I say it often, and if we have spent any time together in the mountains, you have probably heard me say it before: "I am too ambitious for my own good". It's true! I am constantly biting off more than I can chew, saying yes to more things than I know how to balance, and managing far more than I should have the energy for. When it comes to hiking, I know well how incredibly the pay-off can feel after an arduous haul, and of course that motivates me to say yes to taking on some tasks that are a little outside of my skillset.
I spent last summer trying to take my outdoor game to new levels, working towards my first summit. Unfortunately, the weather in our stretch of the Canadian Rockies was rough, rainy and frequently stormy last year. I got a fair number of brilliant hikes in, but few made it close to summits and the ones that were, they just weren't safe enough to manage. (No one reeeeally wants to be on the tip-top of a mountain during a hail and lighting storm.) So this year, I'm at it again.
I figure I was about 100 to 200 feet from making my first summit just a few weeks ago. Solo, even. I was ecstatic. It was a Monday, and hello, who wouldn't rather be spending a Monday bagging their first summit?! The skies were blue and the breeze was a faint whisper. I plugged along, finding my pace, frequently pausing to admire my drive and improving stamina. And then I panicked.
I tried to calm my nerves, tried to choose safe destination points to reach for periodic breaks while I reevaluated and allowed my courage to charge for the next sprint. I managed several of these intervals, but ultimately my fear beat out my ambition and I was faced with the only other option: to turn around if I was too scared. Was I too scared?
I was on a fairly steep, exposed scree slope. The final stretch to get up into and through the last string of trees was only another twenty feet or so. The rock broke to a smooth, steep trail that offered no safety in foot holes. I was less nervous about going up as I was about the idea of coming back down. I was alone, and had run into very few other people on the trail. If I lost my footing, slid or slipped, my imagination was warning me of all the ways I would tumble down that scree and land firmly in the trees. As if to reinforce the possibilities, my legs had grown weak and my steps were becoming shaky and unsure, the further I climbed. Could I even trust myself physically, to hold it together? And then the wind picked up.
When you are staring your fears straight in the face and you feel washed in anxiety, it is impossible to hear and feel your true, natural instincts. There is simply too much noise. You must stop, breathe, and focus on one thing: your goal. Analyze: what is it, what is the way to it, what will you need to do to get there, and what are the risks and consequences? For me, in my mountain meltdown moment, I believed my goal was to reach the summit. However, I realized that a significant amount of my fear and anxiety was actually coming out of my concern to stay alive. This is an unlikely pressure in most of the fear and anxiety inducing situations we come across in our day to day lives, but it took putting myself in this kind of serious situation where not sliding down a loose scree slope into the forest was the real thing I was conquering. In this situation, the consequence of risk was greater than the achievement of overcoming.
I finally made the decision to down climb a bit, back to a lower ridge, where I nested into some rocks and completely let my guard down. Immediately, I was so frustrated. The emotional part of me wanted to reach the summit so terribly, but I knew my logic of turning around was the best choice given how nervous I was, and the risks of ignoring that. Then I was mad because, if only someone had been there with me, I could have done it! But I know that that is only a shallow excuse to defer guilt or blame. I was also upset because I had already gone so far, and to not make the summit at that point, it felt like a waste. I rested for twenty or so minutes in the sun, softening over the view and capturing some of its beauty in photos, and then I let my legs carry me back down off the mountain.
Sun burnt and with a smashed phone, after my descent, I dragged my hammock out to a nearby pond to rehydrate and unwind. It was there, while I swung in the wind and trees that I realized - I still made my summit that sunny Monday. My summit may not have been the top of the mountain or where most other people summit on that trail, but that doesn't matter so much to me. Thanks to technology, we have the opportunity to see where we are headed before we even step onto the trail. I am the first to get my hopes up about reaching these destinations and seeing things I've only seen through others' camera lenses, through my own eyes. But on that sunny Monday, I learned that hiking is not about what I don't achieve, it is all about what I do achieve. And I have to say, the view from my summit was still pretty damn grand. One day, I'm sure I will return to claim an even higher summit of my own on that trail and mountain. But for now, I conquered some pretty big beasts that day, and every day, I will continue to push further. Who could ever ask to be capable of more than that?
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.