cassin ridge denali alaska mountain biking alpinism mountaineering

In December, we sat around the pine kitchen island drinking pamplemousse La Croix and IPAs. Through the bubbles, Jake, my fiancée, excitedly told us about his upcoming trip to Denali. He and his partner had training plans, a month off from work to allow for the perfect weather window, and a double sleeping bag to snuggle after climbing days on the route. Their objective was the Cassin Ridge, a 5.8 WI4 line up the south face of North America’s tallest mountain.

“How are you all going to handle the Valley of Death?” asked Jamie, our roommate and the man who is going to marry us. Jake shot daggers out of his eyes toward him and hastily turned to me.

“Valley of Death? Seriously? Why is it called that?” I nearly shout the questions all in one breath. Jake explains to me that the “V.O.D.” (an acronym which he would have preferred Jamie use) is a terrain trap that they might not use on the approach. If they do, the likelihood is extremely low that they’ll get caught in an avalanche. But what about the consequence?

I try to be supportive. I don’t think I actually am. I torture myself and Jake in the days and weeks leading up to his departures with a lot of crying—crying because I’m sad he’s leaving, crying because I can feel the loneliness that’s coming, crying because I don’t want him to die.

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I also emphatically say GO. Go live your dreams. Go feel alive. Go do what you need to do to be happy.

The bigger, braver, more encouraging version of myself loves when he goes on big mountain trips. It’s so attractive to see him in his element, doing what he loves to do. I have an opportunity to cultivate intimacy in other relationships. I can sleep for nine hours a night and climb with girlfriends. I have free time to act like a weasel and do whatever the heck I want when I want. I’m brave and strong because I need to be. When he’s doing well, we’re doing well.

The smaller, meeker, more insecure version of myself hates it. I want a partnership where we consistently wake up in the morning together and share a cup of coffee. I want to learn about mortgages together and belay each other on our projects. I want to make dinner for our friends and his kiss on my forehead to put me to sleep. We live that way when he’s not camping. I miss it when he is.

So many people asked me about specifics of their trip. Are they going to summit via the West Buttress first as a warm up and to acclimatize? How are they planning to approach? What happens if they need to bail? Isn’t that the route that so-and-so-famous-alpinist got shut down on because the approach was sketchy? Hey it looks like they have a weather window in the next four days! Are they going for it?

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I open my eyes as wide as they’ll go so no tears slip out and dig my fingernails into the meat of my hand as a distraction. I don’t know. I choose not to know. I tuned out any conversation between him and his climbing partner as we got closer to departure and felt huffy and annoyed that they didn’t have anything else to talk about. My self-preservation strategy, which is pretty selfish, is to know less.

Here’s what I know: They’re in Alaska for one month and I get to see him on this specific date. I can expect at least one text per week telling me that he loves me and is doing well. He will make good decisions. He will make good decisions. I know that he will make good decisions. Do I believe it if I keep repeating it?

When he leaves I feel giddiness and joy for him. It’s so cool! You get to go fly in a tiny airplane and walk and ski a really big mountain and be so dependent on another person in a real way.

People ask me how I’m doing. I think that I’m answering honestly when I tell them, “It’s freaking awesome! They’re doing it!” They ask me for details. “Well, I tried not to know too much. When I started googling trip reports after learning about the VOD I decided it’s better not to know until he comes home.”

And then I get the final text from the Inreach: “Summiting today! Love you so much, Kathryn!” Instead of feeling excitement, I start crying. Relief fills me and I feel the anxiety I’d been pushing down my chest come out. I let the tears flow and feel all of the stress, the denial, and the joy. I’m ambivalent—I have seemingly contradictory feelings about something. My joy and my worry/anger/sadness can and do coexist.

I text him back, keeping it under 160 characters. “Congratulations! I love you so so much, Jake!” I can be supportive in this moment by sharing in the joy and the accomplishment. And I can quietly keep my fingers crossed that since they summited early, he’ll come home early.


Kathryn Montana Sall is a writer, artist, and educator living in Lander, Wyoming. Find more at kathrynmontana.com and @kathrynmontana. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Kathryn Montana Sall is a freelance writer, artist, and educator living in Lander, Wyoming. kathrynmontana.com