I wake up in the darkness. The sun has not yet risen and the world is almost silent. I hear the fire crackling as the smell of coffee drifts up to the loft where I’ve been sleeping. I climb down the ladder to greet the new day, trading in my sea legs for ski legs. Grabbing a cup of coffee and my big Patagonia puffy down jacket, I head outside to breathe in the fresh mountain air. I Inhale. I exhale. I close my eyes.
Step, breath. Step, breath. Step, breath. Five women stepping in sync with our guide, silence beyond the crunching of the snow underfoot. The pace is brisk; beads of sweat are starting to form under my beanie. I’m breathing hard and my mind is focused. It’s a magnificent winter wonderland out here. The mountains surround me, and I get a similar feeling to when I am on a boat offshore with only blue water and the horizon as far as the eye can see. I try to remind myself to lift my head, look around and take in the scenery as we head towards the summit of McMillan, about 12,805 ft, our goal for today.
The past two days have been a buildup to the big climb, with some serious class time, field work, safety lessons… but not devoid of entertainment, laughter and heartfelt moments. Our guide, Karen Bockel, an AMGA Certified Rock and Certified Ski Guide—also described as an “Extraordinary Baddass”—expressed her love of manual labor in the form of chopping wood and digging snow pits, always with that big grin on her face. Her love for the mountains came through with everything she said and did, and her energy set the tone for the rest of us.
Our skin-applying capabilities improved with each day, as did our confidence in skiing variable terrain. One of the most memorable was a tree run: my right ski popped off in the second turn. I wiped
out, and luckily a tree caught my runaway ski before it could disappear until spring. I was laughing and decided it was the perfect time to test my slalom abilities. I mean, I’ve done it on water, how hard could it be on snow? It was wobbly and not super-chic, but I made it to Karen with my ski and continued on for the day. Over the next couple days we would ski various snow pack and on one incredible pitch the Chicks tagged the Red Mountain Pass with some fresh tracks.
Each evening when we got back to the hut, the chores would be tackled before everyone settled in for the night. This included chopping wood and collecting snow to be melted for water. One night I went out with Dara and the sled in tow to help gather snow. On the way back to the cabin I had a misstep and went tumbling over! It looked like I had just finished a pitcher of beer (or two) and was stumbling back from the pub! I heard laughter from the deck of the cabin as my theatrics were seen by most of the crew and we all had a good laugh, myself included. We brought the snow in to be melted and boiled for drinking water, shoveling snow from the bag into the big pot sitting on top the wood-fired stove. Each evening, fresh stack of firewood is laid next to the stove, skins are hung and boots laid out to dry. We all gather around Karen for a lecture on avalanche safety and to discuss the plan and goals for the next day. As dinner is prepared, the smell of curry permeates throughout the hut as we gather around the stove to share a meal and stories into the night. The topics range from travel adventures, work, family and near death experiences.
The self-confidence, the satisfaction of overcoming challenges and sense of camaraderie that come out of situations like this are unprecedented. It is because of groups and communities like Chicks With Picks that so many women fine safety, comfort, fulfillment in the outdoors and a connection with the mountains and mother nature.
Inhale. Exhale. Staring out at the mountains, breathing in the cool mountain air, recapping the past few days I think about my own story and how we all have our own stories to tell. No matter how vastly different the life stories are for the women out here, they have led each one of us here. We were all driven to this moment, stepping in sync, facing the same challenges. We are all here for different reasons, we will all walk away with different lessons, yet we will remain connected through shared experiences.
Inhale. Exhale. I close my eyes. I realize that i’ve never truly owned my own story. There’s always been an underlying feeling of embarrassment, insecurity, shame and self-doubt. The visions come back. I wake up in the darkness. I am in the water, helpless, I can’t move my body. A man picks me up from under my shoulders setting me on the boat, darkness surrounds me as he silently walks away. February 14th, while many are focused on what flowers they are going to get or planning dates with their loved ones, this is the vision that plays over in my mind. That is the only memory I have of the day that I was drugged, raped, badly bruised and nearly drowned eight years ago. I was halfway around the world, away from any family and close friends, while working on my first adventure story. This story would begin my career as an adventure photographer and ultimately define my path and how I see things today.
After my physical wounds healed and I had some time to process everything, I realized I had two choices: go back home or continue on with the story. I decided to continue, hopped onboard a 30ft catamaran with two other crew and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. I had never sailed or been offshore before. I got my ass kicked many times, I was sea sick, I was scared, I was humbled and I was mesmerized. Throughout that two-month journey, with many nights alone with my thoughts on watch and many miles after that, I was able to transition my thoughts and energy from “Why did that happen to me?” to “Wow, I’m so lucky and grateful to be alive.” I went from being angry, emotional, lost and sad to forgiving, thankful, faith-filled, passionate and resilient. It was through experiencing the fury, the calm, the beauty and the mystery of the ocean that changed my perspective, saved me and ultimately brought me home (mentally and physically). I am forever and always will be connected with her. I was able to pull my focus from what had happened and pour it into the challenges I was facing at sea.
Inhale. Exhale. I open my eyes. Tears roll down my cheek as if they are memories trying to sneak out. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be where I am, to be taking in this beautiful scenery and grateful to be alive. For some reason, in this simple moment, surrounded by the beautiful landscape, solitude and comfort of new friends, amidst new challenges, I finally accept it. I feel this overwhelming sense of peace. I finally accept my story and love for myself. I look out upon the mountains and the weight lifts and my restless spirit calms. I know I am where I belong. As my tears make their final descent into the purity of snow beneath me, my head is clear and my heart is full.