The Heart of a Dream
“The weakest link in the pursuit of a goal is a loss of belief in our selves.”
A version of this story was published in Women’s Sports and Fitness. I wrote this version for an anthology about wilderness travel.
By Jean Weiss
Before I boxed myself up with limits, before I wasted four years in one of those early romances that red flags the family stuff you need to work through, I had a childhood dream. It involved me, travel and writing. The exact configuration was unclear, though one vision stood out. I was a woman wearing Khaki in Africa, scribbling ideas into a notepad as the rhythm of drums reverberated through muggy air. There was a man. Yet despite his appeal and our soulfelt love, I remained focused on getting the story. Sitting inside my mother’s Dodge Dart riding through Seattle’s drizzle to piano lessons, to ballet classes, to rehearsals with the Northwest girl choir, I held this woman clearly in my mind. The satisfaction she found in her work was reassuring. My life was going to be glamorous.
Twenty-three years later, I’m 34, I’m the senior editor of a women’s sports magazine and I’m walking down Walnut street in Boulder, Colorado on my way to meet telemark skier Kasha Rigby for margaritas at the Rio. I’ve never been to Africa. I’ve never met that guy. I do own a pair of Khakis. And though I’m superstitious about getting excited, it looks like I’m about to own my dream. The chance was delivered on voice mail a month earlier one Saturday morning in August.
“Jean,” urged my boss from the magazine. “There’s a trip. To New Zealand. With an all-women’s team from the North Face. It involves climbing Mount Aspiring. They’ve offered us an exclusive. I don’t know much about mountaineering but I think you can do this. Call me.”
For five years Bonnie Zellers wanted to snowboard this peak. Jill Sickels Matlock and Kasha Rigby came recently to the idea, hoping to ski and Telemark the Northwest ridge. If all goes as planned, each could pull off an historical feat, Kasha as the first to telemark the ridge, Bonnie as the first to snowboard it and Jill as the first woman to Alpine ski it. All three, used to traveling as the sole female on most expeditions, welcomed The North Face’s idea to pair them and their disciplines. The trip to Mount Aspiring is as much about proving that a woman’s trip can work as it is about climbing and descending the peak.
The deck is stacked in another way. In the history of outdoor sports, only recently have women been able to make a living as athletes. Even though they are North Face team members, Bonnie must squeeze in work as a nurse, Kasha as a waitress and Jill as a house painter to make ends meet. A successful trip—where all three summit and descend—could mean higher standing within the company and the financial freedom to pursue their athletic careers. Adventure photographer Chris Noble will document the trip for the North Face catalogue. Alpinist and cinematographer Scott Backes, a member of The North Face’s well-funded climbing team, is along to capture the trip on celluloid. Both men carry influence with The North Face and would be good for the women to impress. My magazine story could gain them further influence and exposure.
It wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined it. But there it was. Me. Travel. And writing.
Ten years ago while climbing the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton with my park ranger friend John Carr, I learned a valuable lesson about mind set. The route is a series of seven or eight pitches graded at most a moderate 5.6.
As John and I hiked from the lower saddle to the upper saddle thirty minutes into the day and not even close to where we would rope up, I was tentative and fearful moving between solid footholds. It was the feeling I used to get standing atop the high dive at the community pool near my grandma’s looking down into the deep water. I never knew if I’d push into the edge of my fear and jump, or chicken out and climb down past the line of swimmers waiting for their turn.
“This isn’t going to work,” John looked back at me, his tone stern and pragmatic. “Either you change your attitude, or we’re turning back. We’ve got to be faster.” I looked at him for a moment, retreat inevitable. Then it happened. I clicked into a different mind set. For the rest of the day, we moved swiftly and gracefully, passing three parties of climbers, roping up on only two of the most exposed pitches. The transformation stunned John. For me, it was like coming home.
Even though I know I can click into that feeling of competency, in my mind there’s a difference between the kind of outdoor woman that I am and the kind that Bonnie, Jill and Kasha are. They’re aggressive, competent and at the top of their fields. At best, I’m middle of the pack. While preparing for the trip, I expressed this belief to the North Face marketing director, to my boss, to my alpinist boyfriend, a mountain guide who spent many days preparing me for glacier travel. One margarita into the Rio’s three margarita limit, I expressed my doubts to Kasha. I really wasn’t sure: Was I worthy? Whatever happened, I told Kasha, I didn’t want to hold the group back. I didn’t want to be the weakest link.
The casual way to handle a clothing sponsorship is to throw on an item or two with jeans, over a T-shirt, or beneath a jacket. This becomes clear minutes into meeting the team at our gate in the Los Angeles airport. In contrast to their subtle presentation, I am outfitted from neck to ankle in North Face techwear shipped to me just before departure. I move through my faux pas with efforts at small talk. Chris is the first to arrive and easy to spot because of his camera bags. Like every magazine photographer I’ve known, he’s punctual, highly particular and one step ahead of the game when it comes to logistics and consequences. Chris competed as a freestyle skier and has climbed many peaks, including making it to camp four on Everest.
I’d already met and liked Scott over the telephone. He’s one of those irresistible manboys, a seat-of-his-pants alpinist known for streamlined, difficult ascents. He is also an expectant father on this trip, scheduled for Lamaz classes after Mount Aspiring, then a climbing trip in Pakistan, then back home for the delivery.
It is easier to meet Scott and Chris than it is to meet the women. Meeting the women matters more. I am already impressed with Kasha after the Rio. Perhaps the most famous of the trio, Kasha launched a name for herself in 1993 when she took fourth place as the sole telemarker in the US Extreme Skiing Championships held in Crested Butte, Colorado. A free heeling Heidi (she wears her blond hair in side braids when in the backcountry), with blue painted toenails and a waitress’ appreciation for food and alcohol, Kasha’s telemarking is hard core. The extent of her renown, though, has more to do with the fact that she has appeal similar to that of the singer Jewel. At 26 she’s charmingly casual and friendly and exudes the aura of a former hippie chick who’s discovered fashion.
Appearance and pretense are the antithesis of Jill, who is 34. At the Los Angeles airport, she gives off the impression of someone who enjoys figuring things out. Wearing Birkenstocks, with her straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, she sits in a chair trying to figure out Fiji, holding a guidebook and reading aloud to everyone. Straightforward, pragmatic and quick to respond, she’s one of the best off piste Alpine skiers in the world. She happened onto the scene in 1994, drawing from a background as a ski racer to win the US Extreme Skiing Championships in what was her first backcountry competition. Since then, she’s taken fifth, second and third in the World Extreme Skiing Championships. Jill’s no nonsense approach grows on you. While waiting in Auckland, New Zealand’s baggage claim, she decides she needs refreshing and, standing behind a stack of duffels, sneaks in a couple of swipes from her bar of underarm deodorant.
Of the three, Bonnie, 36, is the veteran. She’s also the only person on the trip who discouraged me from going. “We don’t want anyone to hold us back,” she’d warned me over the telephone. “Are you sure that you would be able to get off of the mountain by yourself if you had to?” In the end, my invitation wasn’t up to her. It was up to the North Face who after a heart-to-heart about my ability, assured me I was welcome. The key to my approval came after a series of conversations with Scott. Clearly I was in good shape cardiovascularly: I was climbing Fourteeners every weekend with a heavy pack and training for my first marathon. Provided I’d learn crevasse rescue and crampon technique, he agreed to look out for me on the mountain.
I am surprisingly enchanted by Bonnie, whose womanly presence seems at once gentle and game. She is friendly and earthy in her sensibly stylish Frye boots and thick glasses. A snowboarder who claims more first descents than any other woman in the world, she’s is a far more experienced mountaineer than Kasha and Jill. Often snowboarding with her well-known husband Jim Zellers, she counts among her descents the Col du Aiguille Verte and the Puobel Couloir in Chamonix. In 1990, she was named snowboarder of the year by International Snowboard Magazine and in 1991 the most extreme woman snowboarder by Transworld Snowboarding.
The group spends thirty or so minutes eyeing each other before we board the plane. Chris upgrades to business class, takes a sleeping pill and disappears from the group until we land. Scott and I sit in consecutive rows and can’t help but notice the couple across the aisle that continually gets up together and goes to the lavatory. Sex or drugs, we confirm later when we discuss it. Kasha, Bonnie and Jill sit on the opposite side of the plane sleeping, reading guidebooks and talking.
A morning rainbow in Auckland is a hopeful welcome following a 12 hour flight and a near disaster when Bonnie’s snowboarding bag is missing at luggage claim. Kasha finally sleuths the bag from behind a conveyer belt. We clear customs and fly on to Queenstown. Exhausted from travel and giddy with anticipation, Chris and Bonnie strain to drive our two rented vans on the left-hand side of the road. I might as well be in Seattle, I think, staring out the window as it begins to drizzle.
The women are set up in their own room, I’m set up with Chris and Scott. I debate the merits of getting a better story by staying with them, or allowing them down time from me before their stressful expedition. I settle on being sensitive to them, but hope I’m not missing out. The next morning I’m relieved when they come to collect me for a trip into town for errands. The map store is the first stop in a long list of to dos: tune up skis, purchase wands, buy an extra pair of skins, an ATC, pickets, ice screws and food shop. As we drive from store to store, I’m preoccupied with a list of advice from my boyfriend: tie foot prussic closer to your harness than your waist prussic; if the person traveling in front senses a fissure, pull the rope taut at a 90 degree angle; organize gear in your duffel bags according to use; pack the items you’re most likely to need on top; keep snacks and water accessible so the group doesn’t have to wait for you to get them out of your pack and whatever you do, even if it means getting up earlier than everyone else to get organized, don’t be the last one ready to leave.
By the time we make it to the tiny grocery, we’re still getting acquainted and are painstakingly polite about which foods to choose, a flexibility that ends when it comes to selecting chocolate. A private matter, everyone takes a turn solemnly examining the shelves of white, dark, caramel, and fruit and nut Cadbury bars. It is nonverbally agreed upon that two 17-ounce bars is the proper quantity. I choose two caramel-filled chocolate bars. Kasha decides on just one high energy dark chocolate bar, amidst disapproving glances. No one wants to have to share her supply with someone who didn’t adequately plan.
From the grocer, it’s on to the mountaineering store where the clerks are friendly. “The conditions have been perfect,” the woman behind the counter assures us. “Are you skiing the Northwest Ridge?” We explain that Jill, Kasha and Bonnie are skiing, telemarking and snowboarding it. “You know, I think someone just snowboarded the ridge last week.” The look on Bonnie’s face doesn’t change. We mull about the store a little longer, then start back on foot to our hotel. “One week,” Bonnie says to me, Kasha and Jill as soon as we’re alone. “I can’t believe it.” At least she’ll still be the first woman to snowboard it.
That evening before dinner we gather for a weather report. The forecast is bleak. There is a three-day window, including this day, which was spent running errands, followed by a four day storm, then a light clearing, then likely another storm. After a short silence, Bonnie speaks. “I always think it’s best to get on up there. I’d like to leave tomorrow.” Jill and Kasha agree. I’m stunned but remain quiet. Scott and Chris speak up, suggesting waiting out the storms in Queenstown. “This is your trip,” says Scott finally. “You get to decide.” The shift has been subtle. Looking back, I’m trying to remember if it was obvious to me yet, or if it had taken until a few days later, when I wrote the “What went wrong” list in my journal, to sense the burgeoning power struggle. Skiers versus alpinists. Women versus men. Less experienced versus more experienced. Press versus athletes. Those who have influence at The North Face versus those who want something from the company. We all had our part to play. The following morning everyone is up early hustling to get ready for the drive to the trailhead.
Moments before we helicopter up to Bevan Col and ski across the Bonar Glacier to Colin Todd hut, base camp for Mount Aspiring, Jill voices the fear that has been gnawing at everyone. “I’m freaked,” she says. Her usually solid voice is tiny and truncated. “I’m just thinking about T.R. and the crash, and I’m not sure if we should do this.”
The weather is closing in more quickly than we thought it would, although this is typical of the coastal ranged on New Zealand’s South Island. What had hours before been a clear slice of mountains, forests and farmland is now obscured by disjointed patches of fog, mangled hands reaching down to grasp the landscape. Given the women’s decision that we get in there, Chris and Scott present an alternative plan: Fly directly up to Bevan Col, rather than take the two days to get in there. We can only afford one helicopter transport. Flying in means we will walk out.
The chopper’s blades shoot off rough currents of wind, whipping tendrils of hair across our faces, rippling our waterproof shells. Bonnie, Kasha and I stand within three feet of Jill and still must lean in to hear what she is saying. The reminder of the helicopter accident that caused the death of their friend triggers mental checklists of hair-ball flights into the bush. Bonnie nods and returns Jill’s gaze. “Yeah,” she says softly. “I know.”
The women have called me over for a private huddle while Scott and Chris pace back and forth a few yards away. Logic and a two day weather window dictate flying in immediately, even though it’s last minute and everyone must scramble to reconfigure her gear. Still, there’s a pause in making the decision. Is it a cop out to fly directly up there? Will the weather hold long enough to climb? Is the helicopter pilot adequate? He’s looking pretty dicey sitting in his trashed-out fuselage wearing just-off-the-sheep-farm goulashes.
Jill’s acknowledgment of the worse case scenario disperses anxiety. Within 15 minutes, we trade shorts and T-shirts for bibs, jackets and one-piece suits, restuff into our backpacks the clothing, gear and food from three separate helicopter drop piles, rig ourselves with mountaineering hardware, jam our feet into plastic boots, pull out skis and await our turn.
The rear of the fuselage dips and swings back and forth with the increasing wind, as we float first over the Watukituki river basin, then above steeply hilled red beech forest, to the left of the snow capped French Ridge and Quarter Deck, sweep up the breakaway and into the fog. The helicopter shudders and climbs.
For a moment we see nothing but white. Then a glimpse of a ridge, a bluebird patch of sky, a view of the glacier below. Suddenly, there it is, Mount Aspiring, an upside-down shark’s tooth piercing the sky. At 9,957 feet, soaring from sea level, what it lacks in height it makes up for in intensity. The Northwest face of this crunched mound of metamorphic shists sits with the patience of a pointy-headed Buddha, ridges extending outward, graceful arms beckoning.
The helicopter continues its leftward swoop toward Bevan Col to drop us off. We climb out, instinctively crouching low with our heads bent to avoid the rudders swirling well above us, and unload duffels. Quickly, we erect two tents and stash them with supplies for later use. Within an hour, we gear up to descend the Col, ski across Bonar glacier and up another steep slope to Shipowner Ridge to set up base camp.
This is my first time on a glacier and using this equipment: short parabolic skis and randonnee bindings, plastic ice climbing boots and a backpack half my weight. Scott and Chris take off, I assume to wait for us just below. The women are slower and I’m ready to go before they are. I’m the worst skier of the group, but am confident that I’ll be able to do it—I can get down anything, I’d told the North Face. I strap on my skins hoping for friction. They’ll keep me from going too fast, from losing control. I edge my way to a rock outcrop Chris and Scott had skied through. Peering down onto the glacier, I can’t see either man. About 100 yards below me along the fall line is a crevasse. Above me and to the right is a blue hole in the ice. Chris and Scott have traversed to the right just below the rocks, well above the crevasse, and below the blue hole. It was simple enough. Unless I buckled beneath the weight of my pack. Ice climbing boots have no ankle support and are sloppy on skis. “Aren’t we supposed to rope up?” I think to myself as I inch across the traverse. Knowing this will be a funny story later is a consolation. Beyond the crevasse and onto a gentler slope, I free my heels from their bindings and kick my way across the glacier. Bonnie, Kasha and Jill speed by me on their skis a good half-hour later. The climb up the steep slope leading to base camp is another free for all. I crampon in Chris’ footsteps to the top, straining under the weight of my backpack.
As we crest the saddle, low afternoon sun illuminates Colin Todd Hut, a red 15 feet by 20 feet aluminum box perched on Shipowner Ridge. Surrounding us is an endless sea of mountains and glaciers, just dappled with strokes of pink. It is unclear why anyone would prefer the hut to a tent. We set up four across the saddle, on the other side of a rock outcrop about a 30 second walk away: a tent for Scott and his film equipment; one for Chris and his camera; one for the skiers; and one gear tent deemed the “garage.” Since Scott’s tent is small, and the women’s already crowded, I join Chris in his. We all head to the hut for dinner.
Inside several Kiwi men sprawl across bunks they’ve claimed by laying out their mummy bags and pads. Our cook Sarah, and the two Kiwi guys, Richard and Pete set up there, too. The hut sleeps 13. A stack of trashy gossip magazines piled in a corner, New Zealand and Australia’s version of People and Us, is a puzzlement. With stoves sputtering in the background, Jill questions one of the Kiwi men who skied the ridge. Fading light makes it difficult to view the details of the map on the wall that traces the Northwest Ridge route. Primarily visible is a grid of dark lines which highlight a section of the climb called the Ramp. “Use extreme caution:” it reads. “Fatalities have occurred.” Quietly, Bonnie, Jill and Kasha acknowledge the warning.
The next morning, the three women, Chris and Scott are up early, hoping to climb the mountain. Kasha, Bonnie and Jill want to get their objective over with while the weather holds. Scott and I agreed before leaving on the trip that I wouldn’t be with them on their first ascent. He needed to climb the peak a second time for pictures, and offered to take me with him then. By 6 a.m., while the team is eating breakfast and I’m still sleeping in my tent, the Kiwis who left earlier to climb have returned to the hut. Although the sky is clear, barometric pressure is falling and lenticular clouds swooping over lower peaks forewarn of worse weather to come. By 10 a.m., all seven natives leave the mountain, including the two men who the day before had hiked from the trailhead to the hut in one day.
Chris and Scott suggest that the team use the rest of the day to skin up the ridge to get a better view of the route while the Kiwi support crew skis to Bevin Col for supplies we’d left the day before. Chris encourages me to go with the team. I could use the crampon practice. The joke’s on me. We’re not cramponing, we’re skinning up. Once again, I use my lousy equipment. Scott and Chris are ahead of me taking photos of the women who trudge in a cluster below me. I’m traversing the ridge, following Scott and Chris’s tracks. Down the slope on the right, there’s is a steep drop-off and exposed, craggy cliffs. With every step, the exaggerated sidecut of my skis slices into the edge of the mountain, keeping my skins off of the snow. I step forward, then slip backwards and sideways. My legs are tense as I gingerly place my weight over each ski, hoping to avoid slipping. It would reassure me to be with the women, or with Chris and Scott. I stop to wait for Jill, Bonnie and Kasha. As they reach me, I’m about to turn and say, “I don’t like this. I’m slipping,” to Jill when the wind whips my ballcap off of my head and sways my body. Too scared to be embarrassed, I say instead, “I can’t go on. This is ridiculous. I’m putting on my crampons.” Out of the corner of my eye I see Bonnie look wearily at me. Jill springs into action, asking what she can do for me. She takes out her shovel and digs a step for me to stand on. Chris and Scott react within seconds, too. Before I know it, Chris is helping me remove my skis, sitting me down on the platform Jill carved out, strapping on my crampons. Scott retrieves my hat. Chris carries up my skis to a rock outcrop and I follow. The snow has consolidated into ice so from there the rest of the group crampons up to take a look at the ridge. I wait for them to return, then crampon down as they ski by me. Halfway back to camp, I switch to my skis. The first time of the season I’m always klutzy. This is worst case scenario. The entire group barely conceals their smirks as I jolt down the mountain.
By early afternoon, an enormous lenticular engulfs the top of Mount Aspiring, a waterfall of wind and clouds cascading over its tip. For the next 24 hours, the group waits out the storm inside their tents. By the next evening, the first storm system up on the saddle has moved through and the team decides to try again in the morning. Kasha sews together safety straps she’s fashioned from strips of webbing, and tries not to think about the Ramp. “I know I’m going to be gripped when I get up there,” she says. “I’ll be gripped no matter what. Why put energy into it now?” “I just hope it isn’t icy,” says Bonnie, looking up at the mountain.
The Ski Like a Girl sticker on Jill’s insulated mug faces outward as she takes a final sip of coffee, zips her bibs, straps on her beacon and clunks out the door. Shortly after 6 a.m. the team is skinning up the glacier toward the Ramp. Four hours later, I look out the hut window and can see Jill, Kasha and Bonnie—small dots moving slowly up the Ramp’s 50 degree slope. The snow along the cliff band above them is unconsolidated and sugary, so rather than climb straight up through it, the group traverses right to more consolidated snow. The tradeoff is that the fall line leads to a series of cliffs. Chris and Scott are unconcerned about the exposure and deem it unnecessary to rope up or belay the climbers. It is the most exposed, unprotected climbing Kasha and Jill have experienced. As they climb upward, Bonnie picks out the line she’d like to board down but notes that the snow is too firm and needs a day in the sun to warm up. Clouds blow over them and lenticulars form over lower mountains as they near the top of the Ramp. The team regroups in a less-exposed area near a rock outcrop to debate whether or not to continue. Scott and Chris think they should bail out. Bonnie wants to go up. The group descends, a tricky downclimb for all of the women. Jill looks down a couple of times and decides not to look down again. Kasha and Bonnie have a harder time pushing away their fear. Scott talks Bonnie down through the scariest section. When they return to the hut, it’s obvious that there’s been a second, subtle shirft. The day on the ramp made it clear that if Scott and Chris weren’t there, the three women would not be able to climb the mountain. No one from the North Face had told Scott and Chris that they would have to guide while they filmed. The women had requested a guide for the trip and wished that Scott and Chris would be more willing to help. I give up any hopes I had of climbing Mount Aspiring with Scott, resolving to sit tight on the ridge and try not to cause any extra problems for the group.
The second storm is worse than the first. No one can tell if a lenticular covers the tip of Mount Aspiring on this night, because the glacier and ridge are suspended in white. The tents shudder against the Northwest and Westerly winds. Inside, it sounds like a train barreling through a tunnel. During brief lulls, Chris and I hear the women talking and laughing together, sisterly bonding that I’m jealous not to be sharing. “It’s impressive that they’re getting along so well—that they’re not competing against each other,” Chris says.
By the fourth morning on the saddle, the tents are entombed in two feet of wet, heavy snow and dripping inside from condensation. Bonnie, Kasha and Jill move their sleeping bags into the hut. Scott follows soonafter. Then I arrive with all of my stuff. Chris stays in his tent alone for one more night.
By day two of the second storm, it is obvious why the hut, and especially why the tabloids, are here. Jill and Bonnie sprawl across two top single-berth bunks. Kasha stakes out territory in the bunk below Bonnie, Chris below Jill. Scott is spread out on a couple of top bunks in another corner next to the two Kiwi guys. I’m below Scott, next to Sarah. From our separate perches, everyone, except Chris who remains dedicated to his personal stash of Buddhist reading material, is consumed with the trashy magazines.
By day three of the second storm, the seventh day on the saddle, even the gossip has become boring. Jill rallies the group for a short time with an impressive array of party tricks—table climbing, a one-footed mouth bob for a dollar bill on the floor—at which everyone tries their hand. We compare body fat percentages. We discuss our relationships and compare family comments about our adventurous escapades. Then it’s back to swapping books and playing dice. One evening I sit down to play dice with Kasha and Bonnie. The objective of the game is to stack your same-numbered die on top of another’s, claiming the score for yourself. I’m losing. Neither Bonnie nor Kasha will stack on top of each other’s dice, so they both stack atop mine. I look at them and wonder if it was my awkward day on the ridge that marked the point I was no longer included in this silent sisterhood.
By the fourth day of the storm, the hut is filled with soggy socks, long underwear, inner booties, hats and gloves. Nothing dries. Any clothing that is worn outside even briefly gets encased in rime. The 30-second walk to the outhouse is too long. Everyone pees in a bucket in the mud room, and dreads her turn emptying it off the hut porch. We run out of toilet paper. The team discovers a second use for the glossy magazines.
It takes a while to realize it once the wind has finally stopped. An hour later, there’s a clearing. Each person slowly unfolds and walks outside to enjoy the sun. The luxury is brief: decisions must be quickly made. Should we leave the glacier or call up a helicopter for a resupply? Scott and Chris suggest that Bonnie, Kasha and Jill think about the day on the Ramp. Are they up for another try? The decision is theirs and I’m not asked to join their private huddle. Scott, Chris, the Kiwis and I stand on the porch. The women decide to stay. Chris tells me I can fly out on the helicopter when it makes its supply drop. I decline. Holing up together in the hut has been hard for everyone in the group, except for Scott and me. Scott has a stack of cds, a battery-operated player and a lot of experience as an alpinist. My resolve stems from a different source. Before I moved to Boulder to work at the magazine, I’d lived alone in Grand Teton National Park for three years in an isolated one-room cabin. This chance to veg and recoup from the hectic magazine world is welcomed. I could do it for ten more days, if needed. Richard decides he’ll fly out instead. The team skis across the glacier to Bevin Col. I stay alone on Shipowner Ridge, keeping watch as our clothing dries outside.
We are in good spirits that night, feasting on fresh vegetables, meat, cake and liquor. The next morning, the team is up by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5 a.m. Their early start is in vain. When they reach the base of the Ramp, the weather has already fallen apart. Just to be sure, they wait it out one more hour, then return sullen-faced to the hut.
It’s beginning to look like no one is going to make it off the saddle, let alone up the mountain. The teamed planned to travel through Fiji on the trip home. About now, sandy beaches are sounding pretty good. The next morning, the ninth day on the saddle, Chris is up at 4 a.m. for a gratuitous look at the weather: it stormed all night and he returns with the expected news. People settle deeper into their sleeping bags to wait out the day. At 7 a.m., Chris is up again for a second look, this time returning quickly. “I see blue sky. The weather is clearing. Let’s go.”
Jill, Kasha, Scott and Pete spring into motion, pulling on clothes, stashing lunch supplies, buckling boots. Twenty minutes later, Bonnie is still sitting up against the wall of her top bunk. The night before she decided not to go. By 8 a.m., she pulls on her down booties and down coat, and is outside helping Kasha search for missing sunglasses, helping Jill find a second ice ax. It isn’t until they ski off, that she crumples, shrugging off solace from me and Sarah as a tear slides down her cheek.
Jill, Kasha, Chris and Scott all know that it’s today or never. With a certain fierceness, Jill and Kasha skin together toward the base of the Ramp. Chris and Scott wait at the turnaround point. The conditions aren’t good: blue ice under four inches of snow, marginal weather.
Jill has already decided that she is going to go as far as she can. Kasha hesitates. Maybe under different circumstances, she’d try. A few days earlier Chris and Scott had said that they could help at least one woman up the mountain. Kasha realizes she’s not the woman. She isn’t feeling the drive and even though this is Jill’s first time climbing a mountain, Jill is mentally and physically the strongest. “Sorry it’s gotten so military,” Kasha hears from Scott as she turns to leave. Pete retreats with Kasha. Jill, Chris and Scott pick a line and front point straight up the steepest section of the Ramp.
While the three are on the Northwest Ridge, the rest of the team breaks down camp and takes off for Bevin Col to stash supplies in hopes of a speedy departure whenever it clears. I haven’t skied since my debacle on the ridge, but I want to pull my weight by carrying stuff over. Although I’ve skied since I was six, I’m barely managing down this steep slope with my heavy pack. Sarah talks me through it. We traverse across the glacier, marking our path with wands as fog moves in. By the time we return to the hut, visibility is less than 10 feet. There’s a self-conscious lack of comment about the three on the mountain, as the hours pass and it begins to grow dark. Finally, Kasha says, “Jill’s main concern was white out. She was much more worried about a whiteout than about ice on the route.” The information is received with silent nods.
Outside the tent there are shouts and laughter. It’s 7 p.m. The three are back. No one gets up to greet them as they disrobe in the mud room. Jill comes in, face windburned, crying, laughing and hugging everyone. Miraculously, they climbed through the fog, summited the mountain and returned within 11 hours. Bonnie and Kasha congratulate Jill. “It was heinous,” Jill says. “Wicked gnarly.”
As Scott, Jill and Chris dig in to the food set before them, Jill recounts the climb. “We were at the top at 2 p.m.,” she says. “As wide as this room is was the widest you could ski. There were sheer drop offs everywhere. I was crouched down with two ski poles, side stepping down the mountain.” She demonstrates the near-fetal position she assumed as she dug Chris’ ice pick poles into the snow in front of her. “You could barely see where you were going. I couldn’t get an edge. It was like ping pong balls or golf balls frozen into the snow. When they broke, it was like skiing over huge ball bearings. I traded my skis for crampons and walked halfway down the ridge. Then I put my skis back on and skied to the Ramp. I actually felt better on my crampons than on my skis. I never thought I’d say that.” Chris, Scott and Jill are ecstatic. Bonnie, Kasha and I are excited for Jill. There isn’t much acknowledgment from Bonnie, Kasha and me toward Chris and Scott as everyone prepares for bed.
Getting off the mountain, getting out of the weather, getting away from each other: Three goals reunify the group. The morning after Jill’s victory, we awaken to another full-blown storm. We use the solar powered hut radio to call the park service office in Wanaka for a weather report. There might be a short opening the following day. Chris announces that the group will leave tomorrow. First Jill, and then Kasha, suggest waiting for another report. This makes Chris angry. The women remain in their sleeping bags, also angry. Chris and Scott step into the mud room to talk. Bonnie, Jill and Kasha are silent, tight lipped, furiously writing in their journals. Bonnie begins to talk about Chris while he is out of the room. I suggest that we tell him directly how angry we are. If Bonnie decides to do this, I tell her that I will support her. When Chris and Scott return, the Kiwi crew is treated to a full blown group therapy session, initiated by Bonnie, participated in by all. Bonnie starts out with her gripes about Chris. I back her up. He apologizes. We have a fruitful discussion. Once everyone has vented Scott says, “Is there anything else we need to get out on the table.” There’s a silence. Finally, I speak up. “I’m worried about how we’re going to get down off of this mountain. I don’t feel safe. I don’t trust the way the group is making decisions.” More silence. I notice that I am sitting alone on the edge of my bunk on one side of the room. Everyone else is seated or standing on the opposite side of the room. It’s a distance of several feet that grows wider and wider the longer we are silent. Then Bonnie speaks, as if to a child. “Jean, you’ve said a few times that you were worried about the descent. You know, when we spoke on the telephone before coming here, you said that you could get yourself off of the mountain. You said that you had climbing experience. You really misrepresented yourself.” Another silence. No one steps in to defend me. Instead, Sarah corroborates, saying how astounded she was the day before when she saw how poorly I’d skied down the ridge. Then Bonnie ads, “Are you used to having someone with you all the time when you climb? Someone making the decisions for you? I can do that. I can stay with you when we walk down the mountain. I can help you set up your rappel. That will slow us down, but I’ll do it.”
Chris and Scott are looking at me, gauging my response. I was supposed to be the only member of the group incapable of making it up Mount Aspiring by myself. For a moment, I measure the consequences of responding along these lines. Instead, I say, “What are you gaining by saying that to me now? What are you getting out of humiliating me in front of everyone?” Barely able to muster this, I turn to my sleeping bag and crawl inside where I remain, sobbing, for the rest of the day. My separation from the group has caused it to unify. Everyone else is joking and laughing. They decide to hike out tomorrow, no matter what. Bonnie, Jill, Kasha and Sarah venture over to me several times. Bonnie apologizes. I’m not ready to hear it. Sarah tells me to snap out of it. That pisses me off. Jill and Kasha come over to problem solve. “You know, we realize that Bonnie and Kasha and I have all been helping each other, but no one’s been sticking by you,” says Jill. This is a nice thing for her to say and I start feeling better. By evening I crawl out of my bag and sit next to the women as we suck hot cocoa out of a cup through porous cookies called Tam Tams.
The next morning at 4 a.m. the weather is calm. We pack our backpacks, eat breakfast, and clean the hut as quickly as possible. The decision has been made to hike down the headwall, an 18 mile day from Colin Todd to the trailhead and the fastest route out. This time of year it’s also a risky route due to high avalanche danger. We need to descend the headwall early before the snow starts to slide. By 9:20 a.m., we’ve skied across the glacier to the Col, secured gear for a helicopter pick up and stuffed light packs with emergency supplies, preparing for a long day out. I am a good half hour ahead of the women, just behind Chris and Scott. I help Chris dig out the tent at the Col. As Scott recons the route it begins to snow and fog blows in. It looks like we are in for a bleak retreat. I set my resolve. We descend in a line, kicking crampons into the snow, holding an ice ax in our uphill hand and a ski pole in the downhill hand. Chris stays with me the entire time. Scott has found a surprisingly easy line. We move swiftly down an avalanche chute—given time and weather our safest choice—and before long, the group is standing on solid ground, switching ski boots for hiking shoes for the trek across streams, through red beech forests, farmland dotted with mother sheep and baby lambs, out to the vans. I’m hiking about an hour ahead of Bonnie, Kasha and Jill.
The hum of the airplane on the return from Auckland to Los Angeles cushions my thoughts as I sort through what happened. I knew going into this trip, that the difference between me, the writer, and Bonnie, Jill and Kasha, the extreme athletes, was enormous. I knew we were all there on business with our own agendas. They were my story, I was their publicity. Yet, perhaps foolishly, I expected our bond as women to overide any conflicts or differences. The fact that it didn’t was disappointing. Bonnie had made it clear to me in front of the team, that I was their weakest link.
Yet maybe I wasn’t. Looking down at my techwear khaki’s, I decide that weak link is the wrong premise to work from. When Bonnie stayed behind in the hut, giving away Mount Aspiring to Jill, I respected her. The concession took more strength than climbing the mountain. Our weakest moments are also our strongest. Even though it turned out to be a bellyflop in front of three gnarly women, I’d found the courage to jump into my dream. Somehow, I believe that counts.