Last Saturday afternoon a mountaineer and climbing instructor from Bellingham named Sue Bennett began descending from Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades.
And then…she fell.
And she did not survive.
~ ~ ~
I knew Sue Bennett. A little. A very little.
Maybe for a sum total of 20 minutes.
I turn 38 years old in a few days. That means I’ve been alive for more than 19 million minutes.
I knew Sue for less than one-ten-thousandth of one percent of my life.
But it mattered.
~ ~ ~
I first met Sue during a Beginning Mountaineering Course run by the Bellingham Mountaineers. I have no doubt she introduced herself during the first class, but where she first fully entered my memory was during the “gear” class.
Multiple instructors came to class with their mountaineering gear, their backpacks fully packed and loaded, ready with suggestions, recommendations, or ideas to help the students figure out that fine but critical balance between ‘what works’ and ‘how much will it weigh.’
I remember picking up Sue’s backpack. It couldn’t have been bigger than a 40L pack; I remember thinking that it looked small. But I could barely pick it up; I wasn’t ready for how heavy it was. It was dense. Efficient. Not a cubic millimeter of space wasted. Everything she needed in a small pack, and she was strong enough to huck it up any mountain in the state.
I glanced at her again, newfound respect in my eyes. Sue was short, but strong, wiry. She smiled easily but took her role as an instructor seriously. You could see it in her eyes when she talked to you. This mattered. Learning this mattered.
My ‘gear day’ interaction with Sue? Maybe five minutes.
My second encounter with Sue was during the first class field trip, a miserable 6 a.m. slog up into the Chuckanuts in a dreadful March downpour. As another instructor said, cheerfully, “If you guys can make it through this, you can make it through anything in the mountains.”
I barely made it.
I was the last one up the hill, checking into the camp long after my other classmates had already arrived and set up their tents. If I could have died from shame, my grave would now be located somewhere near the edge of Cedar Lake.
But as I slowly, painfully climbed the (relatively) small mountain, Sue came up behind me. She walked with me for a few moments, introduced herself, asked me about myself. She could tell my backpack was unbalanced; I was carrying some extra group gear, and the rope bag had shifted as I hiked. She gave me some straightforward suggestions for a more efficient and organized pack.
She smiled at me, and encouraged me upwards. She was kind.
And then she was gone, zooming up the hill as though she had secretly found the escalator beneath the mud and moss.
Our second interaction had lasted less than five minutes.
My third interaction with Sue was later that same day. We worked with a partner through multiple skill stations, practicing belaying, knots, ropework, prussik ascents, and rappelling. And Sue was one of the instructors for the rappel.
The rain never stopped. My gloves were saturated, and my hands froze within minutes of putting them on, but the ropes were filthy with mud and grit and would have torn my palms apart without something protecting them. Soaked and shivering, we moved through the belay station, Sue anchored to a tree next to us, checking our harnesses and our friction knots and devices and helmets and the ropes and anchors and a million other tiny things the instructors have to do for hours upon endless hours over the weekend.
But to her, every action mattered.
I remember realizing that my friction knot was too tight; I’d wrapped it one too many times and it was keeping me from moving smoothly down the rope. I untied the knot, which serves as a backup and safety for the rappel itself, and then remembered that I’d forgotten to check that I was still anchored with a carabiner to the tree at the top of the belay. I’d reversed my order of safety operations.
Trying to recover and learn the muscle memory to do things The Right Way, I reached up to check my anchor. Sue saw my hand go up towards the anchor, and reacted instantly. “Stop!” she called, reaching towards me, and I froze. She had assumed I was about to unclip from the anchor, and head down the rappel without the friction knot in place.
I couldn’t even keep the steps in order in my head, and Sue had identified what could have been a significant safety issue in a fraction of a second. In the rain. In the mud. After working the belay station with other students for hours.
That was my third and final interaction with Sue. It lasted for no more than ten minutes.
~ ~ ~
Less than two weeks later, I withdrew from the class.
I am a person who has spent the majority of their life in their head. I read, and write, and waste time online, and knit, and play the ukulele. None of these are physical pursuits. I work in an ER, and while that certainly has its moments of physical demand, it is in essence a perpetual cerebral game of Anatomic “Clue” (‘the crime of right upper quadrant abdominal pain was committed by Colonel Mustard using an obstructive cholelith in the common bile duct!’).
And while I do hike, and I do backpack, I do not do it with the consistency or discipline required to be ready to shoulder forty pounds of safety gear, strap on some crampons, and start a glacier traverse to a summit.
I was not physically ready.
I could assemble a prussik ascender, but I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up the rope.
I could navigate the hills, off-trail, using a topo map, but I didn’t have the stamina to bushwack through the treefall and the dense undergrowth to the top.
And I could ‘save’ my climbing partner by quickly executing a belay escape, but when it came time for me to climb the rock wall, I froze with terror. I didn’t trust my own body not to fall.
I didn’t trust my body, because I had never fully inhabited it in my life.
The process of meeting, challenging, and knowing my own body continues to be a struggle.
For so many women around the world there are deeply rooted emotional issues connected to their own perception of their bodies, and I was surprised to find I was no different. How do I care for this physical carrier of my ‘self’? How do I learn to push through its temporary limitations, instead of just giving up in despair?
How do I see it – me – as a work in progress, instead of simply a failure?
I hiked the Yellow Aster Butte trail a few days ago.
It was really hard.
And as I climbed through the heat, and the dust, and the horrible swarms of flies, I worked through that last question, again and again and again.
I am so tired.
That’s ok. Take a break.
It’s so hot.
That’s ok. Drink some water.
I hate the bugs.
They’ll clear once you get higher.
I want to quit.
Do you really want everyone on the trail to see that?
I can’t do this.
Yes, you can.
And as I summited both the south and north ‘peaks’ of the butte, and stared at the panoramic view of the mountains around me, I thought of Sue, and her death just four days earlier.
And I suddenly realized why I was thinking of her.
It was because I wanted to BE her.
I want to be strong, and fit.
I want to be smart, and confident.
I want to be knowledgeable about the outdoors, and to share it with others.
I want to be kind and compassionate.
I want to climb mountains as though I have wings on my feet.
When I grow up, I want to be Sue Bennett.
And I want other women to know that they can be Sue Bennett, too.
~ ~ ~
I knew Sue for 20 minutes.
And that was all it took for me to be deeply, profoundly sorry that she is gone.