We summited Prusik Peak on the most perfect day in The Enchantments this season, with temperatures in the mid-60s, light breezes, cobalt skies and only a few threads of clouds. The official start of summer still lingered three weeks away, but this low snowpack year had offered us an unusually early season of rock climbing.
As we cooled and stretched our bare toes, still creased from the tightness of our climbing shoes, I felt thankful to have found Anna as a partner. We were a good team; Anna set the pace on the 10-mile approach, and she climbed smoothly while strapped with a heavy pack. Although I led the technical pitches of the aesthetic ridge, it was clear that she would be sharing the sharp end with me soon.
There are few endeavors more demanding than alpine climbing, which is perhaps why Anna loved it. These backcountry marathons across diverse terrains drive a climber to her physical, mental and emotional limits for long periods in extreme conditions.
As a pro mountain biker who picked up climbing when she moved to the Northwest, Anna already had grit. Her physical intensity and relaxed attitude were part of what made her an amazing partner. She could sustain a three mile-an-hour uphill pace while giggling at her own hiccups. It seemed she hiccupped loudly at least twice an hour. Sometimes they even woke her from her sleep.
By July 8, the day I found out she had died climbing in the Sawtooth Range, we had traveled nearly 60 backcountry miles in pursuit of three summits in the last five weeks. On July 10, we were scheduled for a 17-hour attempt on Mount Rainier. Anna was the leader of this trip through the Spokane Mountaineers, and this time I would be following her up the mountain; I am new to glacier travel, and she would take the lead on everything from itinerary to travel arrangements. I had already imagined the summit shot: eye lids heavy, cheeks red and smiles wide.
In her mountain photography, Anna snapped as many pictures on the approach to the climb as she did on the summit. On the long hikes in, we talked about the classes we taught at Eastern Washington University, told stories about our worst climbs with ex-boyfriends and compared notes on what other mountains we hoped to meet this season. We also had long lapses of silence in which we listened to the rhythm of our boots on the trail or heard the sound of that bird whose name we didn’t know calling from the larches. Anna intuited the meditation formed while walking silently in the company of a friend.
She did this with many people – you didn’t have to be in the mountains with Anna to feel the vitality of her presence and the quality of her attention. Because she was so generous with her time, many people held her close and feel her absence deeply.
The climbing community has borne a particular burden in this loss. Since Anna learned to climb in Spokane, it’s hard not to obsess about what went wrong out there. Was she ready to lead? Did we fail one of our own?
I have examined these questions from many angles, even though I know we can’t divine what she was thinking or exactly what choices she was forced to make in that critical moment. What is clear is that Anna was aspiring to a long career of climbing in mixed terrain with partners from many backgrounds. She climbed with people from Wild Walls, from Eastern’s outdoor program, from the Spokane Mountaineers and from the local crag. I have come to the conclusion that, as a community, we did well by her.
The other questions I have no answer for: Why Anna? Why now? Given our tremendous loss, what next?
Here’s what I do know: as a result of having Anna as a partner, I am as strong as I have ever been. On every adventure she reminded me that climbing is about good company and finding one’s edge to push beyond it. // (Summer Hess)