Losing Control - Lessons I Learned in the Mountains
Dec 26, 2019
Ice axe. Trekking pole. Step. Breathe.
Ice axe. Trekking pole. Step. Breathe.
It was a simple rhythm that was enough to convince myself I could keep moving. Our team of 5 had been climbing our way up the Easton Glacier route toward the summit of Mount Baker since 2:30am. It was only our 3rd day on the course, and this was the first time we'd ever traveled in a rope team together, the first time wearing crampons, navigating snowy terrain, managing crevasse hazards, and everything else I hadn't truly considered about this undertaking. Too far from one another to talk, we quietly inched our way up the nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain over the next 7 hours. Our team's march was broken by shouts of, "Zero!", mostly by me, to catch my breath for a few seconds before continuing the arduous climb, or to hesitantly cross a frail-looking snow bridge. Three days prior we were complete strangers, all arriving to the NOLS Pacific Northwest branch for our own reasons. When asked whyIchose to sign up for a mountaineering course, all I could respond with was, "I just wanted to know if I could do it."
As we crested over the last ridge, I caught my breath and felt my chest tighten in disbelief. Had the constant ascent ended? I could see the summit. It was a football field's distance away, across a flat, snow-covered space, with a single track of other climbers' boot steps leading the way. The other team, already there, had dropped their packs and unclipped from the ropes. As tears started to form behind my glacier glasses, I said out loud to myself between breaths, "You can cry when you get there." When we arrived, the cheering, hugs, and high-fives began. One of the few women in the group came up, embraced me and said excitedly, "Can you believe it? You did it, you made it! Don't you feel incredible?" In that moment, all I wanted to do was quietly collapse in both tears and exhaustion. Instead, I ignored my body's natural desires, composed myself, dropped my gear, and headed with the group up to the summit post. I was surprised to see an actual flag, and next to it a capsule holding a logbook. One of my teammates wrote all of our names in the log as we all stood in a circle spelling them. It felt surreal. We took a few group pictures. I tried taking some photos of the views, but they were obscured by the smoke from wildfires in the surrounding wilderness area. We didn't have much time to stay - the clouds were signaling that weather was coming, and we still had to make the more difficult descent back to base camp. In the end, it was so fleeting, I barely remember what I felt being there. It reminds me of something my mountaineering inspiration, Melissa Arnot Reid, shared in a talk,
"The summit is for the ego, the journey is for the soul."
For an entire year, reaching the summit was something I thought about every day. Every minute on my commute, at work, laying in bed, on the computer - everywhere. The same thing goes for our second summit 10 days later, Mount Shuksan, a climb that ended up pushing me into a controlled panic. As I reflect on it, I am still a bit lost. I am still trying to accept that the way I imagined it would be is not how it played out. I struggled for the first few weeks home to put into words what I experienced; I still do. All I felt was a void, and perhaps disappointment. I struggled more with the climb than I had imagined. The leader I know I have within me did not come to the surface with confidence. I didn't return with strong friendships and the Instagram-worthy photos I wanted. The truth is, I immediately judged myself to be the slowest in the group, I was the worst cook, my GoPro died on me the day after our Mt. Baker summit, and I was notably uncomfortable in connecting with people.
In the end, it was expectation versus experience. Control versus lack thereof. And maybe that is exactly what I needed.
In my life prior to NOLS, I had complete control; too much, in fact. Everything was measured. I rarely asked for (or accepted) help from anyone. Every part of my day was predictable, and nothing was exciting. However, my return from NOLS marked the beginning of a new chapter. I left my job to pursue a not-quite-decided career path, and with that, I left the only established social community I had outside of my own family. I left a physical environment and job that I knew like the back of my hand. I left my identity - one that had become wrapped up in work that no longer inspired me. Turning away from having control, embracing the unknown, taking risks, and being uncomfortable more often than not, was harder than I thought it would be. But perhaps that's exactly what my NOLS experience was preparing me for. Being in the mountains brought the excitement and adventure back to the forefront of my life. It forced me to live and experience every moment in the moment, because nothing is predictable and nothing is guaranteed, especially not success. It reminded me that you can never have complete control, and you have to embrace what you have, and who you have with you in your journey.
What I feel now for my experience at NOLS is gratitude; gratitude for a new perspective on failure and success, and learning to appreciate challenges for what they show us about ourselves. Perhaps the ~60 lb. backpack I could barely hoist onto my back was there for me to recognize the responsibility I carry for all the things in my life - whether necessary or not? Or, the thousands of feet I climbed over 15 days in the wilderness were there to recognize the commitment I made to myself to have this experience, and to do what I set out to do? When I submerged my nearly-naked sweat-covered body into an icy river - what if that showed me that I am willing to expose my wholeself to the world and risk discomfort in the process? And what if accepting help from others taught me that fear isn't something to be ashamed of, but is there to help me grow past what's holding me back?
So, yes, the summit was for my ego. I can say I was there, and I doubt it will be something that leaves my memory. But what I remember (and cherish) most was the journey - the peoplewho reminded me that I am stronger than I think I am, who celebrated with me when I successfully lit the camp stove or remembered how to tie knots for the tents, the ones who gave me advice and encouragement as I tackled things that scared me, and so much more. That is what I will take with me, and what I will share with others. Don't resist losing control; just let it go. Let yourself experience all of it- the excitement, the fear, the insecurity - honor what it is there to teach you, and enjoy the view on your way.
**A somewhat edited version of this post (with additional photos) was published on She-Explores in June 2019.