I recently had to write a biography for a project, which I was told was too short and plain. True to form, I overcorrected, and was told my second attempt was too long and elaborate. I redid it again, but didn’t want all that work to go to waste (not only did I write it, but I spent hours translating it into Spanish), so . . . for your reading pleasure, since apparently, the third time’s the charm.
Underneath the blanket of a blackened sky punctured by a million tiny stars, the cold air bites through the mountain pines as an alarm clock smashes the silence. Katie opens her eyes, inhales the piercing air, and soaks in the predawn stillness as she has so many mornings before. Many of them have been like this one, mornings spent in a tent nestled deep within snow-capped mountains; but countless others have found her settling into her desk with a steaming cup of coffee to tap away at her latest writing project, or lacing up her running shoes to pound out some pre-work miles alongside her husband, Joseph, and dog, Eiger. Today, though, she has a mountain to climb.
The ground is clear and dry at the start as Katie and Joseph begin their uphill journey, their headlamps reducing their world to two tiny spotlights, everything else melting into the black around them. The feeling of having broken free wells within her here, hundreds of miles from her current home in Columbus, Mississippi; from her birthplace in Overland Park, Kansas; and nearly everywhere the Air Force has stationed her in between – most of them flat, hot landscapes in the southern United States. Her alma mater, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, lies just a few hours north on a mountain road, and her rhythmic movement uphill brings back those four years of simply placing one foot in front of the other until her graduation in 2009.
The whispers of the predawn sunlight float through the trees, making visible the patches of snow that have begun to dot the forest floor. As the dirt and rocks eventually give way to sheets of a winter’s worth of packed snow, Joseph and Katie strap crampons to their boots and dig their ice axes from their packs. The path disappears and leaves them at the bottom of a snowfield. Four thousand feet of steep, unforgiving terrain lie between them and Mt. Shavano’s summit.
Kick, kick, stab; kick, kick, stab; they slowly, methodically press up the mountain, planting each sharp point on their boots and ice axes firmly into the spring snow. As they leave the treeline behind and the vast Colorado Rocky Mountains emerge around them, a litany of images from mountain ranges around the world streams through Katie’s mind. Most of these are from the sky, her primary office as an Air Force pilot. There was the trip through the Rockies during pilot training, and low levels through the Arkansas Ozarks while she flew C-130s at Little Rock Air Force Base. The C-130 took her across the nation and around the world, from training sorties in the Sierras, to long legs over the Alps, to eerie days over vast frozen ranges in northern Greenland. She spent four months in the skies above the harsh terrain of Afghanistan, marveling at the way the stark, brown landscape would suddenly give way to jagged, snowy peaks. Her world travels have ebbed since her move to Mississippi, where her position teaching student pilots to fly the T-1 keeps her closer to home. But just a month ago, she found herself deep in the mountains of Peru, on the ground this time, her first trip with LEAP since entering program over a year earlier. She relished the chance to lay aside for a month her technical career as a pilot and return to the theoretical world of her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, when the more amorphous studies of Political Science, National Security, Philosophy, and Spanish had dominated her time.
The sun glares down as it rises higher and barrages Joseph and Katie from all sides, reflecting off of the snow that climbs ahead and up either side of the couloir that surrounds them and stretches to the mountain top. The steepness of the slope hides the summit itself, and so they trek upwards, focused only on the next step, the goal clearly visible, but only as a dream. Kick, kick, stab. Kick, kick, stab.
And then, one last step, one last pull, and the mountains open up below them, stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction, fading off beyond the horizon. It is a sea of snow, of whitecaps rising and falling high above the inhabitable world. Getting here was more than just a hike, more than just a physical exertion, and the culmination erases the pain of the journey. An early morning spurred this moment, enabled this perch on top of the world. She knows many more like it lie waiting for her.
Hand in hand, Joseph and Katie start down the mountain.