As I was strapping on the $25 store-bought metal crampons to the bottom of my barely broken-in hiking boots, my body awkwardly perched on the closest boulder that would allow me to lean against its cool, smooth granite, I thought what in the hell are you about to do? What exactly did you sign up for? My fight or flight response was kicking into high gear and I didn’t see a safe or feasible exit strategy, so I carefully walked onto the blinding white snowfield, dug my hiking poles into the dirty, crunchy snow and started inching my way up the mountain behind my dear friend and our two middle schoolers.
As I cursed quietly (and often) under my breath, I was also made acutely aware of my size and place in this world. The rugged and austere beauty of this alpine wonderland left me gobsmacked and that was a good thing, because I was already pretty scared and predominantly speechless. My mind was racing, but I had few words for the humans I was climbing alongside. Maybe it was the altitude? Maybe not.
At this point, I’d been sober for six months and used this climb as an excuse to train every Saturday back home and keep me on the straight and narrow with my health. Nothing would prepare me for this mountain in all its 14,410 foot glory. As I trudged up the 2.7 mile vertical snowfield, I was dwarfed by Mt. Rainier and the metaphor was not lost on me; I felt like I was climbing up and out of my small life to soak up a new, grander view and to glimpse how it looks on the other side. Until then, I would keep mildly swearing and talking to myself in between my short, labored breaths. I had to keep going, follow the others to higher ground and keep my wits about me.
Six hours after we set out on the initial trailhead, when we finally reached Camp Muir (elev. 10,080 feet), I felt relief wash over me like a raging waterfall. We did it! I did it! And, the best part of it was that we did it all together and no one got hurt.
We set out our lunch and bantered with fellow climbers who were staying the night at this base camp and continuing on to summit the mountain the next day. We shared our food, as well as stories of what brought us up here, to this sacred place, on what felt like the edge of the continent. This shanty-style mini-town was bustling with activity. It felt a little like Deadwood, only we were 10,000 feet up in the sky with handsome, rugged outdoorsmen in our midst who looked like they moonlighted as models for the REI catalog. So, in other words, not like Deadwood at all. We were the only moms up there with children and we counted ourselves as two of a small handful of women we saw at base camp. We felt pretty badass and proud of ourselves; proud of our kids. We posed for pictures and high-fived each other. We were bursting with pride for our accomplishment, but it was only half over.
The descent would prove almost as challenging as the ascent of this behemoth of a mountain and I would have to quickly master “ski-booting” if I wanted to leave Cloud Camp, as John Muir called it.
Ski-booting, for those of you not in-the-know with climbing jargon (like me!), is basically just leaning back on the heels of your boots and sliding down the snow-covered mountain with or without the assistance of your hiking poles. Oh, easy-peasy, right? Well, nothing about this trek so far had been easy-peasy and I repeatedly fell down with my legs, arms and poles spinning around me in frantic rotation, making me look like a human asterisk! It was pitiful, but eventually I got it and was grateful that I didn’t have to climb down the mountain, which would have added hours to our descent. Instead, I was working with gravity and not against it and I finally had to learn to just let go.
Hmm. There’s a concept I’ve been working on and let me tell you - it ain’t easy. But much to my chagrin, it wasn’t that hard either. And that’s when everything clicked for me up there on that snow-covered beast of a mountain and I realized - Hey, you know what? I can do hard things.
I can climb this freaking mountain.
I can quit drinking.
I can go back to school after 25 long years.
I can birth a human being.
I can stay married.
I can forgive my parents for getting divorced.
I can tell the unedited version of my truth.
I can do all of these things and more. And you know what? I am such a badass (mom, woman, wife, friend, daughter, sister) and I know so many other women that fit this bill, too. This mountain proved something to me or, rather, maybe I proved something to the mountain? Either way, I would go home with a confidence I have never felt before and to me it felt like strength married with peacefulness; calmness paired with honesty; and an undeniable sense of gratitude for this one precious life we're given.
As I approach my 45th trip around the sun, I'm finally starting to realize that all of my struggles and challenges have been nothing more than a series of life lessons that, lo and behold, I’ve learned from. Oftentimes I've been slow to receive these teachings but I usually get there, in spite of myself.
And guess what I've learned so far?
I can do hard things.
And you can, too.