Lesson From a Mountain: It's our Birthright to Take Up Space

By Catherine Coe

“I have the trip for you: Mt. Rainier. The instructor team is George and Mariah.”

The spring had been a roller coaster. My partner and I bought a little house and moved from Salt Lake City to Lander, Wyoming, in April, 2021. By the time we signed at the closing, I’d heard from a previous employer several times wondering if I was available to work climbing or mountaineering trips after a long hiatus. I wanted to...and I didn’t want to. Rewind to May, 2017. I graduated from nursing school in Missoula and met the love of my life the same month. I left for a few weeks that summer to work what would be my last season of mountain guiding. I belly laughed and gossiped with a favorite co-guide in a tent at Corbet High Camp on a weathered-out Grand Teton trip; I led a successful Granite Peak trip with another female guide and we screeched with joy as we counted our massive tip at the trailhead; and I swore up and down that even though I was now a nurse, I’d be back the next summer. That didn’t happen. I moved to Salt Lake City that fall to start the grueling path of working in intensive care with the goal of becoming a flight nurse. The years came and went, and as they did, I continued to identify on a deep level as a person who worked outdoors. I spoke like a demented has-been about trips as though they’d happened yesterday. I lacked connection with other hospital nurses and after two years I still felt like someone temporarily passing through the very ICU I worked in. I longed for the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, obsessively seeking out obscure routes in the Wasatch and Uintas where I might avoid the crowds and convince myself I was still amongst the grizzlies and random snowstorms and misanthropes.

Photo courtesy of Laurence Parent.

Fast forward to January, 2020. It began with an adrenaline rush of preparations for the pandemic at the hospital. I worked in a pulmonary ICU, and when Covid patients began to flood the hospital my unit filled up and hemorrhaged into an overflow ICU. Staffing numbers didn’t compute, so we signed up for mandatory overtime, forewent raises, and sweated through 12.5-hour shifts in plastic gowns and heavy, battery-powered respirators. In our first Covid code - where we attempted to resuscitate a patient whose heart stopped when his lungs became so inflamed they could no longer take in enough oxygen - I felt like I was in a vacuum full of astronauts screaming at each other. Our muffled voices floated around, misunderstood, resulting in chaos and utter failure. A mess. It ended poorly, without a debrief, and the patient’s primary nurse never came back to work.

Over the following months, I found myself quietly crying at random times. I replayed the various codes or deaths by withdrawal of life support that I had witnessed, many of them minorities or incarcerated individuals who caught the virus in crowded living conditions and spent their last weeks pharmaceutically paralyzed on a ventilator.

The patriarch of a Utah family died in my care just before the hospital restricted all visitors. His wife of decades wept at his bedside and his son thanked me profusely for my hard work. The patient clung to life for an awkward amount of time after we discontinued his ventilator, and I attempted to comfort the family by asking if they’d like to tell me about him. They spoke about the charity work he had done and how humble and faithful he was until his death. I cursed my respirator for the wind tunnel it created in my ears as they honored him through their sobs. I was forbidden to hug them and I felt like a robot. But, I wept with them and, as I was also forbidden to touch my face, tears flowed freely under the shield of my respirator.

During those months I felt a deep disconnection from most humans outside of healthcare. Just as many aspects of life shifted in the pandemic, so too did my relationships with my co-workers. We bonded deeply, as we were now at war together both at work and in society where the issue of Covid became unnecessarily political. To our disbelief, while we managed ventilators and set up Facetime calls with distraught family members, people on the outside began to question whether the pandemic even existed. I stopped answering messages from friends or family who entertained conspiracy theories about Covid; I couldn’t fight the fight both inside and outside the hospital. Disillusionment consumed me and my resiliency reserves shrunk with each passing month.

I climbed outside frequently, thankful to escape the mess of Covid in my mind. Still, as my resiliency waned, I was often one committing move away from backing off; loving climbing for the distraction it provided, yet sometimes hating it for the added stress it caused.

There were a handful of people in my life who remained beacons throughout. One of which was a friend and climbing partner whose journey into healthcare somewhat paralleled my own. Mariah was working as a palliative Physician Assistant in Grand Junction, spending much of her time counseling families on their worst days and witnessing the passing of Covid patients. We met working for NOLS in 2011. For the better part of a decade we witnessed each other both sending hard and losing our heads, on and off the rock. We hold space for the meltdowns, yet we push each other to finish our leads. Through that first year of Covid, we texted frequently about when we could escape quarantine and get into the mountains.

Photo courtesy of Laurence Parent.

We met up in Indian Creek in early spring of 2021 when it seemed the pandemic may have run its course. We dreamt of picking up where we left off on our last trip, pushing ourselves on finger cracks and bagging towers, but we quickly realized the toll our work had taken on our bodies and hearts.

On day one I attempted to warm up on an unnamed corner crack. My legs were bricks; my forearms rejected the idea. My chest heaved and my very spirit begged me to look at my ragged, messy self in the mirror and, for once, keep my feet on the ground.

The following day Mariah and I slept late, quietly co-existed in camp as we stretched and journaled and sipped hot drinks, and ultimately decided to forego climbing and bushwhack our way up to the plateau to scope out The Cat, which I had recently become fascinated with for no better reason than I felt it must be my namesake. We scrambled up washes and elbowed our way through junipers, got sand in our shoes and prickly leaves in our pants. Mariah carried her little red border collie over her shoulders when the terrain got steep. I marveled at a view of the Creek that I had never sought out in almost two decades of climbing there. We relished exploring a new corner of this familiar place; we did not apologize for our complete lack of motivation to do what we had come there to do. We parted ways a few days later, Mariah back to her work in Grand Junction and me back to Salt Lake to start the process of moving to Lander. NOLS continually reached out to both of us to work, ultimately getting Mariah to commit to a short trip on Mt. Rainier in July. Inspired by her willingness to step back into the guiding world, I considered dipping my toe back in as well. I hesitated, though, feeling apprehensive about how I fit into the guiding industry at this point.

The thought of working a rock camp for multiple weeks with three guys many years my junior reminded me of why I went to nursing school in the first place. Similarly, the idea of being away from home for 30 days felt nauseating (I’d recently returned from a month-long travel nursing assignment). But in mid-June when the alumni department reached out to me to fill an opening on the same trip Mariah was working on Mt. Rainier, it finally clicked. I had a rare opportunity to reawaken a dormant part of myself in the company of a supportive female friend. Mariah and I celebrated via text and shared our fears and excitement about teaching skills that we hadn’t taught in what felt like ages. A few weeks later we traveled to the lush, green Pacific Northwest branch together, mountaineering boots in tow. Both of us nervous, but ready, after a long, hard year, to revisit our past lives of sleeping, working, and teaching in the alpine. Mariah’s experience leading trips throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Waddington Range, and India makes her a boss on big glaciers, and I felt privileged to soak in her mentorship in that setting. I also knew that I carried with me a raw heaviness from the past year that she could understand.

The trip went down without a summit. Our timing couldn’t have been worse for conditions: we settled into Camp Schurman as the record heat wave settled into Seattle. Sunscreen dripped down our sweaty faces and the glacier felt like a convection oven. We battled the melting snow in camp, constantly flattening our tent platforms and redigging deadmen, staring open mouthed when they emerged from the deep holes we’d so proudly dug just 12 hours before. I found a new appreciation for sleeping in the middle of the tent. During the heatwave I was the only one who didn’t get melted off the side of the platform each night. I awoke to Mariah and George grasping the tent bottom more than once, trying desperately in the wee hours not to slide down in the newly-melted out moat. We watched in awe as the mountain fell apart above us. Ice and rock crashed down just frequently and loudly enough to convince most of our participants that our plan to forgo a summit attempt wasn’t completely unwarranted.

Still, we had to continually stand our ground on this point to two summit-focused males in the group. As this process unfolded, we shared enlightening discussions with a female guide from a different company camped nearby. I’d spent much of my time as a nurse looking back on my guiding days with rose-colored glasses. I hadn’t foreseen reemerging with a new appreciation for the layered, nuanced work a female must do in this male-dominated industry. I marveled at this woman who seemed to so gracefully walk the tightrope between assertive mountain guide and sensitive woman, without showing signs of burnout.

Photo courtesy of Laurence Parent.

Looking back on my seasons guiding in the Tetons, I recalled the self-imposed pressure to fit perfectly into a man's world. I dug deep on every trip to move fast, to build anchors at warp speed, and to bury my fear when short-roping heavy clients. To find the perfect words to break the awkward ice that exists only between a female guide and her male client when she catches his falls and observes him gripped with fear on her rugged, exposed turf.

In short, I was stoic AF and I hated being the first to suggest turning around. I often felt clients would more readily accept the cessation of a summit attempt if they heard it from a man. That played out on Rainier when our male co-instructor George mostly sat back as Mariah and I broke the news that a summit was not in the cards. The following debate dragged on for over an hour for the benefit of the two disappointed men. This unsettling dynamic became the focus of our instructor debrief a few days later back at the branch.

I realized that, if I were to do it over, I would’ve taken the same approach as some of the guiding companies. I would have gotten them out of bed at 1am, played the part of making a summit attempt, then acted disappointed when we encountered the same collapsed snow bridges we’d heard about people falling from the day before. The participants would have been hopeful until they got turned around, having been told this was a possibility but that they might somehow be the exception. It would've been simpler than convincing them that learning other glacier skills was more valuable than wasting energy on a pointless summit attempt. In my pandemic-related state of mental exhaustion and disillusionment, I’d lost faith in reasoning with people and wished we’d never even tried.

Mariah listened to me express my regrets and nodded her head without judgement. She then said, with calm confidence, that she had no regrets. She was ok with it being messy. Even if the teachable moment had gone over a couple of heads at the time, our approach was authentic, transparent, and respectful of the participants. We had chosen what we, as experienced outdoor educators, felt to be the best plan at the time. We knew how to maximize our time at high camp in shitty conditions, and unfortunately that was lost on a couple of people. Their questioning and messy reactions should not have led us to question our approach. Had we allowed their questioning to rattle us because they were men?

Mariah reminded me that, though we were each emotionally haggard in our own way from the past year, at our cores we were strong women who could still role model genuine decision-making in the mountains. She reminded me to acknowledge the beautiful authenticity in the mess; the beautiful fact that the messy dynamic itself had created a more subtle yet important teachable moment than any lessons regarding conditions or technical skills. And in those moments, as she spoke, I regretted my regret. I began to think, “We did ok. It felt like a bit of a mess, but we did ok.”

Several months later, I’m still getting more comfortable with it being a mess. All of it. Moving to a small town, learning how to be a nurse on a helicopter without getting my head chopped off, sometimes climbing well and sometimes climbing shitty. Covid and everything related to it. As I write this with buddy taped fingers and a sore ankle, I am humbled by nagging injuries, by my awkwardness in building community yet again, by the steep learning curve of a new job.

At times, I wish I had no ambitions, no passion; that I could just live happily in my comfort zone - pursue nothing, stay put, be invisible. I look up at a card from Mariah on my bulletin board that reads, “Lesson from a Mountain: It is our birthright to take up space and look fucking majestic.” And I can hear her voice as though she’s in the room saying it loudly, confidently, through a huge smile. May we all find climbing partners and friends who remind us of this - that it is our birthright to take up space. To speak up. To make the hard calls. To fail and try again. To wade through messy situations and be seen and heard. And, yes, to look fucking majestic in the process.

About the author

Cat Coe has worked in the outdoor industry in various realms over the last 18 years, including guiding, alpine climbing, mountaineering, and leading horsepacking and backpacking expeditions. Cat lives in Lander, WY and now calls nursing her full-time career. She works helicopter rescues and flight transports for a medevac company and alternates spare days in the ER and ICU. When she's not climbing or working, you can probably find Cat editing photos or putzing around in her vegetable garden, revelling at the miracle of growing plants in Wyoming.


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