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.