Excerpted with permission from The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story (Mountaineers Books, May 2019) by Dierdre Wolownick
Mount Conness, Sierra Nevada, 12,590′
So after Tenaya, when my friends talked about Conness, their photos and ones I’d found online showed a clean line of alpine granite that called out to be climbed. It was so beautiful! Pure, white granite that curled around a green-tinged alpine lake, a glacier to the north of it, features that cried out to be held—it was a dream that I hoped to be able to pull off. I had to do it. Or at least try. I asked my son if he thought I could manage it.
“Sure.” His usual reply. I knew what he meant now. Of course I could— if I wanted it badly enough.
In the two years since [climbing] Tenaya, I’d been getting stronger. I still had skinny chicken arms, still couldn’t do a push-up or a pull-up, but I no longer completely discounted the possibility of summiting Conness. I climbed twice a week at the gym, or more if I had a partner. I took my climbing outdoors far more often and had begun learning the value of climbing different kinds of rock. Besides the few areas within a day’s drive of Sacramento, I’d also climbed at Smith Rock, in Oregon, and in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and had made many forays into the climber’s wonderland of Yosemite.
But climbing was the easy part. Life had always been the hard part. Over the last few years, though, a kind of peace had settled over my life, and with it had come a different kind of strength that gave me direction and purpose. Since I no longer spent my days agonizing over how to fix something that I, alone, couldn’t fix, I was free to see into a future. And more and more, I couldn’t imagine a future that didn’t include climbing.
So two years after Tenaya, we arranged it. As with many of the high-country climbs, the logistics were the most daunting part. My climbing friends in Sacramento often didn’t know where a climb began, or how to get to that point—sometimes a serious, miles-long hike with lots of opportunity for getting lost. Or what gear they’d need. Or they worried about me.
“I don’t know,” they’d hem, haw, and try to talk me out of things. “That climb’s probably too hard for you.”
Or, “I can’t hike that far in one day. We’d have to camp out there.”
Or a whole gamut of solid, bona fide reasons why older people who spent their life in an office or a classroom shouldn’t go try something like that.
But Alex and I immediately put it on our calendar.
Andrew, a friend from Sacramento who was younger than me but older than Alex, had also wanted to climb Conness, so he jumped at the opportunity. We made a simul-threesome, as I’d done on Tenaya with Michelle. Alex led, I tied in about two-thirds down the rope and cleaned the gear that Alex placed, and Andrew tied in at the end of the rope. One of Alex’s friends came along to shuttle the gear between us, free-solo, taking it from me as I cleaned it out of the rock and carrying it back up to Alex, who would reuse it as we got higher. And higher.
Conness, I would whisper to myself. It invoked all the adventure that had become my new life. This was me, now. I was doing this. I had done my four peaks, and I was climbing Conness. A trace of doubt still lingered— that was a hold-over from my previous life, from years of being stymied by an unsupportive partner in all my dreams, like conducting or building a social life in West Sac. But I was doing this. I hoped.
Alpine climbs, like Conness, are different. The complete absence of life creates a background of importance, of singularity, of focus. There was nothing up here but climbing, nothing but rock. We’d left all greenery, anything growing, way below, at the last windy—oh-so-windy!—col that we’d gone over. Each time we’d crested a col, or saddle between taller rocks, on the way to Conness, the fierce wind had pushed us back. To get over, we had to really want this.
As we pulled ourselves over the last one—sixth? seventh?—we stopped for our first glimpse of the creamy white granite of Mount Conness. Its clean, sharply defined edges scraped the sky as it rose, and rose. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It looked impossible. So many things in my life had seemed impossible, for so long. And as often happened when confronted with impossible-looking climbs, my vocabulary became severely reduced.
“Wow!” was about all I could manage. So I said it over and over, with differing inflections of awe.
My arms and my mind were tired before we even started our climb. I hate wind. It renders my eyes useless, makes breathing and just about everything else more difficult. It wears me out, physically and mentally. Today would be a test of how far what my mother had called my stubbornness would get me.
For several hours we crept higher and higher, amazed at the stark beauty. How could an absence of life be so beautiful? Contrast was the palette up here. The white granite seemed to crackle against the incredible deep cyan blue of the sky. The startling chiaroscuro of shadows and gleaming rock vibrated all around us. If only I could bring my paints up here! I thought over and over.
Soon, though, the deep blue turned an angry slate, and then stormy dark gray. The wind had not abated. Something was about to happen, despite the glorious weather reports from earlier that morning. We climbed faster and faster, not stopping to eat or drink. The others exhorted me to move quickly, but their words and cheers were unnecessary. I was already at my max, going as fast as my weakened, erratic lungs would allow. I’d seen the sky, too.
Thunder rumbled, far away, but too close. We were four lightning rods, creeping upward, and I was the only reason we were still on this rock. Me, the slowest climber. They cheered me on, encouraged me even more. I didn’t say anything. I was too busy, too out of breath.
Lightning flashed, somewhere, not far enough. Again. Thunder growled, scolded us to go even faster. If someone died today, it would be my fault. That pushed me a bit faster. But you can’t climb without sufficient air to deliver oxygen to the muscles you need, and I wasn’t getting enough of either. If someone died today . . . That thought didn’t help my lungs at all. My body had only been growing older since I started climbing, and I understood why my friends had tried to discourage me from Conness. But I wanted to find out if I could climb it. Conness was so big, so beautiful! So out of reach. Had I become a climber worthy of it?
When I reached the top, gasping, Alex was pointing toward the way down on the other side.
“Go, Mom! Over there—down!” Icy rain battered us, mixed with sleet, ice, and snow.
“Go, Mom—I’ll sign the book for you.” I could barely hear his shouts over the roar of the wind and the pounding rain. For weeks I had looked forward to signing my first alpine high-country register at the summit of Conness. We had talked about that. Alex knew. But we all knew what could happen to lightning rods, creeping across the top of a tempting peak in a major storm.
And “down,” it turned out, was hours away. The clouds had already lowered until they were on top of us, enveloping the rocks. As we scrambled through cloud after cloud and lightning struck all around us, the whole inside of the cloud lit up: we could no longer tell where the lightning was striking.
This was information I never thought I would learn firsthand.
It rained harder, colder, sideways, or swirling or driving into our faces. All the tiny rivulets we’d hopped over in all the meadows on the way up had turned into raging torrents. I was soaked in near-freezing water up to my knees.
No one spoke. If the terrain hadn’t been so harsh, we would have run. I picked my way as carefully as I could while going as fast as I could manage. We flew along, unable to hear anything but the water slapping our hoods and our faces. Night fell, and still the storm raged around us.
The distance wasn’t any farther than I’d hiked on previous outdoor climbing days. But fear of death by lightning, fierce wind, treacherous footing, and icy-wet cold—along with the sustained effort of twelve very fast pitches after more than seven miles of hiking—had worn me down. For the last hour of slogging at top speed through the pitch-dark forest, I held on to a loop on the back of Alex’s backpack.
Alex calls that cheating. I called it survival.
He and I are the alpha and the omega of climbing skill. He has no idea how far out of my comfort zone he takes me or how hard it is for me to go where he goes. But I go. I try. He respects that, I think, even though he’s often incredulous at how shattered, how drained it leaves me.
We climb for the same reasons. I think—I hope—he understands that. I know he understands pushing limits: he free-solos the hardest vertical climbs imaginable. It’s just that me pushing my limits doesn’t look anything like him pushing his. He rolls his young eyes. That’s okay. I still need to push them.
Being up here helps me forget. Sciatic pain. Arthritic knee. Tennis elbow. Crooked, unyielding toes. Deficient lungs. The limits of my body. None of that matters up here. The rock is ageless, unyielding. It gives no quarter. My mind is emptied of everything but the next handhold or foothold.
Being up here helps me understand my children, and also myself. Helps me see what I’m capable of. Or not. Essential knowledge, for an informed life.