How (Not) to Cross a Glacier in a Thunderstorm While You’re Pregnant

One of the hardest things for me to navigate when I found out I was pregnant was how far I could reasonably push myself. I wasn’t interested in trying to prove something or impress, only to discover where my limits were now that I had a little human growing inside of me. Something I had previously overlooked was how much happens in the body in even those first few weeks of pregnancy. At just five weeks in I was already starting to feel discomfort in my abdomen and pelvis and I was ravenously hungry.

Beyond this I found that something had shifted psychologically. All of a sudden I was so completely aware that things were different. It’s not that I was looking for an unnecessary excuse to back out of the things I loved. But I felt different on the inside and in my mind and heart. I have no other way to explain it other than to say that I think that protective maternal instinct had already, surprisingly, kicked in.

I was wondering how my body would cope…and I found out. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

Finding Out the Hard Way

Mid-July, my husband, Paul, and our friend, Ian, decided to take in the northern lights from high up and they invited me to join. The plan was to hike in from Sherbrooke Lake up to Scott Duncan Hut (a hut operated by the Alpine Club of Canada), which rests on the edge of the Waputik Icefield in Yoho National Park. To get there we would cover only 11 kilometres, but gain about 3,900 feet in elevation with overnight packs and glacier gear. I was only five weeks pregnant, but I was hesitant. This is something I had done so many times before, and suddenly things were different. How would my body cope?

The hike up to the glacier went fairly smoothly. I noticed I needed to eat much more than I normally do. I’m used to pushing pretty hard in the mountains and going ridiculously long periods of time without eating while I’m climbing. Apart from the hunger, we faced very high water levels from the “June Monsoon” and were forced to do some fording in quick moving rivers. At one point, the guys took half an hour to throw some trees over a section where a bridge had completely washed out.

Upon reaching the glacier that leads up to the hut, the skies were beginning to look a bit dark, but still quite harmless. The boys decided to scramble up Mount Daly and I waited down below, eager to retain my energy for the remainder of the trek. As I sat and waited, my radio in hand ready to contact them if need be, the storm clouds began to gather quite quickly. Thunder could be heard in the distance, then suddenly right overhead. The boys decided to bail on their climb and turn back just a few minutes from the summit in order to avoid the impending storm. By the time they reached me, the rain had started. We quickly geared up to walk the remaining two kilometres on the glacier.

Heading home the next day. The ominous clouds in the sky threatened more inclement weather, but we managed to get out in time. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

By now things were getting very bad. The boys decided to start running as flashes of lightning began to light up the sky around us. Considering I was tethered to them on the rope I had no choice but to pick up my pace. The rain fell hard and soaked us right through, and as the temperature dropped we were all becoming very cold. Visibility was poor, so we aimed for the rocks near the edge of the glacier, knowing that the hut lay somewhere just above them.

Just a few minutes from the edge of the glacier, the lightning picked up more fiercely. I kept a close watch on signs we needed to take cover, but there was nowhere to hide anyway. With one particularly loud crack! I spontaneously threw my ice axe, concerned it would get me electrocuted. Knowing it was an important piece of gear, though, I tracked it down a few steps away and gingerly picked it up.

When we reached the rocks, the fight wasn’t over. We realized we were too low to access the hut. Water poured over the boulders and rocks as we scrambled our way up to our refuge. Fingers frozen and water streaming down my face, I was at the end of my rope but knew I couldn’t stop. The lightning followed us all the way up the rubble and a final snow patch before we finally caught a glimpse of the hut. It was the second time I think a hut has perhaps saved my life.

Lesson Learned

That night we dried out and I lay on the bunk feeling absolutely horrible. The pressure of my harness and the overnight pack, compounded by running across the glacier, had left me in pain. The hard, desperate push at the end had done me over. It would have, pregnant or not. But it was obvious I lacked my usual strength and stamina, not just physically but emotionally and mentally. It was the latter two factors that made me feel so different on this trip. I no longer had the “extra gear” I had relied on so many times in the past.

I learned then and there that it wasn’t worth finding out the hard way – at least not for the next 8 months. I could survive and feed my need for the outdoors by hiking and scrambling. Granted, our conditions going up to the hut were not exactly favourable, I still made the decision to leave mountaineering out for the duration of my pregnancy. This is a tough reality for someone who thrives in the alpine, but I know it’s only for a short time (and entirely worth it).

We were treated that night to some beautiful northern lights, which made the trek more than worth it, even if it was a tough one. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

Despite the hardship, the journey to Scott Duncan Hut concluded with an amazing reward. In the early hours of the morning, Paul gave me a nudge to wake up. The northern lights had come out in full force and the sky had cleared. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and sat outside watching the starry sky pulse with purple and green.

It was a special moment, shared with my dear husband, a dear friend and a dear little being, who ran across a glacier in a thunderstorm with me.

Our limits in the outdoors can change for a number of reasons. How do you (re)discover your limits?

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17 responses to “How (Not) to Cross a Glacier in a Thunderstorm While You’re Pregnant

  1. We found our outlook changed a little, but not really that much, it was definitely more the physical changes, tired, hungry, that slowed Ali down. But then we’re not quite as hard core as you either.

    One thing you did gain as well, other then perspective on what you feel comfortable doing, is a pretty cool story to tell the little one.

  2. Becoming a Mom certainly made me rediscover mine. I certainly don’t go ‘all out’ anymore knowing that I have a little one that depends on me. We certainly continue our adventures but to a different degree.

    Crazy story and glad you all are ok. Lightning is scary!

    • Thanks for your response, Melissa. I will not be surprised if my acceptance of risk changes after I have a little one depending on me. I’m ready to let my outdoor passions evolve and start exploring new things!

  3. Those pictures of northern lights are amazing! Good to hear that it all turned out well in the end.

    I had to rediscover my boundaries in white water kayaking while I was pregnant, I did paddle pretty much until I was 8 months pregnant but the rivers I got on were not the once I used to do.. And now, with a 10,5 month old, I have found that my confidence hasn’t got back to the same level it was before the pregnancy. In my case I don’t think it has so much to do with the little one depending on me (although that could be part of it), but more down to the fact that I missed a full season of kayaking at the level I’m used to. And now I have trouble dealing with the element of fear… But there’s always the next season, maybe I’m better prepared mentally then! :)

    • This is something I have thought about quite a lot – how much the time away from mountaineering and the addition of a new little person will impact how much confidence I’ll have. It’s OK if it changes, though. I have definitely lived my life to the fullest in the last decade and don’t plan on slowing down – just changing how I go about that. ;) I am so satisfied with the kind of climbing I was able to and the things I accomplished prior to starting a family.

  4. Not sure I could trek that far! Amazing Northern lights as I drove home last night to the Creek to my pleasant surprise. By the time I fiddled with the camera and set up they were gone. Amazing Grace!

  5. Great post! Even as a guy, I think parenthood has changed me a great deal. Risks that were perfectly reasonable before I had a daughter were no longer acceptable after having a kid. No one wants to take risks that carry with them a high potential for death or serious injury, (typically), however it’s a whole other world to be in a dangerous situation, and realizing that one foolish misstep could leave your child fatherless. It has changed my perspective on risk. I am far more likely to take the extra precautions as a parent than I ever was as a single, childless individual. Same activities, different mindset.

    • This is completely understandable, Jonathan. Thanks for your comment. I think my husband has even had a bit of a different mindset when he has headed out climbing this summer knowing we are expecting. I suppose in some cases the activities themselves will change, too.

  6. Awesome story and beautiful photography! I have heard so many people talk about how parenthood has decreased their risk tolerance,e but I think it went the other way for me. :) My husband and I climbed together for almost 10 years before becoming parents, and we were never risky people. In the few years before I got pregnant, I had a lot of trouble with anxiety, panic attacks and debilitating fear. I COULD NOT lead a route. Since becoming a mother, I have been forced to really simplify my life, focus on the things that bring me the greatest joy, and with them, I’ve found new confidence and strength. A few weeks ago, I went out and led up a 5.9 I had never seen before, with a new belayer on a new crag! I was so darn proud of myself, and I really think parenthood has helped!

    • Hi Kate,

      I really appreciated your comment. I think it’s easy to assume that we’ll take fewer risks after having children, but you have demonstrated that the experience can be an entirely empowering one and help us realize that we are capable of so much. Thanks for broadening our horizons!

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