Everyone is Climbing Their Own Mountain

30 May 2018

Everyone is Climbing Their Own Mountain
By LCDR Sunny Mitchell
Command Chaplain, Commander, Electronic Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMVAQWINGPAC)

At 0400 Monday, on May 7th, my alarm rang, but it didn’t matter because I was already awake as anxiety coursed throughout my already dehydrated body. I was shivering as a result of the cold air and ripe nerves (although I could not tell which one was worse) as I donned my hiking gear, cold weather boots, and choked down a bowl of oatmeal to climb Mt. St. Helens with our MWR group.

Thirty minutes before heading out, my head pounded, as I pounded Ibuprofen. This was particularly scary because no matter how much water I drank the day before, I was dehydrated that morning. I questioned myself, “How did I let this happen?”

As I was wrestling with these issues, our group lined up for one final check of our location beacons (you know, in case we were caught in an avalanche or something) and we proceeded up the mountain at precisely 5am, our step-off time.

During the first part of the hike felt like I was back with the Marines hiking while carrying ridiculously heavy packs, as we marched up a mountain in a single-file line; in fact, all that was missing was a cadence about Jody. Our group was so large we were like an accordion shrinking and lengthening as we slipped and slid in the snow while trying to keep in step with the person in front of us.

We had not even reached the tree line (where the vertical climb actually begins) and I knew I was in trouble. I was light headed, dizzy, and exhausted and we still had four miles left in an arduous climb. I tried with all of my might to force the negative thoughts and nagging questions from filling my mind: How was I going to make it? I’ve already depleted all my energy during the first part of this hike? What if something is seriously wrong with me, I’m dizzy for crying out loud! By mile two, I had fallen back to the very back of the pack and continued to fall farther and farther back from the group as a whole.

During our first major rest, I plopped down, exhausted and embarrassed that I had “fallen out” of our formation. I wanted to both quit and force myself to continue at the same time. After all, hiking is just one foot in front of the other, right? But, how was I going to do that? I had NO ENERGY LEFT!

Summer, the MWR rear guide, who patiently stayed back and hiked with me, sat beside me and asked me how I was feeling. The time for bravado was over. I told her I was miserable, but I still wanted to do this and did not want to quit, but at the same time, I had no idea how I could go on. She then asked me what I was physically experiencing, and I ran down the symptoms for her. She gave me two electrolyte pills and asked me to eat some carbs.

After taking care of my physical needs (from which I experienced almost immediate relief!), she then helped me rearrange equipment to make my pack more manageable and comfortable. Finally, Summer showed me several techniques to gain better footing in the snow as well as a breathing technique for scaling the mountain. We then proceeded slowly and methodically up the mountain, with one-foot-in-front-of-the-other.

During this two-hour assent, I had plenty of time to reflect on the valuable life lessons I was gaining, between miles 3-5, which include:

1. Never be afraid to ask the experts questions. Summer was a mixture between nurse, chaplain, cheerleader, and Sherpa. She relied on her years of mountaineering experience and shared them with me, which in turn saved me. My responsibility was to simply ask her for help! How often do we not seek help from others because we believe we have to do something on our own? How much time and energy would we save by simply asking for help?

2. Past successes and failures do not mean much when ascending mountains. I’ve hiked longer distances than six miles up mountains before (albeit, it was never in the snow), and Mt. St. Helens should not have been an issue for me. But, all of my previous accomplishments meant nothing on the day of this hike. Whether it is climbing a mountain, starting a new relationship, transferring to a different location, or starting a family, every opportunity and challenge is a new one independent of our previous experiences. It is for us to grab a hold of the opportunity that is presenting itself in the present and make the most of it. Our success (or failure) does not hinge on what we’ve done in the past, only how we embrace the mountain that is before us!

3. Slow and steady gets us farther than we can imagine. Multi-tasking or rushing through a task, no matter how much pressure is on us, can lead to derailment. In the aviation community, it can lead to death. When everything becomes overwhelming and the mountain towers in front of us, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other creates a steady pace that we can maintain for the long haul.

4. Pause to appreciate how far we’ve come. As Summer and I journeyed upward and I left fear and pain near the tree line, I looked up and out and discovered the sheer magnitude and beauty of the sunrise over the mountain that I was climbing. Not only did I discover the physical beauty, I saw how far I had traveled! Another words, I gained perspective, I was not failing—I was climbing high!

5. Guard the thoughts in our heads and leading questions that we’re tempted to ask. Our group was told that this trip would be a mental challenge—our bodies could do it, if our minds did not trip us up. For the first two miles my mind played every trick in the book to get me to stop and return to base camp where it would sit comfortably (that’s what minds do!). To overcome this, I told my mind I was not allowed to criticize myself. I did not have to be positive, but I would not accept any criticism. Additionally, I would not ask leading questions that would allow me to quit—questions such as, “How many people haven’t summited before?” would not become my scapegoats! I had to purposely choose my thoughts and limit the questions that I asked Summer. This was hard because our minds are always searching for the lazy and familiar way when we encounter mountains in life. We have to be purposeful in picking and choosing our thoughts and questions with care!

For the next two hours, Summer and I continued to climb both over lava flows with huge boulders and trudge uphill through deep snow. We talked about what our climbing goal should be because at that point I thought I had enough energy to sustain me to the summit, whether we had enough time left in the day to reach the summit was an entirely different question. We decided that the weather station (between 1.25-1.5 miles from the summit) would be our interim goal. From the weather station we could determine if we had time, and I had the energy to summit.

The last fifty to the weather station were incredibly steep. The snow was soft, and deep, and I would step into a hole and many times slide back. I was not mentally prepared for those last fifty steps. I was scared that I’d have to use my ice axe to arrest a steep fall downward. Yet, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other allowed me to reach the weather station and accomplish this goal!

At the weather station Summer and I checked our clocks, and realized if I wanted to summit, then we would need to get going. I tilted my head, and looked straight up and stared at the mountain of snow in front of me. Without doubt or regret, I said, “Not today.” And, Summer’s reply was the most important lesson of the day, “I have been doing this trip for a while now and one thing that I noticed is that we may be on Mount Saint Helens, but everyone is climbing their own mountain out here and they’re not the same mountain.”

We are all climbing mountains throughout our lives, whether they are the intimidating peaks of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, or Mt. Adams, or the moments of change and transition in our lives such as divorce, death/grief, or having a baby. We bring with us the culmination of past experiences, our doubts, our worries, our dreams, and our hopes. It is how we organize these experiences in our heads, the equipment we choose to use on this mountain adventure, and the people (mentors) that we seek along the way that enable us to achieve the Weather Station and ultimately the summit!

“Failure to summit” does not mean that simply reaching the weather station makes me or this climb a failure. I overcame a mountain of thought and numerous physical limitations to get three-quarters up this mountain. Most importantly, these three-quarters of a mountain would not have been possible without relying on a strong mentor, changing my thoughts, and caring for myself physically. As I sat above the clouds and stared at our neighboring mountain, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, I realized that there will always be other mountains to climb throughout life; as a matter of fact, I can come back next year to this exact same mountain and be better prepared, or I can accept these life lessons and move on to the next mountain in life.