A Mountain of Gratitude: Lessons from a Climb on Kulshan


Whenever I see Kulshan (Also known as Mount Baker or Koma Kulshan) I know I am home. Growing up in a small town in the northwest corner of Washington meant I got first row seats to views of Kulshan and other Cascade peaks on clear days. My dreary Washington winters were punctuated by weekends skiing at the Mount Baker ski area. I remember those early mornings where my dad drove me up to ski lessons and later, romping around the ski area with my high school friends. The best days were the bluebird ones where the mountain gifted us views and I could peek at the summit of Kulshan from the top of Chair 1, especially because cloudy days filled with snow or rain were usually the norm.

So I guess it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to me when we arrived at a drizzly trailhead for the start of our climb with AWE. In defiance of every weather model, a soggy cloud continued to envelop us the whole way up to base camp. I laughed and donned my rain jacket. The rain falling on me felt like the mountain reminding me “you know me, of course you’re going to get rained on”. 

Whiteout conditions at camp, Day 1 of Martell’s climb of Komo Kulshan

The clouds lingered until our alpine start at 4 a.m. the next morning. Others on my climbing team voiced their concerns about the weather and never making it to views. Normally I’m pretty pessimistic about the weather in the Cascades, but for some reason that day I just knew we would make it above the clouds. We walked up to the glacier where we donned our crampons, organized into rope teams, and finally stepped onto the Easton Glacier. For the first few minutes, I watched my feet as I got accustomed to my crampons and walking on a rope team. My mind calmed as we walked through the fog and I thought of a lesson that an Elder that I work with recently told me about remembering to look up in life. So I tilted my eyes skyward and through the cloud saw a glimpse of a star. I excitedly told the others as the clouds started to clear and we all got our first view of Kulshan.

As I saw the peak for the first time on this trip I momentarily thought “oh that doesn’t look that far!” But I quickly remembered lessons learned from previous failed summit attempts on other Cascade volcanos- it’s always farther than it looks. I mentally prepared myself for a long and steep walk. Thankfully we were treated with beautiful views the whole way up. For the first time, I got to see the mountain shadow as the sun rose, stare into deep crevasses, and marvel at distant seracs. We even got to hear some icefall right before the most exposed part of the climb- a reminder to me that there is only so much we can control when we visit these tall peaks. 

Martell climbing above the clouds

After the steep climb up to the edge of the Sherman Crater, I could see puffs of steam rising from behind the rim. Our guides pointed out the puffs and told us it was the volcanic gases emitting from the crater. I soon smelled the familiar smell of sulfur gas. It reminded me of the rotten egg smell I often encountered on the beach I grew up next to, about 40 miles to the west of the mountain. I was surprised by how these two radically different environments- mountaintops and ocean sides, could have this same unique (and somewhat nauseating) smell. 

Martell and guide Rachel near the rim of the Sherman crater

Being on this climb with other incredible women and knowledgeable guides taught me so much. From consistent fueling strategies “eat at least a couple hundred calories at each break!” to encouragement to take care of other bodily needs that I wasn’t looking forward to packing back down “we promise you’ll feel so much better!” It created a supportive environment that was also celebratory. I only had one moment of “why the heck am I choosing to do THIS for fun?!” but rapidly forgot about it after we crested above the Roman Wall for the walk across the summit plateau. As we walked up the summit pyramid laughing, posing, and surveying the landscape with wonder, I felt a familiar feeling of joy. It was the same joy sparked by the immense gratitude I feel for this place. I’ve found it before on snowy slopes during sunny days or laying down in soft powder while looking up at the dramatic peaks in the North Cascades. Except for this time I was finally on the tallest peak on the land that raised me.

All smiles at the summit

After we walked up to the true summit I looked to the west over the clouds to the Salish Sea and my home. I knew my parents were probably starting their day somewhere below those clouds. If they walked a few minutes down the road from their house that morning they would see the mountain their daughter stood on top of. I thought of my grandma Julie, who passed away in March this year. When we entombed her ashes at the cemetery I noticed how you could see Kulshan from the grassy hill it was on. I wondered what it looked like from there right now. My grandma passed before I had the chance to tell her I received the AWE summit scholarship and would be trying to summit Kulshan. I know she would have been excited for me because I feel like I can perfectly imagine how she would have reacted. After all, I come from a lineage of strong-willed and dare I say adrenaline-seeking, women on both sides of my family. 

After taking some celebratory photos at the top I knelt to open the summit register. I picked up one of a few notebooks and a pen someone had left among other assorted items. After pausing for a moment I wrote “kinanâskomitin” along with my name and the date. Kinanâskomitin means “I thank you all” in Cree or Nēhiyawēwin. It is a language that has not been spoken in my family for three generations. My grandmother, who was born on the Michel Reserve, understood a little bit but never learned it from her parents. Her father, my great grandfather, was forced to attend a residential school and punished for speaking his language like so many Indigenous children in Canada and the United States. I was fortunate enough to take Cree language classes online this past year and Kinanâskomitin was one of the words that stuck with me. To me, it represented how thankful I am for this mountain and all that it has provided me throughout my life. 

Although my ancestors are not Nuxwsa’7aq (Nooksack), the people of the land that Kulshan sits on, I feel deep gratitude for the land I have called home for most of my life. I recognize how this volcano, with all of its magnificent glaciers and snow, nourishes the region with snowmelt. It feeds the rivers and lakes I swam in as a child and eventually drains into the bays where I caught crab with my parents and family friends every summer. For me, exploring mountains like Kulshan is a way to continue to build a relationship with the land I live on; and building these relationships reinforces my responsibility to it. It reminds me of the importance of caring for these environments so that they are here to care for our children and our children’s children. 

“For me, exploring mountains like Kulshan is a way to continue to build a relationship with the land I live on; and building these relationships reinforces my responsibility to it. It reminds me of the importance of caring for these environments so that they are here to care for our children and our children’s children. “

It is an incredible privilege to visit these mountaintops. It requires a lot of resources to get the proper equipment and training along with time for long trips and physical conditioning beforehand. I don’t know when I would have had the opportunity to summit a glaciated peak without the support of AWE and the Summit Scholarship. Now I’m dreaming about more mountain goals and imagining what it might feel like to stand on top of other Cascade peaks. On those days when I’m climbing mountains and placing one foot in front of another for hours on end, I often think about what my Cree and Mohawk ancestors thought when they looked at the mountains. Did they feel this same desire to stand on their tallest peaks? I’ve always known mountains are sacred and hold stories and lessons for those who admire them from afar and those of us who choose to seek their summits. I may have never had the chance to learn these stories from my own ancestors because of the trauma caused by colonialism, but this trip reminded me that I do have the chance to create my own. 

Martell is one of three recipients of the 2021 AWE Summit Scholarship, made possible by Nite Ize, LOWA Boots, and The Cairn Project.

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