Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life


"The top! We made it!” Exhilarated, the six of us cheered and hugged. We were the first team of women to reach the arctic summit of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. All around us, the high peaks of the Alaska Range extended to the horizon like frozen waves on a turbulent sea. Looking 8,000 feet straight down the vertical south face, we saw a thickening blanket of dark clouds. Although a storm very likely raged below, it was warm and windless up here at 20,320 feet.

            We shared a quick lunch and congratulations, but there was little time for celebration. Grace, our leader, was ill and getting worse by the moment.  Moving slowly all day, she had insisted on continuing up and barely made it to the top. Now she lay slumped in the snow, pallid and still. We needed to get her to a lower elevation —and fast.

            Margaret and Faye led her down the summit ridge on a short rope.  Then Dana and I each took one of Grace’s arms and supported her across a plateau the length of several football fields. She staggered between us in a stupor, her weight dragging us into the sun-softened snow.

 "One step at a time," I encouraged her. "You’ve got to keep moving." We managed to get her across the plateau and back up an easy rise to a ridge at 19,600 feet, where she fell onto the snow, retching.

            "Try to drink a little." Faye held her water bottle to Grace’s chapped lips.

            "Stop bothering me." Grace moaned. "I’m finished."

            I grasped her hand and tried to pull her up. "We’ve got to keep moving, Grace."

            "Go away." She jerked her hand away and sank back, groaning. "I'm going to die. Leave me here in peace." Her eyes closed and she drifted into unconsciousness.

            I was terrified. As the deputy leader, I needed to take charge. Our camp was 3,000 vertical feet below, we had little emergency gear, and it was seven in the evening. Exhausted from our long ascent, we had to get Grace down the mountain or stay up here with her. Both options seemed impossible.

             Our team needed a strong leader and a sound plan of action. And so, at age 25, on the frigid apex of North America, with storm clouds massed below and the specter of disaster in Grace's inert body, I reluctantly became an expedition leader.

            Since that fateful day on Denali I frequently ask myself why I spend my time and money to sentence myself to lack of oxygen, fierce weather, hard physical labor, and possible death. And I resolve that on my next vacation, I’m going to the beach.   But invariably, I find myself once again breaking trail through deep snow or trying to sleep on a narrow icy ledge. 

        To try to understand why I love climbing distant mountains, I decided to look close to home, specifically at my upbringing. As a child who was not allowed to cross the street, literally or figuratively, I ultimately learned how to find my path through or around barriers.  Like a compressed spring, I was catapulted by my narrow, over-protected early years into the heights. Reliving my childhood while writing this book, I discovered surprising solutions to some family mysteries as well as unexpected roots of my ability to lead mountaineering expeditions, do scientific research, and turn far-fetched visions into reality. 

Using my diaries, articles written following my trips, and my imperfect memory, I have tried to describe my experiences honestly and accurately. Whenever possible, I verified the information with teammates, colleagues, and friends.  However, our recollections are colored by our personal perspectives, and I recognize that others might have different memories of some of these events.

        This memoir consists of short childhood vignettes, longer stories of my mountain adventures, and snapshots of my career as a scientist. Intertwined, these three strands provide insights into how and why I left the flatlands of Illinois for the steep slopes of mountains around the world.

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