If you've ever climbed or attempted to climb a high mountain, you already know that most of what you do is scramble your way through boulders, rocks and rough terrain until you reach the summit. "Scrambling" I learned, is an actual technical term, better known as "Alpine Scrambling" and it is a mix between hiking, hill walking, mountaineering and rock climbing. My friend, climb partner and seasoned alpinist Wende, was telling me about it when I was literally "between a rock and a hard place" and I thought about how the term carries somewhat of a negative connotation to it. To me, the meaning leans more toward “barely making it out alive”. It implies struggling, in this case, to stay alive and make it through the mountain. It most definitely is a struggle, but the negative connotation the term carried in the beginning, disappeared after the climb; at least in my book.
I have been living in Colorado for 8 years now and go on hikes often; as much as the weather allows me to. I can't get enough of the clarity of mind and general well-being that comes to me when I am immersed deep into the mountainous forests. As an avid recreational athlete, I knew I was ready to take my cushy hiking style to a whole other level and so, I set out to climb my very first fourteener. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, it is alpine jargon for a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. Intimidating but also enticing.
When we arrived, it was windy and cold as expected, and I was grateful for my extra jacket, beanie and gloves. We started the hike, and I was psyched and already inspired by the beautiful views. I examined the terrain and for the first hour or two, the climb was strenuous and intense, yet still reasonable. As it started to get more complex, I found myself having to look twice for stable stepping-stones and sturdy rocks to hold on to. Wende reminded me that I needed to trust my shoes, as they have great traction, but I found that hard to do. Every step felt like it could be the last one, and I didn't tell her then, but I was in panic mode. I looked down and quitting at that point seemed impossible. I also looked up and the summit still seemed far. The wind was picking up as we got higher, and there even were a couple of times when it felt like it could wipe us out entirely. My focus here, was not to fall and I decided that the smartest thing to do was to just take it one step at a time.
After a couple more hours of climbing, we ran into a delightful woman from Sweden, Camilla, who was braving it alone. She seemed so calm and collected, as did my friend Wende. Me? I was not showing it, but I was still scared. We were now a trio of courageous women attempting to summit Mount Evans, and not long after running into Camilla, we finally did. The view was breath-taking. The Rocky Mountains extended as far as our eyes could see and the feeling of being up there was indescribable; especially knowing that we had gotten up there with our own two feet and hands. No gondola or paved road. Just us. It was surreal, and we sat down at the very top to eat a quick lunch and take in the views. We had to rush a bit as all three of us had to pick up our kids from school and I thought about how lucky we were that we get to fit in these adventures whenever we want to. This magnificent setting, I thought to myself, is my backyard. Wow!
After our quick and deserved break, we started to head down. I was dreading this part, as the descent is usually tougher for me. There were lots of loose rocks and every step was unstable and slippery. Trusting my shoes, my steps, the rocks where I stood and taking leaps of faith was key here and this time around I was also dealing with muscle fatigue and pain in my knees. Not falling became my top priority again and I focused on each step. Wende was incredibly patient with me, and she offered her help every step of the way. I laugh about it now, although it was not funny then, but I admit that a big portion of our descent, I did by sliding down on my butt. More like a crab-walk, which accounts for the sore back and arm muscles I had the following day. But I really didn’t care about anything else other than feeling safe and not falling down the mountain.
After this steep and intense descent, we had made it back to our starting point and had completed the Mount Evans and Mount Spalding Loop Trail. I never felt happier about walking on flat and smooth terrain. We had made it! Five hours and five miles later, I had my first fourteener in the bag and I felt extremely grateful, proud, exhilarated, accomplished and exhausted, all at the same time. We went back to Evergreen, picked up our kids and went home to take the whole experience in. The days after the hike, I was still thinking about it and I knew it deserved deeper analysis. It definitely deserved writing about it, so that I could discern all of it more clearly.
I thought about how Wende kept offering her helping hand and how I hesitated. I always do this in my life and I am curious to learn why it’s so darn difficult for me to ask for and receive help. I noticed too that I have a hard time in trusting my own steps; I waver and look for the sure-fire way to accomplish something, as opposed to taking leaps of faith more often. I also came to the realization that, as Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through. Aside from getting airlifted out of that mountain, going through with the climb, was the only way out. As in life sometimes, I wanted the shortcut; I wanted to avoid the hardship because it felt like I would not make it out alive, but as we all have learned, more often than not, we do come out alive from life’s struggles; alive and kicking! I equally noticed that practicing mindfulness in activities like these is crucial and it can be a form of meditation; focusing and zooming in on each rock that I held onto and each step that I took is an awareness exercise that not only was essential to not falling down the mountain; it also helped me savor the climb, as opposed to hate it. I could have focused on worrying about what could happen if I fell or regretting ever getting on the mountain in the first place; but that would have made the climb miserable, even dangerous, and it would have gotten me nowhere. Ultimately, I also was pleased to recognize in myself valuable traits, like resilience, courage, strength, adaptability, an easy going approach to life and a deep sense of wonder and amazement.
These observations are valuable, because they can be compared to how we live our lives; to putting ourselves out there and to being vulnerable to all that could happen. I certainly am not the same person that I was five years ago, or even a month ago. The next time that I embark on climbing a mountain, I hope to be more trusting, more willing and able to ask for help and a little less afraid. I know for a fact that I will wear thick and sturdy pants in case I need to butt-slide my way down again and although I cannot know with certainty what the outcome of each climb will be, I will try to show up for each one with an open heart and mind. I certainly won't be the same woman that climbed Mount Evans on that late summer day, and for now, I will work on the constructive lessons that I learned on this one, my very first fourteener and anxiously await and look for another epic adventure to come my way.
Initially I thought that the biggest thing that I would walk away with after this experience was an incredible sense of accomplishment, awe-inspiring views and beautiful pics. I was wrong; I walked away with so much more. Even when the struggle overtone in the term “scrambling” remains, to me, it lost its negative connotation as I can now see how it is only through our struggles that we can attain growth, strength, appreciation, triumph, courage and much more. Facing our fears and showing up for life is courageous in itself; it will surely involve struggling, straining and wearying, and this is, in fact, not a bad thing.
The mountain was my master on that day and for this reason alone, I invite you to climb yours; take that trip, join that new class, complete that race, take on that new hobby, learn that new job, put yourself out there and do that one thing that scares you the most. Yes, you will be exposed and vulnerable and afraid and maybe even alone at some point, but I can assure you of one thing; you will feel more alive than ever before.