Avalanche One

Randall Tate Photography
And now for a good old fashioned adventure.

Randall and I left Seattle for Bellingham before 5am, and were eagerly anticipating the sun rising for the journey. It never did, and we ended up killing time in a Fairhaven coffee shop, and then in the American Alpine Club classroom for the first hour of lessons before the world lit up even a little bit.

Randall Tate Photography
We stayed in that classroom till 5pm on Friday, except for a lunch break where we drank absurdly sized margaritas which nudged me into a pleasant and warm state of mind for the remainder of the day. Randall and I shared our classroom with eleven others- including a Whitefish pro, a couple of good looking mountaineers and four relatively young, incredibly enthused, Boeing employed snowboarders who I began referring to in my head as simply "The Stoked." We learned all about avalanches and their foundation of snow science: fern, aspect, the avalanche rose, terrain traps, convexity and trigger points. It was the most fun eight hours of EMT continued education credit available.

For the next two days, we carved pits into the snow with shovels and saws and toured the back country of Mt. Baker. At the time, Baker had the most snow of anywhere in North America, although I'm not sure how long that lasted, because Friday night Stevens Pass to the East was buried at a rate of about two feet in an hour, and The Stoked were bemoaning not being there. I'm not sure what we could have done with anymore powder, however. As it was there was already too much of it.

We took turns breaking trail, thank goodness, but either way all movement was exhausting. If, during transition, I placed a single boot off the skin track, I'd fall up to my neck in snow. It would take a day's ration of energy to swim to the surface and right myself. Skiing downhill in untracked powder was a wild rush, and mentally taxing only because the fear of falling translated into the fear of writhing helpless in the snow, carving an ever deepening hole, for an embarrassing long time, for the snow was feather soft and endlessly deep. Other than that the days were peaceful, snowing consistently, a completely quiet, cold world which I observed from the depth of four hooded jackets and the pink-tinged blur of fogged goggles.

That particular avalanche class, although not our first choice (our original class, a yurt trip powder cat trip, was cancelled because of dangerous conditions) was a momentous occasion as we shared three days with Lyle, who I've since come to know to as Lyle Who is All That is Man. Lyle is a mountain guide, a structural firefighter in Seattle, and a former Alaskan longshoremen fishermen. Had he also been a pediatric surgeon it would not have surprised me the slightest. He spoke very quietly and politely, almost as if he were trepidatious of being the center of attention, which is funny because Lyle should be unsure of nothing, ever. Randall and I loved Lyle. 
Randall Tate Photography
The other instructor was a man named Dustin who very much looked the part: he had cheek bones chiseled from ice and stained rose from the wind. Dustin was very quick to make a joke, and brush off the dust from my sweater when I dropped it on the ground, and talk with great about the 'suffering' of guiding on Denali. Randall and I both know the outdoor guiding well, and we felt very fortunate that we avoided entirely the douche-baggery we both slightly expected from our instructors. They were in fact very patient and cheerful and certainly most enjoyable to look at. 

That weekend we stayed at the Mountaineer lodge, which shown warm-bright under a heavy frosting of snow. We shared the lodge with The Stoked and also a handful of similarly windblown and healthy young skiers and three snowboarders who had an affinity for curling up in slippers near the wood stove with their nose in guide books, discussing with great revelry their most recent trip to Peru. (Or perhaps it was Patagonia. Or Perugia?) When I went to bed at 10pm they were thus engaged and when I woke up at 6 there they were, in the same positions, with the same boundless enthusiasm, as if they were barely aware that sleep as a state existed in the first place, much less that it was considered a necessity by some.

That lodge, softened by snow, warmed and lit, was even more dreamy that weekend because, as luck would have it, it was was 'decorating' weekend. The round old woman who ran the place announced at Saturday breakfast that there would be party that evening with 'cake and punch' and that we were all to partake in decorating the place for Christmas.
And so we found ourselves, after ten hours of pushing through relentless powder, skinning up and gliding down hills and chopping countless pits into the drifts, presented with glitter paint, brushes, and an entire window each on which to paint. True to her world, the round woman baked nut cookies, a strawberry cake iced with cool whip and a bowl of Hawaiian punch mixed with ginger ale that when added up, although sickening with regards to sugar accumulation, created an atmosphere so wholesome and sweet I nearly died.
For a little while it was completely quiet as all of us painted on our panes of glass, everyone in sweaters and long underwear, deeply concentrated. The Stoked surprised me by painting four separate lovely designs, mountains and skiers and one Santa Claus surfing a wave, done up in marvelous detail. A family with two tiny red haired girls climbed up on furniture and painted a snowman three panes high. The only window that did not register close to outstanding was that belonging to Randal and I, but mostly me; I'd painted a house floating on the black sky outside the window, and a few small stars and snow drifts, and then I'd lost all inspiration. I'd have filled the whole thing up with snow but the children had all the white paint and weren't giving it up, so I filled the rest of the window with blue. All Randall really added was a stencil of a pine tree in the middle of the air, and everybody asked if our house was a tribute to the Sandy flood victims, which was never the intent.
I slept very well at the lodge, the strain of snow struggle tugging my body into a white, heavy underworld. Randall on the other hand had a different story to tell and claimed that I snored. Which is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life, since I'm a crystal quiet sleeper. Snoring drives me crazy and I would never do it.
Randall Tate Photography
So Randall said he'd video me the following night, and he did. But I refused to listen to the playback the next day in the car because it would crush me and my pristine image of myself. He let it rest for a few days and then ambushed me: along with some photos, he emailed me a sound file: he claimed it was a song he'd heard and thought of me. The song was called Sweet Dreams (in hindsight, did I really not see this coming?) and I literally thought, "How sweet of him." I opened it up and it wasn't a song at all, it was a soundbite which I quickly destroyed.

Aside from that, I can't say the weekend could have at all been improved. We are all Avi I certified now, with Randall and I a few hours closer to continuing our N-EMT registration for another two years.

It concluded, as all good things do, with pints of porter at a ski bar with an overcrowded table and seven hungry souls ordering plates of hot food and talking about upcoming adventures. I challenge you to find a worthy weekend that does not end in such a manner.


May 19th
First full day living on the ship.

Last night was my first night on the ship. I fell asleep in my bunk anchored at Fisherman’s terminal in Ballard and woke up to the sound of roaring engines and water splashing against steel.  We left the harbor at 5:00 in the morning and I remember some small part of me woke up, felt the shift take place and knew that we were underway. When I came up on deck at 7:00 sharp for breakfast, I stood out on the Fantail and watched the coastline running by, faster than I had expected, and our frothing white wake coming up over the swim step.

It should have been a triumphant moment , one of pride and excitement, but for the moment, fear is eclipsing any positive emotion that tries to break through the cloud curtain of my thoughts.

The days are extremely long, and half of the time I don’t know what’s going on. Things would move much faster if I felt like I was really helping with some of these projects. If only more deck hands would get giant splinters embedded beneath their nails like yesterday, then I can be helpful.

 It seems like most of the energy of the expedition crew, together with the deck hands, is all poured into how we’re going to lash 26 double sea kayaks onto the extendable dock and then hoisting the whole thing from the fantail to the sun deck four stories up.  It’s a lot of winching and rigging and engineering and crap I don’t know anything about.

I know a little more today than I did yesterday.

That sentence sounds a little more optimistic, and little more after school special, than I feel right now.

Everything is different on the ship. It’s more than a world, it’s a universe.  The walls are steel, ugly and magnetic, and the stairs are steep and loud. And everything has a different name- everything’s either a hatch or a ladder or a bulkhead or a head.

What cheers me up is two thoughts, and I run them together in my head during the day like clicking marbles.

One: the electronics I’m going to bring aboard when we set sail to Alaska next Saturday. Lovely, clean, glowing, little things full of music and electronic books. All the songs and stories I’m going to pack onto those things, even if I never get a chance to look at them just knowing that they are there. 

The girl in my head, the girl I probably ought to be, wouldn’t bring anything Apple onboard. She’s bring weathered books on Alaskan history and leather bound journals to fill in. She’s untether herself from the seduction of Steve Jobs and his many glowing, soothing screens.

Screw that girl. Forget it. This boat world is full of dirt and salt and engineer’s oil. The deck hands and guides walk around with sunburns and bleeding hands. Something about my little silver Ipod seems like a secret, a rebellion, a connection to my regular life on land that I refuse to give up. 

Does that make any sense?

The other thought that cheers me up is medicine.

But I’ll get into that in another post. Sometimes thinking about being an EMT onboard a ship cheers me up to much I think that maybe I just want the medicine and not the ship.
But then….

Then the day is over, finally over, it’s eight in the evening and I walk past the Bosun on my way downstairs to my room. He’s  sucking on an electronic cigarette and he gives me a nod and says, “You did a good job today.” He keeps walking. Encouragement is hard to come by around here. So when you hear it, you believe it. It starts to tilt your world back into place the smallest bit. 
A moment alone is nearly impossible to find so when you do stumble upon it, it’s like this perfect capsule of pure relief breaking over you.

Day number one. Thirteen hours pass between when you wake up and when you stop working. You stand under a cold shower for a minute. And then you climb into your bunk, which tips back and forth a little bit, and wait for tomorrow to get here.
Writing in a rare place of refuge...the emergency gear room.

Nationally Registered

I passed the National Registry Exam. That makes me a Nationally Registered EMT. I have a certificate that will expire in 720 days unless I keep up with ongoing education requirements. That's how you find out that you passed, by the way. You sign into your profile in the NERMT website and it says, "Your certificate will become inactive in 720 days unless you do all this stuff." No "Congratulations," no "That test was weird, wasn't it! But nice job, welcome to the club."

The test was weird. I think there are people who know EMS and people who know how to write comprehensible test questions and never the two shall meet. In my week of pure studying that led up to the exam, not to mention the month of live-eat-breathe EMS that came first, I was starting to feel pretty good about my chances of passing. And while I got overwhelming support from everyone around me, a paramedic friend of mine kept warning me that the test would be...odd. "You'll do great," he'd say. "You'll pass. But it's....odd. You'll walk away from it cross-eyed. That's normal."
Actually, it was infuriating. I hated the test. And I generally love tests. "An opportunity to celebrate your knowledge!" Our instructor would joke as he handed out the difficult RMI tests during the course, and while everyone groaned I'd be bouncing around in my seat thinking, hell yeah! Celebrate!

But the exam was killer. Each question seemed more unduly complex and vague than the last. This is how you're assessing our knowledge?  All that wonderful knowledge inside my head carefully bestowed on us by hardworking instructors and this is how you're assessing me? A) Sterile dressing or B)Direct pressure? What about Direct Pressure with sterile dressing, where is that answer? I held my breath as I banged my finger against the mouse, clicked my way through 70 questions (some people got 150 questions, I got 70) and then the woman working at the test center, who by the way was exactly two feet tall, handed me a certificate that I'd taken the thing and that was that.

And afterwards there was no one to go to Icicle with and blow off steam. The whole thing felt very anti-climactic. And for the first time in my life, I had absolutely no idea whether or not I'd passed the exam. On the long drive home from Everett, I called Ty and vented my frustration in a manner that sounded high-pitched, like stridor. It sounded a lot like whining. I don't normally whine about things. "The worst part," I told him, "Is that if I do fail, I'll have no idea what to study for next time."

Ty kept saying "Aw geez."
"Aw Geez, Melina, that doesn't sound good at all."
We went to see Radiohead that night at the Key Arena. Just as an aside, there are more than 18,000 seats in the Key Arena, and yet we still end up seated directly behind my ex-boyfriend Ben, the one I've written about so often here, and his fiance. Eighteen thousand seats. Go figure.
I told them I'd just passed the NREMT. Screw it. When you're faced with the prospect of staring at the back of your ex-boyfriend's head all evening, you've got to say something fiercely confident and cool. None of this, "Ah I took this test thing and it had my way with me and I got to the testing center 15 minutes late because google maps blows and I'm not really sure what happened after that and the proctor was a midget, but, like, the smallest midget I'd ever seen, I hope I didn't stare."

Nah. You've got to be all, "Hey, dude, you get fucked up tonight, I've got your back."

Which also sounds better than, "Hey, when you get old and present with symptoms that call for Nitro, and you have your own prescription, I will help assist you with that, but only after calling Medical Control for permission, unless it is expressly worded in my protocol."

Then the lights went down, and Radiohead started, and I was actually able to relax. If you're an extremely impatient person like I am, and you're waiting to hear back about whether or not you're officially an Emergency Medical Technician, I recommend going to see Radiohead. All the lights and sound and people. I stopped thinking entirely.
 And in the morning I raced out of bed, kicking the covers into pile on the floor and checked my phone. On the website, there was a message telling me I'd been assigned a number, and that I'd better get on my continuing education or I'd lose my NREMT status. Still not entirely sure, I clicked through the whole site, on that tiny little screen, and eventually found a little note that said oh yeah, you passed the test.

That weird test.

Somehow, there in the mountains in the snow, in the midst of all those wonderfully distracting people, I managed to learn everything I needed to learn.

Ships and Medicine

Yesterday evening, Ty and I met Randall in the cluttered, creaking harbor of Fisherman's terminal. Randall lives there, for now, aboard a boat that in five weeks will make its slow way up to Alaska till the end of summer. He met us standing on the deck of his ship with his familiar checked flannel and slow, bright smile, the smile that always makes him appear like he's laughing at something just beyond our line of vision.
The three of us were supposed to meet up and study for our national EMT registry exam, but the strange, steadily undulating world of the harbor drew us in. Pale Ale and stories of a life guiding off of the rugged Alaskan coast and living in a berth beneath the water line easily stole our attention from our massive text books.
And in the End, Ty and I walked away feeling rather landlocked. Even with everything we've got going on, even being permanent residents of my favorite city on Earth. We both want something more. We both want Sea Change.

I want ships and medicine.

But first, we have to pass this exam. So for now we settled for a Ballard coffee shop and a few more hours of quizzing each other on the Glasgow Coma scale and all the endless acronyms.


I've been an absent pulse on this blog lately. That's because I've been studying, and studying, and studying for the National EMT registry exam that I'm going to take in a few days. I'm not just cramming to pass, though. I want to know this stuff, on a level way below tissue. There is only so much about EMS that I can understand before I actually start practicing in the field, but of that limited knowledge, I want to know everything.
 As eager as I am to get this exam over with, to get my certificate in the mail and be a fully certified EMT, I like studying. I love writing out endless acronyms and knowing exactly what they mean, where they'd come into play, how I'd go about assessing them in a patient. I like the butterfly loops of blood through the heart and lungs. Mostly, though, I like being able to just sit there and do nothing but read, and make no decisions, and answer to nobody, and watch the uncertain spring outside the window flicker between cold rain and weak sun. Sometimes, as a break, I'll put my head onto the table, close my eyes and picture myself back in the deep snow and quiet of Leavenworth, or back at the noisy classroom on a late night with my friends, writing endless lines of notes on the board and becoming loopy from sugar, sleeplessness and what we termed Acute Acronym Overload (AAO).
For the last few days, my house in Seattle served as the halfway home for my EMT friends as they waited to take their exams.
They got a handful of deceivingly sunny days, beaches and breakfasts and everything we figured we deserved. 
Each one of them remarked on what a gorgeous life I have. The beautiful wooden house in the garden, good friends all over town and the days of climbing and writing and running around. And I told them I knew I was lucky, that I'd built this life here on the West coast for the past ten years. But knowing what I know about EMS and the way it's run in Seattle, and the sorts of things I want to with my training and career, places I know I want to go, and starting from down here at the very bottom, it seems likely that I'll have to choose between this picturesque but unsustainable life in the city and starting over somewhere new. Pulling away from all of it. And that's when I started studying, so I didn't have to think about it any more.

Harden up

Just a disclaimer- while I'm up in Leavenworth taking this course, I won't be able to write well. I don't have the time or the internet capabilities. There is a lot of crazy stuff going on, and I hope later on I'll get the chance to write out all the stories in a decent manner. For now, here is is in the raw:
They told us that every class, they have one or two go down during IV training.  

It wasn't me, but it would have been if it had lasted any longer. My friend brushed his fingers over the vein on the inside of my arm, stuck it with a needle then pushed three inches of white tube inside it. It took a while, because of all those little meticulous steps it takes to push the catheter fully into the vein, and because it was the first time for all of us. Our instructor hovered over him- "That's right- no, not like that, don't pull the needle back, push with your index finger- wait, just wait there for a sec-" as I studied the whole apparatus intently, knowing I'd have to do it next. It kept going and going, and I looked away, and a few feet away a boy standing by the kitchen started to get blurry. I lolled my head against somebody's chest and then it was over,  and thing was in and they hooked in the fluid bag. There was plenty of blood.
Still, it was much easier to take the stick than to give it. I stuck both of Randall's arms and failed both time, and when he gasped with the pain it was difficult not to withdraw the needle and pull away. I managed to get it in the third time after I'd worn out his veins and moved on to another victim.

 That's a big lesson we're learning- how to fix people temporarily, enough to get them onto a back board and onto an ambulance. We're not exactly learning how to ease their pain- some situations, certainly, but treatment for us does not always mean relief, it means stabilizing. When we straighten broken limbs and drag them forward by the arms and roll busted up people onto their side to palpate their back, it hurts. And if I withdraw in response to their pain, I'll just have to do it again. It's against my every impulse. Harden the fuck up, is what they say around here.

The process of hardening the fuck up is fucking hard.