After settling into our hotel in Ridgway, Colorado (population 900), and looking over the women, all between the ages of 28 and 57, I utter my first fervent prayer: "Thank God no one is wearing flowing robes." Instead of starry-eyed seekers, I'm in the company of smart, capable, good-humored women—something like my old book club but in hiking boots. The retreat begins with yoga and a lot of deep breathing, and a discussion about "staying present." Almost on cue, my mind begins to wander. But now it's time to head into the mountains. A sudden snowstorm has brought an abrupt end to summer. As I put on my backpack, raincoat, rain pants, and wool hat, I formulate my second prayer: "Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?"
For nearly all her life, Reynolds has stayed close to the mountains. She's worked for ski patrol at resorts in Colorado, been an ice-climbing guide, run groups for Outward Bound, and continues to conduct an annual trek to the Himalayas. After working with groups of both sexes, she decided that "watching women break through barriers and rediscover their passions in life" was what inspired her. She cofounded Chicks with Picks, a women's ice-climbing school, and began offering summer sessions called Mind Over Mountains. As the programs became popular, she and her husband, Jim (an honorary Chick), decided to act on the lessons they had learned on the mountaintop—that spiritual and emotional transformation must go hand in hand with community service. They started the dZi Foundation (named after a sacred Tibetan bead), which along with the ice-climbing school has so far funneled $260,000 to orphanages and nutrition centers in Nepal and India.
As we gather for our first delicious dinner, I lay out my goal for Reynolds. "I'm here to connect with God." She looks me over, unphased. "Try to stay in the present," she offers. "Breathe."
Day three: I'm suspended by a rope about 25 feet off the ground, clinging to the sheer face of a rock. Sweat is dripping down my forehead and stinging my eyes. My feet are painfully wedged into crevices. My left hand is gripping a knob of stone, and, almost imperceptibly, my right hand begins sliding off a tiny ledge that I am desperate to hold on to. If the mountains are incredible teachers, as Reynolds has said, then the lesson they are teaching me at this moment is that I never should have left home. I try to do one of the exercises we've been practicing: taking a deep breath, then squeezing air from my stomach into my chest and exhaling. It doesn't make a dent in my growing panic. "I can't go any farther. I want to come down," I wail to the group below. Nine women look up at me and shout in unison, "Breathe!"
I try again. Hysteria rises. "More breathing!" they shout. Some combination of stone-cold fear and breathing finally silences every bit of static in my head. I find my next handhold, then I'm on my way to the top. Later, as I sit in a hot tub looking through my toes at the snowy mountains, I marvel at the stillness inside me. I wonder if I could install a climbing wall in my house. Or maybe a hot tub.
Next: The moment that brought tears to her eyes