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Topping out: Rock climber lived her passions

By JEREMIAH O’HAGAN

Staff Reporter

Stanwood/Camano

Exit 38, Vantage, Icicle Creek, Marymoor Park, Vertical World if it’s raining.

For people who rock climb, to say a person spends time at those places, might say

enough.

Molly Shay spent her time at those places, balancing her life on delicate lines in the faces

of rock, and though that speaks volumes, it’s not the entire story.

“How do you sit and tell someone about the most amazing person you’ve ever met?”

Debbi Shay, her mother, asked.

Shay grapples with her loss like her daughter climbed — one move at a time.

Molly topped out her route through life on June 28. For someone only 21 years old, she’d

led quite the journey.

“Avid rock climber. Stevens Pass lifty. Spoke several languages. She was studying

Buddhism.” Her mom is on a role now. “Cancer survivor.”

In August 2005, Molly was preparing to enter her junior year at Stanwood High School,

but before she did, she was planning one last trip of the summer, to see her cousin in

California.

She later told the story herself.

“The day before I was scheduled to leave, I was sitting down at home with my mom

when my arm started to twitch. Suddenly, I was gasping for air and all I remember was

seeing the floor …” Molly posted on Children’s Hospital’s Web site.

She had suffered a grand mal seizure. The search for its cause revealed a tumor entwined

with Molly’s brain, and she went to Seattle Children’s Hospital for a surgery that

removed 90 percent of the growth and inserted a shunt. Chemotherapy was not an option

— the tumor was too deep.

Next, Shay said, she and Molly traveled to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where they

were hoping Molly could undergo an invasive but potentially transformative seizure

surgery. They had no such luck.

“From there,” Shay said, “we went back to Seattle and had her shunt removed at

Swedish.”

Later, they would hit the road to Santa Rosa seeking alternative health care. Over a

period of three years, Shay said, they traveled many avenues in search of care. The long

hospitalizations and recoveries meant Molly missed her junior and senior years of high

school.

Still, Shay said, her daughter met life on its terms, the same way she would learn to face

the rock.

“When she was bald (from the surgeries), she wouldn’t wear a wig,” Shay said. “She just

put on bigger earrings.”

She graduated, too, and was able to walk with her class.

After that, Shay said, Molly took to the outdoors. She worked winters at Stevens Pass as

a lift chair operator, mostly on Big Chief, and she learned the ropes of climbing.

“Though I never climbed with her, she was as stoked as anyone I know for rock climbing

season to come,” a co-worker from Stevens posted on Cascade Climbers’ Web site.

“Rock climbing was Molly’s dream,” another wrote.

Shay agreed that the last year-and-a-half of her life, Molly cut loose.

“She left behind her life of Nordstrom pants to eat macaroni and cheese with hot sauce,

and knit hats in the park,” Shay said. “Everything was about ‘cool beans,’ as Molly said.

Being real. There was no lipstick and eye shadow, I can tell you that.”

Instead, Molly lived with infectious, insatiable passion.

“Her friend Mark showed me videos on YouTube of routes they were doing. I couldn’t

believe my eyes. I asked him why he would do something like that. He said, ‘Molly

asked me to.’”

In the pursuit of summits, climbers leave a sliver of themselves — they return again and

again to rediscover it.

Molly was no different. Shay pointed out a picture of her barefoot atop a rock, climbing

harness wrapped around her waste and a gear sling looped over her shoulder. Her arms

are outstretched, palms up and fingers encircled against an empty sky.

“That’s her,” Shay said. “That is Molly.”

As dangerous as high peaks and granite faces seem, they soothe with certain

predictability.

Walter Bonatti wrote in Mountains of My Life, “The mountains have rules. They are

harsh rules, but they are there, and if you keep to them you are safe… A mountain is

sincere.”

The day-to-day, though, can be ironic and tricky.

After a life overcoming obstacles and pursuing rushes of adrenaline, Molly drowned in a

bathtub. Where most would feel safe and relaxed, she likely had a seizure that stopped

her heart.

Her mother has set up a memorial fund in her name, at Sterling Savings Bank. She wants

to offer scholarships to local students, but she also wants to get kids involved in Molly’s

outdoor pursuits. To put them on a snowboard or a rock face, to get them the gear they

need to enjoy the subcultures Molly steeped herself in, that she may live on through the

adventures of others — that is Shay’s goal.

The memorial fund poster shows another picture of Molly, clipped into a bolted route.

Her helmet, in true climbing form, is stickered and scratched. A smile teases the corner of

her mouth and she’s flashing a peace sign with her taped and chalked hand.

The caption reads, “Her soul flies free.” It always did.

Staff Reporter Jeremiah O’Hagan: 629-8066 ext. 125 or ohagan@scnews.com.