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Lessons from a Mountain

How to climb a mountain:

  1. Don’t forget to pack your courage.
  2. Do not presume a mountain can be climbed all at once; one step at a time is all you will be granted.
  3. Faced with such permanence, take comfort in all that is fleeting, and dare not disturb the rocks.

It must have happened right around the 25th of the “99 Switchbacks” when I lost my own self. My whole, true self, shed somewhere on this unforgiving mountain, slipping away like a discarded extra layer.

The newly deprived me remained trapped on the gravel trail: a shell of a body composed entirely of shoulders that carried my backpack, lungs that rattled with every breath, and feet that methodically, excruciatingly slowly, continued to stagger forward. I had been perfectly reduced to independent parts. This sullen onward stumble is all I can recall about that particular section of the path.

Image by Carina DeVera.

I decided to climb Mount Whitney some time in spring of this year, on a whim, during a casual Sunday morning run with a friend.

To hike up the highest mountain in the continental U.S. sounded just like the kind of challenge to kick off your early thirties with — especially now that I was armed with a newfound physical fitness, after spending most of my twenties quite sedentary. Being “in shape” had become its own reward, and I finally wanted to put the true quality of my fitness to the test. Mount Whitney sounded like a formidable opponent.

When preparing for a particularly strenuous endeavor, the mind does understand the demands that will be placed upon the body. In a sense, I did not get myself into an experience any more intense than I expected — in fact, I chose this specific mountain because I knew it would be the physically hardest thing I’d ever do.

Image by Carina DeVera.

There is comfort in getting to choose your challenges preemptively. To throw yourself at a 14,500 ft mountain, and emerge victoriously, is to accept that the most difficult part is over. That one will likely never again experience anything this excruciating, this all-encompassing, this unboundedly exhausting. What a privilege to accept such a trial on your own terms!

And yet, philosophical notions such as these were completely suspended on that day, when the mountain laughed in the face of my pondering, and refused to yield. As I approached what I felt with certainty was the upper limit of my resources, as I breathed a full rattling breath with each unsteady step, the mantra began to form in my thoughts: “I will, I will, I will.”

There was no room in my mind for anything else, only the next step. And then the next. A spear of a prayer with singular focus: Each step. I will. Each breath. I will.

So I did. I arrived at the very top of the switchback section delirious and reeling precariously along the narrow path etched into the mountainside, but I had made it. There was more to come before we would finally turn around and descend, but I had endured that particular challenge, and pressing onward from this point seemed so disproportionately easy.

The mountain had taught me how to persist beyond all hope or expectation — a humbling lesson I will not forget.

Image by Carina DeVera.

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