I stopped dead in my tracks, mouth agape. I looked down and over at the immense gullies, scree fields, and where the snow once stood as a gate for the summit. I was speechless (actually, I had a few words, but for my more conservative readers I will keep them to myself) I stood motionless. “How was I so dumb?!” I yell thrusting my arms down to my side in defeat to absolutely no one around me.
My surprise was not due to the grandiose beauty that lay in front of me, although there was no lack of it, but rather to my absolute stupidity.
Let me give some insight here. I had woken up at a proper alpine start* and was 7 miles into a solo summit attempt that I had previously failed on in a very spectacular fashion. I had attempted Mount Morgan South about two months prior to this attempt. Needless to say, my attempts could be considered night and day difference but even that wouldn’t be stark enough for the reality.
We often find parallels in everyday life to our outdoor pursuits. It’s what keeps us going back and often is what helps us get through the mundane everyday struggles. We have a rough day at work leaving us mentally or physically drained and we pull the string on the memory of that one really hard day in the backcountry. We tung on that string until we are reminded of the benefits and feelings of satisfaction we were rewarded with, then we suddenly are filled with the motivation, confidence, and courage to continue on.
Everyone does this with their craft, it’s human nature! That’s what makes life so cool. But I have never had this happen to me and I have never had mental wellness/illness (let’s use both terms) presented in such a tangible way before.
My first attempt on Mount Morgan South was in early June, snow still littered the summits surrounding us. I had poured over the topos* and weather reports for weeks leading up to this attempt. I always say I’m “attempting” a summit even when I think it’s in the bag because you never know what’s going to happen…and this attempt was exactly that! I had taken every percussion, packed well, you name it, I did everything textbook. What I didn’t have was my head.
This was my first big summit attempt of the season, I had gotten really into Peak Bagging over the last year. If you are unfamiliar with this weird hobby within the outdoor world, you quite literally go around and find “tall pointy stuff to stand on” as my best friend likes to put it. It’s much less technical than rock climbing or mountaineering, thus I have coined it “involved hiking”. This is exactly why I had picked such a hobby, I didn’t need a partner and I didn’t need to learn any new hard skills. You usually start off on a trial (if you’re lucky) that leads to the base of a mountain, then you look, read and go up the best line. It’s like a puzzle, you’re navigating and using some technical skills like scrambling and not falling off a ridge, but in all fairness, you just take a very long walk up to a summit. I had done a few peaks in the past before Mount Morgan and I had my system. I should note, that this is MY little hobby, I do it solo, and I do it mostly for solitude, but the views are nice.
Again, I had my system, but I didn’t have my head. Let me be blunt here, leading up to and during my weeks of preparation I was breaking my nails crawling out of a deep depression. A long one, in fact, the kind that you don’t realize you were struggling with until you finally wake up and you WAKE UP. I won’t go into the details because that’s just silly and I’m a bit of a cat when it comes to my privacy. Let’s just say my first attempt at Mount Morgan was eerily similar to the way I was living my life.
On my first attempt, I didn’t ask for help or beta* on how to tackle the summit. I stuck to my own research and decided that going straight up the guts was the best route. Take the bull by the horns and power through. Let me tell you, mountains DO NOT like this approach and they will smash you to pieces. I stubbornly scrambled over impossible scree fields*, jumped around in boulder fields*, post holed* up to my hip, and clawed my way up. All the while trying to blast Taylor Swift through my headphones and convince myself I was doing just fine that I just needed to make it to the false summit*, that I just needed to power through, and that I was okay! It was at that moment that I slid down (for the 17th time) and had a massive rock the size of a carry-on luggage bag come down onto my leg and bounce away below me. Before I could even check to see if I was injured, I burst into tears. I somehow managed to choke out “I’m so scared….I don’t want to be here anymore!”
I was not being honest with myself. I was terrified, not only that, I was in actual potential danger. I was currently climbing up a 5.5+* class gully, with no rope, no partner, dwindling light and water, and no cell service. I sat hunched over and sobbed, heaving sobs that the surrounding rocks and ripping alpine wind drowned out. I was alone.
I took a deep breath, turned around, and quite literally slid on my butt all the way down because one small mistake while standing would send me tumbling down (would not recommend this if you like your butthole). I then boulder-hopped, post-holed*, and scrambled my way back to the trail. I sobbed like a child while running down the trail. Ashamed and embarrassed, I played every terrible thing I could ever say to myself on a loop. I realized that this summit fail went SO much deeper than just bailing. I won’t go into more detail, again those are things I save for therapy, but I drove home absolutely defeated.
Two months passed and during this time I started to feel better. Better than I had in years and to be completely honest for no real reason. The season was coming to an end and I decided I would attempt Mount Morgan again. I asked for beta* from a million friends, poured over more topos*, picked a good weekend, and with an apprehensive heart woke up at a proper alpine start for my second attempt.
This second attempt I was taking a completely different route. I was choosing to take the ridge line instead of blasting my body straight up the guts. Telling you how much easier it was, would be a gross understatement. I was appalled. There was a goddamn trail leading all the way up, marked and clear as day.
I stood on that trail looking down at where I had been on my first attempt. It felt like I was watching a movie, I played the entire first attempt out in front of me like I was watching it happen in real-time. I saw every struggle and obstacle I stubbornly picked my way through, absolutely convinced the entire time that I was “fine”. I watched as past me crawled, cursed, and cried while glowing with insecurity and fear slowly making her way up. At first, I laughed and threw my head back in disbelief. It was so outrageous it was comical! Then a sudden wave of sadness came over me, or rather a sense of pity. I watched this poor scared creature so unaware of what was actually happening, so blinded with self-doubt and negativity stumble through this trail, just like she was in life. I wanted to go down, give her a hug, and show her the easier route. Tell her that if she just stopped for a second and looked around she could find success, instead of bumping into everything as though she were blindfolded. I felt like I almost didn’t even know this little creature, even though she was me.
I had taken the first attempt with the same attitude I was taking my life at the time. Tell yourself you’re fine, put your head down and run full speed into the unknown. Except it didn’t have to be the unknown. The answers were in front of me, practically being thrown into my face by the mountain. But I was too insecure and stubborn to just take a second look. To just admit that I was in fact NOT fine, that maybe some help from friends, or even having a partner would be beneficial.
I summited flawlessly, dancing to my Disco playlist with a shit-eating grin. I was on top of the world…well really only at 13,754 ft, but you catch my drift.
This is definitely a longer post than usual, but it’s crucial, this summit left a crater-sized hole in my chest with the impact it had on me. In the end, it’s not about the summit, it’s about how we approach life mirrors how we approach a mountain. The mountains are a direct reflection of who we are on the inside at the time. What’s great is that it changes, I know this because that day as I stood wanting to hug past Shelby for being a sad bumbling idiot, so I did exactly that. I stood there and quite literally wrapped my arms around myself nuzzled into my elbows and said: “it’s okay kiddo, you’re doing fine, I love you”.
*Alpine Start: A early morning start for an objective that involves usually waking up at 04:30am.
*Beta: The “how to” or directions on an objective.
*Boulder field: Self-explanatory, a field at the base of a summit that consists of big loose boulders.
*Class 5.5+: A class of climbing in the YDS, again I’m not going to explain the entire YDS system for a lot of reasons, go do your own research.
*Posthole: Stepping into deep unstable snow and punching through, think of sinking into the mud.
*Scree field: A field consisting of small loose rocks, similar to walking on big marbles.
*Topos: Topographical maps, a map showing elevation.