It's Not About Bagging the Peak

Submitted by Nancy

Peak attempted: Mount Mansfield, northern Vermont
Date: December 9, 2006
Time: 4 hours and 30 minutes
Weather: Cloudy, temps in the 20s
Miles: 4.2
Steps: 12,856
Trails: Halfway House Trail
Holy Shit Factor: Our first time turning around...really hard

Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, is the goal. We leave Keene at 5:30 a.m. and arrive at the trailhead at 8:30. There is 8-9 inches of new snow on the ground. We skid trying to park near the unplowed park entrance and decide to go back down the road a bit to the plowed section. We gear up and we are off - Pat, Dejah (my daughter's 2-year-old yellow lab), and me.

It's surprising how much work snow adds to a steady climb. We trudge up the park road, finally reaching the trailhead. Given the conditions, we decide on a shorter loop than our original plan. With the trail snow-covered it is hard to tell what we're stepping on; it just looks like a bumpy white path up. Sometimes we're surprised by good footing under the snow and other times our feet meet with ice and we lose our footing, slip and try again. Winter hiking requires way more effort - a new lesson learned.

Pat and I have all the right gear for this winter hike. We have lots of extra layers, wind breakers, hard shells, soft shells, glove liners, heavy mittens, balaclava's, wind hats, stabilicers, gaiters - you name it, we have it.

OK, we have almost all the right gear...

I am wearing my light-hiking boots that have taken me over 230 miles up and down 4,000 footers since May 6th. I bought winter hiking boots and wore them for 10 minutes on the way up Abraham. The boots were stiff, heavy, and hot and I couldn't stand them. I changed into my beloved light hikers and was so happy, even in the snow we encountered at the top of the ridge. So, I figured I would be fine on Mansfield. WRONG!

From the beginning of the hike, my feet are cold. I ignore it and keep walking, sure they will warm up. Halfway up Mansfield, sweat pouring down my face, my feet are still cold. I start to concentrate on moving my toes as I climb, hoping they will warm up. By now, we are hiking in the clouds - no views today and that realization adds to my darkening mood.

"Pat - I'm not sure I like winter hiking," I say, overwrought with cold feet, discomfort and disappointment. I had lost my perspective and couldn't recall happy winter hiking moments.

We keep climbing. Pat is worried about my feet and suggests a few times that we stop and warm them up. I am determined to keep going, to not be a wimp, to not make this worse than it really is. But finally I am just too cold.

Pat helps me get my frozen boots off and we put hand warmers and extra socks on my feet and wait for the big warm up. Pat and I take turns holding my feet. I am upset -- ashamed that I need help and scared because I can't feel my feet nor can I feel the warmers working at all. I am worried Pat will begin searching for a REAL hiker for her hiking partner.

Pat brings out a surprise - HOT chocolate - and pours me a cup. It is meant for a summit celebration; but the circumstances call for it now. It feels so good going down but I don't enjoy it because I am too overwhelmed by the situation. The sense of heat never reaches my toes. But the act of kindness does not go unnoticed.

"I think we should go back down," Pat says. I start to cry. I am not one to turn around, to give up. We've had lots of tough moments in our hiking adventures this year and I never considered turning around. But I know she is right and I don't even fight it. Pat gives me a hug full of warmth and understanding and, in spite of my vulnerability, I let myself feel the friendship.

We start down. I had not realized it was so steep coming up, but it feels sheer and slippery going down. I have no feeling in my feet so it is hard to place them carefully and I just don't care. I am in survival mode, just taking a step at a time. I'm beating myself up mentally every step I take. Why can't I be stronger, like Pat? I ask myself. Why can't I just keep climbing? I feel emotionally and physically weak. I stop on the trail and concentrate on moving my toes and trying to feel something.

"How do I know when it's time to stop and do something?" I ask Pat, grimacing.

"We need to stop now," Pat replies; calmly, clearly, with concern.

I sit down, we take off my boots and socks and Pat places my bare feet on her stomach - skin to skin.

"Pat, I'm angry, mad at myself, ashamed, embarrassed," I say through tears. I feel only concern and care from Pat, no judgment, no anger. I am touched by Pat's kindness and compassion and her ability to stay strong and focused.

Dejah picks up on my anxiety and is running around frantically, licking our faces, running all over our gear, getting everything snow-covered and wet. Pat comforts her with treats and she quiets down.

My feet feel nothing at first. And then they start to hurt. They are tingling painfully back to life. I have no idea how long we stay like that - Pat kneeling in front of me with my feet against her stomach, her clothes wrapped around my feet. Me struggling with my anxiety.

"Thank you, Pat" I say, my feet still embraced by her warmth. Thank you isn't adequate but it's all I can say. I pull my feet away, put on dry socks and my boots and we start down again. My boots feel cold as ice, but my feet feel...yes, I can feel my feet. They are mine again.

Hope is the only word for what is happening to me. I feel hope where before there was none. It feels like such a contrast from how I was feeling only half an hour ago where anguish, despair and misery were winning. I feel alive again. I notice the beauty around me and remember why I love hiking. I feel like I am back to Nancy and my whole worldview has done a 360.

"Oh my God, Pat!" I say. "I can feel my feet! I am okay! I feel like I can make it down!" Pat smiles as relief floods through both of us. We continue down, pensive and filled with the enormity of what has taken place for us today. We arrive back at the car at 1:30 p.m.

"We'll be back," I promise Pat. "We'll bag Mansfield and celebrate big time on top."

Three hours later we arrive back at my house, way earlier than planned, and Don, my husband, is thrilled to have me home - he worries about me hiking in winter.

Since May, I have been focused on bagging peaks - adding them up one by one, sometimes two and three at a time, always working toward the goal of bagging the 67 4,000 footers in New England. Yes, I love the views, the challenge, the exercise and the laughs with Pat, but the purpose of our hiking is to add to the growing list of mountains scaled. Or so I thought...

We didn't add a peak to the list today. But this experience is one of the more meaningful in my life. I saw myself more clearly on Mansfield. It deepened my friendship with Pat, my hiking partner and dear friend. I learned, on a very profound level, that I can trust her and that if I need help, she will be there. I discovered how insidious cold can be, sapping me of my positive attitude and my feelings of wellbeing and leaving me defeated, uncertain, physically debilitated, and scared. The experience reminded me I am human; I'm a 52-year-old woman who makes bad decisions, wants to succeed, hates to give up for any reason, and has a lot to learn about hiking, especially in winter. I saw how difficult it was for me to admit my vulnerability and accept help and how incredibly hard it was to let in Pat's care.

I realize that if I want to continually push my own personal edge, I have to be prepared to love myself enough to turn back when I reach my limits. This is the adventure - courageously risking while my love keeps me safe.

"Someday we'll laugh about this," Pat says.

She's right...but not yet. Until then, I know I have been blessed by this experience and by my friendship with Pat. Perhaps that is more important than bagging any peak.