Our climb began in the pitch-black darkness of a sky with no moon. It was 1 a.m. and I offered to lead our teams out of camp, even though I’d never climbed the Easton Glacier. I could only see the narrow scope of my bright headlamp, so I trusted intuition, weaving around rock outcroppings and crisscrossing across slopes. Step by step, we made slow progress through our obsidian universe.
At 2 a.m. I came to a bowl with steep cliffs on all sides. Unsure where to continue, I passed the lead to my co-instructor, Katie, a twenty-something lady mountaineer like myself. Relieved, I followed as she traversed up, placing pickets to protect our girls and us from the rocky run out below. We turned a corner and rose out of “the portal,” a narrow, white channel arriving steeply above crevasses so large a bus could disappear into them and never be recovered. This time Katie nervously urged me to again take the lead.
The day prior, while preparing for the climb, Katie and I discussed quietly on our side of camp: Do six teenage girls really belong on Mount Baker? Fifteen year olds who prior to our training didn’t even know mountaineering involved snow! I was consumed by a subconscious sexist notion that fear and lack of mental stamina would prevent our girls from summiting. I also, like many women across all disciplines, doubted my competence. Despite my experience, I believed it was by some oversight that I was staffed on such a technical and historic course.
However, when Katie passed the lead to me, instead of self-doubt and skepticism, I felt joy and excitement. I found I could easily navigate around the holes. As our night turned from black to gray scale, the surrounding glistening ice castles awed me. Soon, we were comfortably swapping leads — a caterpillar train, with each girl alone in the glow of her headlamp.
The moon finally rises over our team after climbing in the dark for hours.
Katie was leading when we came to our first major snow bridge. There were several on the route, some even ten feet wide, twisting and turning around and over cracks twenty feet wide. I led over a narrow one with two kite-shaped crevasses on either side. I saw water flowing down their blue insides like glittering diamonds and as I crossed, the sun rose and we bathed in its neon yellow. We stood on the white snow overlooking the orange stripes in the horizon, and in my pink puff coat, I was part of the lightshow myself. Surely, magnificent moments like these make the risk of going into the mountains worth it.
At the crater, one girl complained of nausea and we stopped to assess. After questioning, I learned it was not altitude causing her stomach to churn, but fear of height. As our morning passed, the exposure increased and we walked regularly among cliff edges that appeared in the snow under our feet. Her fear validated my fear that perhaps this mountain is not a place for girls. However, when asked if she wanted to continue, she answered simply and proudly, “duh!”
Soon, we summited, and it was nor joyful or climatic. Only at the top did the girls finally realize the summit is only half way. We ate our frozen summit snickers in the fierce wind, took photos, and embarked on our journey down.
Katie and I got all six girls up and down the mountain safely and in style. We knew what we were doing, the girls were brave and strong, no men on the trail heckled us, and no other guide explicitly doubted us. Making all the decisions together and having no older male mentor to confirm our competence or to take the lead when the crevasses below looked too scary, felt extraordinarily different. For me professionally and personally, the all-girls Mount Baker climb felt immensely validating and liberating.
The most extraordinary thing is that I expected the opposite: I doubted our girls and myself and expected the worst reactions from other professionals and clients on the mountain. I wished I could communicate the significance of an all-girls climb to our girls, yet I also found it refreshing that they didn’t yet fully realize misogyny in their lives. I believe the courage, strength, and confidence they discovered on Mount Baker that week carried on in their lives; I know it has in mine and that is how I know the value of being among women in the mountains.
Katie and I pose after a post-climb nail painting sesh. Guiding with a peer felt incredibly different, validating, and liberating.
- Amber Smith