Recognizing the grace of vulnerability on the Denali mountain.
Before I climbed the highest mountain in North America, I’d never followed such a specific protocol regarding my feet. I wear a thin white sock closest to my skin and over that a plastic “vapor barrier” sock. On top of the vapor barrier sock is one and sometimes two pairs of wool socks, inside of heavy, hard-plastic boots with a thick synthetic liner. Above 14,000 feet, I pull on another layer of neoprene overboots.
These boots will carry me up 26 miles of glacier to the summit of Denali, if I’m lucky, though the reality is that they won’t carry me anywhere. I have to move them, attached to snowshoes from 7,500 feet to 11,000 feet, attached to the metal daggers called crampons above 11,000 to 20,320 feet, covered in overboots above 14,000 feet. I need to move them, place them, swing them out and away from my opposite leg on each step forward, so that the crampon blades don’t tear the Gore-Tex pants I’m wearing and leave me exposed. At night, which is never dark on this mountain in interior Alaska in the middle of June, I will take them off so that my feet don’t freeze. Each night, I climb into my sleeping bag with my boot liners and bottles full of water tediously filled by melting snow, the heat of my body keeping everything from freezing.
I am 19 years old, the youngest member of our six-person team by 15 years and the only woman. I am determined to succeed, to pull my own weight, to push to the summit.
Our clothing worn and carried protects us from the brutality of the elements at altitude. I wear a layer of lightweight polypropylene, a layer of fleece, a layer of Gore-Tex. In my pack is a huge down parka, large thick mittens, an extra hat.
The day we do the single carry, when the slopes are too steep to pull the sleds, my backpack is so heavy my guide has to put it on my back. I crouch down as he heaves it over my shoulders, and I buckle the waist belt while leaning over to ensure that it is secured before I stand. It rests fully on my hipbones over the harness I wear that connects me by rope to the other three members of my team, and the weight and friction as I move up the glacier rubs the skin off the protruding part of the hipbone. I’d cut precious inches off my foam sleeping pad and duct taped it to the waist strap of my pack for extra padding, which seemed only to spread the area of friction. In my pack is my share of food and fuel for our expedition, planned for two weeks, and clothing carried in anticipation of the conditions. Our team follows procedures designed to minimize vulnerability. Traveling across the glacier or even going to the bathroom, we tether ourselves to the rope and each other. This reduces our chances of tumbling into an unseen crevasse or losing our footing on the icy terrain and falling. Each of us holds an ice axe in the uphill hand, ready to self-arrest if someone falls.
We had started climbing the west buttress route of Denali at the Kahiltna Base Camp, tucked on a tributary glacier feeding into the vast Kahiltna Glacier. Our team started with six, but by 14,000 feet we had lost two, one to being overwhelmed, the other to acute mountain sickness. The assistant guide shuttled those climbers down the mountain, leaving us three. Our head guide, John, guides me and the remaining client, Keith, with calm and good humor, his short and stocky body accustomed to the climb, the cold, and the inadequacies of clients. We acclimatize for three days at 14,000 feet in beautiful weather warm enough to sit outside of the tent and write postcards in a T-shirt.
The morning we set out for the upper mountains, we break down tents and pack in the shadow of the mountain, and the deep cold slices through my many layers. My rented neoprene overboots contract and stiffen in the frigid air, and it takes 30 minutes to wrestle them over my boots. Roping up for the ascent, clipping in icy loops of ropes to frozen carabiners, I swing my arms in wild circles trying to get blood to my hands, swing my legs back and forth to get my circulation moving in my well-clad feet. We move forward, squinting into air hung with ice.
I am relieved by our movement, depending on it to keep me warm. Shortly after we leave camp, Keith tells John he is starting to not feel well. We clip jumars, climbing devices meant as backup safety, onto the fixed rope up the 2,000 foot, 60-degree headwall, and begin our ascent. Keith’s malaise slows our ascent to a maddening crawl. Marginal momentum would help each upward step, but forced to stop every few minutes while Keith rests, I grimace and scream through my teeth into the wind, willing my muscles to hold me against the steep ice. The wind is so strong, and the distance between us on the rope far enough that no one can hear. I feel the weight of the pack pulling me down, the slowness of our upward movement exacerbating the effort required for each step. At the top of the headwall Keith confers with John; he is feeling worse, but wants to continue. I cannot hear their discussion through the cold and the wind, but John gestures to me to take off and open my pack. He divides the main contents of Keith’s pack between the two of us, and we start up the rocky ridgeline toward high camp at 17,200 feet.
On the ridge, our halting steps make for a maddeningly slow pace. Each step requires specific placement among the rock and ice on the narrow path, but we are missing the momentum of movement. The white-blue glacier stretches out on both sides several thousand feet below. Behind us, Mt. Foraker rises to the level of our next camp against an ice blue sky. I see this simple white beauty through the haggard lens of exhaustion, aware of something I no longer have the energy to process. By the time we arrive at high camp, navigating 1,000 feet of uphill ascent along the ridge, the wind hurls snow at us horizontally, and I have passed the point of exhaustion; my body starts to shiver uncontrollably, and my eyes are crying beneath my goggles, though I am not aware of this. It is the kind of thing where a person should do something to change the situation, but I cannot understand that.
Mountain medicine considers anything over 18,000 feet to be extreme high altitude. The body reacts differently to the reduced oxygen load, a 50 percent reduction of the oxygen molecules inhaled with each breath. Hypothermia is independent of, but worsened by, the demands of altitude. The Mayo Clinic defines hypothermia as a medical emergency in which the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, leading to death if untreated. The short explanation is that hypothermia is no joke.
John sees what I cannot in how my body is responding, and he finds a place for the tent, efficiently directing its set-up through the wind that will not stop. I move sluggishly. He orders Keith and me inside, unrolling sleeping mats and pulling off my outer layers, and directs Keith and me to lie down on top of one sleeping bag, covering us with his own thick bag. Then he disappears for some time — I’m unaware how long — and emerges again with a thermos. I’m in the tent, but outside of my body, beyond the point of helping myself, and Keith lies next to me with the sleeping bag over us while John pours thick, hot Tang between my lips.
By the next morning, my body temperature has stabilized. I marshal the part of me that believes I can take care of myself, that I can protect myself with enough fleece and down, but everything has changed. I will not be able to escape the knowledge of a vulnerability as deep as shame, a rawness of bodily failure leaving my spirit unmoored, open, and forced to accept help. I will not get beyond thinking of this vulnerability as failure.
The next day Keith’s headaches are worse, and he descends with another team. John and I make an unsuccessful summit bid, wait a couple days, and then make it to the top of the mountain, the pinnacle of North America, for a few clear and shiny minutes before stumbling down ahead of a storm. I didn’t make it there myself. I made it there because two people saved my life. Two people helped me for the hours I could not help myself. There is something in this knowledge that darkens those moments at the summit. And then that darkening and the brightness fades into memory, and like all memories recedes into the haze of time.
Ten years later, after college, after one career, I am on my way to the elevator, scrolling through my BlackBerry, when a man stops me just in front of the cardiac-care center reception desk.
“Excuse me, Miss?” I guess him to be about my father’s age, though his hair is grayer. He wears a plaid flannel shirt neatly tucked into khaki pants with a belt, and his body is open, turning toward me while trying to stay oriented toward a woman sitting in the rows of chairs behind him.
“Yes?” My mind is already ahead of me, wondering where I’d put my parking garage ticket, whether I should grab a Diet Coke on the way out, thinking about what I needed to do before my next appointment.
“My daughter needs some help — would you mind?”
“Sure,” I say. I hadn’t expected his request. “What can I do?” I wrestle to slow my thoughts and calm my impatience.
“She needs to use the restroom, and I can’t go in there with her,” he says. “I was hoping you might be able to help.”
I glance at the woman behind him. She might have been my age, about 30, but age is impossible to discern in a profile so gaunt I seem to be looking at her skull. Brittle dark hair hung to her shoulders, and her eyes too up too much space, large dark orbs.
“Of course,” I say. “I think there’s a restroom just around the corner.”
I know where all the restrooms are, each turn in the halls of the hospital where I come every day to sell equipment meant to regulate heart rhythms, lines that snake down into the heart from a cut just under the collarbone connected to palm-sized devices delivering shocks to keep the heart going, speeding it up or slowing it down. I know where to grab a drink of water or a quick bite, how to take the shortcut upstairs when the parking lot is full and I am running late.
The man turns back to his daughter sitting in the chairs and takes her arm, supporting her to stand. She smiles at me, her smile lines folded together like an according by a lack of any subcutaneous fat. Her dark eyes are warm.
“Thank you,” she says. For a moment, I can’t reply as her voice seems so unlikely from the collection of angles comprising her body.
“Of course,” I say again, embarrassed for my previous hurry, embarrassed that I ever hurried.
The women’s clothes hang loosely on her slight silhouette: black polyester pants, thick-soled black shoes, and a long-sleeved white T-shirt with scallops around a scoop neck, folds hanging straight down, not softened by an interruption of flesh. Her collarbones jut out dangerously. I follow the father and daughter to the bathroom door. She seems fully supported by his arm, so when I put out my hand I prepare to take on her body weight, but there is almost none to receive.
I swing open the bathroom door, heavier by far than she is, wood with a metal kick plate, and we make our way into the bathroom and into a stall. I wedge myself between the toilet and the cold metal wall of the stall, holding her arm as she turns her back to the toilet. I wait for a moment, and she says, “Can you help me with pants please?”
I am frustrated by my inability to anticipate her needs. I put one arm behind her back to hold her body upright, and use my other hand to unbutton and unzip her pants and pull them down. She is wearing plain white panties that stretch between sharp hipbones. I slip my finger under the elastic at the top of them and pull them down too, as though they are my own.
A sense of discomfort fills me in one instant, like a flash flood in a slot canyon. I use my right arm to lower her onto the toilet. It is impossible to allow her privacy, impossible to facilitate modesty that I wish for her and for me. Her dark and wiry pubic hair, sparse as the hair on her head, seems only to make a space between bones. It occurs to me that I have never before seen the actual bones of a person’s upper thighs outside of a classroom skeleton.
She sits and urinates, looking forward with no particular look on her face, no shame or worry. The urine streams for only a second or two, and then trickles in drops. I see her hands, a thin layer of skin covering bone, hanging slightly curled from tiny wrists. When she finishes, I take a wad of toilet paper from the roll.
“I can do that,” she says with a small but real smile, and she wipes herself, and drops the paper into the toilet. I see it disappear below the bones of her pelvis.
I help her stand, and pull up her pants, my arm around her spine as though she is a small child, and feel the vertebrae pressing sharply into my arm. I button and zip her pants and reach behind to flush the toilet. I open the stall door and we walk back to the sink to wash our hands, and then head back out of the bathroom.
“Thank you,” she says, and she smiles and her eyes have a kindness and a wisdom and even a happiness that I can never deserve. In the waiting area I help her into a seat, and her father thanks me, and I smile and say of course, and feel like I should be the one thanking them both, as though I have been permitted into a grace and an intimacy unexpected.
I go on with my day. I go on with my life. But I never forget this woman. Years later, when I’m not rushing to my car, not checking my BlackBerry, when I have a few minutes to think, I wonder about her. I think she likely did not survive the year. Working in the hospital, reminders of mortality were all around. It was not presuming her death that stayed with me. It was the grace of her vulnerability, a possibility only after releasing all semblance of control. There is something beautiful in that acceptance that I have not known. I think of the mere hours I experienced this kind of vulnerability, high on a mountain, and now instead of a shadowed memory, the summit is somehow brighter and deeper, all at once, illumined by the glistening of life, with the understanding that what I had thought of as weakness was instead somehow a gift.
It is years after that night on a mountain and the minutes in the hospital when I go with my husband to church three days before Easter. After the gospel and the sermon is the washing of feet. I have not attended this service before. This year I am sitting in a hard pew in our small stone church, the stained glass muted against the darkness outside, lights inside dimmed so that the altar candles persist as hard, bright points against the darkness. I’ve worn a blouse with khaki pants and low heels, a shawl around my shoulders to take off the spring chill. My shoes fit well enough, but I find it difficult to remove them, to walk up to the front of the church in bare feet. As I wriggle them off under the pew, I am immediately aware of their absence, and think suddenly of how much I hid inside of them.
This ritual is not about this; it is meant to show Jesus turning social structure and convention on its head, demonstrating servant leadership for his disciples to learn from and emulate when he is gone. Instead, I am aware of my bare feet, my chipped and fading pedicure.
Others stand up slowly from their pews and walk down the aisle. I know most of these people: teachers, lawyers, doctors, housewives. They seem to me confident in a way I am not. They take turns sitting on a chair, placing their feet in the white ceramic basin. The priest pours water over their feet, and then lifts each foot out of the basin to dry it with a towel. This is a long process. There are a lot of bare feet in this little church.
I’ve never particularly liked my feet. It’s rare that they are exposed to the public, outside of beaches and summer flip flops in places where I assume everyone’s had a margarita or two. But they’ve carried me a long way, these feet. A friend recently had an accident in the course of a normal day; he can no longer feel anything from the naval down. Fading pedicure or not, I’m glad I have the use of these feet. And yet, exposing them in church makes me uncomfortable.
I get up and start toward the altar. I pull my shawl closer around me. Feeling the cold against my skin reminds me somehow that I have not been praying enough, not reading my Bible. I think of the annoyances I feel toward priests sometimes. I wonder if people are thinking that we should not have our son out so late, even at church. All of these things hidden away spill out of my shoes as I walk forward on naked feet.
The foot-washing chair faces the congregation. I am glad that the lights are dim. The roles that define me are back at the pew along with my shoes: mother, wife, writer, daughter-in-law, parishioner, friend. Without them, I am exposed, only me. I do not remember when I have been only me. I sit down awkwardly, step my feet into the cold white basin. The priest pours cool water from a white pitcher, and it curls around the flesh and bone of me. Then the priest picks up my feet, one at a time, and pats them down with a towel. She looks at me and smiles. I smile back at her. Suddenly, I do not want to stand up. I see the clear water, and my cold white feet, and her hands, and I am embarrassed by the simple beauty of it, because I and my thoughts so often are neither simple nor beautiful.
And it seems to me that the naked reliance to which I succumbed on a mountain is nothing compared to the grace of vulnerability given to me by a woman whose name I never knew in a hospital bathroom stall. There is succumbing, and there is acceptance, though there is the possibility of grace in both. I understand that there is nothing in this gesture, this ritual, that I deserve. I stand and walk back to my pew. I think my face must have worn a quizzical look; I felt quizzical. I put my cold feet back into my shoes and I kneel instead of praying. I stay there kneeling, and feel my feet cold and clean.
Shannon Huffman Polson writes about borders and interstices, places of transition and transformation. Her most recent book is the memoir North of Hope: Daughter’s Arctic Journey (2013). She lives in a mountain valley in northeast Washington with her husband and two young boys. Reprinted from Ruminate Magazine (Summer 2015), a quarterly literary journal focused on life, faith, and art.