Two weeks ago I quite literally climbed a mountain. The bruises under my big toenails and my still-swollen patellar tendons remind me each day how very real that mountain was.
Our trek up Mt. Elbert started months ago as my group of high school friends began to plan a trip to Colorado. Our friend was getting married there and we all hoped to attend the nuptials but also planned on making quite a trip of it. I was reluctant to jump on board. Just a year ago we were planning a similar trip with the same friends and Mr. Something and I had to back out on account of needing to attend our foster care licensing classes. That change of plans derailed me and I was certain it was the beginning of life as I knew it coming to a complete end. I did a great job of downplaying it but I really struggled with the turn of events. (It’s a bit awful that here we are, a year later, and I am once again thinking that this will be our last childless summer. I’ve been blogging for almost 2 1/2 years and feel like I’ve been in the same place in this process this whole time. )
Anyway, as plans for this trip to Colorado began to unfold, we tentatively chimed in with a disclaimer that we might have to back out again if there was any movement on the foster care front. We booked accommodations that would allow us to cancel without fees up until two weeks before. We didn’t talk much about it and I tried desperately not to get excited. All of this considered, the trip sort of snuck up on both of us and suddenly it was summer and we were going.
As part of the preparations, a GoogleDoc popped up among my friends with potential activities, a schedule for the week, links to informational sites etc. One of the proposed activities was a hike to the top of Mt. Elbert, one of Colorado’s legendary “14ers” (the name bestowed upon any peak reaching above 14,000 feet.) It came with an impressive resume boasting that, at 14,440 feet, it is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of North America, the second highest in the contiguous United States, and the highest of the 14ers in Colorado. I immediately became enamored with the idea and had to do it.
In an early morning text conversation with Mr. Something, months prior to the trip, I allowed some of my well-kept excitement to leak through and typed,
“I want to climb a mountain with you and celebrate at the top.”
As I hit send, the enormity of that statement overwhelmed me. It was no longer Mt. Elbert we were discussing but our very journey together through life and into the great unknown of foster care adoption. Mt. Elbert suddenly became a metaphor for everything that we were attempting to do here and I knew at once that if we could summit that very real mountain a thousand miles away, than we could do anything.
The trail was approximately 4 1/2 miles to the summit, however the 4,000 foot elevation gain was going to prove to be the struggle for this flatlander. I never doubted the physical challenge of the task. I equipped myself with a 3 liter hydropak, a set of shock absorbing hiking poles, $20 hiking socks, and dry-fit shirt. I mixed my own high-energy trail mix, and packed extra sunscreen, rain jacket, and poncho. No matter how prepared I thought I was, there was nothing I could have tucked into my backpack that would have prepared me for the mental and emotional challenge of reaching the summit of that mountain.
Shortly after setting off we separated into two groups. The first were dubbed either insane or super-human shortly after we began the ascent and they took off at an impossible pace, the latter being myself, Mr. Something (who very well could have been on Team Super-Human but preferred to share the torturous experience at my side) plus one of my oldest and dearest friends who was fairly closely matched with my own physical abilities.
Within an hour we named ourselves “Team Optimism” because it quickly became apparent that as long as two of us remained optimistic, the third would have no choice but to follow suit. We each took very real turns with defeat. It quickly became impossible to walk more than five steps without having to stop and catch our breath. My heart was pounding so mightily in my chest I was certain that at some point it would simply explode and I would die on that mountain trail. This is not a dramatic over-exaggeration of thoughts weeks later, we each actually came to terms with the fact that we truly felt like we might die on that mountain. At one point I told my friend quite earnestly, “If I die out here, don’t feel sorry for me because at least I died in one of the most beautiful places in the world and not someplace lame like driving to work.”
At about 2 1/2 hours into our ascent my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was an email notification. I received an evite for a barbecue from a friend back home. It might as well have been contact from another planet for how strange it felt to be struggling through such wild wilderness and to get something as ordinary as an evite sent to my pocket. I texted her to share the strangeness of the moment. I sent her this picture of the little piece of the world that was consuming me. I sent a plea, “I need some inspiration. This mountain is killing me.”
Her end was quiet for almost two hours, but it was those two hours later that I had sent my friend ahead to meet up with her husband and I called Mr. Something back to me on the trail. “I can’t do it.” I was crying (because anyone that knows me knows that any extreme emotion equals tears in my world.) I turned my back on the trail ahead and was looking out across the landscape we had been conquering one shuffling step at a time for over four hours. I was gasping for breath and struggling with the thought that out of the ten of us that embarked on that journey, I was going to be the one that didn’t make it to the top. The one that failed.
Mr. Something took me by the shoulders and moved into view. “We are going to do this. We are going to do this together. Don’t worry about the others. It is just us and we are going to get to the top.” My brain was fuzzy from the altitude but his words grounded me. I wiped my tears and turned back toward the trail ahead. Just as we began to move again, my pocket buzzed. It was my friend back home retuning my plea for inspiration from two hours before. We have a running joke that she can give inspirational speeches worth of a 1980s sports film, and that day she didn’t disappoint.
“Go climb that f-ing moutain! Think of dull flat home and make the climb with vigor and zest. Breathe in the glory of nature. Imagine that your legs are strong and your heart is happy.”
All I could manage at the time was a, “I so needed that right now. I’m struggling” as a response. However, “strong legs, happy heart” became my mantra over the next two hours to the summit.
Step. Strong legs. Step. Happy heart. Step. Strong legs. Step Happy heart.
Six hours after we left our cars at the trailhead we reached the summit of Mt. Elbert with ten friends (and two guys from England) cheering our arrival. We spent barely twenty minutes at the top due to some ominous clouds moving our way and I can only remember those twenty minutes now through a fog of hunger, exhaustion, and whatever almost 50% less oxygen than you are used to does to your brain. I clung to Mr. Something for our summit picture, my smile more of a fixed grimace than an expression of joy and it wasn’t until we were safely back down the mountain (chased down by distant thunder and the threat of being caught above the tree line with two metal hiking poles) that I was able to take in the enormity of what we had just accomplished.
Was it fun? No. There were moments of laughter as my friend pointed out rocks that looked like faces and distracted us with stories and facts about why exactly it felt like our hearts were going to burst. (Thank you pharmaceutical school.) Or when I reached into my pack to show her the trail mix I had made and pulled out an apple instead (far more impressive than trail mix!) But I can’t say that more than a moment here or there was actually fun.
Would I do it again? Yes. I want to do it again knowing what I know now about the experience. Knowing what I now know about myself. Because, let me tell you, when you summit the tallest mountain in the Rockies, you are left feeling like you can accomplish anything.
I later learned that moments before my own defeat on the trail, Mr. Something was at the bottom of his motivation as well. Ready to give up. It’s no doubt that we are stronger together. Members of Team Super-Human, who reached the summit an hour before us, later admitted to almost-defeat as well, teaching me another valuable lesson. We are all, every one of us, fighting our own battles no matter how brave of a face we put on for the world.
Enter Mt. Metaphor. It started months ago when I proclaimed to Mr. Something that I wanted to climb a mountain with him and celebrate at the top. It was in that climb that we realized that life is going to be climbing one mountain after another. Moving forward with foster care adoption is not choosing the easy path. We are going to struggle. Our hearts are going to feel like they are ready to burst. We won’t be able to catch our breath. We are going to want to give up, but we won’t. We are in it together and we are not alone. There are those to keep us optimistic along the way, to cheer for us when we reach the top, and others that will know just what to say at the exact moment we need it. (You know who you all are. Thank you!)
One step at a time, no matter how slow. Step. Strong legs. Step. Happy heart. Because the journey will always be worth it in the end.