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She Believed She Could

July 18, 2017

I woke up at 2am in a tent at 11,000 feet. There had been a storm during the night. Thunder boomed through the mountains and lightning brightened the inside of the tent enough so I could see the startled look on my tent-mate's face. There had been deep moments of doubt as I lay sleepless, thinking about what lay ahead - the climb to the summit of the Grand Teton. Maybe this storm will prevent us from being able to climb, I thought. Maybe we won't be able to go and then it'll be ok to tell friends back home that I didn't summit the Grand and it wasn't my fault. But the storm passed, the moon shone bright, and it was time to go.

 

I crept out of the tent in the darkness, laced up my rented mountaineering boots, slung my pack over my shoulder, and headed down to the kitchen tent to eat a bagel and drink some coffee with the rest of my group. Everyone was pretty quiet. Maybe it was the stillness of the hour. Maybe everyone was lost in their own thoughts about what was before us. Sooner than I realized it was time to get going. I asked Ken to help me fix my headlamp to my climbing helmet, and then we were off, a trail of spotlights heading up the mountain. 

 

I was glad for the darkness. For 2 days I'd been able to see the path to the lower saddle between the Middle and the Grand Teton that we'd have to travel. There was a trail cut through the snowfield that looked impossibly, foolishly steep. I didn't want to look down, didn't want to see how far one slip could take me. In the darkness all I focused on was the beam of light on the snow in front of me, placing one calculated step at a time. Step, step, place my ice axe, step, step, place my ice axe. Head down, steadily moving forward, we finally came across the snow and back onto rocks. Crampons came off. Ice axes went back onto our packs. The group moved ahead, 9 strong young men meeting their challenge head on. I lingered. I saw their headlights moving into the distance. The doubt crept back in. What if I can't keep up? What if I'm not strong enough? But somehow my feet kept moving forward. One step, two steps, moving forward.

 

Mark, a tall, lean, confident and calm mountain guide, turned back, waited for me. Together we moved up the mountain. "Put your foot here and then just grab the rock here," he'd say, having made this climb over 100 times before. Sometimes he'd tie a rope between us, climb up a steep rock scramble ahead of me, and then call down when he was ready for me to start moving up behind him. Sometimes I could mimic his moves, attempting to be as graceful and confident as he was. Most times, though, I'd pause, wonder how the hell he got his foot up that high, and then made my own way up through the rocks. Often times that meant jamming my knees on a rock to push myself upwards. Always upwards.

 

The darkness was fading and I could start to see just how far we'd come. The lower saddle seemed like some place we'd traveled hundreds of miles from. The park service tent was a tiny brownish dot amidst the grays and blacks of the rocks. How long have we been climbing? What time is it? Where are we? One thing I didn't let myself ask - how much further is it? It didn't matter. All that mattered was the next step, the next hand hold, the next problem to solve. Up ahead of us I could see tiny colorful dots on a rock ledge. The others in our group had reached the upper saddle and the first pitch of really technical climbing. I could hear a climber from another group, a woman, her voice full of anxiety and fear, calling out as she struggled to move upwards. What lies ahead? How will I get through that? It doesn't matter, all that matters is the next step. Keep going. Keep my head down. Listen to Mark. Focus. 

 

We reached the ledge and met up with Ben and Adam who were awaiting their turn up the climb. Ken was already working his way up it. We'd been told there was a section on the climb where there were slings for us to "aid climb" up. In my head I pictured a ladder of ropes and webbing that I'd just have to try to be graceful on. But as I watched Ken I realized how wrong I was. There was no ladder. There was just a sling, hanging from sheer rock. The only way to ascend was to pull yourself up with all the strength you can muster, hand over hand, until you could find good purchase on the rock, make a few moves, then grab the next sling, repeat the intense effort, and just when you thought you had nothing left, you had to do it one more time. Up went Adam. Then Mark. Then Ben. I was left alone on the ledge. I was the "cleaner". It was my job to go last, to disassemble the anchor that had been keeping us all connected to the mountain, put all the gear on my harness, and move up the climb alone. I stood there, looking out over the rocks, down the way we'd come, up the way I still had to go. I started talking to myself. "It's so beautiful here" I said. "I'm ok, I'm safe" I assured myself. My feet were getting cold. I stomped around in a tight little circle. I tried to clear my mind. This wasn't the time for doubt. This wasn't the time for fear. I was alone and I wasn't going to quit. The rope pulled tight. It was my turn. I moved across the ledge without hesitation. I came to the sling, grabbed it with both hands. It was wet and oh so cold. No matter, just move. I pulled myself up. My feet slipped on the rocks. I pulled harder. I made it up the first sling. Ok, now to get to the second one. I reached for it, got one hand on it, faltered, couldn't reach it with my other hand, felt myself swinging, gripping with all my fears and doubts and worries. Don't let go, don't let go, don't fall, don't be afraid. "You've got this, you can do this, you're safe, you can do this" I repeated out loud. "I can't do this". The words slipped out of my mouth unhindered. "What's that, Nicole?" Mark called down to me. I couldn't see him above me. There was just rock, and the damn slings. "I said I don't know how to do this" I lied. But it doesn't matter, just do it. Just. Do. It. So I did. I pulled, I grunted, I cursed, and then I was pulling myself onto a rock, standing up next to Mark, silently high-fiving myself for not once crying out to be pulled up.  

 

But there was still rock to be climbed, elevation to be gained, shins to scrape and knees to be bruised before I reached the summit. I put my head down, I followed Mark, I climbed up, up, up. 

 

I don't know if I couldn't see the summit or if I just wasn't looking for it. I had forced my focus on each step, each movement up the rocks. But then, suddenly, I came over a ridge, and there were faces I knew, climbers, my friends, my brothers. They were smiling at me. Huge, happy smiles. "Way to go, Nicole!" they shouted. Mark turned to me and gave me a hug. My voice caught in my throat. My vision got blurry. Ken handed me a cookie. I'm on the summit? I'm on the summit! I DID IT! A voice in my head was shouting at me - I DID IT!! It was 9am and the valley below was glowing in fresh sunlight. There was the tiny sparkle of cars in parking lot. There was Bradley Lake. There was the Teton Range, stretching out north and south around us. There, over there, that's Idaho. I am standing on the summit of the Grand Teton! Snap some photos, try not to cry, eat the cookie. For a few blissful minutes, I stood on the summit of the Grand Teton and owned my courage, believed in my own determination, felt pride in my perseverance. 

 

But the summit is only halfway there. As renowned mountaineer Ed Viesturs astutely noted, "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory." It's hard to pull yourself away from something you've worked so hard to reach, but going down can be harder than going up, and you're tired, and it's time to get moving. 

 

So down we went. Down, down, down. Sometimes I'm roped to Mark again, he stands above me holding the rope and I down climb the way we'd just come. Sometimes I'm on my own, picking my way through the rocks, trying to find the safest and most careful path down. We come to the rappel - 100 feet of sliding down the rope. We'd practiced rappelling the day before just outside of camp and I'd discovered I loved it. I was looking forward to this part. Clip in, grab the rope, lean back, further, further, until your feet are straight out in front of you. Then go. Down, down, down. I come over a roof in the rock and there's nothing but air. I look down, The other climbers look so far away, the rope seems so long. Down, down, down I slide. Until my feet are on rock again. I detach from the rappel, wishing I could go the whole way back to camp like that. But there's still hours of climbing ahead. So we keep moving. 

 

We make it back to the lower saddle. The whole group is there. I'm tired. So tired I don't speak. But we take a photo. All of us, together. We did it. We did this thing, this big, difficult, important thing. I'm proud of us all. But we aren't done yet. Take a breath, put on crampons, it's time to cross that snow field. This time it's light out. I can see how steep it is now. I don't look. One step in front of the other. My knees are wobbly. Focus. Step, step, place my ice axe. Step, step, place my ice axe. We make it across the snow field. Crampons come off. We continue down, down, down the rocks. So much rock. Sometimes the rocks slide out from under my feet. Sometimes my knees buckle a little. I keep going. I can see the tents at camp ahead. They still look tiny. How can they be so far away still? And they're uphill. I remember leaving camp hours ago, going down a steep hill thinking "we're going to have to come back up this at the end of a very long day". That moment was here. "It's the 8 minute hill" Mark said. 8 minutes? Impossible. It'll take me an hour. But up, up, up I went. One foot in front of the other. Almost there. Keep going. You can do this. 

 

And then I'm standing in camp. Everyone is here. Everyone is happy, and tired. I push myself a few steps more, get to the tent, crawl inside.... and sob. 

 

She believed she could so she did. A friend of mine gave me a bracelet with that inscribed on it as a gift. I had been wearing it everyday. For 10 hours I had been trying to believe in myself, telling myself I could do this, pushing myself to keep going. For 6 hours I moved up the mountain. For 4 hours I worked my way back down. When fear and doubt crept in I fought them back. She believed she could, I told myself. So she did.

 

I did. 

 

On Sunday, July 9, I climbed the Grand Teton. I didn't know I could, but I did. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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