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  • Writer's pictureChris Byers, MA, LMHC

Is The Mountain Out?

How THE Mountain Taught Me How To Heal

Is the mountain out? If you’re a resident of, or ever visited the greater Seattle area for any length of time, this is a common question you’ll likely hear asked. In October of 2011, our family heeded the call to move west and left our home in Nashville, TN embarking on a new adventure to the Emerald City. While driving our Penske moving truck through the outskirts of Seattle, I was fortunate enough to catch my very first glimpse, THE mountain was out! To say the view was breathtaking is both accurate and an understatement. It was, and is, a moment I will never forget. Suffice it to say an immediate and deep bond began to form between the two of us.

Standing at 14,410 ft, Mount Rainier/Tahoma is the tallest mountain/stratovolcano in the great state of Washington. Nestled inside the beauty of Mount Rainier National Park, THE mountain and its surrounding diverse ecosystems provides ample opportunity for wanderers of all ages to explore. It is estimated that the park receives 2+ million tourists from all over the world every single year. In 1889, John Muir (one of the all-time greatest nature conservationists and mountaineers) left the ultimate “Yelp” review of MRNP, which is now engraved into the stone steps at Paradise (the highest point on Rainier that you can drive a vehicle). His review boldly proclaims, “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” While Muir’s words certainly carry a level of authority and credibility, the majesty of THE mountain speaks for herself.

By now you might be wondering what in the world does this question actually mean? While there is an abundance of places to spot glorious views of Rainier/Tahoma all throughout our region, catching a glimpse of this towering beauty is not always as easy as one might think. Of course, the grey skies of the Pacific Northwest is the low hanging fruit of easy answers, but even on sunny days this massive fourteener has a knack for being hard to locate. I’m not sure who holds the Guinness World Record for being the hide-and-seek champion, but I’m confident THE mountain’s capacity for elusiveness deserves a spot in the record books. As discouraging as it can be to not always have a guaranteed look, I’ve grown to truly appreciate just how special it is when THE mountain makes an appearance!

Here are three image variations of THE mountain captured from the same spot on one of our training routes on different days.

The mere fact that THE mountain has produced a normalized wonder resulting in, “Is the mountain out?” being the unofficial question of the PNW, is proof that THE mountain connection is not unique only to me and John Muir. Since arriving here in 2011, I’ve discovered there are many who share a special bond with Rainier/Tahoma. And trust me, for each one of us, it’s personal. And if we are really telling the truth, most of us hold some version of a childlike claim believing, “that’s MY mountain!” From the very first moment I saw THE mountain, something happened inside of me that’s unexplainable. It was as if there was a magnetic force pulling on me, inviting me into a transcendent connection, a power I have never, ever, experienced before. Right then and there, the only thing I knew to do was to set an intention of climbing Mount Rainier one day with the hopes of making it to the top.

From October of 2011 to the Spring of 2015, I could confirm that THE mountain was out countless times. Every single time I saw her, the same excited feeling stirred in my gut, and I dreamed about the day I would get my chance to stand on the summit. As life would have it, a few months prior to completing my graduate training in counseling psychology, an unlikely job offer surprisingly presented itself back east. At the time, I truly believed it was a dream opportunity professionally and would allow us to be much closer to our family in North Carolina. The day after graduation, we once again climbed inside of a yellow Penske moving truck and departed our beloved heart-home of Seattle. Driving down I-5 was torture. It wasn’t long before THE mountain came into full view, and all I could feel was deep and profound shame. My negative self-talk seemed bigger than THE mountain. “You had all the time in the world, and you should have taken your shot. Who do you think you are to believe you could ever climb that thing? You are all talk and no action. You would have failed anyway.” As the glorious image of Rainier disappeared in my driver-side mirror, I was not only feeling shame and the weight of a climbing dream unfulfilled, but also the pang of heartache one faces after the death of a loved one. I genuinely believed I would never see her again.

There’s a popular phrase in the recovery world that has stuck with me since I first heard it. “Living life on life’s terms.” As the terms of life would have it, the call to adventure was not a one-and-done opportunity for me and my family when we realized Seattle wasn’t done with us. After only two years back in Nashville, we made the unlikely decision to return to Washington. While there were many reasons motivating our Seattle 2.0 move, I knew deep in my heart I was getting a second chance to face MY mountain. Fast forward to September of 2022 and I’m relieved to confess that a lot of healing, growth, and change has happened for me over these last seven years. Both personally and professionally, my unique relationship to shame has drastically transformed, thanks in large part to THE mountain.

Sir Edmund Hillary, along with his climbing partner Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, secured their historical spots in the mountaineering annals with the first confirmed summit of Mt. Everest on May 29th, 1953. Hillary is well known for saying, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” These words have fascinated me for two reasons. First, I am not a huge fan of the word conquer, particularly because of its unhealthy association and inspiration of colonization, genocide, and unjust crusades. But Sir Edmund’s quote inadvertently illuminates a normalized and somewhat egocentric motivation for climbing mountains—the quest to conquer peaks fueled by what is commonly known as “summit fever.” Not all, but many who climb, are certainly motivated by ego, masking their deep need to be seen and known. Ironically, I firmly believe summit fever has a unique relationship rooted in shame. Regrettably, this “conquering” mentality was an unconscious bias that informed my initial desire to summit Rainier. Isn’t that what mountains are there for? To use, consume, climb, and claim? Fortunately, THE mountain was kind enough to both humble and help me embrace a more relational and just view of mountaineering while also coming to understand the second part of Hillary’s wisdom. There was definitely something I needed to work out on THE mountain that had nothing to do with reaching the top.

At around 9:50 am PST, on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020, an almost decade long dream was actualized when I ascended the Columbia Crest and plunged my ice axe into the summit of THE mountain. Overcome with pure joy and eyes flooded with tears, I courageously stood atop of Washington’s highest peak finally realizing my journey was never about conquering a mountain, it was about me challenging and defeating the deceptive power of my own shame. THE mountain was certainly out that day and maybe for the first time in my life, so was I.

I’m forever grateful for the innumerable ways THE mountain continues to help inspire me personally and professionally in overcoming the gnarly grips of toxic shame. In a similar way, shame is also elusive, easy to hide, but often deceptively lurking beneath the surface like a hidden crevasse. Maybe we need to be asking a new question, is THE shame out? My firsthand experience navigating the grueling journey to face my shame and find the top of Mount Rainier/Tahoma has not only shaped and informed so much of my therapeutic work and approach, but also, my belief in what is genuinely possible. At Grey Sky Counseling, significant emphasis is placed on the metaphor of "the mountains of life" because “living life on life’s terms” means that many of us are navigating the difficult terrain of relational turmoil, emotional pain, and/or surviving the devastating impact of a traumatic past. Facing these unfortunate realities and other mental health challenges can feel like impossible mountains to climb. However, we emphatically believe healing, growth, and change IS possible. You don’t have to climb alone. What’s your mountain?






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