It was mid-morning when we broke through the tree line, a bit weary but exhilarated by our accomplishment. We were a troupe of unlikely mountaineers raging in age from 7 to 43, and we were on a quest to honor the man who inspired it all. In fact, shortly before he died, my dad had requested that we climb his favorite mountain, one that he had repeatedly summited over the years. The mountain itself just happened to be Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s tallest peak, and most of us were physically unprepared for this monumental task. Yet here we were, celebrating at tree line, a 4am start, and miles of steep switchbacks behind us. The aroma of pungent sage clung to the air as we breathed deeply, nibbled away at our sandwiches, and made the necessary calculations as to who could continue with the climb. My husband kindly offered to chaperone the younger kids back to the campsite at their gentler pace while my brother, my daughter, and I determined to forge ahead. Had I known that tree line was but a midway point in the climb, my middle-aged “walk-the-dog-at-sea-level-for-exercise” self, may have declined the journey. Looking back, I am so glad that I committed to doing it. A mountain climb is, without a doubt, an excellent metaphor, for conquering adversity. It is a geological “teachable moment”. I learned much about myself, and how to overcome, that day.
While preparation is key, so much of the climb is about perseverance and mental attitude. It is about ‘showing up’ in the painful and discouraging moments, facing the discomfort they bring, and taking action…step by step, through it. I could look at how far I had yet to go, I could hear the word “false peak” and let my mind wander to the insurmountable challenge beyond, OR…I could look down the mountainside, see the ground I had covered already by simply plodding forward, and press on. To be honest, much of that mountain was an internal battle between the two perspectives but, with intention, I leaned heavily on the side of pressing on. Fiercely protecting my hope of celebrating with my brother and my daughter at the top, I put my head down and focused on the patch of loose rock right in front of me. Further incentive to keep plugging away was my desire to honor the man who taught me a little something about inner resolve, then lovingly gave me one last opportunity to demonstrate it. Slowly, steadily, I moved forward, while on occasion taking the time to appreciate the view from where I was; to watch the marmots and pica dart between boulders, to marvel at the grandeur of peaks as far as I could see, to wonder at the delicate mountain wildflowers carpeting the rocks. Big hikes lend themselves to gratitude for little things: a cool drink of water, a warm jacket, an absence of thunderclouds on the horizon…. Choosing joy, even if you’re not always feeling it, is essential to any successful climb.
Monitoring self-talk is also crucial on a journey such as this. I realized along the way how natural it was for my mind to slip into negative mantras such as “I can’t do this” or “it’s too much”. Other climbers would pass by with their professional gear and I would tell myself I was completely unequipped for the task and that my pace was too slow. Comparing myself to others who seemed better prepared, who were more in shape, and looked stunningly more attractive in their REI get-up was nearly my undoing. I had to reel in my thoughts, to preach positivity to myself, instead of falling prey to negative ruminations. Yes, the task WAS hard. Tackling an 18% grade with little air to breathe, on a path that goes on for miles, is no small feat. But, I had tackled difficult physical and emotional challenges in the past, and had made it through. I repeatedly told my doubts that this was neither the time nor the place for them, that while the task was hard, it was not impossible, and that I was simply going to do my own personal best, so that there would be no regrets on this day. Though every part of me wanted to ease myself onto the nearest rock, I mentally repeated “you can do this”, and took the next step.
No small part of any journey, is the company along the way. I was fortunate to have some very kind and capable climbing buddies with me. As previously noted, my husband selflessly gave up his chance at the peak to care for our younger crew. Remaining with me, my daughter urged me forward with encouraging words: “it’s just a little further, Mom”, “you’re doing great”, and an occasional “LET’S GO!” (She WAS 13, highly determined, and not taking any excuses). My brother checked in with me regularly, monitoring my pulse to make sure that I wasn’t putting my health in jeopardy as I tested my own limits. Fellow climbers offered validation and encouragement. Those who had already summited and were making their way down offered invaluable support and helpful information about what lay ahead. Small kindnesses such as shared smiles, stories, or snacks were given in abundance.There was community on the mountain that day. People from all walks of life were taking on this challenge, supporting each other through it, and celebrating a well-earned, breath-taking (literally!), unparalleled view…together.
I will never forget how it felt to take those last few steps towards the rock cairn that signaled the top of Mt. Elbert. Though my feet were blistered and my legs weary, I truly felt like I was walking on air. The truth of Sir Edmund Hillary’s words, laminated and tucked carefully in the rocks, echoed powerfully within me: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”. Life can be hard. There are times when it can be downright ugly and grueling. Circumstances beyond our control can overwhelm and it is easy, perhaps even understandable, to fixate on the challenges, to tell ourselves they are “insurmountable” and to give up. It can be natural to compare ourselves to others along the way, to envy their accomplishments and underestimate our own. There are times when it may feel like our biggest accomplishment is simply putting one foot in front of the other. In those times, it’s so important to look at the ground we’ve covered, to keep our sight on what’s directly in front of us, to choose joy, and to press on. If we have lost our way or feel too exhausted to continue, it may be helpful to rally our hiking buddies or to reach out to a professional guide (aka a counselor/psychiatrist) who can help us get back on track and moving forward again. The difficult circumstances in our life should not have the final say. Keep the faith and take the next step.There are beautiful vistas to be discovered, there are inner demons to be conquered, and there are fellow climbers to encourage along the way. You ready? In the wise words of an eager, young climber: “LET’S GO!”
Larisa B. joined Empathia in 1998 as an EAP Counselor. Larisa has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larisa thrives on being with her family, has a passion for photography, is always up for a good hike, and is typically in the middle of no less than three books at any given time.