Mountains to Climb

Mountains to Climb

belly copyby Julie Polhemus


“I want to work mountaineering courses,” I told my husband. He smiled.

I had just summited Eldorado Peak, heavy with spring snow, in Washington’s North Cascades. I had even led the climb, heart hammering, pounding in snow pickets along the mountain’s surprisingly airy ridge to protect the climbers following me. Dark, ancient mountain faces dropped to gently curving shoulders of ice behind me. Wide valleys filled like bathtubs with Caribbean-blue glacial melt. My employer, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), offered this mountaineering seminar to instructors who wanted to develop steep snow and glacier travel skills. I became certain on those clear-as-glass May days that I needed to climb more mountains—that I was only just beginning to grasp their good tidings.

I had returned from that seminar nearly bursting.

“But,” I looked at him, still smiling at me, “I think that means I’m not ready to have a baby.” I kept talking, so that he couldn’t. “They need female mountaineers. We can wait to have a baby, right?” I didn’t let him answer. “I’m only 30. We have time. I’m just so excited about climbing mountains.” I finally stopped talking. I looked up at my husband with only my eyes, my face tilted toward the ground. My toes shifted in my sandals.

He considered my words for a few moments. “I’m surprised,” he said softly, his eyes unblinkingly blue, gazing straight into mine.

I nodded, chewing my lips. “I know. But…this is the only job I’ve ever loved. I want NOLS to remember me as a mountaineer when—if—I can work courses again…after we have kids.”

He nodded, understanding. “So, when will we have a baby?”

I shook my head, my eyes welling with unspilled tears. “I don’t know.”


“Back up!” I yelled to Sara, the student on the rope behind me. My ice axe had plunged too easily through the soggy snow, opening a hole into a deep blue crevasse from which I hurriedly backed away. The two students behind Sara on the rope responded quickly, but she fumbled to keep the rope taut and avoid stepping on it with her crampons. Sara. Why hadn’t I asked Emily to tie into the rope directly behind me? I shook my head in nervous frustration. This late in the summer, too little of last winter’s snow remained to bridge crevasses as wide as school buses.

This course was my first as a mountaineering instructor. My careful route-finding had kept us safe as we crossed Mount Baker’s Squak Glacier, but it had also cost us daylight. I found my headlamp in my pack and strapped it over my helmet. Its beam illuminated a circle only four feet in diameter, nearly enough to scan for cracks in the snow that might portend crevasses below. The snow glowed softly, matching the first luminous stars. I turned to check the progress of the other rope teams. I knew that everyone was struggling against fatigue and cold, trying to kick good steps into the sloppy snow. From my vantage, each team was a Christmas strand, four white lights bobbing in a snow-lit sea. I stepped onto the promised land of the gravelly Sulphur Moraine, yelling “Zero!” to Sara so I could set myself up to belay her toward me. This time, when I called to Sara, I relaxed my shoulders. When Sara, Emily, and Neil had all reached me, I coiled the sodden rope.

Three days earlier, I had asked Emily about her medical residency. She had delivered nine babies during the first month. We kept climbing, rhythmically swinging our ice axes into place before taking two more steps. “It was amazing,” she said. “Women’s bodies grow these perfect little people. It was the only part of residency I liked.” When I had imagined myself with children, I had never thought about babies. My husband joked that he would parent for the first ten years, then I could take over.

“Are you going to have children?” Emily asked. “Can you have kids and still work for NOLS?” She looked over her shoulder at me, ice axe in hand.

“You can,” I said, planting my ice axe in the snow. “And I will.”


“More pasta!” my 4-year-old son yells. I stand at the gray counter, chopping pale cheddar cheese. I pull back my puffy down vest so I don’t end up with a greasy stain on the front. A lifetime ago, I snuggled into this vest as I boiled elbow macaroni on Eldorado Peak, high in the Washington wilderness. Then, I shivered as the wind whistled, pushing the windchill to a dozen degrees below freezing, and I stamped my feet and did jumping jacks. Now, all three kitchen lights shine down, a yellow glow battling the day’s damp gloom. I cube another slice of cheese. A voice grates behind me, “Mom, pasta!” I take a deep breath, then remind him to ask politely.

I turn to my daughter, who is silent and deeply absorbed in her work. She is carefully picking up one sweet organic pea after another, squishing each one between her thumb and forefinger, then dropping the skins on the floor. Creamy pea guts slick her hair. I sigh.

All three of us are so much happier when we’re outside, but sometimes the distance between here and there seems insurmountable. I dice more cheese.


I decide I need to climb some volcanoes, climb something other than up the stairs with a basket of laundry. My favorite hiking partner, my husband, is at work—”bringing home the bacon,” we explain to our confused vegetarian son—so I go alone.

I’m on my way to Cowhorn Mountain, the rugged old core of a Cascades volcano. I turn off the highway onto a Forest Service road and brace myself for fourteen miles of dusty, jaw-shaking washboard. I don’t carry a cell phone—it wouldn’t get service up here anyway—so I consider how far I’ll have to walk if I can’t change a flat by myself. Far.

Forty-five minutes later, after negotiating tire ruts deep enough to hide a small child, I arrive at Windigo Pass. Windigo: a sinister, cannibalistic demon. I wish I hadn’t looked that up yesterday.

Mosquitoes swarm me when I emerge from the car. I retreat back to the driver’s seat. In the stifling heat, windows rolled up tightly, I unzip the small cooler and take out an empty glass bottle. I piece together the breastpump. My daughter is over a year old, so this seems like more a good deed than a necessity, but I pump a few ounces and return the bottle to the cooler.

I open the car door and propel myself past the mosquitoes, never slowing to a vulnerable pace. When the barren, lodgepole pine forest gives way to moisture-loving Douglas firs, I slow down and take a breath. Pendants of fragile white flowers hang from twisted manzanita twigs. Each small blossom balloons outward, a pantaloon gathered at the bottom, with a frilled edge.

As my legs move, I start talking to myself; in the woods, I can speak freely. I mutter, working myself up over the cost of past decisions. I wonder about selfishness. I think of my husband, of scaffolding, of bearing the weight of choices and responsibilities.

A Swainson’s thrush sings—a song from my past and maybe yours, a song I am incapable of ignoring—urging me back to this trail, this moment. Aloud, I berate myself for focusing on my internal landscape: “Pay attention.” I look above the trail to a rounded outcrop of rock—tan, full of quiet places. A mountain lion would live there. Already walking quickly, I speed up and look over my shoulder. I’m always warier when I’m alone. A breeze passes over a remnant patch of snow, cooling my bare arms.

Diamond Peak rises out of the trees to the northwest. The trail I’m on—the Pacific Crest Trail—could take me there. I trace a possible path for the trail through the forest of mountain hemlocks and Douglas and subalpine firs—a forest so green it’s almost black. It’s July, and Diamond Peak’s massive eastern flank is still skirted with snow. I take an audible breath, sighing slightly. “I know, I know,” my husband would say, were he here, “you love that mountain.” I do. Five years before, he and I had reached Diamond Peak’s southern, false summit. I stopped short at the corniced snow ridge that led to the true summit, unwilling to go any farther, my balance new and unpredictable. With a ballpoint pen my husband had written 8421 FEET 25 WEEKS on my belly, already round and firm as half a watermelon.

I shift my gaze from Diamond Peak, ten miles away, nearly to my feet. Just downhill, a pika eeps from atop a rock. I’ve scared him. He retreats under the rock and protests again. I can imagine mistaking the sound of this cuddly, rabbity creature for a birdcall. I stand still, watching for his rounded ears, hoping he’ll peak out again.

During my lapse into myself, my moment of inattention before I stopped to observe Diamond Peak and this pika, I’ve lost an awareness of where I am. I look at my watch: an hour and fifteen minutes since I hurried from the car. Have I walked too far and missed the place where I’m supposed to turn off the trail and climb onto Cowhorn’s shoulder? I think back, trying to remember each turn in the trail, each curve of the land. Tracing the trail on the map with my finger, I realize it doesn’t matter. I’m on a trail in the woods. I read maps well. I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, I’ll just walk.

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I stand in the middle of the kitchen, mentally dressing my children. She needs shoes, and where is his jacket? “Please look for your coat,” I tell my son. “It might be on the hook in the laundry room.” My daughter needs only to hear me say the word “shoe” and she quickly toddles off to find her boots. She returns with one, says “doo” to indicate the shoe in her hand, and leaves again, saying “doo” to each empty room as she passes through, searching for the boot she herself hid this morning.

The diaper bag is already inside the cavernous canvas bag embroidered with my daughter’s name, a present from Grandma. I throw in some food: fruit leathers, sliced apples, cheese, Cheerios, water bottles. It won’t be enough, but I tire of packing snacks. A sunhat for her, a vest for him, sunglasses for me—I think we’re set.

“Okay, let’s load up.” I strap them into their car seats. My son has to pee. Before I can stop myself, I ask why he didn’t go while we were still inside. I unbuckle him and he dawdles his way into the backyard, where he’ll pee on the fragrant daphne bush, his marked territory. “I’ll be right back,” I tell my daughter, heading into the garage to get the backpack into which I’ll slide her if she tires. She won’t. He might.

On a bridge at the Arboretum’s entrance, she figures out how to throw leaves into the stream below and watch for them on the other side. We experiment with twigs, too, chasing our boats from the water’s edge. I find a pulmonaria lichen on the ground. Lobed like lung tissue, it’s easily seven inches across. I put it on my head. My daughter reaches for it, so I place it on her head and call her Princess Pulmonaria.

My son leads us down a hobbity trail under spreading vine maples. He steps right into the river in his winter boots, reaches in, and pulls out a stone. He shows it to me. We look at the underside and find a cylinder of pebbles cemented together: a caddisfly larva. He tosses the rock into the river. I wonder how the caddisfly feels about that. My daughter tries to walk into the water, and I pull her back, unsure how far she’ll go. I turn her to face me. “I love you,” I tell her, “and I need to keep you safe.”

Author’s note: Years of pint-size outdoor explorations with my children are paying off. Now that they are school-aged, we go on short trail runs together. I foresee the not-too-distant day when they beg me to try to keep up.

Julie Polhemus climbs mountains, writes, and parents in Oregon, where the volcanoes loom large and the summers stretch on forever (although she’s not supposed to tell you that). You can find her hand-drawn maps in Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark. She instructs three NOLS courses each year—enough to keep her sane and not enough to drive her family insane.

Photo credit (top): Chris Jones

Photo credit (bottom): Julie Polhemus