When I was a little girl, my father was a climbing guide; I lived with and watched climbers. There were climbers that had accidents so very early on I was made aware of mortality in a context that this as a good way to live; the right way to live.
This was how I began to make friends with death. When I was 16 years old it came to live with me. I was in boarding school in Portland and I had grown into being a climber; I was on the advanced team.
Every year, the 2nd year students would go with a group of adults to a beautiful volcanic site, a prime climbing venue. That year I came down from the climb early with one of the other students, she felt unwell and I had some head pain. I wasn’t sorry to go down, I would have kept going but when there was another student who wanted to go down, it was okay. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere so I knew I’d have another chance.
When you climb Mount Hood, you start in the middle of the night, climb in the dark and generally meet the summit in the morning and come down in the daylight. As we arrived at the lower slopes, there was a sudden, unexpected and un-forecasted storm. It showed up as clouds covering the stars, then wind and then snow.
The storm stayed for days and we didn’t know until later but the people on the mountain ended up digging a snow cave to take cover. After a number of days two people hiked out and helped the searchers. They started airlifting people out and bringing them to the hospital. They had to bring them back from extreme hypothermia; they could only bring some back. Of those that survived, one friend lost part of his legs and another had nerve damage.
Nine people died, 2 teachers and 7 students.
It was an event that hit our community very hard. It hit me very hard too and it also echoed out into the world. There was a large amount of media coverage and people reached out from all over the country and around the world; in fact that was an extraordinary experience of caring.
There was the added element for me; having been on the climb myself, there was always the question in my head; what was my role having been there?
I got very lucky when early on my father sent me a note and it said, ‘the important thing to understand is that this was an accident, none of your friends died for a reason and you did not live for a reason.’ This gave me a huge amount of freedom; it got rid of enormous amounts of the guilt and responsibility that I could have felt. I could let it rest as a freak of nature and I’ll always be very grateful to my father for that.
Even with that cleanness I had in moving forward with how I would live my life, there were traps of thinking to be avoided. For a time after it happened, part of my identity was that I was a victim of an accident. Then I moved from being a victim of an accident to being a survivor of an accident; that was a more powerful place to come from.
Later it felt really good to no longer identify as that; not to define myself by a tragedy that happened to me but by the choices I made in my life in general.
One of the choices that I made early on was to choose a life of honoring and to value the characteristics of my friends and teachers that had died.
I wanted to live a life that would honor them; that was full and rich and embodied the characteristics I cherished in them and pass them on to the world. This is not enough by itself though. If you’re not careful you can fall into the trap of trying to prove you have the right to be alive while they have died. There were times that I did that.
There were other times when I thought if I have suffered something because I was taking a risk, then I need to be careful not to become fearful of taking risks. So I started taking a lot of risks in order to avoid that.
I got into a pattern where I thought that as long as I was taking physical risks I was living life fully. But that meant I could shut down emotionally so as to protect myself. That was also something that I had to work through so that I could live a life that wasn’t being reactive.
It’s been 27 years now. I have been taking fewer risks and working to lead a life that’s full but not referring back to what happened to me so much. Early on there were times that people whom I didn’t know very well, wanted to talk to me because of what happened. Then there was a release when people had forgotten it and I wasn’t talking about it.
This year, I feel as if I have come full circle back into the full story of my life, the full reality.
Now, as there are incidents taking place in schools that are traumatic again and again; each time it happens I become aware of the hundreds of people who are going to need to move forward in the wake of trauma. I feel it is important for these people to understand that this will not damage them for life.
By telling my own story and showing the life I have built, I am an example of someone who experienced extreme loss and pain and managed to forge something beautiful and deep.
This spring I started telling my story again, and have been asked to go to schools and communities. It is a time of coming back into that story in a way that feels good and solid. It makes me stronger every time I tell it and makes the people stronger every time they hear it.
It’s the story of 2 stories; what happened to me back then and what I have built since then. And now it’s the story of the story getting back into the world again.
I gave up mountaineering but I didn’t give up climbing. I stopped climbing the big snowy summits; it was not a decision, I just stopped.
If I had stopped climbing that would be saying that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place and I didn’t believe that. There was an independent review afterwards, and lawsuits. They found that the school had not been negligent in any important way. There were some little things that could have been done differently but it would not have saved lives. This meant a great deal to me.
The leader of the climb was my teacher and my mentor and someone I loved and respected very much. It was important to me that I didn’t have to give up that respect. He was an experienced mountaineer. He didn’t survive.
Sometimes I still think about climbing that mountain. I’ve never climbed it since but I think about it. Maybe I will.
It would be a powerful next step to my story. And when I do think about doing it, it feels like a joyful thing. I would climb with people I feel good with, good friends and good climbers and not done with too much weight or symbolism, just to do it and do it well. That would feel good in my life.
– Lorca Smetana, A Dove Above Montana, www.montanadovereleases.com