I had been enjoying a work break with a few quiet moments of journaling in sunshine bliss on the side of Mt. Rainier, when I heard a man screaming for help. I came around the corner. A man I recognized was stumbling into camp supporting the woman with whom I’d seen him leave to climb to the summit earlier that day.
“Please, does anyone speak Spanish! Please! Help us!”
I ran up to him. “Yes, I do,” I replied in Spanish. “How can I help?”
“A rock,” he began to explain, short of breath and panicking., “a rock or ice flew off the cliff above us and launched my girlfriend down the glacier.”
Fortunately, they had been roped together and he was able to self-arrest with his ice ax saving them both from plummeting to their deaths.
“She can’t walk by herself and we need to get to a hospital. Please help us.” He said.
We got her to a spot to sit. She was whimpering in pain. I ran up to the shack and radioed it in, explaining what we knew about her injuries. One of our guides came out from our bunk quarters and I translated as he checked the woman.
“I don’t think we need a helicopter,” the guide explained. “She seems to have bruised her kidneys maybe. But we want to be sure.”
The guide gave me a list of questions to ask her. All of her responses led him to think that she could be taken down by sled and then taken to the hospital by her boyfriend. He agreed, and the guide called it in.
But something felt horribly wrong to me. I do not have a base of medical knowledge beyond basic First Aid and CPR, but my gut was clearly and loudly telling me something was not right about this plan.
As the guide came back out, I pulled him to the side. “Something is not right,” I told him. “We need to get her a helicopter.”
He was a bit surprised and seemed a little taken aback that I, a camp cook, would challenge his fifteen years of experience. But he also had a right to hesitate since getting a helicopter was risky and extremely expensive.
I looked straight into his eyes and said, “This woman needs a helicopter now.”
Something in my voice convinced him and he radioed in this change of plans.
I made the couple some tea while we waited and got blankets to keep her warm.
The helicopter landed and the guide got her loaded onto it. In an instant, she was whisked away out of sight.
Her boyfriend, a strong, intrepid-seeming climber from Spain, dissolved into tears and fell to the ground. I sat down next to him and put my arm around him. He sobbed into my shoulder and he seemed like a little boy in that moment. His crying slowed and his breathing deepened. We sat quietly.
After a bit, he took a deep breath and began asking questions. “How will I know where they took her? Will she be okay? What if she isn’t?”
I told him how to get to our main office. “By the time you get down to your car and to the office they will know where she is and give you directions to find her in Seattle.”
“What if she is not okay?” he asked with pleading eyes. “This will be my fault. I never should have forced her to climb with me.”
I sat quietly listening for what to say to this man in such a scared state.
“Did you make it to the top?” I asked.
“Was it beautiful?”
He smiled for the first time. “Yes, yes it was more beautiful than we imagined.”
“Hold onto that and do what you need to do.” I said. “One step and then another step. You’re going to be okay, you’ll see.”
He took another deep breath and it was like he was making a decision. We stood up and he gave me a big hug.
“Thank you,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” Then he loaded up his pack and headed down.
A few months prior to taking this job on Mt. Rainier, I had turned down the position of Director for the non-profit I’d been helping to build, because of the same guidance of this internal voice. It seemed crazy to walk away from the best paying job I’d ever been offered, living in an extraordinary place with a wonderful community, doing such meaningful work.
But my intuition continued to push me to leave the comfort of this life of the past year and a half. As the months wore on, something was growing inside of me - a yearning that tasted of mountains and deserts and unfettered adventure.
By January, I knew it was time to leave the comfort of this cozy mountain town and to launch myself into uncharted territory. I was a bit smitten with a man who worked as a mountain guide in Washington. He told me about a position as a cook for the guides up at Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier. This sounded like just the adventure I was looking for.
I applied and got the position as the cook. The following months were consumed with intense physical training, and – just as I’d become accustomed to – the angels I needed showed up to help prepare me. In April, I departed my job and the Tahoe region, went on a little side trip to undertake an intense spiritual vision quest in Kansas (another story of deep listening for another time), and then returned West to begin my job in Washington on Cinco de Mayo.
Compared to the arid high desert of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Ashford, WA almost felt like being submerged in water. The air settled heavy in my lungs with the moist aliveness, and nearly every building I entered had the mustiness of years of mildew. At the same time, the wonderland of emerald green and mossy forests felt positively enchanting.
My daily runs along lumber roads felt too easy with such a heavy saturation of oxygen. Ashford was much lower in elevation than Truckee. In the first week, I ran the longest trail run distance I’ve ever achieved and the trail was straight up and straight down.
This was the healthiest and fittest I’d ever been in my life. And yet, still I felt huge, and – as usual – far from feeling at home in my own skin.
My first official day on the job began on a bus. We wound through forests teeming with life, filled with woodland creatures. Lush scenery of moss and ferns and forest floor fungus flew by as we made our way up the mountain in Rainier National Park. Sitting around me were eager mountain guides, most of them much younger, but a few that had been working for this company for as many as 25 years.
The atmosphere was electric. This was the beginning of the season and the anticipation of getting on the mountain was vibrating between us as we crossed rushing rivers and passed receding glaciers.
The higher we got, the snowier the vista became. Then we arrived at the Paradise parking lot and poured off the shuttle. We finished up our packs, pulled on our gaiters over boots and snow pants, and began the ascent to Camp Muir 5,000 feet higher than the parking lot.
We made our way up the Muir snow field following the little orange flags called pickets up the mountain.
“When storms move in, it’s easy to lose your way,” the lead guide explained. “The pickets are placed so that you should be able to make it from one to the next all the way up to camp. But you must pay attention.”
I knew I would be hiking this route alone as my “commute” to and from work. 5,000 feet of elevation gain in four miles. Straight up. Straight down. Two to three times each week. I had never been so grateful for my iPod before!
As soon as we arrived at Camp Muir, I was shown the quarters I’d share with the lead guides (there were usually one or two “Senior” guides who would sleep in the shack). This is a glorified shoe box, I laughed to myself. A narrow path led from the only door to the back of the shack where a double-bed bunk was installed. The top bunk was only 3 feet from the ceiling. The lead guides would sleep on the bottom and I and a female guide - if there was one - would rest on the top bed.
My cooking amenities included a few gas burners on one side of the narrow path and a sink on the other side that was hooked to a hose which led outside. One of the employee’s sole role was to keep melting snow so that we would have water. He had a whole process for making this happen so that we could have “running” water in the kitchen. Our “couches” in the shack were also our cooler for keeping the meat, dairy and other products temperature controlled.
The bathroom was an outhouse behind our shack, and was used by the National Forest Service personnel, guests and guides with our company, and the guests staying in the public shelter.
“Your first job upon arrival is to prep a snack for everyone,” our trainer explained to me. “Then you go straight into making dinner so that we can eat and be in bed by 6pm. Breakfast is at midnight.”
And that’s just what I learned to do. Surrounded by sweaty, smelly guides - almost entirely male - I would prepare a snack and two meals each day, (wo)man the radio, and provide whatever was needed to keep the morale high for the team.
There was also a public shelter for climbers working with other companies or climbing on their own. I met people from all over the world who came to climb the glaciers of this majestic mountain. Not all would make it to the summit. Not all would come down alive.
It was a rough year for the climbers. There were several weeks with the mountain swallowed in blizzard conditions, several rescues and a few fatalities that rocked all of us. But this Spanish climber, who’d been flown to Seattle, would not be added to that list.
A few hours after the helicopter had taken flight, the radio clattered. “She’s going to be ok.” Basecamp reported. “But, it’s such a good thing she had the life flight because the doctors discovered that she’d broken her back.” My heart sank.
“No one can explain how she was walking when they’d stumbled into camp, but the doctors are convinced that if she had been sledded down, she may not have walked again, or even possibly could have died.”
That deep listening led me through the rest of the five-month job, including to the summit of that extraordinary mountain where I marked my 29th birthday. There is nothing that compares to the electric blue of looking into a glacier. I stood on that mountain on a day so crystal clear we could see right on into Canada.
That listening guided me through situations of sexual harassment and intimidation at the hands of one of the veteran guides. That listening gave me the courage and guidance to report this manipulative and inappropriate behavior that he had perpetuated over 15 years of working for this company. No other woman had been willing to make an official report, but when they asked me to file my complaints, that internal guide said, HELL YES. And that was the last year he worked for that company.
This period in my life really helped me to hone my spiritual listening skills - listening to my heart, obeying my intuition, and learning how to speak up for what I know is right. Sharing this in my work with clients, and watching and supporting them as they grow these skills in themselves is one of the gifts I cherish most about this work. And none of it would be what it is without these challenges and adversity.
Thank you for continuing on this journey with me! Next up: My adventures on an 81-day Outward Bound Wilderness Semester, where those intuitive listening skills continued to deepen. I also outgrew thinking that my worth was in my ability to make others feel good. Can you relate?
Heather Barron is the Founder of Luminous Life, and Luminous Ceremonies. She is an Integral Life Coach, Marriage Celebrant and Wedding Officiant whose sole goal is to thread more light and spread more joy in the world. She does this through life coaching, designing and officiating weddings and ceremonies of all kinds, writing fiction and non-fiction, hiking in her beloved Colorado Rocky Mountains with her precious pup, by listening deeply to others, and by smiling with love and kindness everywhere she goes. Learn more and become a fan by clicking on the social media icons below! Thanks for reading!
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