04 Jan The Symphony in the Struggle
A lot of what is most beautiful about the world, arises from the struggle. ~ Malcolm Gladwell
You began with a broken back, ended with a broken heart, and brought me to just about every high and low I can imagine in between…
Scrolling back through my 2017 social media posts, I’m met with so many wonderful memories. There were big sailing races and epic trips to the islands, an amazingly quick comeback after a devastating injury, plenty of beautiful paragliding flights, and so many climbing goals accomplished! At a glance, the year was full of adventure, friendship, success, and smiles. And though all of those things occurred, looking back through my posts, I’m also met with the knowledge that the life portrayed on screen is not entirely true.
Because I also remember the other things; the things I was too shy or scared to discuss in a public forum at the time.
In the midst of my determination to stay positive and come back stronger after fracturing my back, I remember sitting at home, breaking down into tears every time my friends went climbing without me, wondering when or even if I’d be able to join them again. I remember the family troubles, the sudden and tragic loss of a dear friend, and the professional and personal relationships that had me waking up every morning with an anxious knot in my stomach and crying myself to sleep every night, wondering if I was worth anything at all.
And I remember gritting my teeth, pasting on a smile, and forcing myself to keep on keeping on, when all I really wanted to do, was curl up and crumble beneath the weight of a world that was beginning to feel too heavy.
I can’t remember exactly when the depression set in; it snuck up so quietly that it just seemed as if it has always been there. But unbeknownst to most people, over the course of 2017, I began to struggle with severe depression and anxiety, and each day it seemed to grow heavier and harder to fight. By the time 2017 was winding to a close, I was feeling lower than perhaps ever before in my life. I could find none of my usual excitement for the parties or new year’s climbing trips; I just wanted to stay home and wallow in my suffering.
And it sounds so strange, but the more I thought about suffering, the more appealing it became, although in a slightly different sense. Even now, I can’t explain it properly, but as New Year’s Eve approached, I began to feel an overwhelming desire to suffer physically. It was almost more than a desire, in fact, it was a NEED. I needed to struggle and stumble and breath hard and feel fire in my limbs. Because maybe if I did, maybe if I pushed my body to it’s absolute limits, it would take everything I had – including the depression and anxiety right along with it, giving me some kind of fresh start for the new year.
I was almost entirely convinced of this, or if not convinced, just desperate. Something had to change. This had to work. And so, one ENTIRE day before New Year’s Eve, I began brainstorming my sufferfest, trying to come up with the most physically challenging thing I could do with so little planning. Well, when its winter, and the tallest mountain in the continental US is only a few hours from your doorstep, the answer isn’t too hard to find!
I was going to climb Mt. Whitney.
It’s odd, but the idea of trudging up that mountain in the freezing cold, fighting an altitude headache, barely able to breath, was so appealing that I began to feel genuinely excited for the first time in months. I hastily checked weather and road conditions, ran to the store for snacks, REI for a pair of micro spikes, phoned a friend crazy enough to go along with me, and at 9:00pm on New Year’s Eve Eve, we were on the road to Whitney Portal.
And then, far too early the next morning, after a cold night of little sleep and lots of wavering back and forth, we went for it! For the next few hours, we wound our way through the wilderness. Switchbacks amongst lofty pines led to lush valleys and streams half frozen with crystalline ice, and then onward to desolate rocky plateaus and narrow, daunting ledges of snow and ice. All the while great slabs of granite stood guard overhead. The Sierra’s have always been very special for me, and as I trudged, postholded, slipped, and scrambled my way up that trail, I could feel the mountains working their magic again. Tucked into the shadow of such a vast and timeless wilderness, I felt small and safely insignificant. My little cares and the weight on my shoulders seemed like nothing out here, and at least for a time, my anxiety began to drift further away with each cold breath, each bead of sweat, each burning footstep.
My friend and I made excellent time, reaching Trail Camp, just below the 99 Switchbacks, by late morning. Here we took a detour from the normal trail to go admire the views and refill our water at Consultation Lake. We were using an icepick to access shallower water between two boulders, when, as if in defiant response to our scratching and hacking, the lake rumbled thunderously underfoot. We froze for a moment, exchanged a nervous glance, and then leapt back onto one of the boulders.
There was a moment of silence, and then another peal of thunder and a reverberating in your very bones as the ice cracked and split in the middle of the lake. As the minutes passed and the sun crept higher in the sky, the sound of ice cracking and shifting came ever more quickly, creating a drumroll of echoes through the pass. And it was some kind of magical, in the midst of this sufferfest, to sit on a boulder, legs tired and heavy, and listen to the mountains play a smphony.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been in awe of anything more, and as I listened, I was struck by the thought that maybe there’s some kind of symphony in every struggle. I reflected on the hard times of the past year and found in each one, something beautiful. I thought of all the good friends that had stayed up long nights with me when I couldn’t sleep, brought me food me when I struggled to eat, or accompanied me when I was lonely. I appreciated once again the moments of freedom I could always find in climbing and flying and sailing. And I remembered that even though certain doors had closed, new ones were slowly swinging open.
I won’t claim that a day in the mountains solved everything, but it was a powerful demonstration for me. After my friend and I gathered water and shouldered our packs once again, I could feel each step taking me just a little further away from the suffering of the past year, and onto a bright, wide open trail for the next.
Happy New Year Everybody!