You know when you end your season early and don’t tell anybody at all? Yeah, hi. Sorry, guys! Life got a little crazy there for a second! But not because of COVID. Well, sorta because of COVID. Ok, mostly because of COVID.
On May 12, 1986, students and teachers from the Oregon Episcopal School Basecamp Program set off to climb Mt. Hood. Three days later, nine of the climbers would die in what’s known as the second deadliest alpine accident in North American history. At age sixteen, Lorca Smetana survived the 1986 Mt. Hood Tragedy and has transformed a series of painful experiences into a life of resilience and leadership. Is this the Brené Brown episode of climbing podcasts? Maybe. Welcome back to season three.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, Têra Kaia, and Appalachian Gear Company. Music by: “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Blue Highway”, “60’s Quiz Show”, “Well and Good”, “Knock Knock”, “Pives and Flarinet”, “Good Times”, “Brownfield”, “Into the Unknown”, “Satellite Bloom”, “Bumble”, and “Netherland” by Podington Bear, ”Dormir rien de plus”, “II”, and “bleu by Monplaisir, and “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions. A HUGE thank you to Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear, for the support and to Peter Darmi for all of his help.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.
– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.
(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:
(KK): Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. Their rich and repairing ingredients for their skincare collection are inspired by desert landscapes, and their simple and recyclable packaging makes them eco-sustainable. Allez commits to protecting the open spaces that we love by partnering with the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. That’s Allez Outdoor: “A-L-L-E-Z”). Allez Outdoor—made by climbers, for those who love the outdoors.
– Têra Kaia, made by women for women, is redefining the standard with sizing. The TOURA basewear top is their swim-friendly sports bra that’s designed for outdoor adventure—so you can hike, sweat, and climb to the summit in comfort. You can even wear it camping for days on end—it just about never gets gross (trust me, I have tried.) You can take 10% off with code “fortheloveofclimbing” and show your support for the show. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.
(LORCA SMETANA): I don’t think I can remember a time when I didn’t look at life through the lens of mortality. My father was a climbing guide in the Tetons and down in Tuolumne. I remember as a very young child sitting out in the sagebrush and the lupine on the side of a hill and watching a helicopter come down from the mountain and knowing in my four-year-old head that someone had died in the mountains. And at the same time, feeling as if there was a difference between the kinds of people who were out climbing and the kinds of people who were watching, and that this boldness and this insubordination was a way of being that was the right way to be.
(KK): Lorca Smetana survived the 1986 Mount Hood Tragedy, the second deadliest alpine accident in North American history when she was only sixteen-years-old. But for thirty-three years, she has redefined what a life of joy meant to her by confronting an impossible pain. And it’s a lifetime of work to hold yourself with compassion, but Lorca has committed to giving herself to resilience—and now, she teaches the world how to do the same. A large number of people go through enormous pain every day but never take the invitation. Lorca says, “Every time we’ve been cracked open, we’re given an invitation to not dive back into what’s safe and comfortable. And if we can stay, even for fifteen seconds with curiosity and love, it does completely have the possibility of transforming a life.”
(LS): My name’s Lorca Smetana. I live on a farm in Montana with two free-range children and a husband from Eastern Europe, and I teach resilience and leadership.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(KK): You know when you end your season early and don’t tell anybody at all? Yeah, hi. Sorry, guys! Life got a little crazy there for a second! And—I’m hoping to be the only podcast to currently not mention you-know-what, so we’re just gonna blame the delay on full-time work. You think podcasting is a full-time job? Try not burning a non-profit into the ground. PS, if anybody knows anything about not burning non-profits into the ground, feel free to slide into my DMs. Anyway, the podcast and life (for the most part) are pretty much back on schedule
whatever that even means! I am hunkering down in Californ-I. A. for the time being and I also just wanted to say how much I missed all of you. I know, I know, I’m being kinda cheesy right now. But I was up to my ears in film fest stuff and life stuff and new boyfriend stuff that I had to prioritize mental health and my personal life above everything else. But—I really missed making this podcast, and I genuinely hope that I’m not just talking to myself (…again).
Anyway, anyway, welcome back to season three of For the Love of Climbing. Thanks to Peter Darmi for his help with this episode. “A Hunger For Joy” talks about resilience and grief, and what happens when those two things collide head-on. If you’ve never heard of Lorca Smetana, it is highly recommended that you find her on the internet. She describes herself as a resilience designer, a mother, a mentor, and a writer. She teaches resilience to students, businesses, and communities and the work that she does is really important. You can find her on fortheloveofclimbing.com at the end of the transcript for more resources and links.
Also, we want to take a minute before the show to tell you about Appalachian Gear Company, whose All-Paca Fleece Hoodie won the 2019 Backpacker’s Editors’ Choice Award. We’ve never actually won an award, but this one seems legit. More to come, but in the meantime, you can take 10% off your order by using discount code “FORTHELOVEOFCLIMBING”, all capital letters (because we’re shouting…for emphasis.) Here’s the show.
(LS): For a long time as a kid, even with being aware of mortality—even knowing people who then died, people in our community, and the larger climbing community—it was still abstract. And it wasn’t until I was sixteen that it really came to live with me on a really personal level. I was a member of what was called the advanced climbing team at my boarding school. And we all climbed together and we also served as unofficial assistants of the annual sophomore climb of Mt. Hood. And for years and years and years, these climbs had gone out full of students and leaders and usually, a few parents and a lot of them went to the summits and a lot of them turned back. If the weather wasn’t good, if people didn’t feel good—the climb just turned around and came home. Nobody had to summit, but everybody had to at least try to set their foot on the mountain. And we had an advisor who was also a mentor, for me, Dr. Tom Goman. We called him Ferder. He was a very special human! He was a priest and a physicist at the same time—and a very good climber. So, he was the leader every year of that trip.
(KK): There was no shame in not summiting and twice before even, Lorca had turned around as a member of the climbing team and a sophomore the year prior. In 1986, almost in her senior year of high school, Lorca was ready to go up again. The goal was to reach the top of the mountain—somewhere around sunrise. Things stay cool, it’s a little bit safer in terms of ice conditions, and you’re up there at this really magical moment before turning around and coming back down to have a late lunch. This trip, like all the others, started out by gathering at the school at 11:00 o’clock at night.
(LS): And we pulled everything all together and got crampons and helmets and all of the things and piled on a bus and drove up to the lodge of the base of Mt. Hood. And got our stuff together and started climbing in the middle of the night—‘cause this is the way you do it. Some of the adults, some of the students, maybe walked twenty minutes and turned around and went back. And they had done their thing—and that was fine. The rest of us kept on going up. So, we had been hiking for a while. A few people turned back, and there were eighteen of us who started. And I started getting really strong abdominal pain—which was in fact, menstrual cramps.
(KK): That’s right, even in 1986, women still inevitably had to squat, wipe, dig holes and deal with our menstrual cycle in the great outdoors. Lorca had gotten her period, which ultimately saved her life.
(LS): And, as a sixteen-year-old girl, that’s a really hard thing to say out loud.
So, I didn’t. But I did go to Ferder Tom and said that I was in a lot of pain and that it was hard for me to walk. And I kept on trying for a while and then it just got bad enough that I said, “No.” And he said there was another student who also wanted to go down—one of the sophomores. And that we could accompany each other down. Pretty straight shot down to the lodge still. And he said that they would probably be behind us—that the wind was picking up some and that they might not go very much further, but that they would go some further. And so, we turned around, the two of us and started walking down. And we got down to the lodge and all of us waited with the bus driver at the lodge. And we waited for them to come, and they didn’t come. And then the storm came.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 1): The only thing you can do right now is wait for the weather. One, the helicopters are pretty much useless because of the high winds and low visibility.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 2): What would somebody have to do in order to survive conditions like this? What would you have to do?
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 1): Dig in. Dig in deep and huddle and get warm.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 3): I’m Joe Donlon from KGW News. May twelfth, 1986: students, teachers, and a guide from the Oregon Episcopal School Basecamp Program began a climb of Mt. Hood. They expected to climb the mountain and be home by the end of the day.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 4): May twelfth, 1986: thirteen people set off for a one day climb of Mt. Hood. The group consisted of two faculty members, a mountain guide, and ten students from Oregon Episcopal School. It was a yearly climb, part of a Basecamp Wilderness Education Program. Three days and several rescue attempts later, nine of the climbers would die in a snowstorm. The worst disaster in Oregon history is over for some, but just beginning for others. To this day, the school is still trying to come to grips with what happened that tragic week a year ago. This memorial service was held just last night.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 5): I said a year ago: those of you who are praying for us, please don’t stop. And I want to say that again: please don’t stop.
(RECORDING OF FEMALE VOICE): To you, dear parents and families: we thank you for giving us the opportunity to know these beautiful people of yours. Our lives are changed forever because we have known them.
(RECORDING OF MALE VOICE 4): And even for those who didn’t know them, the memories of May 1986 will live on, no matter how hard we try to forget. At Oregon Episcopal School. Steve Don. Channel Two News.
(LS): And it was one of those storms that comes in and hits Mt. Hood. That was when we started waiting. And it got bad enough at some point that we called and said, “This is worrying us. They’re not here and the conditions out there are getting worse and worse.” And people started collecting at the lodge. Leaders are coming, searchers are gathering, medical people coming in, family members of the climbers are coming, school people are coming, and…the media start coming.
I think I started feeling pretty uncomfortable a little ways after it started getting light. So, I would say mid-morning was when it really started feeling—I wouldn’t say scary even at that point, but worrisome. And I think there’s actually a part even when children are involved—and I say children but, young people—that for me, especially since I was one at the time, it felt there is a block to thinking that something really horrible could happen. It was at the time, a feeling like, “Oh, they might need to be rescued.”—but they were going to be rescued, or that they would just show up. They kept us separate from a lot of the other humans, too. And I wanted to stay up on the mountain for a couple of reasons. One: just ‘cause these were people I knew really well. The school was maybe a hundred and sixty students? And not only was my mentor on the mountain, but my other climbing team members and friends were on the mountain, too. Also, the second reason I wanted to stay up there is because I think, at that point, I still thought nothing was gonna happen. And that it was gonna wrap up quickly, right? So, I’m just gonna stay up, then it will resolve. They’ll be found and then we’ll all go down together. But at some point, I got tired and someone said, “I’m taking you down off the mountain. I’m gonna take you back down to Portland.” And that’s what they did: they put me in a car and I slept all the way down. Got down to Portland, at some point probably in the night, and was put to bed. And—that quick resolution that I was expecting didn’t happen.
(KK): That quick resolution didn’t happen because the storm socked in and stayed, and yet more and more people continued to gather on the mountain and continued to bring in more and more agencies: different rescue teams from different counties, mountain rescues, people coming in with dogs, people coming in from other mountain ranges, and volunteer helicopter pilots. And then the army was brought in, but the storm was still there and so nobody could do anything. After a day or so of all of this collection but no inertia—still nobody was able to go out into the storm. All they could do was ask questions and map and talk and think about going out some but not in full force, when, suddenly, two climbers walked out. They had hiked down off the mountain off of another side and were brought in. It was one of Lorca’s climbing team members and one of the assistant climbing leaders.
(LS): And they told of getting up near the summit and of turning around, coming down and, at some point, needing because of the cold, to start digging a snow cave. And they dug in. And they managed to dig a cave that was big enough for most of them, and they were very important in helping to be able to really narrow the scope of where the searchers were looking. So, as the weather started easing, they were able to send out more and more teams. And the shifting moment for all of us came, I believe it was the morning of the third day. And for me, what happened was I had been sleeping and I woke up with someone had their hand on my arm and they told me that they had found three bodies. And
that was the beginning. That was the beginning of it not being ok anymore.
Not too long after that, by looking longer in the same area, they discovered the cave with the rest of them in it. There were eleven more who were in the cave and of those, everyone was very, very cold and they started airlifting everybody down off to all these hospitals all around the area. In all, there were, I believe, over four hundred rescuers involved over those four days. Of the eleven that were brought down, two of them were brought back to temperature and to life. And the others not. And we began to start moving forward—each of us, and then as a whole school, in relearning what it was to be us in a place like that.
(KK): (softly) At such a young age.
(LS): Yeah. One of the—of the hardest parts in a sense, for me, was I felt in some ways that I was one of the lucky ones because climbing for me had context. It was normal. It was how I had been raised. But for so many people, especially thirty years ago, climbing was not what it is now in size and in scope and in awareness. So, there was a lot of a larger conversation in the media that said, “Why?” Like, “Why even try something like this that can kill people? Why take young people?” And so, there was this component for me of, in a sense, being a defender, of saying, “No, this is real. This is right. This is normal.” That risk is real, no matter where you are or who you are and therefore, this is part of that. And it did change probably my relationship to climbing, too.
There were so many elements that were so dark—of disbelief, of grief, of loss, of pain, of the criticism, of betrayal, in some cases. The, for lack of a better word, the pestering, the hounding, right? The way that people came after details. Whether it was just someone you knew who’s like, “Tell me everything!” to people who were like, “I’m gonna make a movie!” And being very clear that we were so nested at the time, as well, in this community—feeling so loved, feeling so responded to, feeling so close with these other people. And protected. And so, you know, there were people who got through, but definitely—we were so cared for as students, as young people, by our families and by the school and by the larger communities of the city of Portland, even. And there was so much reaching out. And then, people wrote letters from all around the world. Entire classes of school children wrote us letters, which was magical.
(KK): Lorca spoke of this time with a great sadness but also about an astonishing love. This was something that stuck with me. Could an astonishing love come from such a terrible tragedy? She said that she was still nested right in it, that her dearest friends from school are still people that she feels in her heart every day and she still speaks with many of her teachers on the phone. And while, decades later, it is the true definition of astonishing love, Lorca still had many things to reckon with before healing. Because, in 1986, life felt like a huge, dark pit that she and her classmates and the Portland community were still all at the bottom of.
(LS): There were days at a time or even more where you couldn’t see your way out. It was even hard to imagine being out. And that was the order of business, right? The order of business was to get out of the hole, was to start to find a place where the normal moments were outweighing the hard ones, and that was the job. And oddly enough, there’s still this kind of time pressure, I mean for anyone who’s grieving there’s a time pressure. Wherever it is that you start feeling as if other people think that you should be better. That weird, external thing that we can start to incorporate subconsciously in ourselves.
(KK): In previous episodes, we’ve talked about the different stages of grief but to amend that statement, the term “stages” is widely misleading because there isn’t a straight path or progression. Grief doesn’t follow a singular timeline because it’s unpredictable and each individual loss has its own unique healing process. If we stopped thinking of grief as a linear timeline, we can start seeing the actual physical, mental, and emotional reactions we all go through—as well as reach a better understanding of what people who are mourning actually need. Raising grief awareness teaches us how to better support loved ones with more patience and compassion.
At the end of her junior year, everything had completely fallen apart for Lorca. Final exams were canceled and she was taken away that summer and hidden at a family friend’s farm where reporters couldn’t find her.
(LS): And I am so aware now that it’s probably nothing then compared to what it would be now. I mean, there’s no cell phones and there’s no drones and I can’t even imagine. But yeah, it was. It was bad enough. So, that was really healthy and beautiful for me to just be gone.
(KK): And when Lorca returned to school the following fall, things were sorta normal. At least, they were normal in the sense that she was now a senior and the focus was shifted on making things more normal for everybody, which included helping Lorca and the other students get into college. But before Lorca could find a sense of normalcy, she found herself in another hole that, once again, changed her entire life.
(LS): There was another accident—another climbing accident down in South America. I think on Fitz Roy, maybe? That killed three people, one of whom I’d known. And it wasn’t that I knew this person so well or that I was grieving for that person, but it changed the conversation for me into something much bigger than it had been before. Before, the conversation was: “I need to get out of this hole. I need to get out of this hole. I need to just keep sticking it out until I can see daylight again.” And after this accident, I
had to face that this one big thing that happened to me was not a “get out of jail free card” in terms of never experiencing pain again, but really saying, “Ok, this isn’t about that. This is about: I better get good, not at getting out of this hole, but I need to be good at getting out of holes. I wanna know: are there humans who are amazing at this? Are there humans who are resilient, vibrant, livers of life, and who have ways of being that aren’t hiding from pain but that can be with it and live with it, and live beyond it? And I wanna know, what does that look like—what feeds that? And now, I have to become that. Because the two big things that showed up in the face of this were: this hurts so badly, one, because I’m a climber. I am doing this risky thing that most people don’t do—it doesn’t keep me from getting run over by a bus, but it makes me much more likely to be having this conversation again with people: ‘Someone I know has died on a mountain. If not me.’”
So, if that’s true, then one, do I choose to stop becoming a climber? Do I choose to stop knowing climbers so that I don’t have this particular thing coming at me? And that was a pretty quick answer for me. It was, “No. I’m not gonna quit
becoming a climber.” Partly because a lot more people are gonna die getting hit by busses, and so it’s a futile kind of self-protection. And so, I need that vibrancy of climbing. I need that joy of climbing as part of one of the tools that lets me be resilient. The other reason why this hurt so badly was because I loved. So, that was the second part. I was like, “Ok. You can quit caring about people. You can stop loving.” And that’s not ok, either. So, those were two very specific early decisions that came out of that. This choice to, if not to stay emotionally vulnerable forever, because we can’t—we build shells and then break them and build them and break them—but the commitment to keep reopening the shells that I’d built through time.
(KK): That’s a really good point because I think a lot of people, they think that emotional vulnerability is a constant and it can’t be—
(KK): —because if you are all the time, I mean, I think, almost you become a little bit shut off, like by default. I think that happens.
(KK): So, you have to go back into those shells—
(KK): —and then reemerge, I think.
(LS): Yeah. I think it’s actually not even possible. We are astounding evolutionary creatures. We are designed, in some ways I think, we’re actually ultimately designed to protect ourselves. Right? And that we are so smart and good about taking care of ourselves by shutting ourselves in, which is not necessarily to our long-term well-being. One of the things that gets lost is: I think we don’t understand very often what we lose when we shut down because we selectively shut down emotions that are not easy. So, we put up protections against sadness, against anger, against fear, and then we don’t recognize that we can’t blunt those experiences—those emotional processes—we can’t blunt those without also blunting joy. That’s why joy has become such a central part of both my own radar for well-being, but also when I work with organizations. When I work with my students up at the university. Joy, I think of as the indicator species for that vibrancy and that well-being and that wholeness. Because if it’s not there, then you haven’t been honoring the other ones.
(KK): Learning to honor difficult emotions doesn’t necessarily mean you need to do something with it. Sometimes sitting in sadness or in grief can be just that—sitting with it. It can mean simply allowing them, instead of resisting the urge to get rid of the pain. When we think we’re minimizing our pain with behavior, we’re oftentimes just amplifying it, but being brave enough to sit with uncomfortable, hard feelings lets us cultivate an environment where healing can really begin. So much of pain and trauma is held in the mind, but also the body:
(LS): I think of that on a few layers. So, on the purely physiological level, we can notice if we actually start paying attention, excavating—as if we were looking at wild animals, right? If we look at these experiences of emotion, that they show up as a wave that is just breaking on the shore and they don’t actually last that long. The initial surge doesn’t last that long and there are ways in which we can be with those surges that don’t put anything in the way, especially if we notice that the most powerful surge is maybe even two minutes of this wave of sadness, this wave of anger. And first, noticing how much of it is physical. The longer I work with emotions, the longer I work with humans—the less I feel that emotions are in our minds. That they are truly in our nervous system and in our bodies. And I love this question about why are humans the mammals who experience long-term trauma when other mammals who experience much stronger day-to-day life-threatening moments
—they get up and walk away and graze again? They go after another animal, they do their thing. And it’s because, for them, these emotional surges—they’re allowed to carry through to their terminus. And they do it by quivering, right? By vocalizing. By running. By using bilateral movement in their bodies.
(KK): Kind of like purging it, in a sense, do you mean?
(LS): Yeah! It’s an energy wave that’s allowed to just roll all the way through, instead of getting blocked or shut. And the blocked or shut goes right into our muscles. It goes right into the fascia. It goes right into the nervous system, into these pockets in our own bodies, waiting for us to discover them later. So, that’s something that’s so teachable and learnable, but it does take a willingness to reconnect with our physical selves in a way that a lot of our lives and culture try to disconnect us. That’s where the emotion is experienced and so, we stop experiencing things below the neck. Even as a climber, right? You think: “Oh, I’m a climber. I can feel my hands and my arms and my legs and I’m very physical and I train,” all these things—but it’s entirely possible to do all of those things and to have shut off until the waves roll back through and show up again. It’s this energy of life. When I think of the erotic, it goes so much beyond a sexual life. It’s everything that’s creative and it’s all of the energy that lets you invent things and make things and love things and dive after things and tend and feed. And when we refuse to listen to ourselves, when we shut ourselves down in the same way that we might shut down a friend who’s saying things that’s too uncomfortable. Like, “Oh, let’s just not go there.” Right? We do that to ourselves all the time, multiple times a day. And so, one—just being aware of what we’ve been doing to the point where we can say, “Ugh! I have been a really rude friend
to myself!” You know? Really uncaring, really insensitive, and without going deep into the judging yourself, you know, just saying, “I’m gonna be better.” Right? “I’m gonna be a better friend to this extraordinary system that I was handed.”
(KK): Lorca has created a life and a career working with educators, cancer support, death workers, and caregivers. Her wisdom, courage, and vulnerability shine through her work after years of studying and learning and self-work since the accident that happened in 1986.
(LS): And it’s had its threads where it’s very much top of my awareness and, other times, it gets submerged. And I have ended up now teaching up at Montana State University in Human Leadership Development. And I am there with these students, and then I’m working with these companies. So, we talk about what it is to be a leader, but everything that we work with is very distinct from management. We’re not part of the business school. And so, it is ultimately very grounded in self-knowledge—which then has to be built on that foundation of self-compassion. Because every place that we are not being self-compassionate, we are getting in our own way and in the way of everybody else that is trying to accomplish something around us. And it shows all the way through, not just in the quality of your own life, but it shows all the way through into the quality of everything that’s being accomplished by the people around you. That transparency of being.
(KK): Yeah. I feel like it’s not so much that you teach it to yourself, but I think life kind of teaches it for you.
(KK): But how do you teach that to other people?
(LS): Mm-hmm. The first thing that you can ask when there’s a situation of non-compassion, either in your conversation with yourself or with someone else is: “Is there pain? Does this hurt?” Right? And so, the first thing, which some people never even get to the first step, is saying, “This hurts. That hurt. That wasn’t ok. That was uncomfortable.” So, the first thing is just acknowledging that it hurt. Acknowledging that suffering. And then, the second thing is—notice the humanity of that! That is so human to be hurt by that! Everybody in that situation would be hurt by that. Right? That was a painful thing. When you normalize, you also do a second kind of sneaky thing, which is to say, “I’m not alone.” One of the biggest holes that we dive into is: “Not only am I weak or wrong for feeling that thing, but I’m the only one who’s ever felt it or who feels this way right now or who’s ever going to.” And then we spiral into more wrongness. And then the third step, just so simple, but just adding kindness. Just saying, “Ah! That was hard. Would you like some coffee?
Can I do you a favor? Can I take this load from you for a little bit?” whether you’re saying that to yourself or to anyone else. And the scary part is, finding out as I teach this, for how many people that they are at the most rudimentary steps of this. That this is painfully, painfully difficult for them to speak kindly to themselves at all.
(KK): But what a difference it makes.
(LS): Yes. right. Because think about how much energy we spend in a day judging ourselves, if not somebody else.
How much energy do you—do you want free energy? You learn to free up that energy. You’ll be amazed
at what you accomplish! Yeah, over the years, organizing first for myself, out of sheer self-defense, out of sheer stubbornness, that I was not going to be someone who never got back to joy. I was afraid of that. What if this means that I don’t get to live a life that has big chunks of joy in it like I thought? So then, how do you add something—‘cause you can’t subtract the pain, right? I can never make that not have happened. So, how do I build a life that gets to have both? The pain in one hand and the joy in the other hand and then cup them together and be like, “I am all of this. I get to have and be all of this.”
I first started by putting together a metaphorical toolbox. So, anything that made me feel a little better, a little normal. Anything that led me towards a pocket of feeling life rather than feeling death went into the toolbox. And I was like, “Ok, here’s something I can try next time I completely need to do something to feel better. And sometimes, those toolbox tools worked. Sometimes they worked several times in a row and then they wouldn’t work. And I was like, “Ok. Not a silver bullet. I need another tool.” And just keep adding more tools. And then, any time a tool doesn’t work, you say, “Ok. Well, going for a walk didn’t help. Calling this person didn’t help. Massive amounts of junk food didn’t help. Whatever the thing, is, right? Having a toolbox gives you agency. It lets you say, “There are things that I can do or not do. I can stop, I can try, I have power here.”
(KK): Even just the act of figuring out which tools to put in the box is a tool in itself.
(LS): I also had this extraordinary, weird gift of—I got to be right in the middle of and observe hundreds of people in pain. Hundreds of people of all ages—here we all are together and I got to watch what they chose and what I chose to move through this. And very early on, I started noticing, “That’s gonna work short-term, that’s not gonna help them long-term.” And one of the best examples of that was, you know, we had families that were crushed by the loss of their children and of these families, they spread out on the full spectrum of possible responses. And on the one end, we had the normal, natural response that a few took very strongly, some took middling, of blame.
Anger, hatred, revenge. All of those things. They’re like, “We’re going to crush the school. We’re gonna sue.” And they gave interviews with the media that were extraordinarily painful for those of us who loved our school and loved our people and loved climbing! I mean, it was just. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, I got to watch families who, in enormous amounts of pain having lost humans who I treasured—who were really exceptional—that their response was to dive into love. And they dived into connection. And they reached out to me and they reached out to others. And some of them went on to do incredible work for foundations and volunteering and starting organizations and helping other parents who have lost children, founding scholarships for young people. And being very clear, at the age of sixteen, that when I looked at the ends of these two sides—that this person who went into blame—he was a lawyer—I felt as if, either he’ll change or he will suffer for the rest of his life. And with these other people, I felt like they are hurting but that’s very different from suffering. That if we distinguish between pain and suffering, one of them chose the path that leads straight into a lifetime of suffering and the other one was with the pain.
(KK): It’s interesting—the distinction between the two.
(LS): I think it’s a very important, powerful distinction.
(KK): Almost like suffering is a choice?
(LS): I believe suffering is a choice. Yes. Because suffering is about what we cling to. And pain? There will never be a way around pain. I’m never going to avoid pain. I don’t get that. That’s not something that is ever going to be given to me. But who I am that meets that pain can change every day. And everything that I choose to feed in myself, so that the next time that pain comes to live with me—I don’t know what I’m gonna need at that point, but I can know that if compassion is a language that I’m fluent in, that if I can make things with my hands and voice and my imagination, that if I can continually have resource to the extraordinary vastness of things that I can be amazed by, and that if I never let myself get too far from myself, then this human meeting pain is going to be so much different from the human who is shallower. So, I ask very hard work from my play and from my work and from my life now. Not because I need it instantly, but because if I consistently choose shallow play over deep play, I’ll be shallower. If I consistently choose shallow rest over deep rest, I will not have the resources when I need them. The deep, emotional, and physical and personal resources if and when I need them again. So, it’s a filter that is there all the time now. It doesn’t mean I can’t do shallow things but I’m also very aware that I can’t afford to be caught unaware. And now, I have a family.
One of the most powerful things that was said to me early on was my advisor. I asked him, in the same way that we all want to know when we hurt so badly, “How long is it gonna take for me to feel normal again?” And he said, “You are feeling pockets of normal now. And those will continue to get bigger, not with time but with work. And there will always be things where the darkness is gonna come back, or you might find that it’ll grow and so you’ll have, instead of having pockets of normal—there will be pockets of darkness. And the things that trip you into those might be the things you might expect, right? The anniversary of the climb or it could even be like a smell or something. But that it may also end up being good things. He said, “When you fall in love. When you have your first child. And when your children reach the age you are now. Those could all be things that bring you into a pocket.”
Here it is again. He said, “When that happens, have compassion for yourself and for those around you—until you move through the pocket.” And there have been times, especially in the last few years, when I have felt so magically whole.
For the last thirty years, I have accepted the possibility that I would be navigating pockets of darkness for the rest of my life and aware that there were things that would be problematic for me forever. And the hardest thing about that, of course, is that it’s not even so much that I would be feeling pain but that it would be affecting the people I love. I think the most powerful impetus for healing, aside from just not wanting life to suck as much, is that where I am not whole is where I am not the parent I really am committed to being. Where I’m not the lover, the partner, the wife. And so, that adds a whole ‘nother layer of commitment, too. When I find the pockets, I’m going to work with them so that I am not reactive. So that I can be conscious and awake.
We always have the capacity to create space and if we look at who we are, not as an entity—as an individual unit of survival and a system with tendrils that are extending out into everything that I touch. Right? Into every awareness of me, even. Then that’s everywhere that there’s something that I can do. And so, when we have great pain, we also have the capacity to start, not to shape pain itself but to shape the space we have to be with it. One of the biggest disservices that I see people doing, and I’ve done it myself but that I do less now, is to fill everything so tightly that there’s no space for what pain needs and what pain wants. Anything that’s packed too tightly, whether you’re looking at engineering or a calendar, is fragile. A tap in one place will send cracks through the entire system, whereas something more loosely held has the capacity for bending, has the capacity for being with. So, I think if we did nothing else but started to build in more spaces—whether that’s space in your calendar or your interactions with other humans. Even like on a micro-level—how many seconds before you jump in with your sentence when you’re having a conversation with someone? Reflexively, developing this capacity to add the possibility for what is going to happen to move around in its own time and its own space really changes how we experience something. This can be true for work. It can be true with how you are with your child. If you have someone clamped around your ankles and you—
either physically or metaphorically
and, you know, someone who’s come up to us like, “I feel, I want, I need, I broke, I hurt,” whatever, right? And we don’t have any space left, then that can’t go anywhere. There’s no possibility for learning, there’s no possibility for communication. But by having added breath, having added sleep, allowing in your calendar for transition, then every single interaction will be transformed.
It seems sometimes when we get hurt that we give ourselves this initial pain and we push it away and then, maybe even in some cases, we actually heal from that trauma. But in the process of being in it, we take on coping mechanisms that take years and years of recovery. It’s been a matter of working, initially, with myself. You know, then, having that change how I showed up in other arenas. What are the added capacities that it gives me as a guide or as a teacher? And then starting to really frame it and articulate it as: “This is a function of resilience.” and how teaching people and organizations that systems are self-supporting. That everywhere around us in the world, we can look at so many ecological, exquisite examples and that it is entirely as possible for a human life to be self-nourishing, self-supporting, self-feeding. And when we are below that line of well-being, all the resilience work is recuperative, it’s regenerative, it’s healing, it’s rebuilding. Once we get over that line of well-being, the most fabulous thing happens which is that, all of those exact same tools feed us from victim up into survivor and then from there, if we choose to accept it, we find ourselves in the position of leadership. Because when you’ve gone through a crucible, you’re pretty clear for yourself about what’s important, what’s bullshit, and where you’re willing to put your energy and what needs to exist in the world. People who are that clear, regardless of their experiences, regardless of their education, are natural leaders.
(KK): You can find Lorca and more of her work at lorcasmetana.com. Visit this episode at fortheloveofclimbing.com for more links to her incredible work and TEDx, as well as additional resources if you or a loved one is experiencing grief and loss.
Grief wears so many disguises, and online therapy like Better Help is connecting you to licensed therapists. Therapy is beautiful—and everyone should go. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive 10% off your first month. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.
And a huge thank you to Appalachian Gear Company for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share.
It is a lifetime of work, but if we choose to stay in uncomfortable places with an openness and curiosity for and remember to hold ourselves and others with compassion, really wonderful things do happen.
– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.
– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort. And a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. A big shout out to Allez Outdoor for supporting the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. And thanks to Têra Kaia. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.
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Lorca Smetana is a speaker, mentor, consultant and storyteller/singer who helps her students expand resilience tools, resist burnout and grow as survivors into larger leaders. Lorca touches and changes the lives of her listeners. Through her personal story as a survivor of tragedy that made breaking news in 1986 as nine of her companions died on a school climb of Mt. Hood, Lorca gives voice to the fragility of life and inspires newfound purpose and strength to those who are coping with life’s challenges. She offers a new framework for a life that is self-organizing, and self-healing.
You can visit her website to see more of her work here.
You can watch her TEDxBozeman here.
Resources for you and/or loved ones:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by calling 1-800-273-8255. If you are hard of hearing, you can chat with a Lifeline counselor or contact the Lifeline via TTY by dialing 800-799-4889. To speak to a crisis counselor in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
The Hopeline Network brings together the knowledge and critical services of existing Crisis Centers all under the net of a toll-free number.
ELUNA NETWORK is a National directory with resources listed state-by-state.
GRIEF SHARE offers support groups run by others who have experienced grief. They also have video seminars, personal study workbooks, and other resources.