We bumped along a rutted dirt road in a rented SUV, parking a quarter mile from the trailhead that would lead us to the summit of Mount Democrat. We hoisted backpacks stuffed with water, food, dry socks, and extra clothes onto our backs. The thin, 38 degree air nipped at our hands and faces left exposed by our light down coats. We looked ready to conquer a mountain or two.
While I’ve run a few 10K’s, Paul, my significant other, and our friends, Dan and Jayme are veterans of marathons, triathlons, and obstacle courses, (and in Jayme’s case, an Ironman). But, winded by the walk from the car to the trailhead, even they worried that our less than 24 hours at altitude had not been enough time for our sea-level dwelling bodies to adjust. I began to sweat.
Up. Up. Up. We scrambled over loose rocks, gravel, and dirt for a mile and a half. This, I began to realize, was not hiking. This was CLIMBING.
Jayme strode ahead. Her cheerful yellow visor bobbed like a beacon in the distance as I placed one careful foot in front of the other. An injury to my hip slowed me down, spiking pain down my leg whenever a rock unexpectedly slid out from under my foot. Still, I grinned. The crisp air and the sight of wildflowers nodding their petals atop a thick carpet of moss invigorated the climb. That is, until we hit 10,000 feet. Here, no more vegetation would grow. Rocks, coppery and veined with quartz, were all we could see with our faces pointed towards the summit.
I kept a slow but steady pace. Paul stayed close. About halfway up, the wind began to blow in earnest. 40 to 50 mph gusts whipped about us as we stood on the exposed spine of the mountain. I did not allow myself to think about stopping.
Getting to the top, as much as my legs burned and my breath caught in my throat, was not the problem.
The problem was getting down.
The wind blew hard enough to make us stumble on already unstable rocks and gravel. I couldn’t count on my leg to hold me if a rock I had trusted gave way. I crab walked on all fours down the steepest parts of the trail, while Paul slipped and slid a few feet in front of me. At one point, I whimpered, tears pricking my eyes, “I’m frightened.” Paul, knowing there was no choice but to go on, replied, “I know. It’s okay.”
Towards the end of the climb fatigue made falling ever more likely. Three times my butt met dirt and stone before we reached the trailhead again.
“That was so fun! I’ve got a new addiction!” Jayme exclaimed, tired but happy in the car on the way home. “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”
Fun, as you might imagine, was not how I would describe this adventure. Awesome? Yes. Fun? No. N.O. No way.
But would I do it again? If I could rewind to that moment when the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. to throw on clothes, grab our packs and trek up that mountain, would I?
You bet your buttons I would. Here’s why: awesome lives at the intersection of fun and scary.
“These are the kinds of experiences that give something back to you.” Dan leaned back in his chair at dinner that night, shrimp taco in hand. “They show you who you are in a whole new way.”
Humbled but not broken, I experienced both a new awareness of the strength of my will and the vulnerability of my body. I am in awe of my friends, the 7-year-old competitive gymnast in her tiny hiking boots on her way to the summit, and the gaggle of Missouri teens we met trekking the mountain with their cross-country team coaches. My ego lost ground that day, but my essence-that part of me that connects to something greater-found wordless expression.
At the bottom of the mountain, my legs shaky, my face gritty with dust, I could still enjoy the beauty of the clean mountain stream pooling around me. I could laugh with my friends. I could remember the promise Paul and I made to check that a fellow climber had, in fact, locked his black Impala. Life flows. I flow. A real mountain and a metaphorical one are the same; I go up and I come back down.
Choosing adventures, whether it’s climbing Colorado’s fourteeners, leading hundreds of people, writing and singing songs to share with the world, saying yes to new experiences, or starting a business, challenges us to see the world and ourselves in new ways.
And that, my friends, is awesome.
Be awesome in real life.
A version of this post was previously published on AngelaNoelAuthor and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Angela Noel