Shouting from the Mountaintop

Meet the Moms Who Climbed Mt. Rainier to Stand Up to Coal

This July, four moms climbed 14,000 feet to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington State to demand that Washington’s largest contributor to global warming—the TransAlta coal-fired power plant in Centralia—be shut down by 2015 and replaced with efficient and renewable energy. The coal company has been pushing hard to keep on polluting, so the self-described Mountain Mamas decided to push back by taking their message all the way to the top of the mountain with a Climb Against Coal. E sat down with Jennifer, Julie, Katie and Genevieve to talk about preparing for the big climb, being superheroes to their kids and putting pressure on the governor.

The Climb Against Coal crew displays their banner at the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington.© Climb Against Coal

E Magazine: How did you first come up with the idea to climb Mt. Rainier?

Back in February, our friend Logan Price told Genevieve about his idea of putting a giant "No Coal" banner on top of Mount Rainier—the mountain is receiving the brunt of TransAlta’s mercury pollution and is such a visible landmark in Washington State. That same night, a group of 10 moms from Vashon, Washington, went out to dinner and Genevieve brought the idea to the group. Everyone was excited about it. It tapped into the feeling we all shared that we need to address the climate crisis right now, and the urge we felt to step out of our sometimes insular family bubbles and take action on a larger, more systemic scale. It also felt like with this action we could take a huge issue like climate change and bring it home to our state and our families.

Because the training commitment was huge, it only worked out for four of us at that point in time. Moms are, after all, a busy bunch—some were pregnant, some had new babies, new jobs, or it just wasn’t the right time in their lives, but the whole group has been supportive throughout the process (though we have yet had the time to get together for another night out!)

E: How did you prepare for the climb?

This was new to most of us. Some of us had done some backpacking and climbed mountains that weren’t technical, but we hadn’t done this type of climbing at all. We started pretty much from zero. On top of that, most of us hadn’t done any regular exercise since we had kids. We started training right after that first dinner when we hatched the idea, which was about six months before the climb. We found a training guide for Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park and Preserve that we roughly followed. We ran, went to the gym, lifted weights and went on hikes with several gallons worth of water in our packs for weight. (On our first group hike, we took a random assortment of books, bulk bags of beans and grains and a leaky gallon of sesame oil for weight. Water was definitely a better choice!) We went up to Mt. Rainier a couple of times and climbed Mt. Adams a few weeks beforehand. We really became strong—we joked about having before and after pictures. It was a huge motivator to have the goal and to have each other for support.

Our training hikes, especially the overnights, also gave us the chance to face our personal fears (height, failure, danger, the unknown) and to help each other through them. We learned how to support each other emotionally as we bonded together as a team. That bonding made a huge difference on Mt. Rainier.

E: How has being parents affected your views on environmental issues?

Being a parent makes the time horizon of these massive global shifts like climate change seem more concrete. You can imagine your child’s lifespan, your future grandchild’s lifespan, more clearly. It hits you in the gut in a much stronger way when you imagine your own child having to live in an era of climate chaos. It impels you to action.

We became parents in an era when people were really just becoming aware of mercury pollution, BPA, phthalates and other persistent toxic chemicals. That growing body of research has probably made us behave differently than parents of previous generations. All of a sudden it’s not just about whether your kid has a bike helmet on, has the safest car seat, or waits 15 minutes after eating to swim. We also need to worry about toxins in our children" food, their water, their toys, and the dirt they put in their mouths. Toxins are so ubiquitous and our kids have the greatest exposure to them, yet as parents we have a responsibility to give our kids the best start possible. But living in a polluted world that is beyond our control is definitely scary.

E: How did your kids feel about their moms climbing a mountain?

They were excited, happy, scared. Somehow, they understood the risks involved and some were apprehensive about it. They knew it was a big thing to take on. But it was exciting too—mountaineering (and the training involved) showed up in their play.

It was also really fulfilling to set such a great example for them—picking this huge goal, working really hard to achieve it, and succeeding. Our kids helped us succeed too by cheering us on when we’d go out for runs or hikes and wanting to train with us. It was really poignant to see their reactions afterward the hike. Jen’s son, Quinn, asked her right after we came down from base camp, "So are they gonna shut down the coal plant now?" They thought their moms were superheroes, that if we demanded something, we’d get it.

E: How did you feel once you reached the top of the mountain?

We all felt a different mix of things. It ranged from awe to fatigue to nausea. All of us felt proud and relieved to have made it, but we also knew the descent is where most accidents happen, so for some of us, the relief was tempered by the anxiety of what was to come. And while reaching the summit was wonderful, it really was more about the whole journey. Seeing the sun rise after hours of climbing by headlamp was one of the most magical moments—that was really a moment to savor.

E: What’s next for the Mountain Mamas? After the climb we got back to base camp around noon on the summit day and we were pretty much horizontal for the next 18 hours. We slept under the stars that night, staring at the mountain and knowing what we had just accomplished. The next day we packed up and went down to Glacier Basin to the welcoming arms of our community who care about the issue as much as we do. As we were coming down, people were on their way up to deploy a massive "No Coal" banner in a snow field.

We plan to meet with Washington Governor Christine Gregoire’s staff to talk more about our hopes for Washington’s energy future. We"ll see how that goes, but we definitely don’t plan to go away! We want to keep up the pressure, especially this year as the state is negotiating carbon emissions standards with TransAlta. Expect to see us continuing the fight against coal.

CONTACT: Climb Against Coal

JESSICA A. KNOBLAUCH is a freelance writer and regular contributor to E living in the San Francisco Bay area.