By Stephanie Barnett
Ice axe. Trekking pole. Step. Breathe. Ice axe. Trekking pole. Step. Breathe.
It was a simple rhythm that was enough to convince myself I could keep moving. Our team of 5 had been climbing our way up the Easton Glacier route toward the summit of Mount Baker since 2:30am.
It was only our third day on the course, and this was the first time we’d ever traveled in a rope team together; the first time wearing crampons, navigating snowy terrain, managing crevasse hazards, and everything else I hadn’t truly considered about this undertaking.
Too far from one another to talk, we quietly inched our way up the nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain over the next 7 hours.
Three days prior we were complete strangers, all arriving to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Pacific Northwest branch for our own reasons. When asked why I chose to sign up for a mountaineering course, all I could respond with was, “I just wanted to know if I could do it.”
As we crested over the last ridge, I caught my breath and felt my chest tighten in disbelief. Had the constant ascent ended? I could see the summit across a flat, snow-covered space, with a single track of other climbers’ boot steps leading the way.
As tears started to form behind my glacier glasses, I said out loud to myself between breaths, “You can cry when you get there.”
When we arrived, the cheering, hugs, and high-fives began. One of the few women in the group came up, embraced me and said excitedly, “Can you believe it? You did it, you made it! Don’t you feel incredible?” In that moment, all I wanted to do was quietly collapse in both tears and exhaustion.
“You made it! Don’t you feel incredible?” In that moment, all I wanted to do was quietly collapse in both tears and exhaustion.
Instead, I ignored my body’s natural desires, composed myself, dropped my gear, and headed with the group up to the summit post. One of my teammates wrote all of our names in the log book as we all stood in a circle spelling them. It felt surreal. We took a few group pictures.
I tried taking some photos of the views, but they were obscured by the smoke from wildfires in the surrounding wilderness area. We didn’t have much time to stay—the clouds were signaling that weather was coming, and we still had to make the more difficult descent back to base camp.
It was so fleeting that I barely remember what I felt being there. It reminds me of something my mountaineering inspiration, Melissa Arnot Reid, shared in a talk. She said, “The summit is for the ego, the journey is for the soul.”
I am still trying to accept and articulate that the way I imagined it would be is not how it played out.
For an entire year, reaching the summit was something I thought about every day. Every minute on my commute, at work, laying in bed. I envisioned myself atop Mount Baker with that on-top-of-the-world feeling of accomplishment, taking photographs with a majestic view. The same thing goes for our second summit 10 days later, Mount Shuksan.
The second climb a climb, even more so than the first, pushed me into a controlled panic. I struggled more than I expected. The leader within me did not come to the surface with confidence. I didn’t return with strong friendships and the photos I wanted. The truth is, I immediately judged myself to be the slowest in the group, the worst cook, my GoPro died on me the day after our Mt. Baker summit, and I was notably uncomfortable in connecting with people.
I am still trying to accept and articulate that the way I imagined it would be is not how it played out. All I felt was a void, and perhaps disappointment. In the end, my summit story is one of expectation versus experience, control versus lack thereof.
In my life prior to NOLS, I had complete control. Everything was measured. I rarely accepted help from anyone. Every part of my day was predictable.
However, my return from NOLS marked the beginning of a new chapter.
Even though those summits weren’t what I expected them to be, being in the mountains brought the excitement and adventure back to the forefront of my life. It forced me to live and experience every moment in the moment, because when you’re at the mercy of the elements on a mountaintop, nothing is predictable and nothing is guaranteed—especially not success.
Back home, I left my job to pursue a not-quite-decided career path. And with that, I left the only established social community I had outside of my own family. Away from a familiar physical environment, I also left my identity behind–one that had become wrapped up in work that no longer inspired me.
Turning away from having control, embracing the unknown, taking risks, and being uncomfortable more often than not, was harder than I thought it would be. But perhaps that’s exactly what my NOLS experience was preparing me for.
What I feel now is gratitude for a new perspective on failure and success, and an appreciation for what challenges can teach us about ourselves.
Perhaps the ~60 lb pack I could barely hoist onto my back was there for me to recognize the responsibility I carry for all the things in my life. The thousands of feet I climbed over 15 days were markers to help me recognize my commitment to doing what I set out to do. Submerging my nearly-naked sweat-covered body into an icy river showed me that I am willing to expose my whole self to the world and risk discomfort in the process. And finally accepting help from others taught me that fear isn’t something to be ashamed of.
So, yes, the summit was for my ego. I can say I was there, and I doubt it will be something that leaves my memory. But what I remember and cherish most was the journey, and the people who reminded me that I am stronger than I think I am.
The advice I’m living now and leaving with anyone who asks about attempting a summit is: Don’t resist losing control; just let it go. Let yourself experience the excitement, the fear, the insecurity—honor what it is there to teach you, and enjoy the view on your way.
What have mountains helped you learn about yourself?
Banner photo by Xuan Ming Ng.
Stephanie Barnett is a self-proclaimed adventurer and certified Life Coach currently based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. After meeting her best self in the outdoors, Stephanie decided to change careers and help women reignite their lives and achieve their impossible as a professional coach. Learn more about Stephanie on her website, and fine her on Facebook and Instagram.