Therapeutic Musings at 14,000 feet: A Journey up a Mountain and Accepting Hating the Climb
Updated: Aug 4
Last year I climbed a 14er. For non-mountain climbing people (such as myself) a 14er is a mountain that is over 14,000 feet in elevation, Colorado has many of them. It is considered a very “Coloradoan” thing to do, and I am a Native Coloradoan. So last year, one year into the pandemic and not able to fly off to a beach vacation like I wanted, my husband and I decided to climb Mount Bierstadt. I hated it. The weather was hot, and then it was cold. It was muddy, it was snowy. It was really, really, freaking hard. But I’m glad I did it and being the therapist I am I did infer a lot of metaphors about life while climbing up and down that really big, stupid, beautiful mountain.
I went on a smaller hike beforehand. I had run a 10k the week before, felt pretty good. I read reviews of other people’s journey. I followed their suggestions and rented hiking poles (thank goodness, they really came in handy scaling the top third of the mountain covered in snow. Yes, there is snow in June in the mountains). We had food, we had a ton of water. We went early. We were as prepared as we thought we could be.
Accept that you can’t prepare for everything/that you didn’t prepare well:
We didn’t bring enough food. I should have brought extra socks. I was aware there would be snow but not for how much snow there actually was. (Seriously, it was June!) This hike took WAY longer than everyone said on the reviews (their 3-4 hour hike turned into my 7-hour hike. Cue the Gilligan’s Island theme music).
Use your supports/Find moments of gratitude:
I love you hiking poles. You were my very best friends during those seven hours. Thank you Goodwill hiking boots that were actually very sturdy and comfortable. Thank you trail mix and convenience store microwave breakfast burritos. And thank you husband, for no one else would I have scaled a mountain, and I’m glad I got to share it with you.
It’s not a competition:
We were lapped by both elderly people and a group of middle school students. It was both embarrassing and frustrating. Not only was I comparing myself to the people around me, but I was also comparing myself to the narrative in my head that I had constructed about this journey. “Everyone loves to do this, it’s easier for everyone else, what is wrong with me that this is really hard and I hate it?!” The internal comparison is often harder to turn down the volume on, but I was able to eventually stop focusing on the experience that I though I was supposed to have and focus on the one I was actually having. (Although the lack of oxygen around me may have helped with this too).
Your journey is unique:
My journey was not what people told me it would be like. It was not what I thought it would be like. It was actually way harder, and way longer than I planned on. I thought of my journey to build a family. On grieving. On a recent experience with some serious burnout. On mental health. On becoming a parent. Job changes. Break ups. Moving. We are told so much about what to expect through life that when our experience doesn’t match the narrative, or we doubt it, are ungrateful or even resentful, we feel really terrible about ourselves. Yet, I think most of us can attest, everything is way more complicated and intense than how it’s described. The rom coms and the love songs and your friend’s journey falling in love will be entirely different than your journey falling in love. It will probably be different than the experience the person you fell in love with is also having. So, why focus on the preconceived ideas? Notice the journey you are actually having.
Thinking you are at the end of your journey, only to discover you most certainly are not.
“Well, it’s been a couple of hours, and since I’m sure this hike is only going to take 4 hours we must almost be at the top! That big cliff in front of us definitely looks like the top! We are almost there! Hurray! Oh, wait. It’s not the top. What do you mean it’s not the top? I have to keep going? Where is the freaking top? How do I know that next peak is the top? What if it isn’t? What if we never get to the top?”
Quitting was a viable option, but I’m glad I didn’t:
I thought about quitting. A lot. I wondered if I quit what would that mean about me, about this experience? Would the whole experience not count if I didn’t finish it, would it all just “be a waste”? While I don’t agree with those thoughts now, looking back they were very powerful. I would like to say it wasn’t pride or stubbornness that propelled me forward, and that if the weather turned or if we were injured we would have had the strength to say “This is no longer good for me, I am changing the plan, I’m glad I got as far as I did but I’m going back”.
Quitting plans that no longer serve us can be difficult, but also really important. However, there is a difference between something being hard and something being no longer good for us, albeit that line is very blurry at times. I’m not entirely sure where I was on that line, but I must say, I’m really glad I didn’t quit.
Listen to your body:
Breathe. Rest. Adjust your footing. Try a different path. Massage sore muscles. Drink water. Breathe. Rest. Breathe. Rest. Breathe. Rest. And one more time because I don’t know anyone who actually does this well, BREATHE. REST.
Literally one foot in front of the other:
My sweet husband would often stop and look around, and wax poetically about the beauty all around us. He wanted to talk about it and reflect on it, later he wrote a song about it. It was very moving. Unfortunately for him, I didn’t want to pause and reflect because I was too focused on taking one step, and then the next step, and then the next step… I sort of wish I had his attitude, but I accept that this is how I made it up the mountain. I did (nicely I think) convey to him that I wasn’t ignoring him, I just didn’t have it in me to pause and talk and reflect. He understood.
So, the takeaway on this one I suppose is to communicate your needs, set boundaries and just do what you need to do to move forward. When you are back on stable ground at a normal elevation then you can discuss and reflect, however two thirds of the way up a mountain may not be that time for you. Forgive yourself when you need to cancel plans, not attend people’s baby showers, weddings, or funerals, not expend your energy when you literally don’t have it to give. You will not feel this way forever, your energy will replenish at some point (see the above section again). When it does you can be the partner/child/parent/friend/coworker that you want to be, but until then, just one foot in front of the other.
Take a moment to take in the scenery:
I did pause and notice the scenery and reflect, when we finally hit the summit. Of course, the last bit up was the most challenging. Of course, we only sat on the top of the mountain for about ten minutes before beginning the very long trek back down. Of course, I struggled to take in the scenery because I was worried about the remaining journey and if the weather was going to hold. Yet, there were a few moments of pausing and feeling the stillness and the quiet that is unlike anything else. Of looking further out than you thought possible. Of noticing how big the world is, and how small we are, in a good way. Feeling connected to everyone who has ever sat in this spot and looked out on the same view and felt the same marvel that I am feeling, and everyone who will come after me and feel what I am feeling. Our journeys are unique, yet in some still moments we can feel such expansiveness and connection. Pain is a universal feeling, but so is joy and awe.
Back down we went. Trudge, trudge. 3 hours after the summit, approximately 7 hours after we had started, we were back where we began. We drank water, changed our shoes, and then promptly drove to the nearest pizza parlor for pizza and a beer. We sat outside in the sun, fed our bodies, and finally reflected on our individual as well as our shared experience. We praised each other and ourselves, sent pictures to people, toasted and concluded that we were Mountain Badasses. In other words, we honored the experience. There will always be false summits. And once you reach the summit you still have to go back down. Then, there is a new hike. So, while the world keeps spinning and our lives keep moving, take time to pause, reflect and celebrate.
I hated climbing the 14er. I didn’t want to, but I did. It was like my one terrible experience white-water rafting. (Seriously, people like doing these things? I was pretty sure I was going to get hypothermia after both outings). However, there was meaning in the journey, in the struggle. Not in the moment, in the moment it was just one foot in front of the other, but later, as I had some distance on it, I could see it. It was harder than I thought. I don’t know if it was worth it per say, but I do know that a year later I have a fun story where I feel like a badass, really beautiful pictures, a new experience, and I barely remember the pain of it. So, I guess the conclusion is that in many situations pain is temporary. Will I hike another 14er? Probably not. Will I try a new and difficult experience that I may love but may hate? Absolutely. So, if you are living life you can’t avoid pain. But you can put one foot in front of the other, lean on your support, breathe and try to take in the scenery from time to time.