Excerpted: Counting Bones by Ellen Anderson Penno

At 24, right before she was due to start medical school, Ellen Anderson Penno embarked on a mountain climbing trip with her partner, only to lose him in a tragic accident. Counting Bones: Anatomy of a Love Lost and Found (NeWest Press) is her memoir of that time, chronicling her decision to press on with her studies despite her immense grief. We share the prologue from this remarkable personal story.

The cover of Counting Bones by Ellen Anderson Penno. A blue folded paper resembling a mountainside is in the background, with small figures walking up the side.


Share It:


Prologue, from Counting Bones

August 3, 1986: car-sized blocks of ice fell from the Roman Wall on Mount Baker, Washington, crushing two climbers. One of those climbers was my first love Ian Kraabel. The article “Unburied: The Secrets of a Deadly Mount Baker Avalanche,” published in Seattle Met Magazine’s April 2015 issue, detailed the contents of a backpack belonging to Ian’s fellow deceased climber that had just emerged from the toe of the Coleman Glacier. A few months earlier a reporter had called me out of the blue, asked about the avalanche, and instantly transported me back to high camp where I kissed Ian goodbye for that last time in the predawn dark outside the tent before they left for the climb.

The Seattle Met article listed the contents in much the same way an anatomist records a dissection:

  • 1 royal blue backpack lid
  • 2 REI tags
  • 2 sections of blue and yellow cord
  • 1 toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss kit
  • 1 tube sunscreen
  • 1 vial cologne
  • 1 crampon cover
  • 1 headlamp and battery pack
  • 4 A A batteries
  • 1 snow fluke
  • 1 blue mitten
  • 2 lengths of 9mm spiral-twisted rope, ends frayed 1 Gideon New Testament Bible
  • 1 Pentax camera, 1 roll exposed Kodak 35mm film 1 roll exposed Kits 35mm film

I was, at first, deeply angered by this list — even though it was not Ian’s pack. How does this collection of objects begin to capture the loss of a life? If a bus runs me down, are the contents of my pockets — a crumpled receipt, half a granola bar, my wallet, and a safety pin — my lasting legacy? Are we nothing more than the things we carry?

On the other hand, these last objects do harbour clues to the owner’s habits or frame of mind. Pondering this list reminded me of the text Gray’s Anatomy, a whole book of lists. Henry Gray published the first edition of Gray’s Anatomy as a young man in 1858. This seminal text is a methodical framework for medical students to use when learning human anatomy, and is still used more than a century later. I purchased Gray’s Anatomy at age twenty-four, in first-term medical school, just weeks after the 1986 avalanche. Decades later, while leafing through the yellowed pages of a 1917 edition of Gray’s Anatomy from the rare book collection at a medical school library, I understood that my memories could be dissected in exactly the same way. This list of last objects unburied after three decades is just like a catalogue of cadaver parts. In both cases lists are only one part of the truth, but I realize now it’s a place to start.

* * *

A photo of author Ellen Anderson Penno. She is a light skin-toned woman with hair pulled back into a ponytail, crouched outdoors and holding a happy-looking, large dog with its tongue lolling out of its mouth. Ellen is smiling.

Ellen Anderson Penno is a writer and full-time medical doctor, earning an MD and MS from the University of Minnesota, with rotating surgical internship at Hennepin County Hospital, Minneapolis, and ophthalmology residency at the Mayo Clinic. She has earned a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College and is currently completing her Graduate Certificate in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. She immigrated to Calgary, Alberta in 1997 where she continues to live with her adult daughters and dog pal Ed.