My first-ever anxiety attack was on the north side of Red Mountain Creek. I slumped into a pile of dead leaves while sobbing manically and trying to shove a string cheese into my mouth. I was fed up. A week full of fears and self-doubt culminated in a ten-mile slog into avalanche terrain with a climbing partner who was as inexperienced as I was and somehow immune to worry. I was rattled to my core before we strapped on a single crampon, finally asserting that I would not be climbing Split Mountain after all. My nerves felt bruised against his youthful bravado, but at least I was learning. Beneath my panic and my trembling fingertips, I was learning how to say no.
First, a loud whumpf roars through the valley, slamming my entire body with the malicious ferocity of a kick drum beat at an underground club. Next, terrifying silence as the slope gives way underneath. The snowpack crumbles before it turns to a mushy gunk the consistency of hand-cranked cement as it pours down the face of the mountain. I didn’t even see it coming. It is 10:45am on Monday, April 2nd. I’m three-quarters of the way up Sherwin Ridge, and my climbing partner, Ryan, is about to be hit by 1,100 tons of sludge.
Instead of saying no, I found myself sobbing next to a creek in the Eastern Sierras. Fresh out of a fight with my boyfriend, I had traversed a cross-country approach to one of California’s highest peaks in the sweltering heat. I was terrified of climbing my first bergschrund, uncomfortable in my avalanche transceiver, and struggling to prop up the idea that I could make a great mountaineer. There was a bar fight inside my head, and I was losing.
It is 8:05 AM, and I can feel the razor-sharp edges of my crampons cut through the fragile, top layer of snow like a child cracking crème brulée. I shove the spike of my ice axe a couple of feet above me and, shoes turned out like a clumsy ballet dancer, I hoist myself another few steps up the dizzying, 2000 foot climb. I turn over my right shoulder and exhale, taking in the panoramic view, as a breeze carries tiny ice crystals into my hair. I am exactly where I want to be.