It’s a really cool thing when you realize your friends are your real-life heroes and even neater when you get to do what you both love together. I don’t get to see Erin Browning too often, but with what little time I get – once or twice a year – she never ceases to be one of the unsung and unassuming heroes in my life.
The last time I wrote about adventures with Erin was a few years ago (See Part 1 and Part 2). We explored into the high Sierra, got lost, found ourselves and bagged peaks. Since then she went through a traumatic climbing induced injury, fully recovered, and continues to lead courses for Outward Bound and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) both here and abroad. We met up again for a brief stint in the Sierra to tick one peak off the list we have accumulated over the past couple years, Mount Starr King.
Though Erin has had her share of hard knocks, she approaches the world with an open heart and unwavering patience. In a sport that is chock full of muscle mania and egos, she strides through with grace of self acceptance. I’m not saying she doesn’t have moments of doubt or insecurities. The disarming part is that she doesn’t hide them. She is one of the rare people who still exercises the lost art of conversation by balancing the three parts of inquiring, listening and sharing, and always with respect and empathy. She is someone who at once can be both admired and relatable.
We sweated our way down the trail and bush whacked to an open knoll where we dropped our packs for the night. As the stars crept out she filled in the gaps between with the origin stories of Ursus major and the constellations making up the Summer Triangle. We fell asleep in the open air with sounds of mosquitoes dancing in our ears.
The following day we bush whacked again through even thicker manzanita and brush to the east face of Starr King and scurried up a few pitches to the top. A hot summer sky rested on the peaks and crests around us. Mount Clark, in full glory to the east, presented an enticing profile view of its northwest ridge and southern face. Half dome showed us its blobby back side. The down climbing towards the descent saddle on the southeast gave us a little more climbing bang for the buck before trudging through more thicket in search of water and return trip to our bivy knoll.
Though short and sweet, this time with an old friend was precious. As they say, there comes a time when it’s too late to meet new old friends. So better to keep on with the good ones you’ve got.
Erin would never think of herself as a hero, but she is to me, and probably to the hundreds of students she’s taught in the wilderness. A humble, everyday hero.