“I think your friend bit off more than she can chew…”
If you can’t tell by my reaction, I’m the ‘friend’ in this story.
I could probably just leave it at that photo, say I’ve made my point… I’m assuming you understand my feelings about the whole thing. But, I guess I’ll give you a little more background and maybe even a thoughtful account of my experience.
Last September, I took on the most intense physical and mental challenge I have ever put myself through in the backcountry….I hiked 70 miles in the Eastern Sierras and summited Mount Whitney.
Before I bought a plane ticket, before I started packing, before this trip was even a reality—I knew it would be a big accomplishment, and big accomplishments come hand in hand with overcoming big challenges. Over the years, my friends and I have done lots of trips, but nothing quite like this. We would be hiking more miles than we ever have and remain at sustained high-elevations. Oh, and then there’s that whole part about summiting the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
I’ve been at high elevations before and knew my body didn’t really cope well, so I didn’t think this trip would be easy. I never tried to convince myself that it was ‘no big deal’—I’m not naïve. But, I was prepared for it this time. I took better care of my myself since I knew what could happen. I drank lots of water and ate tons of food, which kept me from getting sick.
The very first day of our trip, we had to hike over Kearsarge Pass, hitting 11,700 feet—a new record for me. I didn’t feel physically sick, however, the altitude did affect my ability to move at my normal hiking pace. Judging by my near crawl, you would have thought this was the first time I’ve gone backpacking.
For those of you that don’t know me, I’m not a crier by nature. I usually stay pretty tough on the exterior…even when I’m really struggling. However, when I reached the top of the pass, I lost it. The tears poured out. And, when the waterworks started, I knew I rattled something pretty big inside of me.
I cried because I was completely exhausted. I cried because I was angry at myself for being 20 minutes behind my friends. I cried because I was scared shitless about the fact that the next day we had to go over Forester Pass (13,200 feet.) And, I cried because I couldn’t even fathom the idea that I’d be summiting Mt. Whitney in just a few days. All I wanted to do was turn around and go back to the car. I seriously doubted my ability to do this. I was broken.
But, I kept going. I put my pack on, and silently (but much more quickly!) hiked down the mountain.
My spirits lifted. Downhills will do that to you…
The next morning, we hit the trail at 4 a.m. so we could make sure we were over Forester Pass before the afternoon storms. Coming from the north, the push up to to the pass is long. It’s a slow and steady uphill that goes on and on…and on. Each member of our three woman group went at their own pace and met up at set times. I put a podcast on so I could try to focus on something else besides my inability to breathe.
As I chugged along, I was knew I was slow, but dammit—I was doing it.
There were lots of people hiking the John Muir Trail, so we kept running into the same crew along the way. While we pushed up Forester, most of these trail-worn badasses passed me. They were amazing, supportive, and friendly—offering words of encouragement and pats on the back, letting me know we’d see each other at the top.
“One step at a time.”
“One foot in front of the other.”
“You’ve got this.”
Those comments kept me going. Those amazing, strong, uplifting men and women kept me motivated. I could hear and feel true kindness and love from each of these people.
Without them, I would have been in a much darker place.
I was obsessive about checking my altimeter on this trip. It helped me judge how much longer I had to go. By the time I got to about 12,600 feet, I was really struggling. With 35 pounds on my back, my body refused to move faster than a slow crawl. I used my trekking poles to drag my oxygen-deprived body up the trail. I sat down constantly and took more breaks than I ever have before. I wasn’t dizzy or sick, I didn’t have chest pain, and I was not in any danger. I just moved really, really, REALLY slow.
I kept having conversations with myself:
“You did Kearsarge yesterday. You can do this.”
“You are such a fucking wimp. Just get up and walk.”
“Are you really stopping again?”
“Look, I can see my friends! Only a little bit more.”
“Just go until you hit that boulder. No, no, not that one, that one that’s farther away. Come onnnn.”
“Oh, that’s farther than I thought. I’m never going to get there.”
That’s the thing about chasing adventures in the backcountry: you have mood swings like crazy. One minute you’re stoked and happy to be there, and the next minute you want to get the hell out. Then twenty minutes later, you’re looking around thinking about how amazing this whole thing is and you couldn’t imagine leaving. As I sit here now thinking about the trip, all I want to do is go back. For you people who love the backcountry, I know you understand.
Once I hit the last few switchbacks, I was literally taking a break after every four or five steps.
And then, I did it. I finally hit the fucking top.
Of course, in the new Stephanie trend, I started crying. And this time, it was because I was so proud of myself. I wasn’t crying because I was last, rather I was thrilled with my success. I made it. I made it to the to the top of this damn thing. My friends were waiting for me up there, cheering me on.
At that moment, I remember deciding I can do anything in this world. Literally anything.
After the high fives and celebrations ended, my friends comically mentioned to me that one of the hikers had made a less than encouraging comment about my progress.
“I think she bit off more than she can chew. She probably should have chosen a different first 14er instead of Mt. Whitney.”
Wait, what? Didn’t I just climb up the same mountain you did?
If you know my friends, you know they can get spicy when provoked. They weren’t about to let him make those demeaning comments and then trot along.
Nope, after hearing his bullshit remarks, they gave him a piece of their mind.
“Well, she’s doing it, isn’t she? Just like everybody else.”
From what I’ve gathered, there was a little more back and forth, but essentially, I’d like to think my badass friends left an impression. (Thanks, you guys.)
That’s right, I was doing it. Who cares if I was going slower? I was covering the exact same terrain as everyone else. I wasn’t an idiot, I didn’t come into this thinking it was going to be a cake walk. I took on this challenge because I wanted to explore what I was truly capable of, and I was proud of what I was accomplishing.
And so, to the gentleman who so eloquently stated, “I think she bit off more than she could chew,”
Stop being an asshole. The outdoor culture is full of amazing and supportive people. If you plan to tear people down instead of build them up, consider staying inside and away from our beautiful landscapes. Thanks.
On a trip like this, you meet other hikers along the way and start to become a weird little group of ‘neighbors’. You look out for each other and you let them borrow a cup of sugar when they need it (or in this case, maybe an energy bar).
When you put yourself in the backcountry for an entire week, you’re committing to something big. All of us out there are always a little hungry, tired, thirsty, homesick…you name it and we’ve all probably experienced it when we’re out on trail. But, as quickly as it comes, it goes. You have to snap out of it and move forward. Maybe that’s because you have another 10 miles to go, or you have to climb another strenuous pass. Every hour brings something different. And if you’re willing to be out there, you’re a badass.
How can we expect to support ourselves if those around us are tearing us down?
Once I reached the pass, I was so proud of myself. But, I won’t lie, after hearing those comments, it killed my buzz. I started to doubt myself and my abilities. I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t. Was I really not capable of getting to the top of Mount Whitney?
After thinking on it a little more, I decided that this guy had no right to drag me down. I wasn’t going to let him ruin my trip, my success, or my mentality.
Instead, I talked myself up the entire way down.
I told myself that I’m a badass mom who just did something people dream about. There’s nothing better than coming down and looking back at the mountain you just dominated. Yeah, I said it—dominated. It kicked my ass along the way, but because I made it to the top, I won.
Never, ever let somebody else make you doubt yourself, especially in the outdoors.Trail-life is so different to real-life. The trail version of yourself is raw—you’re often more vulnerable and emotional than you are in your ‘civilized’ life. You have nothing to hide behind anymore.
I proudly finished the entire 70 miles, and summited Mt. Whitney, which stands at 14,504 feet. I then celebrated with my amazing hiking partners over a much deserved pizza and beer.
For anyone who wants to take on a challenge in the backcountry—do it. Don’t let anyone’s (or your own, for that matter) limiting beliefs or negative comments hold you back. Prepare yourself and know what you’re getting into, but never let somebody else keep you from doing anything you want.
You learn so much about yourself when you take on this kind of challenge. It can be hard. It can be scary. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
“I don’t handle altitude well.”
“Well, I’m a mom now.”
“I’m too weak and slow.”
“But, I’m a woman.”
I CALL BULLSHIT.
Do something you’ve never done before. Put yourself out there. And, don’t do it for anyone but yourself. I’ve learned that’s it’s acceptable to have emotions and be vulnerable. You don’t have to be brave the entire time in order to accomplish something big. This challenge has proven to me that I can do anything—even if at first it seems impossible. Neither the real-life or trail-life curmudgeons are worth your energy. You have to let them go if you’re going to get up the mountain.
Make it a point to lift up those around you, especially if someone is in the midst of a struggle. Give them your love, your good vibes, your support. They need it more than you even realize. You can help others dominate their own challenges by simply offering a few words of encouragement. It’s such powerful gesture, especially when we’re all at our most raw state.
Oh yeah, and just a friendly reminder: don’t be an asshole.