The first time I soloed a long trail, it almost broke me. Being naked and shivering inside my sleeping bag with nothing to shield me except a tiny backpacker’s tent quickly twisted my thoughts into a thousand worst case scenarios, my mother’s voice echoing loudly about hypothermia, snakes, and career-minded decision making. It was 42 degrees outside, and I could hear the percussion of rain lapping against my tent as I trembled in my down sack. Below my precarious perch on Saddle Peak’s mud-covered switchbacks, the constant whoosh of traffic pulled at me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Civilization was just a mile away, if only I would give up.
When you’re camped illegally and your lights burn out, and your phone dies, and your solar charger fails, and your thermals get soaked, and the skin falls off your feet, it can be excruciating to try and steady your mind to weigh the gray area of danger vs. discomfort. Alone in my tent, I burrowed as deeply as I could inside my sleeping bag and started surveying consequences. The ripped blisters were just a painful nuisance, the lights wouldn’t be an issue in the morning, and it didn’t matter if my clothes were soaked through; the sun would eventually dry them.
I fumbled with a Ziploc full of trail mix and a handful of jerky, careful to let as little of my skin touch the air as possible. My nose protruded from the marshmallow of down bedding like a prairie dog on high alert. “At what point does the cold become precarious?” I wondered, trying every meditation technique I could muster to breathe through the near state of panic my goose bump-ridden skin had stuck me with. The frenetic roller coaster of my thoughts bounced doubts against the flimsy, nylon walls as I stared into the blackness. I snapped.
I broke down camp faster than I ever had before, adrenaline hand-holding my exhaustion and yanking me back down the mountain. I sloshed through puddles and skid across mud fields, narrowly avoiding a cliff’s edge tumble in the lightless agony of the new moon. Eventually, I made it home safely, but the pervasive question lingered: at what point does being supremely uncomfortable cross over into actual danger?
Being able to stay levelheaded as you min/max potential disasters in the wild is not an easy skill to learn, and I’m positive that I will continue to uncover layers buried under what I thought was a solution as my curiosity intensifies. When you tug at the space between a bruise and a breaking point, you begin to unravel messy, cruddy, crusted over truths about who you are at your very core and what aches and insecurities are behind the steering wheel of your subconscious.
These are the kind of questions I like to ask myself at the onset of a dread-induced brain freeze that serve as a good jumping off point to jiggle nerves into more useful spaces: What is the actual worst-case scenario if X happens? What would my next step be if that were to occur? Taking both of these things into account, do I still want to keep moving forward?
My stomach still drops every time I see a massive peak that I’m about to climb, no matter how easy the grade. I think out loud with my partner, running through a list of logistical questions – What happens if you get injured? Or I get frostbite? Or there’s an avalanche? Somehow, talking it through out loud as we laugh about far-out possibilities alleviates the tension and teaches my brain how to make a habit out of composing a mental checklist for tense moments in the field.
Like meditation, hiking, or yoga, the benefits of this sort of fearless introspection manifest in ordinary life as well. Handling a difficult boss suddenly becomes an exercise in stripping the emotional fat away from a more linear problem that needs to be solved. Simple things like deadlines, awkward phone calls, and waking up early all fade in intensity when you get into the habit of leaping past your discomfort sensors and plainly laying things out inside your mind. Plus, the executives at any company will seem like kittens once you’ve scaled a 1500 foot cliff’s edge or navigated your way out of a searing desert maze.
The gap between discomfort and danger is scarcely different than the void between the possible and the impossible. It takes equal parts optimism and insanity to traverse the two. I’ve subscribed myself to thinking about this divide like an engine diagnostic for the brain; whenever doubts or anxieties pop up, I know to dig further into that spot to uncover what else is there and release it.
Set your comfort aflame. Turn a mirror to your fear and take a clever look at its cracks and edges. Is this a space you have consciously chosen to inhabit?