In early September, I climbed to the summit of Mt. St. Helens.
It took 11.5 hours to cover more than 11 miles and 4,500 feet up and down in elevation.
This wasn’t on my bucket list. I didn’t train for it. And yet those miles that day taught me more than I’ve learned in the last 10 years reading, writing, and working.
There’s a great song from Ben Raptor called 30,000 Feet with a line that says, “Sometimes it takes the sky to see what’s on the ground.” With that in mind, here are some key takeways (along with a few blisters) that came from being at 8,328 feet.
Just Say Yes
I have lived in Seattle for 10 years and have long wanted to go visit Mt. St. Helens yet there seemed to always be a reason why I never made it. So when a friend shared a common goal to see the mountain, we agreed to go together. Permits are needed to climb to the top and they usually sell out months in advance. A few days before, however, a few were available so we spontaneously decided to climb all the way.
There were many (many, many) reasons why I should have said no. It was a workday, I didn’t own hiking boots, I had never climbed a mountain before, and so on. I also remembered the times in my career when I was asked to take on an assignment, join a project, or expand out of my comfort zone. Each time I said yes brought big leaps for me professionally.
Early in our climb, we came upon another group. We intersected with them off and on throughout the day and the conversation was a welcome distraction. Ed was climbing with his friends and his teenage daughter. He had climbed the volcano at least a dozen times over the last twenty years and offered trekking tips during the miles.
Ed would look up toward the path and offer a few points about the next part of the climb. It was only on the way back down that I really appreciated how he gave advice in bite-size pieces. If I had known all the difficulties about the terrain at the beginning, it would have been overwhelming.
At rest stops, he talked about the reward of the climb, the sense of accomplishment ahead, and the fact that it was doable. He offered a few technical tips but mainly he was a calm voice as the miles stretched across the hours.
Your Pace Is The Right Pace
“There will come a part where you have to just measure it in steps,” said Ed. “Sometimes it’ll be a good stretch before you need to stop. Sometimes you may just get to seven steps. Take ‘em as they come.”
When he said that, I had been worrying about keeping pace with the group. Soon after, fatigue ground down my self-consciousness and I started focusing on my own steps. There were stretches were the only view I had was of my dusty boots. As it became more of a struggle, I started counting steps. At first, I could get to 44 before stopping. Then it got to 17. Toward the end, I didn’t even get to double digits.
We passed over a large section of boulders and every single step had to be calculated. I used my feet and hands to steady myself as I assessed the next option before adjusting my footing or route. As a group, we journeyed in the same direction but each of us wove the way a little differently. Other than large wooden posts marking the route, there wasn’t a single dedicated path. It was a step-by-step decision made person-by-person.
Grit Gets You There
Physically, my body wasn’t trained but it endured. Having recovered from blood clots in my legs and lungs nearly five years ago and finishing three half marathons and numerous races since then, I have the greatest respect for the machine of the human body. My body was physically exhausted yet nearly numb from the exertion. I knew it would do what it needed to do to finish the task.
The real challenge, in every way, was looking up and not back. “You’re more than two-thirds there,” Ed said as we took a break near a seismic monitor. “Just so you know, the last 1,200 feet will make you question the entire journey.”
The group kept an eye on the time. Even though it was still technically summer, we were conscious of losing daylight on the way back down.
“If we aren’t at the top in the next hour, we should think about turning back,” someone said.
I was pissed. We’d been climbing for over five hours. I was beyond exhausted.
“No,” I panted. “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
The truth was, I didn’t know if I could make it. There came a stretch where I seriously questioned if finishing was worth it. I told myself I could make the decision at any time to finish where I was. While I didn’t say it to anyone else, giving myself permission to decide my finish line was the best step I took that whole day.
Don’t Ask, Just Do
I was so happy to be done climbing over rough boulders that the final sandy path looked like a welcome break. Made of ash and stone, this layer is known as scree. But it felt like quicksand, pulling me back into doubt and fatigue.
One of the other climbers came up alongside me. “This is the part where you ask yourself why you did this,” he said with a laugh.
I glanced over at him, “Please tell me we’re almost there.”
“I wish I could,” he said. “There’s more ahead of the curve there.”
He slowly moved ahead of me and I was swimming in doubt. I wasn’t sure I could do this. I didn’t know how much I had left in me physically. I looked up and saw a couple members of the group at a landing. I could hear muffled talking and laughing, and I saw my friend give me a thumbs up signal.
Okay, I decided, I’ll meet up with them and then decide if I can go any further. Knowing there was a stopping point propelled me the last hundred-plus steps.
I dropped my bag and sat down on the dirt. There was cloud coverage around us which provided a temporary relief from the afternoon sun. My legs were stretched in front of me, throbbing. I saw Ed and his daughter coming up the scree path from where I just finished. I reached for a snack and sat there slowly letting my breathing return.
My friend came over and sat next to me.
“We did it!” he said.
“We got to the top,” he said.
“This is it? This? Here?” I said.
“Look behind you,” he replied.
I turned and the clouds had lifted. I was feet away from the edge of the crater. I stared into the cavernous dip into the mountainside. There were colors everywhere. Trees and rock and sand and sky.
I whipped back around. “This is it? This is it?”
The others started laughing as I ran around hugging them. I had finished my journey and literally sat at the finish without knowing it. I was still in my head back on the mountain. I lost the joy of the final stretch of this hike because I was obsessing about how much more there might be.
I let someone else’s words change my view. I let information weigh me down when all I needed was a little more effort. I reflected on this as we started the step-and-slide back down that same sandy pathway.
The weather shifted again and nestled lower against the mountain. We weren’t just at the top of a volcano; for a few moments, we were standing above the clouds.
The adrenaline of the day gave way to fatigue during the hours it took to get back down. As we crossed into the shaded forest area near the end, the last mile felt like four. I was gritty, salty, worn. And lighter. I carried less. Less doubt, less fear, less information floating in my head.
Sometimes being unprepared is the best thing that can happen. Not knowing what you are in for liberates you to experience places you would never otherwise go. And to see things a little differently on the ground. And remember there is a view above the clouds.