Amy Zamora - Dude, Where’s My Cairn? An Unforgiving Mt. Conness Attempt

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hello! My name is Amy Zamora and I am a research scientist, trail ultra runner, and mountaineer from Allentown, PA (just north of Philly), currently residing in Seattle, WA. I am also a SheJumps Snowpack scholarship awardee, a Honey Stinger Ambassador, and an ambassador for Northwest Vibes (an awesome PNW supporting hat company).

Interestingly enough, I did not grow up hiking. I lived in a suburban, Pennsylvania town for most of my life where my family and I didn’t really consider ourselves “outdoors people.” However, when I moved out to Seattle, I realized I had been missing out.

As a 22 year old in a new city, I wanted to try my hand at new hobbies and lifestyles, and began to explore more aspects of the world I had never ventured into. The outdoors are obviously a big deal here to a lot of people, and I found myself introduced to nature by my new friends and peers.

I was skeptical at first, but after completing the 18 mile Enchantments Thru Hike with a few people, I was hooked. As one of the most mentally and physically demanding things I had ever done (it was my 3rd hike in Washington!!), I felt very accomplished in finishing it and had an incredibly rewarding experience all around. 

I was awed by everything: the beauty of the undisturbed mountains, the silence of the backcountry, the relaxed attitude of the mountain goats, and especially the remoteness I felt despite being 11 miles from Leavenworth, a popular tourist destination in Washington.

There was (and still is) truly something special about the insignificance I felt standing so small in the middle of a vast and beautiful place. After resonating with this incredibly humbling feeling, I continue to seek out and have these magical experiences.

Photo by Celia Harvey

Since then, I have combined my passion for running with my newfound love for nature and picked up trail running. I ran track & field in college so trail running seemed like it was an obvious choice of hobby.

Trail running soon after became a slippery slope, leading to ultra-running and mountain running; always seeking out the bigger, more difficult experiences. I find that ultra-running demands a lot physically, but still allows me to be a part of nature, similar to the way hiking or mountaineering does. I enjoy the challenge it puts forward and the ability it provides to reach remote areas that are otherwise difficult to get to.

There was (and still is) truly something special about the insignificance I felt standing so small in the middle of a vast and beautiful place.

This being said, I’ve recently expressed interest and competed in ultra trail races with primarily single-track surfaces and a lot of elevation gain, a challenging combination. I especially like the events Northwest Trail Runs puts on, like their Bridle Trails Running Festival, where I competed in a 50k relay this past weekend. 

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

My story from the mountain took place not too long ago while I was on vacation in Yosemite National Park.

At this point, I was on a huge mountain high. I had started to do and complete big climbs in Washington and had definitely developed a little bit of peakbagging fever, especially after summiting Vesper Peak off of the Mountain Loop Highway. Rachel, one of my best friends from college, was joining me for the trip, and was just as stoked as I was to try something difficult.

Wanting to stay away from the tourists in the Yosemite Valley, I settled on Mt. Conness, a 12,590 ft peak and non-technical scramble just north of Tuolumne Meadows. It offered a high difficulty level and a potential sufferfest I was excited to endure and overcome.

I had previously learned a lot of lessons the hard way, making detrimental errors like forgetting sunscreen (ouch), failing to bring enough snacks (boy do I get hangry), and losing feeling in my fingers after forgetting gloves. Vowing to never make the same mistakes twice, I did everything possible to prepare myself and Rachel for this climb.

We had all ten essentials, including a GPS map on Gaia which would lead the way when we began hiking off-trail on the climbers’ route up the mountain. We even checked in with the Mountaineering School about the route, as the Meadows had only opened 2 weeks prior due to snow.

Reassured that the only trouble we would come across was mosquitoes, we started early, attempting the 19 mile summit as a long single day push.

Our day started great, ascending 7 beautiful miles up to Young Lakes in pristine, blue sky weather. Once we started on the climbers’ trail, however, the sufferfest I was looking for began.

We were well informed about bugs. Young Lakes were bulging with glacial melt from the week before, and past the 3 major lakes we realized that any lack of movement would be accompanied by a flock of mosquitoes landing on us. This was incredibly bothersome (and itchy), especially since in order to properly follow the trail and avoid adding any more distance to our already long summit, I had to continuously look at the map on my phone.

Attempting to save ourselves some trouble, Rachel and I opted to continue the hike wearing multiple layers for full body coverage, despite the 80° temperature outside. Although it didn’t solve the issue, it quelled us enough to decide to continue pushing onward.

Thinking the mosquitoes would get better at high elevations and over scree fields, I was hopeful the worst would be over. We would walk through beautiful meadows, enjoy some class 3 scrambling, and book it back down past the lakes to go home. 

My optimism quickly faded at the scramble when we were met with even more mosquitoes, incredibly difficult route finding with multiple sets of opposing cairns, and a lightning storm looming above Mt. Conness.

I don’t need to prove anything to anyone by doing the most challenging hikes to completion.

Rachel was ready to go home, but we had come so far, and I didn’t want to quit. In my mind, turning around meant failure, and failure meant that I wasn’t good enough to be a part of the climbing and mountaineering world.

I made Rachel push on with me, refusing to accept that I couldn’t do it. The final straw came when I lost the trail on an ascent up near another alpine lake, stopped to look at the map, and proceeded to be eaten alive by ~50 mosquitoes while lightning struck ~1 mile away from us.

I broke down, frustrated that I had failed in so many ways: I failed to get us to the summit, I failed to prepare us properly, I failed to be strong through difficulties, and I failed to be the amazing climber I knew I could be.

I see so many people opt out of doing something because they’re afraid to fail, but in reality they’re stunting their own growth.

Coming to my side, Rachel explained that my failures on that day didn’t matter and didn’t define who I was as a climber. What truly mattered was that I loved what I did and did it safely, two things which were definitely not happening at that moment.

Taking our situation and my mental anguish as a sign, I reluctantly turned around and returned to the trailhead with Rachel, almost getting struck by lightning 3 more times while crossing an open field at 10,000’ elevation.

Photo by Randy Long

Looking back on this experience, I can’t negate the disappointment and sadness I felt when we had to cut the summit short, but I can say I learned a lot about myself and about climbing.

I learned that perhaps I shouldn’t push through all of my limits, especially if they put me in danger. Not finishing a hike or summit because things are unsafe isn’t failing, it’s being smart.

Additionally, I learned that in picking these climbs and hikes with high difficulty levels, I need to focus on enjoying the experience. Otherwise, the overall climb is not worth the aggravation (type III fun is never worth it).

I don’t need to prove anything to anyone by doing the most challenging hikes to completion. My participation in and what I gain from the experience should be for my own satisfaction, not the satisfaction of others.

I want to be known for this journey, as difficult paths are the ones we tend to ignore in this lifestyle. 

Finally, I gained a newfound respect for the mountains which I carry with me to this day. I set out on that day to conquer Mt. Conness, but in reality, mountains cannot be conquered. When you summit, mountains and the nature around them allow you to stand atop of them, basking in all of their glory.

Some days, however, mountains are not so forgiving, and reject those who try to enter their domain. Mt. Conness gave me every indication that this was not my day to summit, and I should have done better to respect that rather than try to defy the circumstances presented to me.

Retrospectively, things could have gotten much worse had Rachel and I chose to continue and I am extremely thankful I was able to get out relatively unscathed (aside from ~40 mosquito bites).

After such a jarring experience, my mindset has shifted away from a fear of failure and more towards a sense of learning and enjoyment. Most climbers have failed summit attempts, but it’s the best ones that learn from those failures to make themselves better and enjoy their future endeavors.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

As you can anticipate from my story from the mountain, I like to push myself to my absolute limits. This is primarily due to the overwhelming pride I feel when accomplishing something difficult.

However, from the Mt. Conness trip and a few other problematic trips, I have learned to recognize when pushing my limits is detrimental to my safety and have been working on making smarter and safer decisions at these moments. I want to pass this mindset onto others.

Safety comes first, even it safety means adjusting plans you were really looking forward to. Like I realized, changing your plans doesn’t mean that you’re not good at climbing/hiking/mountaineering; it just means that you value your livelihood.

Following this same vein, I think it’s important to fail often. I have made so many mistakes (including forget my spikes on a steep, snow and ice-covered trail) and have learned so much from those failures.

I see so many people opt out of doing something because they’re afraid to fail, but in reality they’re stunting their own growth. I find that I am constantly becoming better at the things I love by messing up.

Through embracing failures, I have made the journey from a regular non-outdoorsy person to a semi-successful, hiking/climbing, mountaineering, PNW woman. I want to be known for this journey, as difficult paths are the ones we tend to ignore in this lifestyle.

There are so many others like me that experienced their fair share of barriers, some even failing to overcome them. I hope to encourage others to get out there and share that a lot is still possible with some help from a great community and others like me who have been through it too.

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

I have a few favorite items in my pack. First, I love making sure I have snacks and good food to enjoy on a long effort, whether that be a summit or a 10+ mile trail run. My favorite snack to bring is typically pancakes I make the same or previous day. Usually making dense, syrup infused pancakes, I love having pancakes because they offer a lot of carbs and calories that help keep me going for the whole adventure. 

My second favorite item in my pack is my Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody. I’m not usually one to buy the most expensive gear, but after finding this piece in the REI Used Gear section at their flagship, I was sold on it. I use it for EVERYTHING, including for summits, backpacking trips, long stops on trail runs, and even as my everyday commuter jacket.

It’s weather and windproof, making it perfect for snow, rain, or cold conditions in the PNW’s relatively unpredictable climate system. It’s also perfect for lightweight trips, as it compresses really well into any pack. Although I didn’t pay full price for it, I can definitely agree that it is worth its seemingly high price tag.

My last favorite item is my Black Diamond Raven ice axe. I bring it with me on most snow excursions and anything that I think might require a little extra safety support. I usually get a lot of grief from people for bringing it when not needed; but in the times where it was needed, I’ve been really thankful for it.

I know it’s more of a comfort thing for me; it helps me feel safe and keeps me confident when doing any type of activity with exposure or snowy conditions. My first time using it was on Mt. Baker when my rope team had to climb a snow ladder to get up the final bergschrund before the summit (photo below).

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

My primary advice would be to ask others for help if you need it to get out there and get after it!

I have found the outdoor community here to be extremely supportive of me in my endeavors. For instance, I don’t have a car here in Seattle and have found that so many people want to adventure with you and are willing to drive.

Additionally, folks are always willing to let you borrow gear if you are missing something for an adventure. Gear is expensive, but you don’t want to be without. I have found that so many people want to help you achieve your goals, so they’re more than happy to let you borrow something like a tent for the weekend. 

Secondly, I advise people to start slow, but work on stepping outside their comfort zone. I’ve grown the most from my most uncomfortable experiences (with others who are experienced and help keep me safe of course)!

For instance, I used of heights, but through bouldering, top roping, and scrambling, this fear has subsided over the course of the past year. I now find myself excited by the prospect of ridges and tall mountains.

Lastly, I advise people to listen to their bodies. This is always interesting advice for me to give, because I’m not the best at it, especially with ultra-running training. I find myself sore, tired, and fatigued A LOT, but don’t necessarily give my body the time it needs to recover. Instead of continuously pushing myself to my physical limits, I should rather focus on stretching, icing, and massaging sore areas, helping to break up any lactic acid I have left in my muscles and joints.

Recently, I took an extended period of time off because I felt awful and have found myself rejuvenated ever since. I’m now running/hiking the best that I have since July. So, if feeling sore or tired, maybe a day off or skipping a weekend in the mountains will pay off later on when you can push yourself a bit harder or enjoy what you’re doing just a little bit more.

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

Media-wise, I’ve been heavily influenced by the book Running Home by Katie Arnold. It really speaks to me on a motivational level in regards to trail ultra-running and mountaineering. She uses running as an escape from the stresses and troubles of everyday life.

As a scientist and soon-to-be PhD student, I have a lot of stress and anxiety in my life. I find that the hours I spend running or hiking, especially out in the quiet and beauty of nature, are a welcomed distraction and a small amount of time where I don’t need to worry about anything but my body, my location, and my breathing.

This book was gifted to me by another trail runner, and I fully plan to do the same once I finish it. I also really enjoy reading any and all of the Trail Sisters blog posts. They remind me that in both the training and life struggles I experience, I am not alone.

Personally, I find a lot of inspiration from the friends I have made in the Ultra Running community. I’m always amazed by their talent and humbleness and often find myself asking them for advice on how to get better or take care of myself when I’m in unfamiliar circumstances.

One of those friends, Elizabeth Carey is an amazing writer and all around great human. In meeting her and reading about her experiences through her articles and blog, I feel so much less alone and am comfortable having difficult conversations and asking tough questions that I may have otherwise avoided.

I’m also inspired by crazy runners/mountaineers like Kilian Jornet who combine their passions to do amazing things. Recently, I’ve been very inspired by Kilian’s posts about being conscious of one’s comfort level and taking his adventures as inspiration, but with a grain of salt. I deeply respect his dedication to encouraging others to get out there in the safest way possible, ultimately being responsible for the influence he has with his relative difficult and dangerous physical feats. 

Where’s your next adventure?

I have a lot planned for the coming year. I am excited to be combining my passions for ultra-running and mountaineering by participating in the Mt. Baker Ultra in May, a 56 mile race including a summit of Mt. Baker’s Sherman peak in the middle of the race. This will be my first 50 miler and will be very difficult, but I’m so excited for the feeling of accomplishment I will have upon finishing the race. 

The Mt. Baker 50 will be in training for my primary running goal for the year, which will be to run the Teanaway Country 100 in September. It takes place in my favorite section of the Cascades (I have a deep love for Mt. Stuart) and is one of the hardest ultras in the country. A great result of this for me would be to simply finish. 

Hiking/climbing/mountaineering-wise, I am hoping to summit the final 3 Washington volcanoes I have yet to climb: Mt. Adams, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Rainier. I will be taking a crevasse rescue course in April and am hoping to get after it by early summer.

I also plan to get after some other tough peaks that will utilize my snow/glacier travel skills like El Dorado, the Brothers, Sahale, and Dragontail while making time to do some awesome class III/IV scrambling summits like Mt. Daniel, Del Campo Peak, South Sister, Baring Mountain, and Fortress Mountain.

Where can others learn more about you?

People can follow my adventures in running, hiking, mountaineering, and climbing through my Instagram (@lovelike_amy)! If you have any questions about getting started, gear access, or fun climbs, feel free to shoot me a DM. Catch me trail running sometime at Tiger Mountain or climbing in the Stuart Range.

Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how

Terra Mano makes handcrafted maps of American Landscapes.

Get Stories From The Mountain Delivered directly to your inbox