Out of the Ashes: Creating a New Life in the Mountains

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, a teacher shares her story of re-discovering the mountains and building a new life after a difficult life event.
Christine Kuebler Christine Kuebler
7-Year Member
October 03, 2020
Out of the Ashes: Creating a New Life in the Mountains

Every night after putting my boys to bed, I ran. On dark nights my feet would thud against the pavement, headlamp shining through the rain. I did it because I had to – it pushed out the despondency and grief that had been following me for almost two years. I knew pushing my body would bring me closer to what I needed: self-confidence, a distraction from the pain, physical and emotional strength. I moved toward my goal, one foot at a time.

The collapse

It started in 2012. My marriage was not good – I thought oh it’s marriage, you go through bumps. I had been with my husband from the time I was 15 years old, and we were married with children by the time I was 25. We had two boys together, and my oldest had significant medical challenges from the time he was born: sensory processing, ADHD, anxiety, Tourette’s. My husband was gone a lot for work in those days, and I was 35, working as a teacher in public school, and raising my two boys mostly by myself. Self-care, outdoor pursuits, and the time to draw and express myself as an artist all took a back seat in those days. It was hard, but we were working on our issues and I thought things would turn up.

One summer day when I was in my classroom getting ready for the school year, a friend came up and asked me if I knew what was going on. Time stood still as she explained that my husband was having an affair. Worse, it was with a woman who, at the time, was my coworker. She was also my best friend.

In one moment my whole world collapsed, ballooning around me. The life I had known and built for myself was immediately and devastatingly dismantled. I knew I had to get a divorce.

Rediscovering the mountains

I went about my daily life doing my best to hold it together, always feeling an intense weight bearing down on me. I felt isolated, alone, and worthless. The aftermath took a heavy toll on my career and sense of self-worth. This wasn’t the kind of life I wanted for myself or my children, and I had to do something to pull it together.

It wasn’t a quick process. It took a year for the numbness to subside. I’d worked so hard, had a long list of accomplishments under my belt, and now had a heap of ashes to sift through after my world was destroyed. I’m not the type to give up, and I resolved to find what I needed to be whole again.

I had been an avid hiker and backpacker in my 20’s, and although it was something I truly loved, I’d done it with my then-husband and had self-doubts about my ability to do it myself. I eventually convinced myself that I had the skills to travel in the mountains alone. Dusting off my gear, I went to the place I knew better than any other: the Olympic Mountains. Setting out alone toward Tubal Cain Mine, I cried the entire time.

Years before any of this happened, I’d had a feeling that I wanted to climb Mount Rainier. It went against everything I was taught to be as a young lady: be safe, follow the rules, do as expected, please others, get married, have a family. That mountain intrigued me, and I spent those long weekends hiking (and crying) in the Olympics looking at her peeking back at me from behind the trees. I’d never considered myself to be like “those people”; the alpine climbers and risk-takers. I wondered if little, old, broken me could climb that massive mountain.

As a broke single mama and school teacher, my salary balked at the exorbitant price of alpine gear and classes. For a year I saved whatever I could to pay for The Mountaineers Basic Alpine Climbing Course, scraping and hustling for gear along the way. One piece of equipment was bought a month, and hand-me-downs were found. Finally, I was able to pay for the course in full. I figured I could climb Rainier through The Mountaineers and maybe acquire some new skills along the way. At the time, I had no intention of climbing anything beyond Rainier.

I walked through the doors of the Tacoma branch for my first lecture, feeling insecure, terrified, and still housing that crushing feeling that I had been carrying for so long. That first day I was in foreign territory. I struggled through the course – ropes, carabiners, and rescue systems all challenged me as I am not naturally mechanically inclined. I pushed on, fighting self-doubt the entire way. My first climb was Glacier Peak, and it was brutal. I did not summit, gassing out just before we reached our goal. That first performance haunted me for a year and drove me to work harder. My three graduation climbs were eventually completed that summer, and Mount Baker was the first glacier climb I summited. I silently cried under my glacier glasses as we stepped off of the Roman Wall and stood on top of that massive mountain. The sun was shining bright as our rope leader made his way to the highest point. An unbelievable feeling of strength came over me. I had never done anything like that before in my life.

Strong Hearts rotated 2.png“Strong hearts, strong minds.” Graphite on paper.

Beyond Basic

I graduated from Basic and considered what was next. I hadn’t connected with many people in the class and was not the strongest member, certainly not at the top of anyone’s list to invite on a climb. It bothered me immensely. We are not entitled to climb, we have to work very hard for it, and I felt I had to prove myself. So I put my head down and conditioned. I winter scrambled as much as I could and I started running. In the evenings after my boys were in bed, I hit the pavement. Even if that meant I would be out at nine o’clock at night with a headlamp on in the rain. During that time I fell in love with winter scrambling and met a wonderful leader out of Seattle, Andy Cahn, who gave me every opportunity to get out in the mountains. I always felt like I was enough on his trips, and he became an extraordinary friend to me.

Slowly, things started to change – my body was changing, my mind was changing, and I was beating that awful crushed feeling right out of my heart and mind. I felt as though I was rewiring my head, and I could feel my thoughts and my feelings shifting. Even then, so much pain still lingered.

The following summer I climbed with The Mountaineers and with Peaks of Life, an organization that raises money for the Children’s Hospital. The next thing I knew I had a list of 30 summits, and found myself in a community where I felt accepted and loved. I met people from all walks of life, and my isolated world slowly started opening up. I saw people differently, experienced the world differently. My perspectives on things drastically changed. My children watched their mom transform and enjoyed the stories I told them and the pictures I had to share.

I kept going. I kept scrambling, I kept climbing, I kept connecting. I am at 61 summits. My goal is 100, because why not? I’ve been criticized along the way. I’ve heard that it’s just a phase and it will pass, that I had something to prove and I’ve done enough now. I’ve been told to take it easy, that I’m putting myself out there too much, that counting summits is ridiculous. There are a million and one ways in which the world will try to sneak in and hold you back.

Bringing art to life

Another beautiful thing the mountains have brought is a resurgence in my art. I went to art school in my 20’s with the intention of being an artist and a teacher. Before I knew it I was working long days and raising children, and the energy to be creative was sucked out of me. That part of myself was neglected for a long time, but it slowly blossomed again the more time I spent outdoors.

It began the way I started with mountaineering: a little bit at a time. I was doing an abstract mountain scene and a friend suggested I add a little climber to it. I hemmed and hawed, but eventually added the climber. Then I decided to draw a self-portrait to celebrate my climb of Rainier, and it turned out better than any drawing with people I had done before. Before I knew it I was drawing climbers non-stop; something about capturing small moments in the mountains became more magical to me than anything I’d created before. I’ve since had the opportunity to participate in art shows, and am in the process of building a website to showcase my work. It’s grown more than I ever could have expected.

I’ve realized that this is what happens when passion meets purpose. Mountaineering helped me rebuild my life after a major tragedy, allowing me to recognize my strengths. It has also brought so many wonderful people into my life, friends that have become support systems that I can’t imagine myself without now. I capture and celebrate them through my art, taking photos on climbs then coming home to draw. Art is a way for me to express myself, and as much a part of my world as climbing now. I feel so fortunate that this part of myself has been reignited.

SelfPortraitPrint.jpgA self-portrait of Christine’s summit of Mount Rainier, entitled “Behind Blue Eyes”. Graphite on paper.

A new day

Things are different now. I still workout constantly, but I no longer do it because I have to. I do it because I love it, and because it makes me feel good. I have a boyfriend who I got to know over mountain summits and lead belays. I left the public school system, trading burnout for one-on-one time with my students. In fact, it was a couple of Mountaineers who helped me land the job.

For four years I carried this heavy “ick” around, a weight in my gut from what had happened. Infidelity is something that can be soul-crushing; it made me feel like I might have deserved it, or that something was wrong with me. It’s a really damaging thing. But through climbing all of that has fallen away.

Mountaineering has become part of who I am, and I don’t think I could feel whole without the mountains in my life. My next goal is to become a climb leader and lead alpine trad. That will be a huge leap for me. I have my doubts and fears, but I know I can work through them. It’s important to me to give back to others, and to maybe give someone else the idea to reimagine themselves and their life the way that I did. I plan on climbing, scrambling, and hiking for as long as my body will allow me to. My boys are still home with me, but older now. We’re not entirely out of the woods yet, but I’m stronger than I was before and fully believe that all will be ok as time goes on. I couldn’t be more grateful for The Mountaineers, its dedicated volunteers, and the opportunity it has given me to change my life and heal.

In the beginning I never realized what would come of this. I just wanted to get back into doing something I loved, create a new part of my world that was for myself. Now I see the world differently. I see myself differently. I chose to return to the mountains, and it saved my soul and changed me as a person.

Image 7.jpgChristine happy at home in her art studio.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

LEAD IMAGE OF christine's Mount Adams summit, May 2018. All photos courtesy of Christine Kuebler.