Showing up to fear

Climbing the Grand Teton with Big City Mountaineers

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Meg Attebery

The sound of heavy rockfall echoes off of the nearby mountains. Like gophers, heads pop out of tents searching for debris. The smell of smashed rocks sends us a gentle reminder that we are not in charge here — we’re simply visitors.

I retreat back into my sleeping bag, staring at the ceiling of the tent, contemplating what I’m doing on the side of the Grand Teton with complete strangers.

About a month prior to that night, I got a phone call from Big City Mountaineers (BCM) inviting me to climb the Grand Teton as a participant in their Summit for Someone program. BCM, based in Golden, aims to instill leadership and confidence in under-served youth by sending them on wilderness experiences.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to climb one of the U.S.’s most iconic peaks on behalf of a child’s opportunity to get outside. The climb itself would be new territory for me. I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I’ve scrambled plenty of Colorado’s toughest peaks, but I also have a healthy fear of heights.

The Summit for Someone climb up the Grand Teton is guided each year by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. The day we set out, our team consisted of three men who all participated in raising money for BCM, two guides and me, a journalist and photographer. We’d opted to take the slightly tougher Pownall-Gilkey route up the peak, which contains three pitches, or sections of roped climbing. Although I’ve been rock climbing for nearly four years, I had never strung together more than one rope-length at a time, much less on the side of a steep, 13,776-foot mountain.

I ended up becoming a rock climber despite continually panicking when I got high above the ground, convinced I was going to die and swearing that I’d never do it again. But my boyfriend was trying to get back into shape after quitting smoking and having surgery, and I wanted to support his efforts. I just kept on showing up and trying. Over time, I managed to learn how to lead sport routes, ice climb, rappel and clean the climbing gear along the way. But the Grand Teton was in another league.

Meg Attebery

What would happen if I couldn’t face the challenge? Would I panic, like I had before? Looking back, my hesitations reminded me of a BCM participant I met after my climb, Isa Urias Martinez. Urias Martinez, 17, was 14 years old when she went on her first BCM trip. She’d been invited on a week-long BCM trip through Denver’s Environmental Learning-Kids program, an agency that focuses on educating and inspiring underserved, urban youth to care about environmental stewardship.

Urias Martinez was drawn to the week-long trip because she felt it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She’d never backpacked before and had no idea what would be in store for that week. “I was raised in a household where if something challenges you, you’re going to have to do it — that challenge will make you stronger,” Urias Martinez tells me.

Going after a challenge is exactly what led me to climb the Grand Teton.

At 2:30 a.m. on summit day, we slowly sip coffee, stretching and preparing for the long day of climbing ahead. There’s a buzz in the air; two members of the team are hoping to finally reach the summit this year, as they were chased off the mountain from bad weather years prior.

My mind races with “what ifs.” Will the route have snow? Can I keep up with the team? Am I going to freak out in front of a bunch of strangers due to extreme exposure? Will my knee injury flair up?

Prior to arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, I was dealing with an IT band injury in my knee, and it was a small miracle I made the nearly seven-mile, 4,000-foot of elevation gain slog up to high camp. I looked down at my legs, praying my luck would continue for the remaining 3,000 feet of elevation to the top.

For me, reaching the summit may have been about challenge, but it wasn’t about personal glory. I wanted to document our mission so I could show the next generation that they, too, are capable of pursuing anything. Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself being here. But after I showed up time and time again — to the climbing gym, to weekends outside with friends, to my own solo endeavors — I managed to overcome my own fears and realize how strong I really am. By standing at the top of the Grand Teton, I hoped to instill that same sense of self-discovery and self-confidence in young women everywhere.

As we leave our camp, we weave through rocks toward the pitched climbing, I think about the BCM students and their week-long backpacking journey. Even though I’m a well-experienced outdoors woman now, I’m still pushing my way into the unknown. Every time it’s a little daunting. How must the students feel during their first-ever backpacking trip?

Meg Attebery

Urias Martinez was completely convinced she’d only make it a couple of days into her trek. But on the fifth day, when the team was set to summit, she felt her mentality change. As the sun rose and the team crested the top of a mountain, Urias Martinez told me she felt an intense sense of peace.

“I wanted to cherish that feeling forever,” Urias Martinez recalls. “I couldn’t believe I climbed a mountain. Here I was thinking, I was going to go home, but instead I got to stand on the top of a mountain and enjoy a view that not everyone gets to see.” As a daughter of an immigrant, she felt proud; she says she got to experience something her mother had only dreamed of seeing.

The sun slowly ignites the Grand Teton in front of me. A sea of distant canyons reveal their curves down below, bathed in pinks and oranges. Our guides stop, announcing the technical climbing ahead.

As we tied into the ropes, the wind cuts through our muffled conversation. I belay Collin, one of the guides. He shouts something about ice, but I can’t hear him above the swift wind. Before long, he’s anchored out of sight and it’s my turn to ascend the wall. The route looked easy from afar, but up close I see it’s shellacked in a thin layer of ice. I have poor circulation in my extremities, so I quickly lose all feeling from my wrists to my fingertips. Climbing transforms from something familiar to something completely foreign.

I struggle up the rock face. Through the numbness, I can’t tell what I’m touching or holding. Just. Keep. Trying! I pause and survey the side of rock as it contrasts sharply against the blue sky. The canyon-ridden channels of the Teton Range look like a mini-world far below me. I don’t think I can do this. I swallow hard and look up at the icy rock awaiting me.

Dangling, I try to remember. I’d come all this way. I had to keep pushing. Just show up to every hold. Just keep trying. I jerk into action and grab a piece of rock a few feet above my face. Although I’m not sure if the hold is any good because I still can’t feel it, I know if I activate my arm muscles and use my legs, I can get closer to Collin.

I scream and claw and slowly make progress, pulling myself onto the belay ledge. Standing at the anchor, fighting off the screaming barfies (a climber term referring to the painful returning of feeling into an extremity after it’s been numb for a long time), I think, again, about the power of the mountain, about feeling simultaneously small and powerful. It’s in these moments when I feel the breadth of human experience — most connected to my true self.

After the crux (most difficult) part of the climb, my team continues up a chunk of more moderate terrain. Three of us are roped together and we have to move together in order to manage slack in the rope and keep each other from falling. The technique is difficult to accomplish with a climbing team you know, much less complete strangers.

We reach the “Bouldering Problem in the Sky,” and I’m momentarily paralyzed. The series of moves consists of climbing outwards 90-degrees onto a face of rock that has a precarious drop hundreds of feet below. I’m the last in the short-roped team, meaning I can’t stop to think, I have to follow or else I leave my partner hanging over a several-hundred-foot drop. I swallow hard as the slack comes up in the line. I must step onto the precarious face.

Meg Attebery

Collin belays and relays beta (information on where to place your hands and feet). I express my hesitations to my teammates — saying it out loud helps me feel calmer, and I let go of my fears. Sometimes that’s what I need, just to admit it, acknowledge my fears and remind myself that I’m capable of facing them.

We climb in tandem, breath for icy breath, and pull ourselves atop the Boulder in the Sky and continue toward the thin ridge — the summit now in sight. Picking our way through exposed sections of rock, our eyes are trained on our feet and the slack in the line. Only occasionally do we catch a glimpse of our surroundings, and, five hours after setting out, our Summit for Someone team crests the Grand Teton.

We nosh and enjoy the view, proud of our teamwork on this challenging endeavor. We’d all come together, under a united cause, to help under-resourced youth experience the same sense of joy and pride we were feeling standing 13,776 feet tall.

Of course, neither Urias Martinez nor I ended our mountain careers after a single trip. Urias Martinez went on to lead a BCM trip and is still involved with the program today. She enjoys passing her wilderness skills onto her family and mother, and one day she hopes to have a career as an environmental engineer. As for me, I plan to keep on with my mission to inspire others that they are capable of anything; all you need to do is get out there and show up.