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  • Writer's pictureIlana Newman

Mountain Boots and Mental Spaces

I couldn’t eat breakfast. There was a knot in my stomach and it wouldn’t go away. I took deep breaths, drank water, and tried to remind myself that I did too know what I was doing, that this wasn’t outside my comfort zone, and I was totally up for any challenge that could be thrown at me. And yet still I found myself dry heaving over the toilet, unable to use my mind to comfort my body from the waves of anxiety that flowed through me, a feeling that I know all too well. It seems to happen this way before any big adventure, tossing and turning all night before waking up early with a pit in my stomach, unable to eat and hating my body. Especially in the alpine, where all I crave is to feel comfortable and confident, there is something inside me that says otherwise, the nagging feeling of “you’re not good enough, you don’t belong there, you shouldn’t even try”. Its a classic case of the little discussed "don’t trust your gut syndrome”. The fine line between the feeling of anxiety, and the feeling of intuition. Learning to tell the difference is crucial, especially in the mountains.

We didn’t even have a big objective for the day. We were planning on heading up Green creek, on the east side of the Twin Sisters, and scrambling up the Green Creek Arete. At one 5.6 crux pitch, it wasn’t exactly supposed to be technically challenging, but I wanted to get into the mountains and go somewhere I had never been, and Matt was psyched to just check out the area again. Sure, it had been awhile since I had been in the mountains for real. Yes, I did not know what we would find, or know the area very well, but Matt had been there before, and I should feel comfortable climbing low fifth class climbing without a rope, and navigating over that sort of terrain. And yet, even though my mind told me that I had very little to be worried about, that I had literally asked for this, my body decided it had other plans. But to really be an alpine adventure, something has to go awry, and today it turned out it was less external, and more internal. (Except for all the loose rock that kept us very much on our toes, and at least in my case, trying not to panic).

(Photo by Matthew Tangeman)

Let's just say it wasn’t particularly my finest day physically either. I was moving slowly, maybe because I had had a few beers and a little bit of a spliff the night before, and my body was not all that happy about it, my mind was thinking too much, and beating myself up the whole time for not being better than I was. The thing is though, there is no literally point in being anywhere except where you are at the moment. There is no point in wishing that you could be stronger or faster or better, because all you are is what you are now. Embracing that can allow you to actually fulfill your current potential instead of self sabotaging with useless wishing. I just kept telling myself the whole day here I am, in this absolutely amazing place, this is exactly where I want to be right now, I am physically capable of being here right now, I am mentally capable of being here right now, and I can do this. It's too easy to compare yourself to where other people are at, where you wish you could be at, or where you have been previously, both physically and mentally. But really, all you should be worried about is where you are at currently. What your body and mind feel like today. Where you physically are. The movement that is taking you higher and higher from the ground, the sticky sticky dunite, and the brilliant May sun.

If you’re reading this to get an idea of the logistics of the day, I guess I might as well throw a few of those things in there, although if you can’t already tell, climbing and being in the mountains is as much about the process of reflection and mental growth for me as it is about the physical growth and accomplishments.

The day started bright and early at 9am as we crossed the Middle Fork of the Nooksack. We were surprised at how shallow it was, finding a place to cross that only was about knee hight. We brought our Chacos, and a towel and left them on the other side for our return. Because we were expecting more snow than we found, we wore mountain boots, which added a bit of spice to some of the steeper climbing, but was definitely good practice and training for other things. The hike in took us maybe about two hours but probably would have taken less if I hadn’t been struggling so much. It was much less of a bushwhack than I had been expecting from the very few resources that there are on the internet about the area. The whole way was marked with blue reflective diamonds, and despite a bit of snow covering the path, it was hard to really get lost. We crossed Green Creek at about 3000 feet and did a bit of alpine bouldering with some incredible views of Lincoln, Colfax, and Baker in the background. You could see people making their way up to the summit of Baker, tiny dots in a line up the Easton Glacier. We were pretty stoked to have the entire area to ourselves.

After hiking up the talus field that led to the base of the route, which completely dry from snow, although the north facing slopes on the other side of the valley created a stark contrast with their wintery coat still reminding us that despite the warm sun, it was still only the first weekend of May. We gathered our gear together which consisted of: 30m 8mm(?) rope, a light single rack up to a #2 Camalot, both our cameras, and the normal other things you bring if you’re carrying a pack (which I was, because I can clip my camera on the outside which makes it much easier for me to carry while moving). We ate our peanut butter bagels, and started to climb.

At first I felt good, just moving in the mountains. It felt good to not have to stop, to just climb and feel my body doing what comes so naturally, trying to deepen my breathing so that my heart would stop pounding in my chest. But after awhile, perhaps due to the constant vigilance to loose rock, and perhaps deep incapability to fully relax, the ocean of anxiety came crashing over me once again. I found myself sitting below one of the steeper sections of rock, watching Matt climb, and trying to talk my brain down from hyperventilating. The thoughts came tumbling over each other youshouldntbehereyoudontbelonghereyourenotgoodenoughyoudontknowenough. I took breath after breath, trying to force my own voice over the noise in my head. I CAN DO THIS. I AM TOTALLY CAPABLE, I tried to say back to the voices. I spoke softly to myself as I began to climb, finding jug after jug on solid rock, feet just where you wanted them, telling myself that I could do this. I didn’t know how much more I could take of this, but at the same time, there was nowhere else I would rather be. It was a beautiful day in the mountains, I was climbing in a sports bra, and I love this shit. It seriously just doesn’t get any better than this, and yet for some reason, I just couldn’t fully enjoy it because of the goddamn voices in my head. I refused to give up, because it meant giving in. I knew if I did, I would regret it.

So upwards we pressed, slowly. I tried to just simply focus on what was right in front of me, just making it one more ledge higher, and then another. Finally we came to a section of rock that was more solid than some of the lower parts, full of cracks and jugs. It was pure bliss, and I found myself unable to stop smiling as I climbed. Somehow, all the voices were gone, and it was back to the simple enjoyment of climbing and moving and existing in the mountains. It somehow seemed just so much sweeter because there had been a part of me that had almost turned around only about 100 feet below.

(Matt was stoked)

(This is me smiling like a dumbass on the super fun section. It felt so good. Photo by Matthew Tangeman)

It was getting later than we had intended, but we decided to push through the one 5.6 pitch to the summit, since we were so close. We roped up, knowing that we didn’t need to put ourselves in any unnecessarily riskier places for the day, and Matt set off up what felt surprisingly hard for 5.6 to follow, although my mental state and mountain boots probably had more to do with that than the actual challenge of the pitch. He was almost to the end of the 30m rope when I hear his panicked yell from above me “ROCK ROCK”. For me it happened incredibly fast, although he later said that for him it was all in slow motion. He watched the rock he had somehow kicked off a loose ledge fall directly towards where I was belaying below. I kept my head down, unsure what to do or where it was coming from. I think I kind of froze up, totally unsure what I could or should be doing, knowing the last thing I should do is to look up at the falling rock. It bounced off ledge just above my head, and exploded around me, flying right over me and down the mountain. We were both shaken up, although Matt more than me since he had watched the whole thing unfold. I definitely started to feel the pressing need to be back on the ground at that point, but since we were about 30 feet from the top, I scrambled up there while Matt started getting a rappel set up.

We rappelled two sections on the way down, the 5.6, and the other short bit that had kind of freaked me out. We scrambled down until we could reach the gully, which was full of slushy snow and from there we just kinda ran down the snow back to our packs. We ate apples and looked at Mount Baker before starting the trek out, pretty stoked that it all had gone well, everything according to plan, despite taking much longer and being more emotionally involved than we had originally expected, given the actual nature of the outing. But then, what else would you expect when you ask for an alpine adventure?

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