Climb Like A Mother

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, hear how new mother, Cindy Hong, adapts her expectations to getting outside, both pre- and post-baby.
Cindy Hong Cindy Hong
2-year member
April 15, 2023
Climb Like A Mother
Cindy enjoying a hard-earned view of Mount Rainier during a Mountaineers scramble of Foss Peak. Photo courtesy of Cindy Hong.

A five-hundred-foot wall of loose rock loomed above me—the final five hundred feet between me and my first glacier summit, Clark Mountain. Someone on my climbing team drew a line through the air to map out our path. “Shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes,” our trip leader said. I flinched at the cheer in her voice. We’d left camp almost six hours earlier, and it felt like a lifetime away. My lungs and legs burned. I was hungry—no, thirsty. “Maybe I’ll just wait for you guys here,” I said, fishing for encouragement from our leader. “I think you can do it,” she said. “But it’s your decision.”

I wanted to believe her. I had trained for this moment with countless conditioning hikes, crevasse rescue practices, and gear checks. I thought of all the time I had dedicated—time away from my infant son. Maybe it wasn’t enough. Maybe it was ridiculous to try to complete a glacier climb before his first birthday. I watched as the team began ascending the wall. I tightened my shoulder straps and stepped forward.

Scrambling at six months pregnant

My journey to the summit block of Clark Mountain began a year earlier in the summer of 2021 when I had just completed The Mountaineers Alpine Scrambling Course. I joined the organization shortly after moving to Western Washington in March 2020 to meet fellow outdoor enthusiasts and learn the skills that would allow me to explore my new home. I found both of these things in the Alpine Scrambling Course, where I learned what an ice axe is actually for and how to navigate off-trail. By learning how to scramble, I went from hiking on well-maintained paths to tagging increasingly technical peaks using clever route-finding.

20220807_104617_Original (1).jpgTraversing a crevasse on the way down from Clark Mountain. Photo by Sarah McClellan.

I wanted more. More technical skills. More craggy peaks. I wanted the skills that would prepare me for the bigger objectives that I heard seasoned Mountaineers talk about. I didn’t quite consider myself a small “m” mountaineer yet, but I admired those who were. I listened, engrossed as they described their adventures in remote places. I marveled at the way they described the famous peaks of the Pacific Northwest as if they were naming close friends: Baker. Hood. Glacier. Rainier.

That summer of 2021 I was also six months pregnant. As my partner and I prepared for our baby’s arrival, we made plans to stay as active as possible. We wanted to continue spending time outdoors and eventually introduce our son to our favorite pastimes. Being physically active in the outdoors is part of my identity. Before living in Washington, I took pride in being a runner who’d completed three marathons. I stopped distance running just a few years ago following an arthritis diagnosis, but stayed active by hiking, climbing, and backpacking at every opportunity. So when the registration for The Mountaineers Basic Glacier Course opened, I had to apply. I figured I could go on field trips while my partner took care of the baby. And the graduation requirement—one completed glacier climb—was a built-in opportunity to meet a personal goal.

Besides, the class didn’t start until late January. Easy! By then the baby would be four months old. That’s when everyone says they start sleeping through the night, right? And I was due to return to work then. I was sure I’d be ready for more independence. Never did it cross my mind that climbing a glacier was an unreasonable goal for a new mother. Never did it cross my mind that getting in shape might look different for me post-pregnancy.

IMG_7224.jpgAlistair enjoying the view of Tatoosh Range at Paradise. Photo courtesy of Cindy Hong.

Baby arrives & class begins

Baby Alistair was born at the end of September. The next four months passed in a blur. I didn’t get out much. The days got darker and were focused around naps, bottles, and laundry. Forays outside revolved around baby wellness checkups and the nap stroll. The three times we made it out to a patch of green felt like hard-fought victories in which two parents armed with a 20-pound diaper bag battled a squirmy 12-pound foe.

As the start of the course neared, I began worrying about how I would possibly make it out of the house to travel the four miles across town to the Seattle Program Center, much less the hour to Snoqualmie Pass for snow skills practice. The doubts intensified with the first class. I huffed and puffed from a few minutes of prusikking, the method of ascending a rope on your own in case you fall into a crevasse. The months of sitting on the couch nursing Alistair caught up with me. My fingers were all thumbs trying to tie knots, even though I had practiced beforehand. I wanted to explain: this isn’t me. I’m usually a quick study, someone with steady hands who’s full of energy! I wanted to say this is a sleep-deprived version of me. An up-all-night, covered-in-spit-up version. Not the real me.

I rushed home that night. I needed to help with bedtime and pump. I thought about deferring the rest of the course until the following season. Sure, I’d seen the inspirational stories of professional female athletes winning titles and setting records shortly after giving birth. But I wasn’t a professional. I even started to question if my comparatively modest goals were better left to the child-free.

IMG_5364_Original (1).jpgCindy roped and ready for snow skills practice during the Basic Glacier Travel Course. Photo courtesy of Cindy Hong

Stepping in as a leader

Another month passed with little improvement. My son was five months old, growing fast, but I was still searching for my pre-baby self. It was then that I got another invitation from The Mountaineers that ultimately helped me overcome my self-doubts and achieve my goal.

As a recent graduate of Alpine Scrambling, I was invited to go back and instruct. “It’s a great way to refresh your skills,” the Scrambling Committee implored. I was skeptical at first. With the trouble I was having on Basic Glacier field trips, surely it was a bad idea to commit to even more Mountaineers activities. But my partner pointed out that the first event was a conditioning hike at West Tiger, a location relatively close to us. I needed the exercise, so I agreed to help instruct.

The conditioner fell on a clear day in March. I couldn’t shake my nerves as we set off for the day. Would I be able to keep up? I would be so embarrassed if the students had to wait for me on their training hike.

My anxiety started to fade ten minutes in as we ascended the trail through dense forest. I relaxed, breathing in the scent of Douglas-fir after the spring melt. We adopted a moderate, diligent pace. I welcomed the sensation of my extremities warming up as my heart rate gradually climbed. We chatted about all things outdoors: recent hikes, reasons for joining The Mountaineers, big goals for the season. One couple said they wanted to learn the skills to reach summits without hiring a guide. Another pair shared that, despite living in Western Washington their entire lives, they didn’t grow up camping or hiking and wanted to explore their backyards in adulthood. I nodded in recognition listening to their stories.

At one point while I was leading, we found ourselves losing elevation when we should have been gaining. I checked the map and declared that yes, we were still going the right way. It wasn’t until we ran into another group that I realized we had taken a wrong turn. So much for my authority, I thought. But the students took it in stride. It was an extra twenty minutes of conditioning, they joked.

F9CB6C85-8FB7-4A49-8432-D355BA0B1E60 (1).jpgCindy and Alistair on their way up Sourdough Mountain. Photo courtesy of Cindy Hong.

We stopped to do some ice axe demonstrations and discuss gear at the summit of West Tiger. As I demonstrated ice axe arrest in the dirt, I was surprised to find my reflexes were still there. I finally felt I had something to give back, and marveled that I was in the students’ shoes just a year ago.

The seven-hour conditioner was the longest I had been away from baby Alistair since his birth, but I immediately knew it was worth it. The next few months I volunteered with the Scrambling Committee whenever I could. At Stevens Pass, I helped students execute ice axe arrests on real snow. At The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, I gave tips on maintaining good balance while using the “three points of contact” method for scrambling. Not only did I regain my confidence in my technical skills, I also learned how to juggle the logistics of parenthood and mountaineering. Eventually, I worked up to spending a whole night away from my son, staying overnight in the Teanaways to instruct at the scrambling graduation weekend.

As spring bloomed into summer, I found myself fitter and holding a newfound sense of belonging. I finished all the mandatory instruction for the Basic Glacier Course. All that remained was completing one Mountaineers-sponsored glacier climb. We were allowed to defer the climb for up to a year, but, eager to prove myself and earn a new badge, I decided to do everything I could to go for it. When a spot opened up on a climb of Clark Mountain in August, I jumped on it with just two days' notice.

The climb

Clark Mountain was advertised as a two-day climb near Glacier Peak. I had never heard of it, but my research showed that it clocked in at respectable number 42 of the 100 highest peaks in Washington. I surmised that the stout 10-mile approach to high camp, and its relative lack of name recognition compared to its volcanic neighbor Glacier Peak, explained why it was rarely climbed. For the same effort, one could tackle any number of better-known peaks in the state. But as I soon discovered, my climbing group largely consisted of more experienced climbers who had already claimed most of those more famous peaks.

The first day started off well. Our group of six made camp at 6,500 feet an hour ahead of schedule. It felt good to be outside in the sun, though it was unseasonably hot. Caterpillars clung to our clothes as we traversed fields of their host trees. It felt magical to be surrounded by all this beauty with thoughtsof diaper changes, naps, and bedtime a million miles away (although I did bring a manual pump—just in case).

But summit day proved to be a daunting challenge. We set off with a 3am alpine start. The first task was to descend into a basin down a dusty rock face before we could start our ascent of the glacier. We were halfway across the glacier when the sun came up. I felt myself fading as my rope team navigated around gaping crevasses. I thought I was prepared, but maybe I hadn’t been for the heat.

At the summit block, it took repeated encouragement from the rest of the team to help me muster the will to finish the climb. I trudged to the summit behind everyone else. Finally at the top, I basked in my teammates’ smiles and our spectacular view of Glacier Peak. The celebration was short lived. My thoughts turned darker as I faced an obvious truth: we were only halfway. We still needed to descend to camp, pack up, and hike a fully-laden ten miles out that same day. I didn’t want to admit it out loud, but I was already gassed.

On the way down, two incidents made me question yet again if new motherhood and mountaineering were compatible. At the last glacier crossing, I started putting my crampons on upside down, alarming the rest of the team. Then, with just a few miles left to the trailhead, I full-on faceplanted, nearly spraining my ankle. My teammates chalked it up to heat exhaustion and, to my horror, redistributed my stuff. With a near-empty pack I was able to make it out on my own two feet.

During our debrief in the parking lot, I acknowledged that I had been the weakest link. That I might have underestimated the trip. I didn’t say I might have overestimated myself. As I drove back to Seattle, I wondered if I was better off staying at home.

IMG_8022.jpgCindy and Alistair on their way up Sourdough Mountain. Photo courtesy of Cindy Hong.

Looking ahead

Our trip leader emailed me the next day. She wanted to make sure I was doing ok and to let me know that I should be proud of my accomplishment. I thought about what she’d said on the trail: not every beginner climber could summit this particular mountain. I took those words to heart. Looking back on the climb, I’ve learned to see it as a success. Even though it was a challenging excursion for me, I reached the summit with the support of the whole team.

This achievement fueled the rest of my summer. Knowing that I had managed to climb a glaciated mountain in time to graduate from my Basic Glacier Course allowed me to push past any lingering doubts. I went on more adventures this past season, including another glacier climb and a backpacking trip with my now one-year-old baby. With the help of my fellow Mountaineers, I had the opportunity to embrace my new identity as both a mother and a climber. Although things are certainly different from my pre-baby days, I’m more eager than ever to see what the future holds.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive

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