Striving on Jefferson

Submitted by Nancy

Mountain: Mt. Jefferson
Date: May 22, 2007
Time: 12.5 hours
Weather: Sunny, temps in the 40s to 60s, light breeze
Miles: 9
Steps: 34,250 steps
Trails: Castle Trail
Holy Shit Factor: We went way past holy shit on this one - it's not even the right barometer

Picture Gallery

Video Clips
Nancy Telling it Like it is
Panorama View

"You have to listen to your heart and your body, not to your head. Your heart and body are aligned, and there is congruence between them that will keep you safe. The hikes where you turn around are worth much more than the hikes where you get to the summit."
     -A fellow hiker and former member of the White Mountain Search and Rescue team

Striving to be all that we can be and taking care of ourselves...are they mutually exclusive? Can we do one and still do the other? If so, it's a balancing act I haven't mastered. It seems there is a point people reach when striving becomes pushing and they are no longer taking care of themselves. I crossed that line on this hike. When I should have turned around, I convinced Pat I was okay and we hiked on.

When I met Pat, I met my match. We are both, as Pat says, strivers; goal-oriented, if-we-say-we're-gonna-do-it-get-out-of-the-way type of gals. That's why we picked Jefferson to hike. In my heart, I knew I needed an "easy freebie" hike after a string of killer climbs through the winter, but the lure of perfect weather and bagging a peak that counted toward our 67-4,000-footer goal was too much for me to resist.

Was hiking Jefferson a good decision?

Here is the part I don't get. Most inspirational leaders seem to push way beyond striving, enduring huge personal sacrifices while making the world a better place - Nelson Mandela, Paul Farmer, Greg Mortenson, Mother Teresa. Do you have to reach the sacrifice level to really make a difference? When is enough enough? How hard do you try? When does striving to be all that you can be become pushing too hard?

Did we push too hard on this hike?

By now you are wondering what the hell happened. I'll get to it quickly.

We start out as usual from Keene at 5 a.m. and from the Castle Trail at 8:30. We easily forge the river, unlike our last hike, because we are armed with a plan - don't be anxious, know it's coming, take off your boots and socks, don water sandals and just walk across - which is exactly what we do. Wow, that water is painfully frigid! Then up Jefferson we climb. We are enjoying all the beautiful wildflowers that line the path -- trout lilies and trillium and common wood sorrels by the hundreds. Pat is doing her usual trail clearing as we walk - a gift she gives to those who come after us. About a mile and a half in we hit snow, as if we haven't seen enough already on our hikes! We are able to bare-boot it most of the way, post-holing a bit. In places the narrow trail is a peak of 3 feet of soft crystallized snow.

The Castellated Ridge we are climbing narrows into a rock formation known as "the Castles," made up of some high ledges that require scrambling. Scrambling is the hiking term. My words -- oh-holy-shit-how-am-I-going-to-get-up-there? Pat loves this stuff.

I am half way up a wall of rock, trying to figure out how I am going to get up because I see no footholds or handholds. Dejah, my daughter's yellow lab, is crying because she can't figure out a way up either. Her distress upsets me and I abandon my struggle to find a way up to help her. I try to lift her up to the next ledge. I'm not sure what I'm thinking, she weights 70 pounds and I'm already precariously balanced on this ledge with a heavy backpack. Her leap isn't high enough and she lands in my arms and I lose my balance. For a very long agonizing instant I realize my mistake and what is going to happen. We fall. I don't fall the whole way down, or I wouldn't be writing this report. I land on a corner of jutting rock on my butt and side. I hear Pat yell as I fall and she is there when I realize I am alive and barely balancing on a rock precipice. Together we scootch down to safe ground. I am shaking, discombobulated, emotional, trying to get my bearings. I sit for a while as Pat does her best to comfort me. I know places on my body hurt, but as each second goes by, I also realize I am in one piece. Dejah, thank God, is okay too.

Moment of truth - do I listen to my heart and body or to my head?

"I'm OK," I say. "Let's just get to the top of this thing and see where we go from there." I move into buck-up-you-can-do-this mode, no longer connected to heart and body. I am numb. I just want to get away from this hellacious ledge and leave it behind me. Unsteadily, with all the courage I have left, I struggle to the top of the ledge; Pat hoists Dejah to me and then Pat follows. And we continue on. We still have a mile and a half of climbing to get to the summit and that is what we have come for, right? To reach the summit?

I am jittery, my balance is off and I am all juiced up with adrenaline coursing through me. It feels like I have had 10 cups of coffee mixed with a bottle of booze and haven't slept for 2 days. Pat is worried about me and I am focused on not falling as we walk this trail that is very rough and narrow with lots of rock hopping. We reach the Cornice Trail at 2:45. Pat turns to me and I say, in tears, "I'm done."

We sit back-to-back, supporting each other on our perch above the world, feeling the sun on our bodies, letting the exhaustion dissipate, and taking a moment to absorb the beauty. I am back in my heart. It is a glorious day up on the almost-summit of Jefferson. And then we turn around only half a mile from the summit, at 3 p.m.

The slog down the mountain is excruciating. By now all the aches and pains from the fall come out of hiding and every step aggravates some bruise somewhere. Plus my balance never really returns. I'm "not me" and haven't been since the fall.

Pat is great. I know she is concerned and I keep trying to reassure her I am okay. But, the bottom line is I am not okay and she knows it and I know it. The walk down is quiet; only encouraging words and checking on one another. Pat continually gives me her arm or her hand when the steep requires a big step down. I lean on her arm, grunt, hold my breath and step, balance, and then do it again.

When we get back to the river, we just walk across, boots, socks, pants and all -- neither one of us has the energy to agonize over the crossing or to put on our water sandals, and we only have half a mile to go. We get back to the car at 9 p.m. We are back in Keene at midnight, and Pat still has a half hour to go before she hits home. Long, exhausting day.

A few years ago I wrote my own personal mission statement: To inspire others by being fully who I am.

I wonder if I have it in me to inspire others given my personal limitations and tolerances levels that were evident on this hike. I am ashamed of my weakness, mad at myself that I couldn't push harder and farther, and sad that my fall completely overshadowed our hike. It scares me that I don't have what it takes; that who I am is not enough to be who I want to be.

Maybe that's my head talking.

My body is craving rest, ice and ibuprofen.

And if I listen to the still small voice that is my heart, I know that turning around was an act of loving myself and that the summit will be there for another day. I know that I can't make a difference in the world by being anyone other than who I am, with all my striving and pushing, my limits and my struggles. I know that who I am is enough.

"The hikes where you turn around are worth much more than the hikes where you get to the summit."

Our next mountain? An easy one! No drama, no blood, no tears. I promise!

Pat's side of things:

I had expected that we would choose an easier hike on this glorious Tuesday. I had moved all my meetings and rearranged schedules and deadlines at work to give myself this gift. This day was the day before Nancy started her new job, so it seemed appropriate to spend it hiking in the Whites. When Nancy said the day was going to be beautiful, the winds light and the temperatures mild, we decided to go for a big one. While there was a small hesitancy in my heart, I jumped at the chance and said, "Yeah!" But that's me. I like to strive. I am also trying to imagine what my life would be like if I could balance that striving and just be. Striving is good. It's who I am. But when is pushing up a mountain, pushing too hard? On this hike I found out.

As Nancy said, the first part of the hike was perfect. Sun and bird calls and incredible wildflowers and temperatures that allowed me to strip to shorts and a t-shirt. Wow, this was great. This was what it was all about. We grinned at each other like a couple of people having a great time.

After climbing the steep section to get up onto a ridge, we walked almost level for a while. That was perfect and I thought what a welcome this will be on the way down. A brief respite before the last steep section. And then we started back up to the base of the first castle - they are called the Castles because from a distance that's what they look like - the towers of a castle - up and over, hump after hump.

When we hit the first spot where Dejah started to cry, I figured we could do this. If Nancy got up first and I picked up and pushed Dejah up, it would all work out. And on the first tough scramble, it worked fine. But I could feel the tension rising and wondered if bringing Dejah has been the best idea. This was a tough climb for a dog.

The next spot was on a ledge of exposed rock - there were two possible spots to get up - one on the far right next to some tree roots to hold onto and one kind of in the middle that was pure free climbing, although it was only about 5 feet to get up and over. I was looking at the section at the far right and Nancy was looking at the free climb section when I heard Dejah crying again. I know her cries set Nancy off - it's a visceral reaction, hardly controllable, it comes from the pit of her being - I saw Dejah try to jump up the rock face Nancy was exploring for a hand or foothold. Then I saw Nancy make a decision - she wanted Dejah to stop crying so she thought she could push her up the ledge. When Dejah jumped, Nancy grabbed her and pushed. Well, Dejah wasn't confident and started to struggle.

At that point time slowed down to a crawl. I saw the moment when Dejah's weight had pushed Nancy backward far enough for her to lose her balance. Behind Nancy, a fifteen foot drop down a granite rock face to the trail below with nothing to stop her fall. I saw Nancy start to fall backward and I yelled, "No!", while trying to traverse the ledge to get to her. I had no chance. As she fell I watched her reach a point where some deep instinct of self preservation took over and she leaned forward toward the rock face just enough to keep herself from falling straight backward. As a result of that little bend forward she landed awkwardly in a crevice between two ledges that was small enough for her not to fall into and big enough to stop her momentum.

Oh, my god - my heart was in my throat as I scrambled over, feeling such a sense of relief that she had not fallen backward, but knowing she was definitely bruised and battered. I don't remember seeing what happened to Dejah but I knew somehow that she was ok. I focused my attention on getting Nancy out of the crevice and down off the rock. She went into shock almost immediately - shaking, pale, hardly coherent, a little combative. I unbuckled her pack so she could move more freely and she made her way down. She kept saying, "I just need to sit for a moment." She was definitely in shock and adrenaline had slammed her body, but she wanted to make it up this freaking ledge so when she had recovered and had stopped the gross trembling (she was still shaking but I couldn't see it anymore), she made her way up.

Here's where I made my mistake as her climbing partner - I knew she needed to get up that ledge. It was critical for her confidence. But when she said she wanted to go on and I allowed that moment to happen without protest, I made a mistake. I didn't fully realize how banged up she was and that she was still in mild shock. At this point, she was still running on adrenaline and didn't feel much pain, but I know enough about medicine to know that this state would be short-lived and she would need all her energy and strength just to get down the mountain from this point, let alone if we climbed another mile and a half. I should have stopped and said it was time to turn around and slowly make our way back, we would return to the mountain another time, she was not weak or a cry-baby - she had an accident, she had a hard fall, she was in shock, and we needed to take care of that and get down. Period. No argument. In the moment I didn't do that, but I will do that should it ever happen again. I learned another lesson.

I spent a lot of time on the way up to our turnaround point and back down to the trailhead thinking about the what-might-have-been's. This was close to a disaster, real injury and a rescue, had she become incapacitated. I was so glad that she was relatively ok that the idea of losing her to injury or death kicked my emotional ass from there to next week. I was reeling with the idea of the fact that in hiking these difficult mountains we have decided to accept the risk of injury or death. Is that part of the experience? I don't know - I have been aware of the risk on other hikes, but it wasn't so clear and so poignant as on this one. I also know how easily an accident like this can drill a core of fear into one's confidence and shatter the possibility of really being able to enjoy a difficult scramble again.

When I raced mountain bikes back in the late 90's I came face to face with that fear. I had fallen enough times that fear took over and I couldn't do the technical sections without clenching. I tried each difficult maneuver with trepidation, not joy. I couldn't get passed it and finally after an accident that sent me to the hospital for two layers of stitches in my elbow, I said enough. I didn't need to fight the fear any longer. I moved to riding on the road and that was a wise choice. I was in my mid to late 40's - what did I have to prove to anyone except myself and I already knew I was strong and had the trophies and ribbons to prove it. So, without a lot of self-recrimination, I quit racing and moved on. I could have continued to try and work through the fear, but after two years of striving to conquer I called it quits.

So how do we get over an incident like this? We keep going. But as Nancy said, we will start back on an easier climb, one that will fill us with all the joy that we have found in the mountains and in our bodies and hearts and souls and come back down hale and whole and ready for our Snapple and Diet Pepsi. We will be back to Jefferson. No doubt about it. But first, it's time to take a break, climb some easier mountains, head to the Grand Canyon for a hugely wonderful rim-to-rim experience, and come back refreshed and ready for anything.