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.
“Fuck you. You’re a wimp. You’re a hack alpinist.”
I feel like a sadistic acupuncturist is driving 10-inch needles into my thighs with a wooden mallet as I ascend the steep, north slope of Mt. Dana, ragged breaths punctuating my movements like a death cough. I take a gulp of the crystalline air, and suddenly my organs rebel; I am lost in spasm, propped up on hands and knees and retching the last of my peanut butter along with a teaspoon of phlegm onto the carpet of white snow.
People often ask me where I get my ideas from or what fuels my endless enthusiasm for the outdoors. The truth is, I stand on the shoulders of giants. In the information age, we are so fortunate to have countless images of the best mountains and trails the world has to offer at the tips of our fingers. Here are a few of the women I admire who make my heartbeat quicken on the days I feel despondent.
“How much higher do you think that outcropping is from where we’re sitting right now?”
Justin was faded, nauseous, and swaying in the mid-day heat of the Eastern Sierra when the words fell out of his mouth. My head felt like an over-inflated balloon. Dumbstruck, I tried my best at a civil response, “Fuck. I don’t know… Maybe 50 feet? Is this not the summit?!”
Let’s face it, you’re on the trail so many weekends out of the year that you have a pet honeybee named Myrtle who lives behind your right ear and a heart with John Muir’s name on it tattooed across your left tricep. You knit sweaters from the leg hair you shave once a year before your family’s Christmas party, and you know how to create a fierce smoky eye out of nothing but a spoonful of mushroom spores you found in the forest. You are ethereal. You are muddy. Your favorite Beatle is George’s sitar, and you legally changed your middle name to Moab when you were 17. This one’s for you, sugarplum.
“It’s probably negative 20 out, and I can’t feel my feet… but at least it’s windy!” Jimmy Chin is 20,000 ft. above sea level, climbing near-vertical snow and ice as his team pushes towards the summit of Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and he’s smiling. In fact, the one thing that most struck me when I re-watched the film, Meru, a few weeks ago was Chin’s unfailing ability to laugh at a situation, no matter how fucked up it got. It was remarkable; a mastery of the human spirit almost as difficult as the technical, mixed climbing he faced, and it got me wondering, “Why the hell am I not doing that?”
I am not a good employee. At 3:47pm on a Friday, I am frantically moving my fingers across the computer keyboard while simultaneously pressing the phone against my ear to order flowers for my boss’ grandmother while praying that he makes an early dinner reservation at 5pm so I can scoot out of the office, quickly. I have an expansive Yosemite trail map permanently hidden in my browser tabs on my work laptop (yes, really), and on any given weekend, I’m struggling to answer important emails from high in the Sierra Nevada or a local desert crag. In short, my mind is often elsewhere.
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.
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.
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.