Almost Climbed a Mountain, but… #BlogEight #AlysiaHelming #RealLifeStory
My life sometimes feels like it has been a series of “I almost made it, but…” moments.
These times were rife with ‘obstacles’, which at the time when I was going through it, felt negative, impossible or horribly disappointing to me… definitely not the ‘gifts’ that I know them to be now.
There were four defining “almost, but…” moments that had a major influence on the Protogenesis book series:
“Almost Climbed a Mountain, but…”
“Almost a Ballerina, but…”
“Almost a Wind Farm, but…”
“Almost a Writer, but…”
Without these experiences, this series would be dull and the characters’ hollow, and I would not have the perseverance and dedication that it takes to push through the difficult times to finish the first book, withstand a rigorous editing process, and to stick with my vision for the entire project to make it into something so much larger than just a book series.
It was these moments that inspired Artemis’ words in my book, which came directly from me and my heart: "Strong women aren’t simply born. We are forged through the fires of life. I am a woman who has weathered the storm and harnessed the thunder to not only survive, but to thrive." (Alysia Helming, Protogenesis)
They say that near death experiences change you…and this is absolutely true. When your survival is at stake, everyday upsets suddenly seem trivial and unimportant.
“Almost Climbed a Mountain, but…”
My family has always loved the mountains, and so every year, we would embark on a family camping trip to somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Often, these trips were filled with ridiculous and comedic moments, seeming like something out of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, with the National Parks like Wally World and my Dad starring in the part of Chevy Chase (sorry, Dad!). Regardless, we remained steadfast…driving eighteen hours across the Midwest to our favorite spots, mostly in Colorado.
All of this changed, though, when we discovered Jackson Hole and the magic of the Teton mountains. These jagged snow-capped mountains sweep dramatically upwards, rising several thousand feet from the Jackson Hole valley floor, similar to Matterhorn in Switzerland. Tzhe energy there is incredible. It’s as if you can feel a pulsing sensation as the blood tries to pump harder through your veins. It may just be the altitude, but I believe this strong energy there has more to do with the fact that one of the world’s largest super volcanos simmers just under the surface of nearby Yellowstone National Park, and that a mysterious mosaic of stone slabs, known as “The Enclosure”, sits on the saddle of the Grand Teton, the largest of the mountains there. It’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite writing spots. As I mentioned before, I wrote the first entire outline for Protogenesis over the span of one week while visiting there.
About thirty-five years ago, our family began the annual tradition of vacationing in Jackson Hole… and through so many visits there, I became fascinated with knowing more about “The Enclosure”. Part of this fascination led me to start rock climbing, with the goal to one day climb to the Enclosure and to the summit of the Grand Teton. From the time I was ten, I attended rock climbing school with Exum Mountain Guides, which was cool because my instructors were often world class mountain climbers, who would tell us stories of trekking to top of the seven summits, the tallest mountains in the world.
But life happened…and while I had a lot of fun in lessons during my teen years, I didn’t climb to see the Enclosure, nor the Grand Teton. So, when I turned thirty, I decided it was about time that I quit making excuses and just do it. I went through an intensive training course with Exum again, and embarked on the journey to the top. The Enclosure was amazing! Just as I imagined, I felt incredible energy up there in the center of a perfect circle of smooth stones jutting up and out from the ground. Imagine something like Stonehenge, but on the top of a mountain. It’s a total mystery how the indigenous people would have been able to construct a formation like this at this altitude, and the hike to this location is treacherous and requires scrambling across rocks and creeks.
As our trek to the top of ‘the Grand’ continued, we roped in with our harnesses and climbing gear, but the weather was starting to grow foul. As it was mid-September, climbing season was coming to an end because it is just too cold and icy to climb in the Autumn there. Our climbing instructor wanted to turn back but a bunch of us expressed our disappointment and the skies above were blue and clear, so we gave it a go. The massive rock wall hovered up above us, but was coated in a thin layer of ice from a minor bout of freezing rain that hit us earlier. Despite warnings from our Instructor, we stubbornly decided to give it a try anyway. After doing the safety check with my climbing buddy, I started my ascent up the steep face of the mountain. Once out on the rock wall, I took a moment to look down. Big mistake. My mind seized with terror at the sight of at least a thousand foot drop below me. In this moment, I found myself forced to be completely present. In the face of survival, there is no past, nor no future…only NOW.
Within the next several minutes, and as I continued to climb, a huge cloud rolled over us from out of nowhere and I felt my body shiver as a curtain of freezing rain hit me. My climbing buddy was yelling something from above me, but I couldn’t hear him, so I continued to climb when he wasn’t ready. My grip on the rock face slipped under my fingers and I felt my legs fall out beneath me.
I began to free fall…my arms flailing as I reached out to find something solid…but there was nothing! I felt the weight of gravity pulling me down and down… falling and falling. It seemed to go on forever, but was all over within a matter of seconds. Thank God for my expert climbing partner. I felt the ropes grow taunt as I slammed hard up against the face of the mountain. My limp body hung there for a bit, dangling amidst the clouds as tiny icy crystals hit me in the eyes.
As I pried my eye lids open and the mist cleared, I was startled for a moment as I took in the sight around me…in total awe at the amazing view of the dramatic valley below. But my body was battered and bruised from the harsh impact with the rock face, so I had no choice but to rappel down. I required assistance down the mountain from my climbing instructor, which I have to admit I enjoyed since he resembled the romance model Fabio. The rest of the climbers in our group, including a seventy-eight year old woman, made it to the top that day, but not me!
But this wasn’t the end of my ‘almost’ climbing experiences.
What could possibly be next…?
A few years later, my husband and I had our first date at a rock climbing gym. Since we both loved mountains and climbing, we got the crazy idea to spend our honeymoon trekking and climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s tallest peaks and of the seven summits. It was an eight-day hike, with some scrambling up the rocks near the summit at 19,341’ (5,895 meters). We had twenty porters to support us. We didn’t even have to carry up our gear, with the brochure advertising it as the ‘Luxury Experience’. How hard could it be…? Finally, I would be able to summit a mountain!
It was a rigorous hike, but the scenery was incredible as we passed through almost five different micro-climates. Since we couldn’t shower for several days, I wouldn’t exactly call it romantic, but it was a fun adventure. At least this was true until Day Six…
I must have eaten something bad, because I became violently ill from food poisoning, and because of this, I had to stop taking the drugs that I was taking to help my body adjust to the altitude. In Africa, there is a very different sense of what pain tolerance should be. This means that even though I was horribly sick to my stomach, I still had to hike, which was unpleasant. The next day, the sickness passed, so I thought the worst of it all was over. But that night, I developed a horrible cough that would not go away. As we reached almost 17,000’, I began coughing up blood.
Luckily, we had a medic on our team of porters, but I became concerned after he assessed my condition. He looked very grave when he announced that I was suffering from Pulmonary Edema, which meant that the blood vessels in my lungs were starting to burst from my lack of oxygen. I needed to get down the mountain NOW, or else I would die. No problem…there should be a helicopter to save me from this ‘Luxury Experience’, right?
Not in Africa! If you can still walk, then you have to hike, even if your life is at stake. At 17,000’, there was only one way down the mountain which involved trekking down a narrow spine, where a sheer rock face fell downward on both sides of our path far down into the valley below, and we had to trek down through thick mud that reached up to my knees. We also had to climb down a smooth rock face with no ropes to keep us safe, all while I was increasingly coughing up large amounts of blood and losing my ability to think or feel. Only two porters, including the medic, accompanied me down…and no one offered to carry me.
Where was my husband…? Well, I am a very stubborn person and I was angry that this happened. If I couldn’t make it to the top, then it became imperative to me that Troy continue the journey to make it. With the lack of oxygen up there, neither of us were really thinking all that clearly, but he begrudgingly agreed to let me go down with the porters. I was in the care of a licensed medic, after all.
I was optimistic that I would be fine, at least until we reached a Yurt near 13,000’. There, the porters conversed with a minister, who came back to me asking if I would like for him to say a prayer for me, to read me my last rites, in case I didn’t make it.
What…?! Did I hear him right? This is when I realized how serious this was…that I could die.
On the way down, I ended up passing out, only to wake up three days later in the comfort of my hotel room with my African medic. Troy summited the mountain and was there with me immediately after I awoke. Thinking back on this time, I couldn’t believe how close I truly was to the end of my life. Today, I still suffer from scar tissue in my lungs. I need help from Chinese herbs and acupuncture to keep my airways clear.
They say that near death experiences change you…and this is absolutely true. When your survival is at stake, everyday upsets suddenly seem trivial and unimportant. When you can see the bottom of your fear, then it loses the ability to hold you back in life.
During my research for The Protogenesis Book Series, some people probably thought it was odd that I rarely expressed fear in the face of difficult or scary situations. But I do! It’s just that my ability to see it for what it is enables me to push through it.
Next year, I am going to overcome my fear of mountains and climb a much smaller, but significant one for my book series: Mt. Olympus, at 9,573’, which is the tallest mountain in Greece.
Maybe I might just make it to the top this time!