Failure to Climb

*Photo taken below summit near tree line from the Dublin Trail on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

We all have those moments in life where we fail at something, but it’s especially jarring when we fail at something we expect to achieve with ease. It’s a life lesson, maybe. Or maybe it’s just a bad day. I blamed my failure on spring allergies, exhaustion, and not eating enough breakfast. It really is my own fault, but I want to blame it on things out of my control. I really can’t. In reality, I think we all like to blame other people, unfortunate circumstances, the dog, random problems at the grocery store, whatever excuses we can find when we fail. This weekend I failed to climb a mountain I thought I should be able to climb with ease. The entire time I struggled, I sought for reasons why I was having such a difficult time. We humans often like to do that. Blame. Well, crickets, we can only blame ourselves when we fail. Good news: we can also rise to the occasion and try again. Let me explain.

Over the weekend I drove to New Hampshire to visit Michael. I miss him horribly, and because his schedule at work is so erratic, I often only get to see him once every ten days to two weeks. It’s hard for both of us, but we chose this because if I stay in Olean I can keep working on the house while he makes money in New Hampshire. We don’t like it, but it’s temporary. We plan to make New Hampshire our new home base soon, and we will continue traveling for a while because we love it, but we need to sell our Olean home in order to buy land in New Hampshire. The drive to New Hampshire from Olean is seven hours, about half of which is highway driving. It’s a long drive to make for just a short few days, especially when two of those days is spent on the road. Too short, but we make the most of it.

I brought along our Camelback water bladders so we could hike Monadnock on Saturday because both Michael and I want to go backpacking in the Adirondacks over the summer, and we both need to get ourselves in condition for the trip. Though Mount Monadnock is only a little over 3,000 feet, it’s the kind of climbing one must do in the Adirondacks: lots of scrambling over boulders and big rocks. I expected this to be a snap, since out West I climbed much higher mountains out there every other day. Heck, I climbed to the peak of a prominent mountain in the chain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, well over 12,000 feet, though I did only have to climb the last 2,000 feet to get to the top. Still. It was high, and plenty of the climbing I did on other peaks was very challenging with a lot of loose sand and steep slopes. Plus, a few years ago I climbed Mount Haystack in the Adirondacks with a 30-pound pack on my back, and that peak was almost 5,000 feet. So you can see my thinking here. This peak which I climbed a couple of summers ago should have been easy.

Michael and I both suffered from a lack of sleep, to be fair, but I am used to having my sleep interrupted and functioning without much difficulty. We ate a decent breakfast, filled our Camelbacks, brought along a few snacks, and away we went to the Dublin trail on the western side of the mountain. If you hike Monadnock, you can go to the White Dot or White Cross trail, which is supposedly easier, but you have to pay a fee. We chose the Dublin trail because it was closer to drive, and because we wanted a little variety. When we got there it was early afternoon, plenty of time to hike the peak and back before dinner. I read a website post that stated it should take about 2 ½ hours…right. Well, if you’re not slow as molasses in January, which is what we were. At first, I got on the trail and felt fine. I was excited to hike the peak again because I remember it being fun to scramble on the rocks to get to the top. It’s a fun challenge to be free of the past terror that used to turn my legs to jelly when I saw how high I was on a mountainside. Now I climb with the glee of a Billy goat, tackling slopes I never would have dared in the past. Little by little the dirt track became large rocks to negotiate on the trail, and then the rocks became more like stairs. Stairs which went up and up and up, seemingly without end. Without bug spray, we were at the mercy of the gnats and mosquitoes under the trees, which only made the experience more difficult. Still, despite my growing fatigue, I felt determined to push onward.

By the time we reached the portion of the trail where the trees shrank in size and the exposed rocks became the norm, both of us felt whooped. I could not believe it had taken us two hours to get to the point where we still had at least another half hour (or an hour at our rate of speed) to achieve the summit. What the heck? We sat down and ate some almonds, looking at the beautiful view. From that height, we could see the dots of lakes that appear as puddles in amongst the saddles of the rounded valleys. The sun shone between the imposing clouds, birds soared in the updrafts, and the breeze kept the bugs away for a while. Despite this delicious moment on the mountainside, we felt spent. We knew it would be a mistake to try to press ourselves any farther, as both of us knew we were running on empty. At the time, we blamed the humidity, the lack of sleep, our work schedules…blah, blah, blah. We threw in the towel because we had to get back down without getting hurt, and it was a wise choice. By the time we got to the bottom again, I was in a haze of exhaustion like I had been hiking for days. In fact, I’ve felt better after days of hiking than I did coming off that peak.

What reason could possibly be blamed for such a bad climb? I have only myself to blame. Since coming back to the East Coast, I have climbed zero mountains. The only hiking I have done has been on relatively flat trails, with only a few occasions when I climbed up hills, not mountains. Hills do not qualify as training for mountain climbing. After all my hard work out West, once I got home I got wrapped up in working on tearing the guts out of the Airstream, and then working on the house in Olean. I did not climb any mountains. The last mountain I climbed was in February. February! That, in my mind, seems like weeks ago, but it’s been months. And though I have had plenty of success climbing mountains in the East, the climbing I did out West was very different. Less humidity actually works to your advantage out West, in my opinion. Your sweat actually does its job out there because it evaporates and cools you. In the East, not so much. Also, even though you have less oxygen out West due to altitude, you also have much easier climbing on the slopes because the trails are a gentle grade, even up high peaks, most of the time. For some reason, East Coast hiking means climbing much more difficult grades while also scrambling over boulders. Not so easy.

Now I find myself in the position to have to work very hard to train before I attempt any hiking in the mountains here, otherwise I will most likely face a very miserable trip. At this point, I absolutely must find a place where I can scramble up a steep slope at least once a week if I want to move at a pace faster than a sloth when I don my heavy pack in the wilderness. But I am glad to have the face-slap on an afternoon hike, rather than to have the misery of unexpected fatigue and suffering due to unpreparedness on a backpacking trip. Even though I’ve been hiking for a long time, even I need to be reminded to take care of myself in order to avoid issues on the trail. Let this be a lesson, hikers. If you plan to get out there this summer, take the time to prep yourself with a strenuous day hike first. Know your body and what it can do, and then learn what you must strengthen before you have to be reliant on your body for days or even weeks on the trail. Even if you’ve backpacked in the past, if it’s been a while, take the time to test your limits before you go so you don’t have any nasty surprises. Nothing is worse than getting out on the mountain only to discover you don’t have the strength to make it over the peak to the camping area on the other side. Trust me, it’s not fun. So, get out there and get strong. Find the views. Enjoy the struggle. Drink in the fresh air and bask in the sunshine. Those of us who choose to hike know that the struggle and conquering the peak is a joy like no other, and we do it for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I climbed that mountain.” Yes, I did climb that mountain once. And I will do it again.

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