Suffering in athleticism is different from other forms of suffering. And suffering in the
mountains is different still. There is no escape except one’s own power and volition.
But being okay with suffering is not innate. It is certainly a learned skill. Those who play sports learn early on that suffering is part of success. I learned this later in life. When I started working out I thought it would get easier– turns out, it doesn’t. It’s
still difficult, but you can push yourself harder, further, faster than before. My most shocking revelation wasn’t that it continued to be hard, but that struggling with burning muscles and side cramps and hunger and blisters is okay. My health, my goals, my safety is all worth my suffering in the moment, because this is how I grow.
It is February in Colorado. At 5 AM the sky is clear and the wind biting and cold. Without the sweeping light of my head lamp I can’t see my feet to get my ski boots on.
In the parking lot at 9,000′ above sea level the air feels thin. My body, my lungs, my oxygen rich red blood cells are used to breathing near the ocean where the delicious, thick air fills my lungs. We are heading up and up and up to 14,265′ and the summit of Quandary Peak.
As we start up the trail the first fingers of yellow light greet us through the trees. We point our faces toward the sun and drink in her warmth and light. The soft beams of light intermingle with the angular shadows of pine trees across our path. I try to appreciate what nature has to say, to see the beauty in this moment.
As the sun rises higher so does the burning in my quads. I wonder, repeatedly, if I can do this. If I am strong enough, brave enough, skilled enough for this. There is only one way to find out. The whole gracious world is out there for me to discover if only I can push aside the discomfort in my legs, the self doubt in my heart, and the feeling that there is not enough air to breathe up here.
My back pack feels like lead as I try to force more oxygen to my muscles through shear willpower. I slide my right ski up, ease my weight on to it until I feel the skin bite into the snow crust. I repeat this process with my left ski. Right, left, repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The sky is clear blue above us when we first catch a glimpse of the summit. Ah, the light at the end of the tunnel. Now that I can see my objective the fire in my belly burns brighter. I push myself harder. I CAN do this!
As we push towards the summit, elation and relief washes over me. I am strong enough! This wasn’t that hard. I AM strong enough, skilled enough, brave enough.
But alas, I am fooled like many before and after me by this false summit. I must push on.
As we move towards another pseudo summit the incline increases and the snow hardens to any icy crust. With every step forward there is a slide backward before the skin finds purchase on the hard snow pack. It is both physically exhausting and soul crushing. Eventually the slope becomes too steep and the skis must be carried. We are left to kick steps into the ice for the last several hundred feet before the summit. On this wind scoured slope each step takes several kicks into the frozen snow to find purchase. Kick, kick, step. Kick, kick, kick, step.
As we near the (real) summit I am somehow both sweaty and cold. My toes hurt. My legs are exhausted. My face is covered in some amalgamation of sunscreen, snot, chapstick and spit. I can feel the tingle of too much wind and sun on my cheeks but I am too tired to do anything about it. I push forward only because I have come too far to go back. The summit seems like an afterthought, just a place to turn around.
But then, we get to the summit and all of the exhaustion and pain and boogers fade away. I skied up a 14k peak in Colorado in the winter! I DID IT!
I am so proud and excited and happy that I dance on the summit in my ski boots. I immediately regret it because now I feel like I can’t breathe again, but the essence of the dance carries me safely down the mountain despite my exhaustion and pain and fear and mediocre ski skills in crusty Colorado snow bowls.
Suffering is part of growing. A victory that is suffered for is immensely more satisfying than one that comes easily. I have never danced at the top of a casual hike. Every time I force Adam to take my summit victory pose my arms are buoyed over my head by the pride that grows in me with each success.
Learning anything as an adult is harder than learning it as a kid. When I was just a wee little lass no one ever said to me, “This is hard and that’s okay.” That is such a simple and powerful statement with far reaching consequences for success. So I taught myself that things get hard AND THAT’S OKAY! Cramps suck, but they won’t kill you. You’ll look like a doofus walking around on really sore legs, but you’ll be stronger in the end. Blisters are temporary. Sweat dries. And for that matter, so do tears. Failing is fine, but giving up is not allowed.