What major accomplishment did you achieve this weekend?
Well, I climbed my very first 14er: Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Colorado. Here is how it happened: my friend texted me last week, asked if I wanted to hike a 14er with her. I work out occasionally, have done some hiking in the past, and agreed to go: how hard could it possibly be? What I was completely unaware of was what a life changing feat this would become.
Climbing a mountain requires you to be stripped of the cushy lifestyle you live and forces you to be one against nature. Of course, you pack a few civilized items with you–a water bottle, some snacks, layers to put on or take off, sunglasses to protect your eyes. But, you do not have cell phone service. You do not have a bathroom. You do not have a nice chair to sit on when you want to take a break. You do not have a car to come pick you up on the top of the mountain when you decide to quit. It is between you, and nature.
Climbing a mountain, as with any strenuous physical activity, tests your courage, your mental endurance, your strength and concentration, you commitment to yourself. I rule my life by this potentially morbid philosophy: I think about people who survived the Holocaust, who literally survived off sawdust and water, existed as incubators for a variety of wretched diseases, and were forced to run hundreds of miles without food or really any clothing–and still survived. The human body can survive far more than we give it credit for.
Climbing a mountain creates an unbreakable bond between you, those you climb with–both your friends and those acquaintances you meet along the way, those you share your feat with, those who have climbed one as well. You all share a common experience. I was humbled by the amount of people who were on their way back down and took the time (and their precious breath, since of course, the air is so thin) to encourage us, to let us know how much further we were looking at, to describe the beautiful view at the top.
The trip up is incredibly taxing and way harder, both physically and mentally, than I anticipated. We encountered a variety of terrain–flat, man-made dirt trails, boulder fields, snow packed ridges, meadows filled with grass and flowers (and mountain goats). Sometimes, the land was flat. Sometimes, we had to crawl on our hands and knees to get up the steep incline. Many times, I found myself looking at the peak, and then looking at the amount of track we traveled, and feeling a little defeated. With the thinning air, I stopped often to catch my breath. This made me feel incredibly out of shape and weak. I began feeling very frustrated with myself when someone much older than I would pass me going up and then inevitably pass me again on their way down. I focused on how much my hamstrings hurt and vowed to start strengthening those when I returned to civilization. I started calculating and counting down to what time we would be back at the car. I am usually pretty good about remaining positive and pushing myself through things, but this was a whole new level of limits.
Then, we got to the top and all of this negativity, these self-loathing and complaining thoughts went away. Standing at the top of the world (ok, actually just 14,265 feet), I felt like I had conquered the world. I pushed through nature’s obstacle course, of blustery winds and cold temperatures, of steep inclines and unpredictable terrain. I survived my own mind chatter, tested my mental strength, forced myself to continue going for the benefit of myself. I can’t accurately describe to you the view from the top, but I can say it is incredibly divine to view an expanse of nature that is not developed–to observe the soft cracks in the earth and the steadiness of the mountain lakes, to breath in the clear, untainted, fresh air, and to feel the swift, carefree movement of the clouds.
A few incredible phenomenons occurred to me on our descent down. First of all, I noticed my fingers were super swollen from the low pressure and that my face sustained a good deal of sun/wind burn. Second of all, I noticed a shift in my thinking. I realized I actually enjoyed putting myself through that hard, physical labor and it was actually kind of fun to climb in the boulder fields. I began plotting what my next 14er was going to be. My body suddenly did not hurt and the crisis I was stuck in all week suddenly did not seem to matter anymore. As we trekked (and sledded) down the mountain and even got back to the car, I kept looking back and feeling immensely proud of myself (and want to share this accomplishment with everyone I know who might slightly care). When you look back at the peak, it is almost unfathomable that people could actually get up to the top. It looks deceivingly steep and miserable. It is amazing what the human body is capable of.
One of my new mantras is, “the pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow”. Life is about suffering. Whether you are climbing a big, huge mountain, training for a marathon, or writing a paper, we are constantly faced with things we do not want to do. It is always easier to sit at home on your comfy couch, watch a movie, and drink a beer. It is always easier to ignore those feelings you have for someone to maintain control and constant in your life. It is always easier to monotonously do whatever everyone else is doing because there is no risk, no potential damage to the self concept. But sometimes, it is within those moments of pain and suffering that you gain the most. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about the human condition while stranded, climbing up that mountain. And today, the euphoria continues (or, perhaps is it merely just a result of being back at ‘normal’ oxygen levels and my brain is still slightly hallucinating).