Saturday, March 31, 2018

When On the Way Down


When I was 23, I climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  It was the hardest physical challenge I’d ever faced, and that’s saying something—I’m the daughter of a hay farmer, so I grew up hurling hay bales in the 90-degree humidity.  I was a 3-sport athlete in high school.  I have run marathons.  I have biked and run and stood on my head and all sorts of other things that tested my physical and mental stamina.

But Half Dome was something else entirely.


And the thing was, I didn’t see it coming.  At all. 

I was volunteering for an organization that supported foreign students traveling through various regions of the United States.  I was the group’s leader.  It was a Band-Aid to fix my wanderlust (and, if we’re honest, zero career prospects).  We were based in San Francisco, but spent weekends exploring the northern California region.  On this particular weekend, were set to camp in Yosemite one night, hike to Half-Dome (however high each person chose to go), camp another night, and then head back to San Francisco.

I didn’t worry one little bit.  A breeze, I thought.  I’m in good shape, I thought.  

I left camp like a warrior, march-march-march up the path.  Fierce and strong.  The hours began to lose themselves.  The air got cooler and thinner.  Often overcome by the beauty around me, I felt tired, but wasn’t intimidated—if anything, I was smugly satisfied. 

I drank through my four bottles of water, rationalizing that I’d lose the weight of carrying the water, and thus my climbing would be more efficient.  Other hikers sipped.  Not me.

March-march-march-march.  Stomp and scrap and scuffle and spit.  No rest stops. 

Others in the group faded off, turning to head down.  In the end, there were only three of us still forging on. 

And forge did I:  All the way to the precarious, mind-bending, tippytippytop. 

The views.  The views!  I rested, achy and thirsty.

And then:  The realization.  You have to go back down.  You’re eight hours in, and you are only halfway there.

And then:   It’s okay.  It will be easy.  Everyone says going up is the hard part. 

Then:  Do they say that, actually? 

As I would, I reacted quickly:  Well, then.  Go.

I started down the mountain, flee-like.  I was in some inexplicable hurry, and I wanted to be alone to do this thing.

Down, down, down, I went, not realizing the rips and tears I was inflicting on my legs.  I grew so tired my body shook, even as I forced it to move.  I fell several times.  I was so thirsty I stopped thinking about anything but water.  At one point, I slipped on stones and skidded into a Sequoia tree, my legs buckling.  I knelt into myself and wept.   

Get up. My inner self-scold.   Put.one.foot.in.front.of.the.other.

I got up.  Don’t.look.up.or.ahead.no.matter.what.

I slipped and slid and ran and rattled my way down that mountain, one step at a time.  

Of all the things that are faded from that day, there is one clear and concise moment:  looking at my watch when I finally arrived at my tent.  It was 6:14 p.m.  I’d been hiking sixteen minutes shy of 12 hours.

I fell into my sleeping bag, begging the universe for sleep, but was kept awake by twitching muscles and that thing that happens when we’ve crossed over the wall of exhaustion and are in some whole new universe of fatigue.  Everything was whirly and twirly, but I couldn’t move one single millimeter.  I looked through the top of the tent as a crescent moon moved across the sky.  I heard my travel-mates drinking beer and laughing, late into the night.  When I finally slept, it was fitful and jagged.

I didn't walk right for a month—I looked like a 100-year-old bent-up mass of torn muscles.  

I’ve thought about that hike many times.  My ridiculous arrogance.  My blind assumptions about struggle.  This swiftness with which I was humbled.   My lack of planning.  The moment I realized I had to come back down—that slow, terrible, “Oh, man… you’re in trouble, girl.” 

Knowing there was just one thing I could do about it.  Head down.  One foot, then the other, then the other.

Sometimes we can’t possibly know how hard things will be.  Many of the things I do—principal, mom, writer, person in this complicated world—feel easy on the surface, but occasionally resemble a ginormous mountain:  they are bigger and harder than I'd planned.  

We can’t predict the scars and rips.  But we keep forging on, though, don’t we? 

What is it that makes us go?  Perhaps it’s just faith, or resiliency, or a desire to see a new view.  A new perspective.  Maybe it’s a hidden, unidentified drive to be uncomfortable as a gateway to growth. 

I do know this:  If asked to hike Yosemite again, I’d probably do it.  I’d go slower, certainly, and I would pace myself better.  I'd certainly bring more water, for God's sake, and ration it well.  I’d have to contend with age, now, and a more refined understanding of the elusiveness of common sense.  But I'd still be going in blind.  

It’s all blind, actually.  But we keep doing it. 


We’re rounding the corner into the last couple months of school. We’ve climbed the mountain and it’s time to come back down.  Blind or not, we can do it, because we can do really hard things, and we can come out on the other side—weary, embattled, yes—but also accomplished, triumphant, and infinitely wiser. 

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