When I decided to leap headfirst into mountaineering last winter, I desperately wished there was a wise, old sage to hand over the information I needed in easy to digest, bite-sized pieces. I struggled to progress, as I realized that classes were expensive and often too remedial, and going out with seasoned climbers could be a recipe for panic attacks as I wrestled to find my comfort zone in an exceedingly uncomfortable sport. I fell flat on my face more times than I can count, and my magical Yoda never manifested out of a crevasse. So, after a year of climbing and learning and making lots of mistakes, I’ve decided to offer a few pieces of good advice that I wish I’d had when I started out. This is not a complete list, and I am by no means an expert, but these morsels should at least help to point you in the right direction.
When your short hikes are breezy 10-milers, and you rack up 30+ miles each and every weekend, you tend to get picky about what you put on your feet. After years of hiking and backpacking, I’ve fallen into the category of the foot-care superstitious, as though the ingredients for keeping my toes dry were some mysterious witches brew that could not be altered for any reason. Though I often have my doubts about new trends that enter the hiking and trail running world, I’d been curious to try compression socks for quite some time. When CloudLine Apparel sent me a pair of their finest in backcountry-blue, I knew I had to give them a go!
I wanted to channel my reckless energy into magic. Two years ago, a man I loved deeply took me on my first proper backpacking trip, and ten months ago, I ripped him out of my chest with the ferocity of a Volkswagen colliding with the sea. As our relationship crumbled, my love for the outdoors grew, mud and tree bark patching up my heartsick. Last week, I felt it was finally time to revisit the mountain that started it all, the trail that slingshot my heart into a new phase of life, Alta Peak.
My anxiety is allergic to the outdoors. When I walk for hours along a wooded path or affix my limbs to a rock crag, I don’t think about my weight, or if he’ll call, or biting the inside of my lip. The sticky brain gunk that fuels my visions of destruction and self doubt are obliterated, and I focus intently on the task at hand. I breathe. I climb. I balance.
Let’s face it; we all love to nerd out on gear. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent researching the latest pack suspension technology or which hydrophobic down jacket is the least absorbent, but I know that it’s embarrassing, and I know it’s a number high enough to rival many part time jobs. This week, I figured I would put my career in procrastination to good use and share the best tips, tricks, and hacks I’ve found over the years to stay comfy and safe in the wilderness. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my pack.
I skid down the side of the mountain the moment I see the crash. My trail runners burn rubber as I launch myself over a boulder to get to the victim, a 44-year-old hang glider who caught a gnarly gust of wind coming over Big Bear Lake. He is moaning and clutching his side as I ask his name to discern a level of responsiveness. He mumbles something about the fall, and I check his airway, noticing a large amount of blood in his mouth and a pale film of skin across his forehead. I bark directions at my partner to help me move him into a spine stable position, and she holds his head to ensure that we don’t further damage what could be a severed spinal cord. We check his vitals before performing a head-to-toe patient assessment in which we discover a sorely broken rib. As I frantically scribble the details into my notebook, we formulate a plan to get help before we move him into a recovery position so that he doesn’t choke on any of the blood he is coughing up. Then, we wait.
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.
The moment I catch my first glimpse of Dead Woman’s Pass between ragged breaths in the thin air of 13,000 feet, I smile with relief. Perched atop massive stone steps, slick with jungle rain, I can barely make out the fluorescent sheets of plastic adorning ant-sized tourists up top to shield them from the downpour. My hiking partner, Rosie, and I are way out front of our group, preferring to put our heads down and charge forward until our heart rates soar and we stop to gasp for air in the crisp mountain morning. 828 feet later, I stagger up the final few stairs to the top of the notorious pass, beaming. My fingers go numb as I wander around snapping a few photos, the wind-chill dipping into the mid-twenties. I can feel the blood coursing through my capillaries as I take in the taller peaks and wait for my crew to catch up. The hardest part of the trek was behind me, I was higher than I had ever been with a full pack on, and my mom was somewhere just below, crushing it on The Inca Trail.
You inhale. The feeling of new air mixes with unknown space as you first place one foot and then the other onto the path ahead. A lightness tickles your stomach, curling upwards and into your heart. It tugs at the outermost threads of your mind and trembles, massaging the gray area that arises between excitement and edginess. At once delighted and supernaturally aware of your surroundings, you begin to sink into the unfamiliar. The journey is afoot.
I’m sitting here on my day off, staring at the computer screen, recklessly picking the skin off my cuticles at the sheer nervousness I feel about relaxing and writing a simple article about rest. Sure, spending 15 hours clinging to the side of a mountain with no food or water is dangerous and perhaps more than a little unwise, but, if you’re type-A and goal driven like me, there’s something comforting about repetitive motion towards a singular objective. The ragged in and out of my breath at altitude and the familiar burn of my legs as I ascend huge, granite steps give me a source of focus. As long as I’m moving forward, I can’t worry about my car payment or if my boss hates me or if the last piece I wrote is any good. I inhale, I sink my body into the dirt, and I push.