Well…it’s taken a little over a month for me to pull my thoughts together about my recent trip to climb Mount Rainier. I hope you enjoy it, and I welcome your thoughts and feedback.
NOTE: I get a bit wordy below…if you’re short on time, you can read the extremely truncated version of this piece that was published on elephant journal. :)
In the summer of 2009, I visited Mount Rainier National Park for the very first time. Some deem this downright shameful, given that I had lived practically a stone’s throw away in Seattle for nearly a decade. A friend and I stayed overnight at the iconic Paradise Inn, where nary a cell phone received a signal, and there was no internet access to be had for miles. As such, we were free to enjoy uninterrupted scrabble games at one of the tables scattered amongst the inn’s rafters in a loft area that overlooked the lobby. We decided to play a game while simultaneously catching a ranger’s slideshow and talk on summit expeditions below.
I half-listened to the talk, but as I glanced down at the slideshow, I became transfixed by photo after photo of mind-blowing views from Camp Muir and the summit. I saw the wildflower-studded, grassy slopes of the foothills; clouds swirling over wide expanses of snow, ice and rock; goggle-clad faces that bore unmistakably triumphant expressions. Seeing all these images in that moment, I was overcome with the desire to experience everything first-hand.
Realizing that I stand at 5’1″, one might be tempted to make a crack about how, perhaps, this short person longed for a view that was above and beyond what she could ever eyeball at sea-level. But at its core, this urge had more to do with the fact that, at that time in my life, I was, among other things: recovering from a break-up; reeling from having dealt with my mother falling ill for several months; trying to decide whether I wanted to leave a corporate job that, while lucrative, made me increasingly miserable; and coming to grips with the realization that I was very, very depressed and that I probably needed to do something about it, and soon.
I wanted to rise above all this, and in all ways.
So, just like that, I decided to embark on a rigorous, months-long adventure to prepare for a significantly difficult technical climb when I had never before had even the slightest inkling to climb a mountain, much less the highest peak in Washington State.
I knew I wanted company on this endeavor, so I began half-jokingly inviting folks to join me. The only person who took me up on it was my good buddy and neighbor, Susie. And so over the course of the next several months, we each found our own ways to pack 20, 30, and eventually 40 pounds into our backpacks. We carried this, the recommended training weight, up staircases, down staircases, up hikes, down hikes, and even while walking around the house. We carved out an ambitious joint training plan that had us at the gym on Mondays by 6:15 a.m., climbing the monolithic series of stairs on Howe Street at 6pm on Wednesdays, and hiking nearby mountains on Sundays. Between us, our collective cross-training regimen included ultimate frisbee, yoga, boxing, and running. We did everything we could with what little time we had in our busy schedules to get into the absolute best possible shape of our lives.
And that’s how I felt when we pulled up to Whittaker basecamp on the afternoon of August 26th. Although I had read the training recommendations and seen various videos of trail conditions, at a practical level I had no idea what to expect. But I somehow felt physically prepared for what was to come. I had done my homework. I had trained to the point where the 40-pound pack I had been lugging around for months now almost seemed to disappear after 7 laps up and down almost 300 stairs. I was back at my high school weight. I felt ready.
At basecamp, we met our merry troop of nine, which was comprised of people from all over the country, each with varying levels of climbing experience. We inspected our gear, met our guide, and were briefed on the route we would take up the mountain. We learned how to walk in crampons on rock, which, it turns out, is a bit like walking in heels on a dry and rocky riverbed – in other words, horrid. At snow training, we learned how to use our ice axes to stop ourselves from sliding down an incline on our butts, bellies, or backs. I hoped I would never have to use this newfound skill. We scanned the weather report obsessively, hoping that the predicted temperatures at Camp Muir and the summit would rise above freezing.
On a gorgeously sunny Saturday morning, we set out from the Paradise Inn parking lot, which sits at an altitude of 5,400 feet, to begin our climb up to Camp Muir, altitude 10,100 feet. It wouldn’t be long before we set out across the Cowlitz Glacier at 1:30 a.m. that Monday to begin our bid for the summit, climbing by headlamp in the icy darkness.
As a yoga instructor by trade, I’m in the business of telling people to “follow their breath”, and giving the somewhat vague directive to “let go”. But never in my years of teaching have I been more acutely immersed in both concepts as I was during the climb. I constantly employed the technique of pressure breathing to keep my oxygen level up, and, in the process, keep my lungs and brain functioning at optimal levels. This meant forcing air out of my lungs in the same way that one would blow out a candle at arm’s length, then letting the vacuum created by that action be subsequently flooded by the rapid influx of air from the resulting involuntary inhale. I could actually feel the extra rush of mindfulness that came with each repetition, akin to how I often feel after meditation practice.
In full mountain gear, we were wearing hard hats, metal spikes tightly strapped to our bulky boots, and emergency beacons that would, in theory, transmit our location to rescuers in the event that we got buried in an avalanche. We were toting ice axes and stepping gingerly over gaping crevasses. The higher we climbed, the clearer it became that, despite our guides’ level of expert experience, this endeavor was, as some of us bluntly put it, “no f___ing joke.”
It’s already pretty amazing to watch where your mind goes when you’re trying to quiet it down in the safety of a yoga studio, or pretty much anywhere at sea level, really. It’s a lot more amazing when one is confronted with – or rather, consumed by – thoughts of one’s mortality. My brain bounced around from thinking that my mother would bust a gasket if she accurately comprehended just how at risk my life was at any given moment, to hoping I would return safely to “save” my floundering relationship, to missing my dog, to thoughts about: food, places I’d been, places I wanted to travel to, old friends, new friends, kissing, sex, family…you name it, it probably kicked around in my head for at least a few seconds…if not hours.
Somewhere along the way, something happened. My mind began to take to the sheer monotony of watching and trying to match the steps of the person in front of me while simultaneously trying to keep just the right amount of slack in the length of rope that bound us – for better or for worse — together. These mental calisthenics also kept me from freaking the hell out when my gaze would drift towards countless precipices, down which one misstep meant certain injury, if not death. I could still see the whirlwind of thoughts I describe above, but somehow they became more softly-focused, and had drifted into the background of my consciousness. I was somehow more present and less present at the same time.
I felt like I had come to a place where my head retained just enough cognitive energy to stay calm and filter out thoughts that did not serve me in that moment. I remained focused on what mattered technically in order to not die and potentially take others with me in the process. Most importantly, I was able to let go of the danger that lay mere inches from my feet, and focus only on the area illuminated by my headlamp, my realm of concern. My reality was reduced to a moment-by-moment, step-by-step existence, in which the path I walked was quite literally my “life’s path”. And down this path, my body was able to direct enough energy to my muscles to just keep walking, no matter what. I was compelled to let go of whatever inhibitions I had, whatever was holding me back, and simply move forward.
Making the Call
We arrived at the much-dreaded Disappointment Cleaver – a hulking mass of boulders, dirt, and rock that takes, on the average, about an hour and a half to scale. This 90-minute slice of my life now has the distinction of being in my list of The Most Difficult Things I Have Ever Put My Body Through. During the last interminable 100 yards of climbing it, I wanted to vomit, die, and cry all at once. There I was, attached by rope to 3 other people, scrambling for my life up a 45-degree incline, ice axe in one hand, the other hand white-knuckling boulders and dirt. I was also praying that whoever was climbing above was not sending rocks towards us down the slope we faced, which I was less than pleased to learn had been dubbed “The Bowling Alley”.
At the top of the Cleaver, which sits at 12,300 feet, I was shivering, unable to control my body temperature despite my down parka, and incredibly nauseous yet unable to stomach food or water. I talked it over with our lead guide, and eventually came to the painful conclusion that, although I knew I could probably soldier on to the summit, I did not have the strength to safely descend the mountain. My body had reached its limit, and I was out of gas.
I didn’t reach the summit.
I turned back with two other women, one of whom was a 61-year old cancer survivor, 3-time Ironman athlete and massage therapist from Connecticut who, despite the fact that she leads frequent climbing expeditions to basecamp on Mount Everest, could not catch her breath. The other gal, whose boyfriend continued on to the summit, simply said, “This is on his bucket list, not mine. I’m tired.” I was in good company.
In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text that serves as a systemic foundation for many of the philosophical concepts taught in yoga, a practice known as Ishvara Pranidhana is translated from Sanskrit as “surrendering the fruits of one’s efforts ( to God/Divinity/Universal Consciousness)”. Not an uncommon concept to be addressed within the context of a yoga class, and, as a teacher myself, it’s certainly far from unfamiliar as a practice I try to keep (sometimes successfully) alive in my own life. But my experience with Rainier has deepened my understanding of its meaning.
More than ever, I realize that life is one enormous exercise in surrender and release. Every day our bodies release millions of cells with one swipe of our skin against countless surfaces. We surrender our earnings to purchase goods, to meet obligations, to be economically functional. We let go of a certain level of inhibition in order to make investments. Friendships and romantic relationships themselves are such investments that require trust (the release of suspicion and judgment) and the release of expectations in order to be truly healthy. Parents release children to school, to adulthood, to their own free will, to the whims of society.
We make, and continually break connections with people, issues, opinions, places, objects, situations, and memories of everything in between. Over the summer, I lost the closeness of 5 good friends in an exodus to other states. In the last few weeks I’ve lost students to other activities, and clients who couldn’t afford to continue classes. I’ve permanently misplaced articles of clothing. I’ve spent much of the time since my return sifting through the emotional carnage of a relationship’s demise.
I have long lost the immediacy of that deep, visceral gratification that mounted as we scaled slope after slope. I miss the satisfaction of knowing that each workout inched me closer to achieving something novel, a feat of physical extremity that few even have the desire to attempt. My axe, avalanche beacon, hard hat and other pieces of borrowed gear have been returned to their rightful owners. Even remembering the climb itself has been an act of releasing my ability to convey what we went through; although I have photos to remind me of my journey, nothing that I can say, do, or write will ever fully capture the experience.
So yes, I feel disappointment. Perhaps I’d be less so if no one in our group had summited due to weather or other circumstances. Maybe I wouldn’t feel disheartened if I didn’t feel like I had been completely physically prepared, and yet had most likely sabotaged myself before we set out by having an extra helping of crappy instant coffee, thereby making me more susceptible to the perils of dehydration and altitude sickness.
Don’t get me wrong – at a rational level, I know that a plan to climb Mount Rainier is really not about reaching the summit, and that I accomplished a tremendous feat just by making it as far as I did, and I made a smart decision to not push myself beyond my limits. But when I think of all that training, all that time, all that visualizing of myself at the top…each day I have no choice but to let go of my attachment to my desired outcome. Each day, I let that go and move into acceptance of what did transpire on the climb, and the possibility of a second attempt.
During the most difficult moments on the Cleaver, letting go meant pushing mightily to move forward – to literally rise above and advance on the path. Now, letting go of the notion that not summiting somehow leaves this life event incomplete is part of me moving mightily into the light of having achieved something I never dreamed I could do, something that honed and tested the limits of my body. As a result, I have a renewed understanding of my capacity to dig deep within myself, and uncover my spirit, my resolve to reclaim my health, my sense of accomplishment, and to live life fully again, with joy, and with style.
Posted: October 8th, 2010 under beginnings, nature, philosophy, photos, pranayama, seattle.
Tags: climbing mount rainier, Disappointment Cleaver, Ishvara Pranidhana, letting go, Mount Rainier, release, surrender