Maybe She’s Born with it… Maybe it’s Masochism.

In July of 2016, I completed my first 3-day backpacking trip with a man I was terribly in love with. We ambled up rocky paths in the high country of Yosemite National Park and watched the sun rise with a shock of electric pink over granite domes that dotted the landscape like the hardened knees of some huge, mummified giant. On our last night out, we set up camp early near Polly Dome, allowing for ample time to dodge mosquitoes, smooch, and jump naked into an alpine lake. “1… 2… 3!” I yelled as I launched my sweaty, dirtbag body off a neighboring rock and into the water. Not two breaststrokes later, I yelped loudly, clutching my left leg. Careful not to sink too deep into the murky water, I examined my knee, noticing a flash of bright red that trailed through the lake like a miniature oil spill. “Are you ok, dude?” Asked my companion from his mindful perch along the shore. “I’m fine! I’m just bleeding!” I shouted back, laughing emphatically so that he wouldn’t make me get out of the water. I was happy and hurt and full of as much aliveness as a body can possibly muster. Instead of stitches, I found smiles.

I often think about the fine line between fun and flagellation when I’m climbing. I mean, what kind of person would consciously wake up at 4am on a Saturday to fight snow, altitude, and falling rocks to get to the top of a tall thing, all while fueled by dehydrated fruit and meat the consistency of boot leather? One of my badass lady friends from Colorado insists that, “In order to be a good mountaineer, you have to hate yourself a little bit.” And I think that’s true. With a tablespoon of competitiveness, a hint of perfectionism, and a dash of self-loathing, humans have accomplished some pretty incredible physical feats, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s also an easy recipe for chronic dissatisfaction.

As a kid, I was unmistakably tomboyish. I climbed trees in my church dress and built mud-themed amusement parks with my gang of misfits. My adult body boasts tiny splinters of scars along my face and hands from thrown buckets and tumbling runs.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve often felt like I was about to jump out of my skin with wanton desire and excess energy. Like a wild animal in a cage, I gnawed at the bars of my urban confinement until my gums bled. The expansive feeling of my heart bursting through my chest from all its unfulfilled fantasies and unfinished climbs could be exhausting, a throbbing firework halfway between glory and suffocation. My rabid dreams have certainly factored into multiple high-profile jobs, straight-A’s in school, and dozens of high-altitude summits, but the sensation has also strained my hamstrings, given me an eating disorder, and led me to over-train instead of eating a burrito and watching Netflix.

It’s a tricky edge to ride when your mind insists on flinging you into the fray on a regular basis. It certainly creeps into city life too when I’m not pushing myself hard enough. I remember a particular third date that literally sent me running through traffic with joy. Sure, I had 3 drinks in me, but the hubris of falling in love was so, unabashedly loud that I felt like I was floating above the asphalt, invincible in my infatuation. I have a hard time remembering an era in which my heart did not pull me head first into these brutally beautiful passions, my body trailing behind like a shadow.

My thirst to feel something transcendent, even if it was pain, led me to the fetish community in my early 20s, and I laughed at the smatterings of bruises across my thighs that sometimes lasted for weeks. I’ve done ridiculous things like fostering a competitive mindset in yoga classes and falling onto cacti during ropeless, dessert peak bagging trips, none of which yielded any peace. I’ve hungered and clawed and sprinted towards my goals for over ten years, often forgetting to stop, look around, and smile at how fucking cool it is that I get to be here in the first place.

Balance seems to be the word on the tip of my tongue in nearly every conversation since I recently turned 30, and I know it will be hard won for a mountain masochist like me. I have faith, though, that calmer seas are on the horizon as I notice my body craving longer nights of sleep and Saturday morning cuddles. The phrase “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” has become a mantra when I climb, and enough friends have reminded me that recovery is as important as training that I know the advice will soon begin to stick.

I’m smirking with irony as I write this now, looking out over shins ripe with Dalmatian bruises from a weekend trek over loose, alpine rock. I know that I’ll always be the type of person who pushes hard and goes big, but as I enter this new decade, I intend to take more pauses, to breathe, and to look around and enjoy the view. After all, so few of us in this life are lucky enough to stand atop a craggy summit, breathless with enthusiasm. I resolve to use the high points to look back in gratitude at how far I’ve come, rather than how much I have left to do. Maybe conscious dichotomy is what we all need sometimes to make great things happen without destroying ourselves in the process.

4 thoughts on “Maybe She’s Born with it… Maybe it’s Masochism.

  1. everytwopines says:

    Love this! Balance was the word I decided to focus on in 2018 after some overuse injuries in 2017. Trying to find the sweet spot between masochism that helps you achieve marvelous things and masochism that just hurts.

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      That’s my thought exactly for 2018! I worked SO hard last year to get my heartrate and endurance at altitude better, and now, I just want to have more fun and maintain that fitness level, rather than kill myself trying to push even more with a full time job and social life! 😛

  2. Mountain Maven says:

    Love this! I also think that hiking is “type 2 fun” – sometimes really painful and torturous and terrible but yet I love it and can’t wait to get out there again. When I describe my hikes and “vacations” to non-hikers they think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Leave a Reply