The art of letting go, and other things I haven’t really mastered

My summer is not going as planned.

Okay, wait; let me start over: My summer is off to a much better start than last summer, when my personal life was a wreck and my dog died and I was unemployed and moved back in with my parents. Like an emotionally inept phoenix from the proverbial ashes, I had nowhere to go but up. Literally—I spent the vast majority of my time traipsing around the Rockies in pursuit of lofty summits and inner peace, both of which I am still looking for.

I digress.

The beginning of this summer found me unemployed once again, though this time it’s intentional.

“I’m writing my thesis this summer,” I reply sheepishly when asked where I’m working this season.

This elicits a range of responses, anywhere from “Well, that’s definitely a job!” to “So you’re taking the summer off? Good for you!” I’m not a statistics whiz—more on that in a minute—but my empirical research indicates a correlation between one’s opinion on this matter and whether one has written a master’s thesis.

Again. Digressing.

If this doesn't make you melt, you are some kind of monster.
If this doesn’t make you melt, you are some kind of monster.

And really, despite having an adorable new puppy and a very short attention span, I have been working a lot. It’s just that a lot of the time I don’t know what I’m doing.

Actually, an upside to doing my master’s at a tiny liberal arts college in a bona fide adventure town is that the guidelines for what makes a thesis project are pretty flexible, to say the least. I was overwhelmed at first by the wide-ranging possibilities and lack of hand-holding, but—determined not to drop from the roster due to simply being unimaginative—I muddled through a semester, fell in with exactly the advisor I needed, who directed me to an internship in a field it turns out I’m really excited to work in, and voilà: I have a thesis.

If you’re doing it right, the first stages of developing a thesis project are, in point of fact, really fun. You get to dig through archives and read lots of books and scholarly articles by other people who like to geek out about something you think is cool.

This meant I spent lots of hours last summer in the basement of the American Mountaineering Center, where I pored over old expedition journals (the kind you have to get out of cold storage and put gloves on to read—swoon!) and ended up on a first-name basis with the staff at the American Alpine Club Library.

It bears noting here that if reading about climbing mountains doesn’t sound like the beginning of a master’s thesis to you, you’re absolutely right. It seems almost criminal to me, too, but I’m not complaining.

Back then, it was very novel and exciting when people asked me what my thesis was about, and I couldn’t wait to launch into a minutes-long diatribe about gender inequality in the hills and its impact on group dynamics and decision-making, stopping only when my victim’s eyes began to visibly glaze over.

Now, when some interested and well-meaning person pops the loaded question—So, what’s your thesis on, anyway?—I feel compelled to use my climbing rope as a noose and string them up from the nearest cliff, not because their inquiry is anything but genuine, but because I’m so sick of answering that question.

Instead, I mumble the phrases “perceptions of gender identity” and “professional decision-making in high-risk, high-altitude environments” and avert my eyes until they back away, wondering why I didn’t choose something I’m more interested in.

It’s not that I’m not interested. I am. I am the most interested, in fact: mountaineering and the politics of gender identity are two of my favorite subjects. Ask anyone.

"For Dummies" is giving me way more credit than I deserve. Still. Surprisingly helpful.
“For Dummies” is giving me way more credit than I deserve. Still. Surprisingly helpful.

I did all the legwork. I recorded statistics from decades of reports from Denali National Park; pored over dozens of old volumes of the American Alpine Journal; reviewed the existing literature on gender identity in the mountains (there isn’t much); drafted, piloted, re-wrote, and distributed a survey; reached out to everyone guiding on Denali and begged them to take the aforementioned survey; the list goes on. The part I’m good at is over. There is to be no more stalling: it’s time to crunch the numbers.

As always, though, life gets in the way: family in town, a fun-but-summitless trip to the Tetons, Colorado weather vacillating wildly between violent thunderstorms and debilitating heat waves.

But I digress. In fact, that’s how a lot of this summer has felt: like one long digression.

My generous, long-suffering parents—for the second consecutive summer—have allowed their home to be turned into a hostel for my dirtbag friends. Bix spends four days a week in the field, during which time I do my best to stick to my little color-coded schedules, even occasionally making an attempt at the domestic tasks I usually leave to him: packing lunches, doing laundry, making the bed. Side note: I hate doing these things and am finally ready to grant Bix his lifelong dream career, stay at home (dog) dad.

Despite occasional spurts of forward progress, I spend most of my afternoons feeling dazed by the morning’s venture into the world of statistics and dismayed at my failure to pay attention in Senior Math, which I hesitate to admit only because of the smugness with which I’m sure my high school stats teacher would take the news.

By two or three o’clock, my internal directory of inadequacies is longer than my to-do list. Why aren’t you done yet? I hear my student loan-owing self asking, The rest of your cohort graduated last semester!

I’ve hardly begun to defend myself when the floodgates open and the barrage begins: If you’re not making progress on your thesis, you should at least be in better shape, says me-who-ate-pizza-last-night. Is it really fair for Bix to be the only one with an income? me-whose-credit-card-bill-is-due-tomorrow asks rhetorically. And really, insists me-who-still-feels-guilty-about-Lucky, this puppy is old enough to be trained more seriously. The list goes on.

Perhaps the writing process, which usually brings me catharsis, would have been better saved for the day I defend my thesis, but that seems impossibly far away. Instead, as with my thesis, I’ll digress and talk about climbing and insist it’s a metaphor for whatever the hell it is I’m doing.

We spent the Fourth of July in the Tetons again, and this time I was determined to climb the Grand. It is aesthetic and iconic and I’ve been daydreaming about it since the first time I visited Jackson, as an enthusiastic but very green intern with the American Alpine Club.

Bix makes the best of snow in July.
Bix makes the best of snow in July.

We booked permits and made reservations at the Climbers’ Ranch in January. We pored endlessly over route descriptions and painstakingly hand-drawn topos in Ortenburger’s über-classic Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, organized duffels and backpacks of gear, and, finally, were on our way to Jackson.

But Gaia or St. Bernard of Montjoux or whoever you believe runs the show in the mountains was not having it, as much of the Tetons are covered in snow and ice. Not the impassable kind; plenty of people successfully made it up and down our intended route. Just enough snow and ice to make us think twice, especially as we watched one of the few other unguided parties make its way up the headwall to the upper saddle, where one climber lost his footing and slid a hundred or so feet before self-arresting. Despite the relative safety from my vantage point at a cozy campsite on the lower saddle, I felt like barfing.

“Let’s sleep in and make breakfast at sunrise?” I suggested, my heart in my stomach.

Bix, ever agreeable, nodded and reminded me of a stretch of days he has off at the end of July, when summerier conditions might prevail, and we crawled back into our sleeping bags, where we slept until deliciously late.

Because I am extremely competitive and goal-oriented, perhaps to a fault (points for self-awareness?), I was very disappointed not to finish the climb I’d been imagining for months. I’d practically been able to envision myself on the top, and no amount of assurance that we’d made the right decision could erase the shadow of self-doubt cast by my failure to summit or even really try.

Finally, after untold hours of catch-up sleep and a second brew of cowboy coffee, we set out for the still-snowy slopes beneath the lower saddle. The usually steep-but-manageable scree field was made less negotiable by a thousand feet or so of slushy isothermal snow, which we’d so tediously ascended the afternoon before.

I gingerly tested the hardness of the snow with one foot, then the next, and was soon enough plunge-stepping my way down the slope. We reached a relatively flat spot, at which point a guide and his client glissaded past us, looking like they were having a grand old time.

Bix grinned. I stared at him incredulously.

“Just because we didn’t climb to the top of the mountain today doesn’t mean we’re not mountaineers,” he reminded me. Then he sat on his ass, dug in his ice axe, and slid down the slope.

I digress. It's fine.
A little digression never hurt anybody.

I laughed in spite of myself. Maybe I was being a little self-serious. That would be very out of character for me.

Fifteen round-trip miles and just over 15,000 feet of vertical relief later, we were back at the car, sweaty and exhausted and, to my surprise, no longer disappointed.

After all, I thought as we rode our borrowed bikes to Dornan’s for pizza (and beer, and wings, and ice cream), I don’t mind an excuse to come back here.

Especially if it means another break from my thesis.


3 thoughts on “The art of letting go, and other things I haven’t really mastered

  1. You’re awesome, Emma! The other folks in your cohort were either over achievers or dropped out…2.5 or 3 years is the norm! Loans are better off deferred anyhow. Also , we have the same colored childhood bedroom, which I’m sure means something important.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I was hugely inspired as you finished your thesis with so much else on your plate. I’m also excited about our tween-selves’ similar taste in bedroom coloring, which clearly means we were meant to be friends.

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