“I wish I remembered more of it.”
The feeling stuck in my brain like old gum to a shoe as I tried to conjure up details from the morning’s climb that broke all my records, bruised my heart, and took me to 16,818 vertical feet above sea level.
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain over 14,000 feet, you’re probably well aware that altitude is a cruel mistress. She slips into your body like stale narcotics and leaves you feeling bloated and dumb as you make your best attempt at traversing a massive peak in slow motion. Your IQ slits in half with the sharp knife of her laugh, and simple pleasures like breathing become labored efforts. It’s a veritable fiesta for masochists like myself.
It was in this fuzzy space that I found myself stumbling up the last few steps of rust-colored volcanic rock toward the summit of Illiniza Norte in central Ecuador, feverdrunk, windsore, and wet with tears of redemption. I stared out, vacant eyed at the clouds and the bizarre, wind-carved ice formations that curled their way toward my body like a white witch with fingers made of frozen cauliflower. I was a long way from home.
Three days prior, while hiking the Quilotoa Loop with friends, I had come down with a nasty fever and a bad case of anxiety about it. I stuffed handfuls of ibuprofin into my mouth and hunkered down in the hostel’s common area to read while my friends hiked the remaining 10 miles to the alpine crater lake. I took the bus.
Desperate to acclimatize to the thin air in the mountains surrounding Quito, I rose early the next morning and donned my layers to set out on a group excursion up to the Cotopaxi Glacier. I stuffed my face with three more fistfuls of Advil just to make it through the day, counting my steps against the forceful whooshing of 40 mph wind gusts while sadistic sea shanties twirled through my head.
In short, when the time came to wake up at 5:30 a.m., stumble into my mountaineering boots, and ascend Illiniza Norte on the second to last day of my Ecuador trip, I was ready. Anxiety may have been kneading my stomach into sourdough knots, but I was ready.
I should preface this by saying that I’m not used to being the slow one on the trail. I train five days a week and hike at least 10 miles every weekend, usually 20. I rock climb and do weight training and yoga and cardio. I am famous for being hard on myself, and I often push my body right up to the edge - into strained muscles and aching joints.
However, when you invite a former professional cyclist to climb with you in Ecuador, life has a funny way of kicking your ego’s tiara to the curb. My friend Erika is an immortal beast, capable of 10 times more than the average human, and I trailed behind her cheerful, bouncing ponytail for five consecutive days of stairs, hiking, and backpacking. My fever intensified as my nerves flared. My fierce little Valkyrie heart was not prepared to be the caboose on a week’s worth of climbs, and when the time came for Illiniza Norte, I was mentally run ragged before my feet even hit the trail.
We started the hike from a parking lot at around 13,000 feet, clouds whirling in like the frigid, white hug of a towering spirit. I slunk behind immediately, the delicate squish of my slow-moving boots carving into mud the color of baby vomit.
Before I knew it, an icy rain moved in, and clouds obstructed what little mountain terrain there was left to see. Lagging 50 feet behind the guide, Erika, and what was left of my sanity, I put my head down and counted my steps as I stared at the cobalt blue leather swaddling my toes.
“I’m not good enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m not fast enough.”
I was quickly becoming the little engine that couldn’t, cheeks wet with tears as I sniffled and gasped for breath in the thin air, unable to walk as I cried, because there was not enough oxygen to multi-task. I fell to my knees in the muck and shoved a piece of banana cake into my mouth as wind and sleet paraded through my senses. “What the hell am I doing here?” I probed.
A few hundred more sluggish steps brought me to the small refuge at the base of Illiniza Norte’s jagged east ridge. Erika was already waiting inside, smiling as she raised a cup of coca leaf tea to her lips. I removed my gloves, cried into my ham sandwich, and stared expressionless around the cramped room. Sometimes climbing makes me feel like a blubbering idiot.
I didn’t want to continue. It was 20 degrees outside with a marriage of wind and rain that threatened to turn an easy scramble into a harrowing death march. But, when then time came to put on our harnesses and helmets, I found myself dutifully fastening my hip buckles and leg straps, re-lacing my boots, and pressing my hands against the narrow, wooden refuge door to rejoin the icy world beyond.
Class 3 climbing at 16,000 feet is a meditative beast. Devoid of views and exposure, there was nothing to do on the ascent out of base camp but breathe, look for hand holds, and trust my body. My concentration was rapt, and for once in my life, I felt completely solid on an exposed, rope-less route. I wasn’t fast, but I was fixated.
“Slow down, please, I need to take a few extra breaths!” I found myself communicating more and owning the fact that I was the runt of the litter. I knew that if I didn’t rush, I would make it to the summit, even in my fear, illness, and self-doubt. I could see the craggy lumps that made up the final 400 feet of the climb teasing me, just out of reach.
I started to settle into some strange new version of self-care as we rose past 16,500 feet. I put on lip balm, ate energy gels, and drank gulpfulls of water. I was watching my own back while actively breaking myself down, and it felt illogical and dizzying and empowering all at once. Like smoking a cigarette while eating a kale salad. I suppose even self-flagellators need a little softness every now and again.
This was the moment I found myself trembling and woozy and tied to the middle of an unnecessary rope team as we crested the final few feet to the metal orthodox cross that perches on top of the summit block like an astronaut’s flag of yore. I had done it. My head felt like a balloon, but I was victorious.
We scrambled down the summit face and scree-skied two thousand feet back to the trail. In case you’re wondering, I was bringing up the rear, per usual, acting as photographer in the light-stained lunar landscape that opened up like a chick through an egg as the clouds began to break.
I will never forget the unique headspace I entered into that day; the sweeping realization that you can and should take care of yourself, even if you are in the midst of a dumpster fire of your own design.
Often self-loathing and self-care are comingled. We need to edge play with the former to feel satisfied, at peace, and in total acceptance of the latter. We need to burn ourselves down to embers to appreciate the softness that only stillness can provide.
At least, that’s what I needed last Friday in Ecuador. Sometimes we need to give up in order to get up.