Darkness. My moms eyes were still open, but all she saw was darkness. I was not even with her the moment she died, but I had watched her life end slowly over the previous weeks and months. The expression on her face was not peaceful like you see in the movies. Her dried mouth was open in an expression of shock, her eyes were the same beautiful hazel they had always been, but now they looked milky and saw nothing. Had her death been unexpected or sudden, I would have been crying, but her death was a relief. She had suffered for weeks, and I had suffered with her, helpless. Nothing left to do but keep on moving…
Darkness. Scotty kicked me through our sleeping bags and said we had overslept our 3am alarm. It was tough for me to comprehend since I didn‘t think I had actually fallen asleep. I had been laying restlessly in the back of my VW van, looking forward to our 3am alarm with the same mixture of dread and psyche always present the night before a big alpine climb. I watched Scotty frantically eat breakfast while I suited up, refraining from eating as I always do right before a big day. We were on the trailhead at about 420am. A little later than we wanted to be, but there was nothing we could do about it. Just keep moving…
The mountains can be gnarly, but cancer is worse. Her new house was waiting for her, along with me and my sister. The nest was full once again. But one month later a doctor told my mom that her melanoma from 5 years before had returned. My sister and I listened to the doctor tell our mom that people with her condition live 2 years on average, she died a couple months later. I stared out the hospital window at the Rocky Mountains. How could this be happening!? I felt like my reality was slipping away, being pulled down, down, down…but the worst was yet to come.
(roping up at the base of the West Gully, II, WI3)
The wind was howling and despite a blue-skied dawn, snow swirled around the Black Lake cirque so hard that sunglasses were necessary to look forward. We took shelter beneath an overhanging boulder and geared up. We left our snowshoes, poles, extra food/water, and Scotty‘s pack under this boulder and kicked steps up to the base of the West Gully. We doubled up the single 8.1mm rope and simulclimbed through about 300 feet of easy WI2-3. I topped out the ice and began walking up windblown snow, while Scotty removed the last piece of protection between us, a stubby ice screw placed in a thin slab of verglass. All of a sudden I was pulled down and started sliding sideways back towards the ice, tugged down by the rope, down, down, down…instinct took over. I drove my tools deep into the snow, straightened my body and frantically kicked my toes into the ground. I stopped moving inches before I was dragged back onto the ice slabs. I slung a small shrub, connected it to my tools which were buried deep in the snow attached to my harness via weight bearing tethers, and I put Scotty on belay. I had stopped Scotty‘s fall and our subsequent death by self-arresting. I should have placed more protection, but this was one “should have” that didn‘t kill us in the mountains. It was not our time to tumble down the west gully, it was our time to send.
Its early 2005 and I am frantically driving my jeep from Washington DC back to NY. My mom has been diagnosed with skin cancer. Luckily she will only need surgery to remove the lump on her back. For the first time in my life the roles are reversed, I am taking care of my mother with the same love and drive she had taking care of me all those years. I miss several weeks of my senior year of college. I stay with my mom as she recovers from surgery. I don’t yet have the lessons I will learn in the mountains. A year later I am living in San Diego, getting into rock climbing at a local gym, when I see an add in a climbing magazine for the Climb To Fight Breast Cancer. Even though my mom had melanoma, the inspiration begins to well inside my chest. 6 months later I summit Mt. Ranier after raising $5000 for cancer research. My lifelong obsession with the mountains has begun, and I owe it to the inspiration my mom relentlessly showered upon me. If she could suffer through cancer, I could suffer getting to the top of any mountain. If she could be reborn, so could I.
(Deborah, III, M3/4, follows the obvious vertical gully)
I packed up the rope and the gear in my pack and began to kick steps up to the base of part 2 of our planned linkup. Climbing is a team effort and being in better shape than Scotty, I had decided it would be beneficial if I carried the majority of the weight and kicked steps. Had we been on a multipitch rock climb, Scotty would have been leading the cruxes and carrying the load, but this was my time to step it up. Speed is safety in the mountains, and movement is essential for warmth and psyche. We began climbing up the couloir that splits the South face of Arrowhead peak. I could not find any evidence of it being climbed in summer or winter, and so we did not know what to expect. We soloed through 3 or 4 constrictions of M2-4. After climbing through a harder section near the top, I unpacked the rope and belayed Scotty up. He scrambled the final 30 feet or so to the ridge and coiled the rope as I topped out the couloir. The final 60 feet of the couloir splits into right and left exit options. The left is steeper and contained no snow or ice. We had chosen the right option. We’re pretty sure this was a first winter ascent. In any case, it is unnamed, so I called it Deborah. I hope others find adventure on this route, and enjoy its great climbing and beautiful position in the mountains.
(the last mixed constriction before the right exit section at the top of Deborah)
Gael Deborah Shern never climbed a mountain, but she was there with me on every summit and her inspiration comes to me when my own energy starts to waiver. My mom instilled things in me that were necessary prerequisites for climbing. Things like confidence, dedication, and humility. She taught me that great gains can come from self-sacrifice, and that love comes to those who spread love. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I spent my free time playing basketball and riding my bike around our Queens, NY neighborhood. There were many children in the park who most parents didnt want their kids playing with; children whose parents did not accompany them to the park or take them for pizza and sodas afterwards. My mom encouraged me to mingle with everyone, at least to give them a chance. But when my mom invited a boy from the park to come get pizza with us, I was uneasy. He had dirt under his fingernails and his clothing looked ragged. I kept silent but told my mom later that I didnt want to be his friend because he was dirty. She told me that some of the best people in the world have dirt on their hands, and she was right.
(the author doing some summit shennanigans at the top of Arrowhead, the ridge to McHenry’s is in the background)
I had shown pictures of the Deborah couloir to anyone of my climbing friends who cared to sit still. “Nah bro, I’m sure that’s been climbed.” was the typical answer. But I thought about what my mom would say, which undoubtedly would be along the lines of “go for it Gilly, who cares if its been climbed or not?” There is a thin line between passion and obsession. Ever since my mom got sick and subsequently passed away, I have been obsessed with “doing an FA” and naming it after her. Before I left the trailhead that morning I had resolved the issue of obsession in my mind. I was not going to let it infringe on my greatest passion in life. I had uncovered my obsession for what it really was…fear, “the mind killer.” Fear that climbing a new route was the only way to immortalize my mom. Now we stood at the top of Arrowhead peak with “our new route” below us. The fear had vanished in a flurry of upward momentum, and my mind was focused not on making history, but on making it home in time for happy hour. We looked ahead at the last remaining portion of our linkup…the ridge between Arrowhead and McHenry‘s. It looked big.
One of the earliest memories I have of my mother is of her picking me up at school when I was sick, or pretending to be. Its not that my mom never doubted my claims of feeling ill while at school, but I can’t remember s single time she refused to come pick me up and spend the day with me, usually pointing out jokingly that I had dropped my sick act. I learned early on that it was tough to bullshit my mom, just as I would learn its impossible to bullshit the mountains. The memory I have is a generic one. I sit in the nurses office feeling a little guilty about feigning sickness, waiting for my mom to come through the door and save me from the horrors of elementary school. I would know when she was down the hall, because I would hear the clinking of her giant set of keys dangling from her bag, then smell her shalamar pefume as she came into the office with that giant hairsprayed fro.
(the author linking snowpatches to the right of the McHenry’s ridge)
Scotty and I never roped up on the ridge. Instead we stayed slightly to the climbers right of the steep droppoff into Glacier Gorge and climbed solo up snow and mixed ramps. I topped out 30 minutes or so before Scotty and sat at the top of McHenry‘s enjoying an atypical windless Colorado summit. I couldn‘t see Scotty coming up the final snow/rock ramp, but I knew he was close. I heard his ice tools striking the random rock, and the jingle of the carabiners slung around his shoulder. It had taken us about 9 hours from the trailhead to link up The West Gully, Deborah, and the Arrowhead-McHenry‘s ridge. I forgot all about the possibility that we had or had not put up an FA. My mom would never get to see a view like the one we had now, but she would have been more than content to listen to the story of the climb and look at the pictures over a nice bowl of soup she would have had ready for us when we got back to the Front Range.
(Scotty on a routine cornice inspection atop McHenry’s peak)
(Scotty demonstrating perfect alignment on the summit of McHenry’s with the West face of Long’s Peak in the background)
The mountains will be around for us to climb as long as we live, and when we are too old and fragile to get to their summits, we can take comfort in the memories, read our accounts, look at our photos, laugh at our naivety, and long for our youth. The people we climb with and who encourage us to climb will not be around forever. Cherish your time with those folks you love, and although their bodies will be reduced to ash, the flame they bring to your life will burn eternally.
In Memory of Gael Deborah Shern…mother, sister, wife, inspiration. 1948-2009
(The author, his sister Galit, and Gael Deborah Shern at Galit’s high school graduation)