Lessons Learned on the Trail

  • Stephanie Barnett

Exposure: The Necessity of Being Seen During Change

As we approached the base of the summit pyramid, the stars began to fade, and the sun was just beginning to change the color of the sky to a brighter shade of blue. One of our instructors went ahead and began free climbing up and over the massive boulders and pitches of the gully, setting anchors for what would be our route up to the peak. “Alright, this is where we’ll leave our gear” said our other instructor, “leave everything but packs, water, and helmets.” As I listened to the sounds of metal crampons and ice axes hitting the ground, I could feel my heart thumping harder in my chest. My breath began to pick up speed, just as my mind did when I looked up at the 700 feet of rock that we were about to climb. Prior to this, I had only legitimately rock climbed outdoors once...and maybe 50-100 feet.

As the anchors were set, we began to climb - 7 students attached by rope, and 1 instructor guiding us up while the other waited at the top. It was a slow pace, so I had time to wait and watch how others were approaching some of the trickier ledges and larger boulders. I also had time to look over my shoulder and back out over the Sulphide Glacier where we set camp and slept on the ice the night before. Climbing up from our previous spot to make camp on the glacier was a decision I had voted against, “I don’t want to do it, but I will if that’s what everyone wants.” When I think back to uttering those words, I still cringe a little. Now, I understand, I was practicing a level of leadership known as "Active Followership" - even though I disagreed, I was committed to working with my team and move toward the objective.

With every step up, every foot of elevation gained, my mind raced faster, I felt more inadequate, my decision-making slowed, and my little confidence tanked. As we continued up, up, and up - my mental control went down, down, and down. People in front of me. People behind me. As I attempted to make the less-than-graceful climb up and over a large boulder, I couldn’t get the leverage I needed. Frustrated and exhausted, I stepped back and tried to control my breathing. I began talking to myself under my breath, another strategy that had worked in the past; however, this time it wasn’t working. My hands were shaking. I could feel moisture building in my eyes, but between the wind and the dry air, at least I could just blame it on the conditions; I wasn’t crying, not here. Not with complete strangers. “Get yourself together,” I impatiently thought to myself.

Suddenly, I heard my instructor’s familiar voice call out from above, “Stephie! I want you to take a break. You are getting into your panic zone. You are safe, take your time. I’m not going to leave you. We can relax and have (yerba) mate until you’re ready.” In that small moment, I felt my body relax. “I can’t figure out how to get over this,” I yelled up to her, my voice shaking. As I stared at the rock, resistant to make eye contact with anyone, my instructor suggested that perhaps I ask for one of my teammates to help me. Immediately, my teammate below me - a larger than life 50-year old cattle rancher from Arizona - had his hands ready for me to use as a step. As I carefully put my snow, gravel, and dirt-covered boot in his hand, I grabbed hold of the boulder and began the attempt again. As I pulled, he pushed and, finally, I crested over the top of the boulder. 

The rest of the climb was relatively straight forward, no more boulders that I needed help navigating - but my body felt weakened somehow. I spent the majority of the rest of the climb quiet and contemplative. I wanted to understand what just happened. What was wrong with me?

As we got closer to the summit, the protection of the gulley walls was disappearing. Without it, the intensity of the wind conditions made themselves known. On the final turn toward the summit, I had to scale a narrow ledge that made a half turn - to the right was a steep cliff edge and unobstructed view of the snow covered peaks surrounding us; to our left was a semi-straight line over rock to the summit marker. As I made the turn, I felt an odd sensation. One of safety, and one of complete exposure. It was thrilling. I wanted to stay in that space, somewhere on the edge of control and uncertainty. Knowing that we couldn’t stay long, I reluctantly turned away from the view and fixed my eyes on the summit. As I approached, my teammates waited, talking excitedly with one another, then one of them shouted to me as she took my picture, “Stephanie - wait - smile!” 

In climbing, the term “Exposure” is defined as,

“the empty space below a climber, usually referring to a great distance a climber is above the ground or large ledge, or the psychological sense of this distance due to being unprotected, or because the rock angles away.”

As I reflect on this particular experience, what I was struggling with was being seen for the way I felt - I was exposed, not only to my team, but to myself.

Two days before I stepped onto the NOLS campus in Mount Vernon, Washington for my course, I had said goodbye to my former career and community. I left my job on Friday, hopped on a plane on Sunday, arrived on campus on Monday. Ten years of identity being built, highs and lows included, overtime I learned how to control all of it and "manage" myself between work and the rest of my life. Up to that point, my day-to-day had no real risk...unless you count the potential for fender benders during 2 hours of commuting a day.

Fast forward to being at the Mount Baker permit office, getting to know some of my new teammates and they asked, “So, what do you do?". For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a clear answer.

In this newest experience, one I had planned for over the course of one year, I was doing more than climbing mountains. I was climbing out of where and who I’d been. My failure in the process of preparing for it - both in climbing mountains and making this life change - was not preparing to recognize that fear would come with it. I was undoing layers of comfort and ways of being that had worked before - put your head down, keep your emotions under control, don’t ask for help, just muscle through and it will pass. However, what I learned through the experience was those rules no longer applied.

In the end, this one experience taught me how to navigate change. To end up where you want to be - your summit point - there are four essentials that are the "deal or no deal" components to change.

Be Open to Doing Things Differently As we change, or the world around us changes, we also have to adapt what and how we do things. To try and continue “business as usual” could potentially support you initially, but know that some iteration will be required to maintain efficient movement forward and step fully into what’s ahead.

Acknowledge the Fear and Seek to Understand It Without recognizing fear is a part of any change, it will continue to hold you back and/or affect how you interact with others. The goal is to recognize the fear, while not letting it drive your decision making. How does fear show up for you? What are those emotions trying to tell you?

Accept and Lean into Vulnerability Discomfort is guaranteed during any change. Vulnerability means allowing that discomfort to happen. Let yourself be seen as you are in all of your uncomfortable glory - from there, you’ll open yourself up to connecting with people and be more able to ask for help when you need it.

Practice Self-Leadership Leadership starts with you - before you can lead others, you have to be able to lead yourself. In my opinion, self-leadership is the same as self-care. You are taking care of yourself so you can perform at your best and support your team. Get rest, nourish your body with what will support you, exercise, ask for help, etc. Self-care is personal, so make sure you take the time to reflect on what supports you to relax, recharge, and be ready to be fully engaged in the adventures ahead.

Struggling with change? Let's setup a time to discuss what might be going on and how we can get you moving.