My first-ever anxiety attack was on the north side of Red Mountain Creek. I slumped into a pile of dead leaves while sobbing manically and trying to shove a string cheese into my mouth. I was fed up. A week full of fears and self-doubt culminated in a ten-mile slog into avalanche terrain with a climbing partner who was as inexperienced as I was and somehow immune to worry. I was rattled to my core before we strapped on a single crampon, finally asserting that I would not be climbing Split Mountain after all. My nerves felt bruised against his youthful bravado, but at least I was learning. Beneath my panic and my trembling fingertips, I was learning how to say no.
I want to come clean about a few things. First of all, I am not a very brave person. I’ve probably bailed off more mountains than I’ve climbed. Split Mountain, Indianhead Peak, Mt. Russell (before I even got out of the car)… the list goes on and on. But, the more time I spend in the wilderness, the more I’m coming to the realization that my supposed failures might actually be my biggest accomplishments. After all, I learned a hell of a lot more on the mountains I didn’t summit.
Stanford professor Tina Seelig requires all of her students to write up a “failure resume,” teaching them how to view each mishap through the lens of what was learned from it. “Failure is inevitable,” Tina boldly claims, “The key to success is not dodging every bullet but being able to recover quickly.”
I fell in love with this concept the moment I heard it, and I think that it can be a valuable tool in the outdoor community as well. The macho culture that birthed climbing plus the subconscious pressure to create uniquely Instagrammable moments have combined into a whirlwind of broadcasted human achievement. It can be overwhelming.
If there’s no space to publicly share our failures and what we’ve learned from them, then others in our community are bound to make the same mistakes.
So, I decided to share a few of my most treasured failures with you all. It’s a fun exercise, and I encourage you to do the same!
Early on, I failed miserably after trying to solo thru-hike the Backbone Trail in just three days. Hot on the heels of an earth-shattering breakup, I needed something to challenge myself and snap me out of the day-to-day ordinariness of heartbreak and depression. So, I decided to hike 24 miles a day with a 40 lb. pack on to convince myself of my strength and inner worthiness.
Well, it rained. A lot.
My gear got drenched because I had no idea that a rainfly wasn’t enough to protect from a total downpour, leaving me shivering and half naked inside a damp sleeping bag, awkwardly perched on the uneven edge of a switchback. The skin fell off my feet in large patches, and my phone stopped working. My hat and trekking poles came loose from my pack somewhere along the trail. But I learned SO much. I learned how to keep my clothing and my gear safe when it’s stormy outside. I learned how to protect my feet when they get drenched. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what my mental and physical limits are when I’m alone in the wild.
Another exquisite failure was on Indianhead Peak. I downloaded the topographic maps for Anza Borrego State Park and drove 2.5 hours south with my good friend and climbing partner, J.C., to scramble up a class 3 ridge to the summit. Things started out great – we were dodging blooming cacti and laughing while taking precarious selfies on rocky ledges. Finally, less than 500 feet from the summit, we were cliffed-out on rocks that looked increasingly technical. We had to downclimb some low-grade class 5 sandstone for 20 feet to avoid falling face-first into a cluster of cacti. I had scars from the thorns for about a month afterwards.
What happened? We got off route. I excitedly leapt onto the first accessible ridge I could see that looked like it was southwest facing. To this day, J.C. still gives me shit for making him do ropeless, technical climbing above a bed of cacti. I should have paid more attention to the online beta or just stopped and enjoyed the wildflowers.
This all brings me back to my first panic-inducing failure. My boyfriend at the time, Ben, wanted to scale a classic California 14er, Split Mountain, in the winter. Uncertain of my ice axe skills, I thought the standard route up the northeast side of the peak seemed appropriate. But Ben, ever the contrarian, really wanted to push the limits of what was possible within our current skillset by ascending the St. Jean Couloir, a 60-degree vertical ice slope with a cornice on top and a tricky bergschrund crossing. I was horrified at the mere thought of traversing ice with an inexperienced guide, but I kept my thoughts to myself, because he was my boyfriend, and I didn’t want to seem like a wet blanket.
So, that’s how I found myself crying into my lunch on the side of a creek, begging Ben not to make me climb. I felt foolish and exhausted, feeling the weight of my cowardice with each frazzled breath. I didn’t feel brave or brazen. I felt like a little girl. Learning how to trust my gut and assert myself during trip planning didn’t come easy.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that maybe a hero doesn’t have to be infallible. Maybe our fear and our failures are vessels reminding us to be vigilant. Perhaps the truly brave know how to bow at their feet and then simply go around, unhindered in their wake. What if failure were a feature, not a bug? What if our vulnerability was our strength?
I’d like to live in a world where the failure resume becomes the rule, not the exception.
“Fear is my signpost, my signal – we are heading towards depth. Fear is the Great Awakener. Fear is a companion. It keeps knocking at our door to keep us on our toes, to remind us to pay attention, to take action, to breathe deeper, to get the fuck out of a shady situation, to sniff out what needs to be revealed.” -Kate Shela