Mignon Zemp

Ice cratered and split under the weight of our crampon spikes, the sound like sharpening knives. The mountain’s real name was Wy’East.

My son’s name, like my father’s, was Michael.

We climbed vertically into thin air. Our headlamps illuminated deep crevasses and frosted boulders. Under the strain of the pack, at nearly 11,000 feet, we fogged the pre-dawn air with our breath, resembling a kind of a human locomotive. Our feet were haggard and swollen, heavier with each step.

It was five a.m. and we were less than an hour from catching the summit.

Jesse, our guide, yelled: “See that cluster of boulders ahead? We’ll be only a few hundred feet from the summit then. We’re going to start counting steps. I’ll start with one. Michael, you’ll say two and, Mignon, I hope you know what to say next.”

“Is it five, Jesse?” I said. “I’m not so good at counting.”

Dad chimed in: “She was never much of a math student.”

“But I’m a damned good mountaineer.”

Dad winked at me. “That’s debatable.”

“And Dad was never good with social graces.”

“Okay, let’s count,” Jesse laughed politely. “One.”

“Two,” Dad said.

“Three,” I shouted.

Onward, we ascended the mountain. Orange hues of dawn lit the summit’s outline, instilling hope in me. Time passed quickly as I became lost in the sound of our ice axes piercing snow. Navigating the placement of our feet with precision, we climbed jagged volcanic rock encrusted in thick sheets of ice. Carefully, we treaded alongside three crevasses encrusted with turquoised ice, before finally reaching the boulders.

“Michael and Mignon,” Jesse shouted down the trail. “Welcome to the Death Zone.”

“Is this the place where I decide to throw myself off the cliff?” Dad asked.

“I can help you accomplish that, old man,” I said. “You ate all my jerky back there.”

We all paused, laughing, breathing thin air.

“We’re going to rope up here,” Jesse said. “Follow my lead. This is the most dangerous part of the climb. One wrong step and it could bring us all down.” Jesse unclipped his pack. Removing the thick red rope, he unraveled it, examining every inch as his gloved hands slid it towards us.

I gazed up at the summit. We were within reach now. It all came down to these final steps.

“Holy shit,” Jesse said. Stopping the rope, Jesse motioned towards the distance and said: “She decided to come out this morning.”

“Who?” I looked at him. “Who decided to come out?”

Delicately maneuvering our boots along the steep mountainside, Dad and I pivoted our bodies towards Portland. The dark city lights were fading. A pyramid of purple light crept and veiled across the sleeping face of the city. Something shifted within me. Observing darkness meet the light, I understood how essential both elements were to create this masterpiece.

Looking away from the West, I asked him: “Dad, have you ever seen anything more spectacular in your life?”

Dad stood there silently, in awe of the light.

“Other than your mother and you,” he said. “I don’t believe I have.”

Jesse inched closer, an ice axe in hand. “This is a good omen for you both. The mountain’s shadow is extraordinarily special to see.”

Everything seemed right. The heavy roar of the mountain wind at 10,932 feet. The lustrous earth-toned rocks protruding from the snow and ice. The smoky atmosphere that drifted in and out of peaks like waves rolling from sea to shore. It was time. At last, it was time.

Clipping into the rope and securing our harnesses, we prepared our bodies for the final ascent. Counting off, we leaned into the steep earth meticulously placing our ice axes in the ground before each step. Breath by breath, we climbed towards the rising sun.

Jesse turned around. “Hold onto your butts, we’re three steps from the summit.”

I’d been too entrenched in the rhythm to notice time passing.

I started crying, silently, as I called out to my father.

“Dad, I want to hold your hand.”

He stopped and waited.

“On our last step,” I said. “Can we hold hands?”

My gloved hand slid into my father’s palm. Both of us reclaimed our lives in one step. Bound by blood, tethered by the moment, our feet united as we stepped up, together, onto the summit of Mount Hood.

Under pink skies, we howled like wolves.

“Owhoo. Owhoo,” I howled and he did too. “Owhoo.”

My father half-cracked a smile. His grin as precious and rare as the mountain’s shadow. The morning light danced on his face as he absorbed the earth below. I realized, maybe, what I deeply understood about my father was how a mountain’s summit set him free.

Jesse joined us. The three of us wailing, “Owhoo Owhoo.”

“Let’s get to the summit’s rock shelter and out of this wind.”

Roped up, we cautiously treaded between two sheer drops to reach the shelter. Stacks of porous volcanic rock created a u-shape, giving us a moment’s reprieve from the elements.

“We have about fifteen minutes up here and not a minute past,” Jesse said looking up at the sun. “I need to get you down before the earth warms up too much and we find ourselves underneath an avalanche.”

My hands shook as I removed them from my gloves. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled the tiny box of ashes into the wind. My father’s shadow cascaded over my body.

Hands trembling, I said. “I’m ready, Dad.”

Jesse pulled out a thermostat of hot coffee from his pack to share and gazed down at the small wooden box.

“Jesse,” I said, looking at him. “These are my son’s ashes. I didn’t tell you because if we were unable to summit, this burden shouldn’t be on your shoulders.”

The wind roared around us, kicking up snow dust.

Struggling to find his words, Jesse said. “Mignon, I’m in awe. What was his name?”

“Michael, after my Dad. I’ll explain more but I know time is precious.”

“Go say goodbye to your boy, Jesse said. “We have a long journey down.”

Thanking Jesse, I turned toward my father.

“Dad, will you walk with me to the edge?”

His eyes met mine.

“Daughter, I’m here with you.”

I locked eyes with my father.

“We did this together,” he said. “But this is a moment between you and your son.”

I looked to the West.

“I’ll be waiting for you.”

This was my work. The work of the bereaved mother. The work that brought me to the edge of my life, where I’d almost jumped. I stepped outside the shadow of my father. Alone, I crossed over snow and rocks and went to the farthest point. Floating above the clouds, I stood at the summit’s edge. Enveloped by deep rays of pink and orange painted across the sky, I pressed my son’s ashes against my chest. I thought back to the hospital when I kissed his head and smelled his skin one final time, remembering how it felt when the nurse took him away. This was his final physical presence and I was giving him back.

The sun climbed higher above Mount Hood. Kneeling on the cliff’s edge I opened the lid. His particles lifted and then swirled downward towards the earth. I took my helmet off feeling the frigid air run through my hair.

At 11,240 feet, I felt everything.

Pain and relief.

I promised I would risk it all again. I’d survived the weight of my grief just as I’d survived the weight under my pack.

With my own voice, into wind, I screamed: “Michael!”

His name reverberated off the rocks and disappeared. My son’s ashes drifted farther from me, and I had never been so close to him.

Mignon Zemp is a graduate from The University of Oregon Journalism Program and is now part of the Blackbird Studio For Writers in Portland, Oregon. An avid mountaineer, she’s been part of the Mazama climbing group for over a decade. Mignon’s an advocate for those affected by child loss and is currently writing her memoir, Still Within The Mountain’s Shadow.