My fiancé has always been a hiker. His father scaled the Adirondacks long before he was born, and he inherited that passion. For years, he had climbed, crawled and butt-scooted up and down the rocky slopes of the High Peaks region.
Though he had long wanted me to go with him, I resisted on the basis that I was not in mountain climbing shape. Once we booked our flight to Alaska in 2019, I could no longer claim that as I needed to actually get in mountain climbing shape.
We had done plenty of day hikes and one short backpacking trip before the summer of 2020. But in June, I climbed my first high peak.
It was, in a word, hard.
For the first time I understood what it meant to leave it all on the mountainside, to push your limits further than you’ve ever pushed them. There is no quitting when you’re on a mountain. There is no easy way out or quick exit. There is only one foot in front of the other for hour after endless hours. There is only one curve of the trail and then another, one false peak and another. There is only the endless drudgery of sitting in the pain, the aching of your pack, the pain in your shoulders and the shaking in your legs.
When my fiancé and I first started meditating, we used the Waking Up with Sam Harris app. In one of the meditations, Sam invites you to sit entirely still for 10 minutes. No fidgeting, no adjusting, no giving into the temptation of relief. Pain was, he posited, an inevitability and it is only our ability to sit with this pain that will allow us to move through it.
This stuck with me and returned to me time and time again as we hiked the jagged switchbacks of Sawtooth. Due to a timing error, we found ourselves coming down from the summit in the dark and the rain.
It was one of the most miserable moods I have ever found myself in. There was nothing to be done about any of the things that ailed me; my aching shoulders, my tired feet, my wet limbs. All I could do was continue to move forward and hope that the next curve in the trail was the one that would lead us back to our tent.
Of course we eventually made it, and I found myself utterly exhausted, but my mood lifted as the pack came off my back. We layed down and scarfed a few snacks, too tired and worn to even attempt a fire.
See, my main thing about climbing mountains has always been this- it’s all well and good to get to the top, but then you have to go all the way back down too.
It’s hard enough to get to the summit, and even then, you’ve only gone halfway.
We stopped intermittently on the trek on and off the mountain, momentarily lifting the weight of the packs and smoking a quick bowl. Though my limbs screamed in protest with every step, I sat with the pain and focused on my breath. In and out. Activate the muscles in my legs and core. Watch each step.
We trudged silently for hours. Early on in our first backpacking trip my fiancé told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say I shouldn’t say anything, (fair) and that set the pattern for fairly quiet hikes. I do not have anything nice to say while I’m hiking, and it creates a curious atmosphere of focus and internal reflection.
Sawtooth was my first high peak, but it was also a new one for my fiancé, and for the first time I watched him struggle in the woods. He had seemed to me an effortless hiker on our short trips, completely comfortable and at home with the demands of the trail and I found myself comforted watching him struggle alongside me. He was not some superhuman hiker with an unattainable mindset; he simply put one foot in front of the other and trusted that the trail would lead to an end eventually.
We hiked in through the Adirondack Club, paved path giving way to packed gravel and then dirt. It was a palpable relief for the both of us to reach the packed gravel on our way out, and the mood lightened considerably.
Three months later we found ourselves utterly exposed during a rainstorm that whipped onto the side of Flattop Mountain in Anchorage. It was a bald rock trail that simply went straight up the side (Alaskans don’t abide by switchbacks, apparently). In the depths of my misery, cold and wet and trying not to fall off the side of the mountain, we were passed not once but twice by a local woman in flip-flops with her two chihuahuas.
If I took any pride in the climb it would have bruised my ego.
I have yet to find solace in summiting; the knowledge of the decent weighing too heavily to pull excitement from the depths. But the view is always humbling, a reminder of my ultimate insignificance in nature and the universe. In such uncertain times, it is a grounding reminder that life will ultimately go on.