Cece and Claire

She Came Before Me

By Claire Giordano about her mentor, Cecelia Mortenson

This is part three of a four part “She Came Before Me” series sponsored by Vasque Footwear, profiling the feminine mentors in our outdoor lives. 

The smell of volcanic sulfur wafts over the crater rim and envelops our group, interrupting my attempt to take a breath and prompting a scowl at the mountain. In a response of indifference, Mount Baker belches out more steam and volcanic gasses. Awake since I-cant-remember and tired, our group sat 1,000 feet below the summit. As I pull out my notebook, our mountain guide Cece approaches with a mischievous smile.

After eight days on the mountain, I had come to know that smile as the beginning of a grand adventure, and a lot of work. “Do you want to summit?” Cece asks. I mumble in assent, but she reads my uncertainty with the same clarity of observation normally trained on the mountain. Her smile gets bigger; “I think you can do it.”

Below the summit of Mount Baker, Cece points out landscape features and our route back to camp.

Cecelia Mortenson – or as most call her, Cece – guides rock, alpine, and skiing expeditions around the world. She is the 9th certified IFMGA guide in Canada, and one in twenty women in North America with this high level of training and experience. Her climbing trips have taken her across the globe, from the Himalaya to Afghanistan and Patagonia. And for the last twelve years she has returned to the same trailhead at Mount Baker to co-lead the Girls on Ice expedition in the Cascades.

Claire Giordano and Cece Mortenson. This spot on the trail is favorite of the entire team; when you round a bend in the trail, everyone gets their first view of Mount Baker gleaming in the sun.

I met Cece eight years ago as a participant in Girls on Ice, a wilderness science, mountaineering, art, and leadership program for young women. She was our mountain guide for the 12 day expedition on Mount Baker alongside botanist Dr. Kari Stiles and glaciologist and program founder Dr. Erin Pettit. Erin founded Girls on Ice in 1999, and the wilderness science, art, leadership, and mountaineering program has grown into a larger organization called Inspiring Girls Expeditions which now includes expeditions in Alaska, Canada, Colorado, and Switzerland.

As our mountain guide, Cece opened a world of crevasses, brilliant snowfields, and glaciers for our team. None of us had ever climbed a mountain, and some had never set foot on snow. By the end of the trip, the once-shy girls bounded down the snow, unsure steps replaced with balanced stances reminiscent of gun-slinging cowboys and surrounded by gales of laughter. By the end, I not only summited a mountain, but found a reservoir of confidence and strength I didn’t know I had. And, perhaps most importantly, I found a mentor whose presence would continue to be a guide both on and off the mountain.

Cece in camp, sheltered by the collection of tarps and shelters she rigged to the mountain with piles of rock.

I not only summited a mountain, but found a reservoir of confidence and strength I didn’t know I had. And, perhaps most importantly, I found a mentor whose presence would continue to be a guide both on and off the mountain.

When I initially encountered Cece I was unloading gear from my car and saying hasty goodbyes to my family. The first thing I noticed was how she hefted my fully loaded pack into the truck like it was a fluffy down filled pillow. In the intervening eight years, I still remember her bear hug greeting and the frayed tape patch on the front pocket of her pants. Around her tan neck was a simple stone pendant; a line of silver wire bifurcated the green-grey oval like a stream gleaming in a valley far below a peak.

Over the course of the next eight days, Cece helped us transform how we moved through the mountains. We learned how to walk in snow, the value of the rest step, and how to listen for water running beneath the surface of the snowfields we crossed. By the end of the next day we were sliding backwards down a steep snow slope, learning to roll ourselves over with an ice axe so we could self arrest if we fell. Alongside lessons on the snow we learned about the glacier that moved imperceptibly slowly beside us, looking for evidence of its passing as it retreats up the mountain.

During the first full day of the program the team hikes together for the first time to explore high alpine meadows, test their new gear (including heavy mountaineering boots), and learn to pace themselves up a trail by following Cece.
The 2017 team explores the barren landscape below the terminus of the glacier.
Girls on Ice instructors and volunteers celebrate at the summit of Mount Baker in 2017. Claire is on the left, and Cece is second from the right.

On one of the last days of the trip the group forayed far up the glaciated slopes to explore the high alpine zones. It was my first “alpine start” which is a nice way of saying I was too excited to sleep well and when the call finally came to wake up, I couldn’t get out of my sleeping bag fast enough. It also meant hours of hiking uphill in the wobbly circle of light cast by my headlamp.

And as beautiful as summiting was, I don’t remember much more besides focused breathing on the way up and a few full-leg post-holes on the way down. It was that moment at the crater rim, still 1000 feet below the summit, that stands out crystalline in my mind. The smell of the sulfur from Mount Baker’s volcanic bowels, the warmth of the sun so welcome on my black pants, my relief at letting my legs take a break sitting atop my pack, and the disgusting taste of my protein bar. And the moment when Cece said she believed I could do it, and for maybe the first time I really believed I could do it, too.  

And it is this kind of moment that best captures the magic of Cece. She did not simply teach me how to do things in the mountains; she empowered me to understand that I was stronger and more capable than I had previously believed.  

This photo is one of Claire’s favorites; Cece’s infectious smile at the summit of Baker.

She did not simply teach me how to do things in the mountains; she empowered me to understand that I was stronger and more capable than I had previously believed.  

For the last eight years I have returned to Mount Baker as a volunteer for Girls on Ice. Some years I only made it for eight hours of hiking, others I spent days at the beginning or end of the program with the team. And with each summer, I am reminded of the lasting impact that Cece – and the entire Girls on Ice team and experience – has on my life.

During the hours of sorting gear into piles by size and miles of walking the same trails, Cece continues to teach me. As a mentor she is a keystone; asking questions, listening, and deepening my skills by sharing her observations of a landscape and people. She knows me well, having seen me full of joy and trying to hide fear. And this knowledge shines through in our conversations and illuminates how I have changed each year when our lives intersect for a brief few days each summer.

Cece and two members of hte 2014 staff enjoy the views of Mount Baker and the Easton Glacier from atop a large moraine.

Of the many hours on the trail, there is one conversation that stands out like the moment at the crater rim. Hiking beneath old fir and hemlock trees Cece had shared with me aspects of her journey to become a guide at such an elite level; the personal sacrifices to spend a life guiding around the world, the decades learning and pursuing education, and the variety of jobs she sometimes hated but did to support her goals. Since I met her, Cece has continued to guide all over the world, as well as empower women in the outdoors through her involvement with Girls on Ice, an all-women’s climbing expedition in Afghanistan, and women’s backcountry ski courses.

As a mentor she is a keystone; asking questions, listening, and deepening my skills by sharing her observations of a landscape and people.

When I expressed dissatisfaction in my current work and amazement at how much she has accomplished, she turned to me and asked, “What would you do if money was no object?”

I remember my heart rate speeding up a little bit and my brain suddenly forgetting about the exceptionally heavy pack I carried. Well…. sh*t, that’s a really hard question. I looked up at the trees, as if they might help me respond. They didn’t do anything but sit there.

In the moments before I answered, another question coalesced in my mind; one that scared me even more than the original. If I knew the answer, would I have the courage to try? I think Cece knew what I was thinking, once again seeing with clarity I have encountered in few others. She smiled at me, and said there is a lot less standing in my way than I think.

Two years later, I finally have an answer. After years of creating art squeezed in alongside other jobs, I am now a full time freelance artist and writer. In a few weeks, I leave for my first artist residency that will carry me to the different glaciated landscapes of Iceland and Greenland.

When I see Cece this summer I can’t wait to return her bear hug, and tell her I’m finally doing it.

A painting Claire created while visiting the team in 2017 as a guest artist. The patterns in the sky were caused by unexpected raindrops, a visible manifestation of the surrounding environment.

Claire Giordano is a painter and writer based in the forested foothills outside Seattle, Washington. She is a lifelong artist with a passion for connecting people and place through art, education, and adventure. You are most likely to find Claire perched beside a trail with a paintbrush in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other. To see more of her work, check out her website at claireswanderings.com and her Instagram @claireswanderings.

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