Mountaineering: Masochistic Hedonism.

Instead of saying no, I found myself sobbing next to a creek in the Eastern Sierras. Fresh out of a fight with my boyfriend, I had traversed a cross-country approach to one of California’s highest peaks in the sweltering heat. I was terrified of climbing my first bergschrund, uncomfortable in my avalanche transceiver, and struggling to prop up the idea that I could make a great mountaineer. There was a bar fight inside my head, and I was losing.

There are so many reasons why people choose to embark upon a life of alpinism. Some want to challenge themselves mentally and physically, others harbor self destructive tendencies, and some might feel inspired to train for an objective they previously thought impossible. I am no different. I have a bad habit of lashing out against old constructs and complacency by making huge, sudden movements, hurling my body against the apathy of the world that bore me. At times, I feel almost offended by the banality of day-to-day life, the ticking clock of my limited time on earth pounding into my ears.

This is how I found myself staring up at a 60 degree couloir on Split Mountain with no avalanche training, no ice climbing experience, and no peak bagging over 14K feet. Fresh off a sugar high of Messner quotes and Ueli Steck clips on YouTube, it sounded like a brilliant plan to summit a classic 14er in the winter. When my climbing partner suggested we up the ante and try to scale a steeper, narrower route, complete with rockfall, glaciers, and bergschrund crossings, I said yes, though a splinter in the pit of my stomach began to grow the moment I opened my mouth.

Personalities drawn to mountaineering are often stubborn, wild, and high-achieving. They set massive goals and then slaughter them. In this environment, it is easy to play the yes game because it’s sexier to be willing than cautious. While swan-diving into overconfidence might win you a lot in the game of urban life, it absolutely carries with it some hairy consequences in the climbing world. Last weekend, I let my idealized view of the wilderness get the best of me, and I leapt, saying yes to something I never should have.

The comedown crushed me like a crummy hangover. Because I hadn’t thought through the pieces of the expedition properly, wrapping my head around the reasons I suddenly started bawling proved even more difficult. I struggled to fit the puzzle of my emotions into sentences that resembled logic. “It’s too much too soon” seemed to be the takeaway, rising amidst the blender of panic.

A friend recently told me never to test the limits of your climbing and your ability to protect that climb at the same time. It resonated with my dismay perfectly. I had chosen a trip that did both in a severely under populated wing of Inyo National Forest, and it left me shell-shocked. At least now I had a mantra for future planning.

Learning how to say no to a juicy adventure was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in the mountains. I spun around for hours inside my thoughts, realizing there was nothing to lose for being a little too cautious and everything to lose if I let hubris take the wheel. I felt sick to my stomach. I wondered if my timidity would threaten my growth. It decimated my self worth for a few days and made me completely rethink the way I communicate with my climbing partners when planning a trip.

I am grateful that I have trained myself to relish being outside of my comfort zone. True to form, I am learning to lean into the stickiness of a healthy debate. I never would have guessed that empowering myself to say no would become such a struggle, and I imagine its weight will permeate other areas of my life as well. After all, how can a yes hold meaning if a no never surfaces? The balance of both in a mindful alpinist is essential.

4 thoughts on “Mountaineering: Masochistic Hedonism.

  1. Dr B says:

    About 10 years ago on one of my last Alpine summit days in Switzerland with my son in law, we had just completed the Ulrichshorn and were about half way up the Nadelhorn. The snow and ice was glistening all around us as the sun beat down, we both knew what was coming as we stopped without any apparent reason to others on the slopes. Our watch alarms had gone off and we had reached the point at which we had set ourselves to have reached the summit and begin the trip down. Micheal shrugged and said “never mind, it’ll still be here tomorrow” as we reversed our steps to get past the bergschrund and across the small glacier and safely down before the heat of high noon could melt snow bridges or widen cracks. The moral of this? Summit fever should never overtake the golden rule of mountaineering…… climb within your own limitations and respect the objective and subjective dangers of your immediate environment. If you want a long life 🏔😂🕉

  2. Henry says:

    This is a great essay, and something that beginning outdoors people would be well advised to read. Summit fever and the desire to press on its real, and gets more people injured than probably anything else in the mountains. Thanks for a good reminder that sometimes it takes more courage to say no than it does to press on.

    • Brazen Backpacker says:

      I totally agree. Being a mindless member of a rope team and just stepping one foot in front of the other can be much more dangerous than just speaking up and assessing the risks properly!

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