that summit. I remember mentioning this wedding plan offhand to my parents. My Mom scoffed and seemed somewhat scandalized, but Dad didn't seem to mind. Years later, while Dad and I were hiking and somehow landed on an offhand discussion about death, Dad said, "I'd like to have my ashes spread over Lone Peak." 

August 20, 2017 — the last time I was on Lone Peak with Dad.

Blog entry from August 20, 2017:

If I could choose anything in the world to do on my birthday, high on that list would be "climb Lone Peak with my dad." Lone Peak is an 11,253-foot summit in the Wasatch Mountains. I consider it my "home" mountain. I grew up in its morning shadow; the peak is less than five miles due east from my childhood home — and 7,000 feet higher. As a hike, it's considered by many to be the most difficult standard route to a summit in the Wasatch, rising 6,700 feet in six miles along a chunder-filled gully of a trail called Jacob's Ladder, followed by boulder-hopping in a granite cirque, and finally a class-3 to 4 scramble up a narrow ridge of vertically-stacked monzonite slabs. 

I don't quite remember the first time my dad guided me to this peak. I believe it was the summer after I graduated from high school, 20 years ago. My early memories of Lone Peak's difficulty all surround the steep slog of Jacob's Ladder. There are fewer memories of the slabs that bother me today ... probably because I have 20 years of physical conditioning behind me now, and also two decades of risk and personal ability assessment, which have made me much warier of exposed scrambling. Much sharper than memories of difficulty are memories of amazement and joy — the quiet Alpine forest mere miles from my crowded suburban neighborhood, the sheer granite walls above the cirque, and standing on top of a peak barely as wide as I am tall, overlooking the entire Salt Lake Valley.

Lost in a boulder field in the Lone Peak Cirque on August 29, 2010.

From 2000 to 2002, I managed two or three more summits with my Dad and one unsuccessful attempt with a friend who succumbed to altitude sickness. Then I upended my life in multiple ways: becoming a cyclist, moving away from Utah, moving to Alaska. Eight years passed before I made my next summit attempt. The circumstances were traumatic. My grandfather — my father's father — was dying. I drove down from Missoula to visit him, clasping his frail hand with the understanding that this would be the last time I'd ever see him. 

I'd lost my grandmother — my mother's mother — in 1996, when I was still a teenager. Losing Grandpa Homer was my deepest experience with grief as a fully formed adult, and I was reeling. I chose to visit my favorite place in the world, my soul mountain, as a way to honor him. It's interesting because I remember embarking on this climb after he died. But that wasn't the case — re-reading my blog entry, I realized I climbed Lone Peak the day following my final visit with Grandpa. It was August 29, one week before he died on September 4. Grandpa was still in this world when I scaled a summit to send my final goodbye. 

I'd never summited Lone Peak without my Dad. I lost my way from the start, bashed through the brush, wove aimlessly along the granite slabs, got terribly off route, crawled through a minefield of boulders across the Cirque, and scared myself senseless on the exposed summit ridge. I kept telling myself I had to do this for Grandpa and also for Dad, who was losing his Dad. It was so hard. I was frightened. I wasn't meant to be here without him.

After briefly tagging the summit, I scooted back along the talus blocks, buffeted by a strong wind, barely keeping it together. When I reached the end of the scramble, I propped against a rock to collect myself and breathe. I wrote about this moment on my blog: 

Bracing against the wind along the summit ridge on August 29, 2010.

Blog entry from August 29, 2010:

Tears fill my eyes. I know the worst is over, but I can't help myself. I never feel so lonely as I do when I'm alone and afraid. I just want to see somebody, anybody, just so I know I'm not the only person perched on this wind-blasted vertical moonscape. But it's 4 p.m. and no one is left on the peak. I haven't seen anybody for hours. 

I think about the notepad in my backpack. I carry it with me sometimes to write down thoughts. I take it out and rip a corner off a sheet of paper. On the scrap, I write a note to my grandpa. 

"Dear Grandpa Homer, Thank you for your love, your example, and your kindness. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I love you."

I stick the pen in my mouth and in nervousness chew the end right off. Then I remember to add, "Please don't be afraid. Love, Jill." 

I muster up the courage to stand and face the full brunt of the wind. It roars in my face as I hold the note to my side and release it to the gale. I turn around quickly but I don't see it go.

Dad crosses the Jacob's Ladder meadow on July 27, 2011.

I didn't want to have to be the one to spread Dad's ashes over Lone Peak. That was the emotion I had about it, although it was difficult to determine why I felt this way. My experience surrounding my grandfather's death was more traumatic than I realized at the time: Exposing all of that unprocessed grief to ego-driven summit fever and fear. I had been to the summit three times since: in 2011, 2015, and 2017. But those were all excursions with my dad, who kept me safe on the mountain. I believed this unquestioningly, even when I was closing in on 40 and old enough to understand that this childlike comfort was more imagined than real. 

I wondered if this was the reason I was reluctant. Was I simply frightened of Lone Peak? But when I envisioned standing on the summit with dad's ashes, a prominent emotion I felt was anger. And when I probed this anger, I recognized its source. Dad died because he fell from the summit ridge of a well-loved Wasatch mountain. Could I really toss him off another?

The Jacob's Ladder meadow on September 3, 2022. It was a little heartbreaking to see it so dry.

This statement sounds callous, which is one reason I didn't bring up my conflicting emotions with my family. It was incredibly important to me to fulfill Dad's final wishes. He named three specific spots where he wished to have his ashes spread — two in Canyonlands National Park and the last on Lone Peak. He somehow had the prescience to point out the Canyonlands spots while hiking with Beat and me in April 2021, just two months before he died. Lone Peak had a longer-standing place on this list. I don't remember when exactly he brought it up to me, but he also discussed it with my mom. Lone Peak appears prominently on the mountain skyline east of her house. Whenever she steps out of her front door on a clear day, she can look up at the pyramidal summit and think of him. She said she took comfort in the idea that he'd be up there, looking back at her. 

Dad climbs toward the Lone Peak Cirque on July 27, 2011.

We spread Dad's ashes over his chosen spots in Canyonlands in April 2022. It was a beautiful experience that we all shared — mom, my sisters, and Beat. Lone Peak was different because the mountain is so difficult to access. As I described in the 2017 blog entry, there are nearly 7,000 feet of climbing in just 6 miles, and the upper section is technical and exposed. My mom wouldn't be able to join, and I felt my sisters weren't ready, either. Forcing it seemed likely to lead to an experience that would be more traumatic than peaceful, similar to my ordeal surrounding my grandfather's death in 2010. My sisters agreed, but it was difficult to not include them. 

Beat searches for the route along the granite slabs on September 3, 2022.

Thankfully, I had fantastic support from Beat — who flew out to Salt Lake just for this — and our friend Raj, a longtime hiking buddy of my dad. Raj also lost his father in 2021 and offered his support and empathy when I was reeling through the aftermath in Salt Lake City last summer. I also invited another longtime hiking buddy of my dad's, Tom. Tom was with my father in his final moments on Mount Raymond. He scrambled down a treacherous slope to reach Dad's body after he fell and spent hours awaiting a Search and Rescue helicopter. I'm endlessly grateful to Tom for his actions that day. Tom was unable to join us on Lone Peak but was with us in spirit. 


Dad points toward the summit ridge with Tom in the Lone Peak Cirque on July 27, 2011

I chose Labor Day weekend because I needed a reliable day after we returned from Europe that wasn't likely to be hampered by bad weather. There was also an element of continuity with the date. As I looked back through my old records, I realized that late summer was often the "time" for Lone Peak — my first attempts at the end of August in 1997 and 1998, finally reaching the summit on August 27, 1999, my Aug. 29 memorial climb in 2010, my 38th birthday ... 

What I couldn't plan for was the massive "heat dome" that settled over the Western U.S. during the first week of September. The bullseye of the high-pressure system sat directly over Salt Lake City. The temperature shot to 107 degrees on Thursday and nearly that on Friday. The forecast high for Saturday was 103 degrees. I read trail reviews online and learned there was no water, absolutely none, anywhere along the approach. It was a far cry from the Lone Peak climate I remembered — lush meadows, gurgling streams, and snowpack in late July.  

Beat points toward the summit ridge with Raj in a similar location on September 3, 2022.

I set the date but I wasn't ready. During the week leading up to September 3, anxiety consumed my thoughts. I stayed indoors and rode my bike trainer because I felt uneasy about even going outside. Many nights, I woke up at 2 a.m., drenched in sweat and reeling from nightmares about people jumping from cliffs as I helplessly watched from a distance. 

I'm currently spending most afternoons doing remote shift work for a newspaper. On Thursday, I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to carve out a window to drive to Salt Lake City. I essentially drove straight through without stopping, which gave me 90 minutes that I used to march up a brutally steep trail near my Mom's house. I hadn't planned to hike and only had a 16-ounce bottle of water to drink. It was 106 degrees. I angry-hiked up 1,500 feet of sandy trail in 40 minutes and had to blearily wobble-jog down, long out of fluid, still just days removed from hypothermia after being caught in a hailstorm during a long bike ride. Through a daze of early heat exhaustion, I wondered how I continued to make such terrible decisions, how I came to be so frightened of my soul mountain, how I came to feel so lost.

Caught in a haze of wildfire smoke at the top of Jacob's Ladder on August 6, 2021

Gratitude journal from August 6, 2021:

I have nothing for today. I'm done looking for the good in this awful year. I still don't feel ready to climb Lone Peak, but I thought since I'm out here, I could climb to the meadow below the cirque. It is such a beautiful spot; it used to feel like this secret place that only Dad and I knew about. 

The morning started out lovely, but as I crested Enniss Peak, I looked back to see a massive wall of brown fog enveloping the Salt Lake Valley. The fog was a cold front moving in from the north like a freight train — a train carrying wildfire smoke from Oregon and Idaho. Within minutes the smoke moved over me, reducing visibility to a few feet while spiking the air quality index to an intolerable 350. I couldn't breathe. It happened so quickly. My KN95 mask and a dozen inhaler puffs did nothing. I was gasping, wheezing, choking. I've never had such a scary asthma attack, not anywhere, and I was alone in the wilderness 4,000 feet above the valley floor. 

Breathing felt like sucking air through a straw, but if I focused on taking deep breaths and not hyperventilating, I could do it. In this moving meditation, I managed to pick my way down the mountain. Visibility was so low that I became lost and accidentally descended Jacob's Ladder when I intended to return via Cherry Canyon. For quite some time I had no idea where I was. Finally, I dropped onto the gravel road, still three miles from the trailhead, but at that point, I thought, "I'm going to make it!" And I was so happy. And I suppose ... I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful I'm alive, but also for feeling happy to be alive. It's maybe the first time I've felt this way in two months. 


Dad and Tom on the summit ridge on July 27, 2011.

On Friday night, Beat rifled through my overstuffed pack and pulled out a green dry bag.

"What's this?" he asked. 

"It's my puffy," I protested. "I need my puffy."

"You do not need a puffy," he scolded. "When are you going to wear this?"

"I don't know. Weather could turn. I just had hypothermia last week. It was one week ago!"

"It's going to be 100 degrees! You do not need a puffy!"

I grumpily tossed the jacket and other warm gear into a pile outside the pack. Beat is always looking out for me and my sore back, which still bothers me 11 months after the driver of an old F250 hit me with his side mirror while I was riding my bike home. Geez, 2021 was an awful year.  Little by little, my back becomes stronger and my heart more resilient, but the increments are difficult to notice.

Apparently, I wasn't going to be able to protect myself from surprise hailstorms, but I still carry an N95 mask in case of surprise smoke storms. At least now I'd have room for the six liters of water I'd actually need. While filling up my hydration bladders, I smiled at the memory of my dad's first time on Lone Peak. I was 14 years old and had already started joining him for shorter hikes, so I was enthralled as he described packing a plastic Coke bottle that he'd refilled with water, thinking two liters was a lot. It was so hot, he was so thirsty, and he thought the climb would never end. It sounded awful, but his eyes were wide and his smile stretched across his face as he described the view. I knew I'd climb that mountain with him someday. Someday. 

Beat and Raj on the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

We met Raj in the parking lot of the Draper trailhead at 6:30 a.m. The Cherry Canyon Logging Trail instantly shoots upward, gaining the standard 1,000 feet per mile along a mostly bald west-facing slope. To the east, the sun rose behind the crest of Lone Peak, casting the mountain's long shadow across the valley. The morning was already warm. With each passing minute, the shadow grew shorter. Something — maybe the encroaching sunlight — spiked my anxiety, so I breathed in rhythm with the lyrics of "Sun" by The Naked and Famous.

But it keeps on coming,
And I stop, 
But it keeps on coming,
And I just stand still
But it keeps on coming,
It keeps on coming,
So I start running.

Dad and Tom pick their way along the summit ridge on July 27, 2011.

We made quick work of the 4,500 feet of vert to Enniss Peak and climbed onto the granite slabs as Raj regaled us with his tales from climbing the face of Lone Peak — meaning multi-pitch alpine rock climbing — earlier this summer. While descending from their base camp, Raj became terribly lost in the dark and had to bash his way into Suncrest after midnight.

I felt slightly lost on the slabs. It's easy to do — it's a white, blank slate of a trail with cairns everywhere because hikers seem to like creating their own chaos. Dad always seemed to effortlessly find the way through here, although I reminded myself that he, too, had been terribly lost on this mountain before. Once, while aiming for Cherry Canyon, he managed to descend into a different drainage and bashed through the brush for hours before emerging from an obscure side canyon.

Beat and I pick our way along the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

Confused on the slabs and fully exposed to the unavoidable sun, my stew of anxiety neared a boiling point. I didn't quite notice how stressed I was feeling because my energy level had plummeted. I stumbled and faltered as Beat and Raj climbed along the bone-dry creek toward the cirque. It was here we encountered a large group — at least 10 hikers who clearly were mostly beginners. We did not see all that many people on the mountain, but the large group just happened to be clogging up a bottleneck on the route. Beat and Raj disappeared as I got stuck behind the group — 10 people crawling every possible way up a steep boulder field and nervously calling out to each other for help. It was fine. They were doing what they needed to do to get through this tricky terrain, but it was not where I wanted to be and Beat was nowhere to be seen. 

Scrambling over talus blocks with Tom on July 27, 2011.

I finally caught up to Beat and Raj at a crucial junction, where it's easy to continue straight following the drainage and end up in a horrific boulder field — which is what I did in 2010 — or take an obscure left turn around an outcropping to access a faint trail across gentle tundra. I didn't quite remember the correct way. The big group approached, we chose left, and Beat again took off impatiently. His action — as understandable as it was — was the hair trigger that shattered my frayed nerves. I tried to hold it in. I couldn't breathe. I tried holding my breath, but I lost it to a gasping, blubbering meltdown.

Beat hiked back down toward me as I doubled over and sputtered, "I can't do this. I can't do this."

Two of the young men in the large group passed and one asked in a mocking sing-song tone, "Do you need a hug?" He probably thought I was crying because this hike is hard and I was a big middle-aged baby. If there had been a cliff to pitch myself off of right there ... 

View from the summit on September 3, 2022.

Grief hits me like that still, after all of this time. It hurts so much; I'd almost wish for a cliff or a collision with a truck. Anything else to not have to feel that way, not now or ever again. These breakdowns tend to take everything out of me. The anxiety pot boils over and then there's nothing left. I thought I was done. Lone Peak wasn't going to happen today. 

Surprisingly, as I stood and calmed my breathing, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I'd carried this particular anxiety monster for so long that I didn't notice the weight until it crushed me. But in doing so, it released me. 

As we continued toward the summit ridge, I felt as though a terrible burden had lifted. I felt light, free, maybe even a little bit sure-footed. We stopped near the talus blocks so I could put on my approach shoes — Beat had carried a second pair of shoes all the way up the mountain for me so I could avoid blisters in the brutal heat while still feeling more secure on the exposed scramble. He did this because he wanted to be supportive. Although I still felt a sting of irrational hurt for being "abandoned" in the boulder field, I was grateful for his presence. I could not have done this alone.

Raj, the experienced rock climber in the group, led the route through the talus blocks. I was grateful for his calm, confident presence as well. 

Spreading Dad's ashes on September 3, 2022.

The summit ridge was crowded with a few more groups. We moved through them quickly, following Raj's direction and not making a big deal out of scrambling along a narrow spine where hundreds of feet of exposure loom on both sides. Magically, we had the tiny summit to ourselves for a few minutes. We took advantage of the privacy to send Dad on his way. We each took a turn and said just a few brief words. 

I said, "I hope you're happy here, Dad." It was sweet. Cathartic. I let myself feel my Dad's presence. I understood he was at peace, dissolving into everything, his last molecules becoming the mountain. 

Forever gazing over his home from this lofty place.

We stood on the summit for a few more minutes, enjoying the silence. A thousand-foot vertical wall fell away from our narrow perch, and I felt no particular emotion about that reality. I'd tossed Dad over a cliff because it's what he wanted. When I put it that way it sounds macabre and strange. But I had put it that way in my dreams and the thought stressed me out, so I was both grateful and surprised to realize I only felt peace in this place, this vertical moonscape. I had made an emotional mountain out of something simple and sweet — sharing a summit with Dad one final time. I scanned the valley until I recognized the bluff near my mom's neighborhood. From there I could almost pick out her house in the line and shapes. It was such a clear day, so blue, so warm. Dad will be happy here, and Mom can look up at the mountain and know he's happy here. I felt deep gratitude for a thousand moments of grace that made this possible. 


Scrambling down from the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

As we descended from the summit ridge, Raj mentioned that I was a lucky person to have had all of the wonderful moments with my dad that we had. I wholeheartedly agreed. It wasn't enough time, but there's never enough time. What I still have are thousands of moments of grace, the little joys that I can carry in my heart, that can still lift me up when the burdens of life become too much. 

Beat descends the granite slabs on September 3, 2022.

I was bursting with energy for most of the descent. I'd finally released a massive burden and Dad was free. An oven of afternoon heat baked the rock. The air was eerily still. We saw almost no one after the summit ridge — the world had retreated under the September heat dome. I greedily slurped down liters five and six of my water, still cold thanks to a freezer strategy I'd carefully honed over the long summer.  The notion of needing a puffy or fearing hypothermia was a strange, laughable joke. We spent much of the winding descent describing to Raj what it feels like to sleep outside in the snow when it's 45 below. By the end, we had practically talked him into buying a house in Alaska. 

Still, I couldn't fight off the melancholy entirely. In the perfect world, Dad would be here with me. In this imperfect world, I'm still alone and afraid. While I feel bound to Lone Peak, I'm not sure I'll be able to face it again. The love runs deep, but so does the hurt. All I have left are my memories. Lone Peak will continue to be a mountain, just a mountain, beautifully indifferent to everything I love. 


Dad descends the granite slabs on July 27, 2011.

Blog entry from August 29, 2010:

It's too hard now, not to think about the end. I can believe that my grandpa isn't afraid, but I have to admit that I am. Everything that makes me who I am is wrapped up in the people, and the moments, that all seem to slip away before I'm ready. Life sometimes moves in fast-forward motion, spinning in a blur of color and noise. In my dizziness I look to the past for clarity, only to acknowledge that those moments are gone.

5 comments:

  1. Your sense of release (relief?) is palpable in this post. I can only imagine the ups and downs (literally and figuratively), not to mention the burden and weight of emotional baggage that you carried on the way to scattering your Dad's ashes. Just a hard won, yet soul-filling beautiful task...and in such extreme heat. A true labor of love and tribute to your Dad. May you both now "rest in peace," and feel joy and fondness when looking back on all the outings and time on trails you spent together.
    Mark...from Lovely Ouray.

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  2. This was beautiful but my heart also broke again reading this. I love you friend. Danni

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  3. This was equally beautiful and heart-breaking to read. I am glad the end result of placing him in a resting spot gave you some relief. That was brave of you to fulfill his wishes. Be well, Patrice

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  4. Well done Jill, you are a beacon of strength to your family and all who read this, as most could not accomplish this most daunting task of love devotion.
    I can just see your Dads full smile💞
    DJ

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  5. I was sad already when I read this and now I'm crying in an empty house. I feel this, all of it.

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