Flexing My Courage Muscle on The Osceolas

Submitted by Nancy

Mountains: East Osceola (4,156) and Osceola (4,340)
Date: January 2, 2009
Time: 7 hours
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 20's
Miles: 7.6
Elevation Gain: 3,100
Steps: 21,447
Trail: Greeley Pond Trail, Mt. Osceola Trail

Picture Gallery

Pat and I are wearing snowshoes climbing up an almost vertical slope on the Osceolas in the White Mountains. My hands are grasping at any tree limb or rock I can find to help me pull myself up while I struggle to point my toes enough to get the front claws on my snowshoes to sink through the unconsolidated snow into the ice below so that I can gain eight inches up on the steep slope in front of me. My legs are screaming. I am thankful my snowshoes have televators, metal bars that lift my heels a few inches, easing the strain on my calves.

I feel a lightning bolt erupt in my chest and dive down into my gut as I look up and see that the trail continues up at this steep incline for as far as my eyes can see. I pause and hear myself mutter a bad word under my breath. I glance down at my snowshoes and gather myself, taking a deep breath. I look up again and collapse into questioning my motives. What am I thinking? I ask myself. Why am I doing this? Is this supposed to be fun?

Another pause, another breath. I look down and take in the scene below me and a string of nasty words gushes out under my breath. I am precariously perched on the side of a mountain with the trail slithering out behind me as if it is hanging almost limp from my snowshoes. It is a long way straight down. I glance at Pat who is looking at me. She reassures me, tells me she is right there. And in her reassurance I hear her confidence in me, which reminds me that I have climbed to the summit of many mountains, overcoming my fear of the cold and snow and ice. She knows I can do this. My friend is my mirror and I am so grateful she is with me.

One thing I have learned on the mountains, though, is that having someone there with you, while comforting, doesn't mean they can do the work for you. In the end, it is me, and only me, who has to take the next step to get myself up the mountain. Pat can't do it for me. I have to do it under my own steam. In the end we do it alone.

I look up again, take a deep breath and try to figure out my problem. I seem to have the strength I need in my legs although I am certainly feeling the effort. But it is not my legs that are giving me pause. I seem to have lost strength in my courage muscle. It has weakened over the spring, summer and fall hiking seasons from not being used. I have forgotten the difficulties of winter hiking...the cold, the hard footing, the fear that darts into my stomach when I realize how steep and icy the slope is and how easily I could slide uncontrollably down the trail if I misstep, the frozen power bars, the frozen water, and my cold wet body needing a change of clothes. I had forgotten the extra-added oomph winter hiking requires.

I keep climbing. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. As we trudge up, Pat reminds me, as she often does, "This is the good stuff!" I know she is right.

The steep section goes on forever! When we finally reach the ridge leading to the summit of East Osceola, Pat and I high-five, knowing, well hoping, that it will get easier from here. After a miniscule flat section, the terrain takes on the look of steep all over again and up we go. We reach the summit of East Osceola at 11 am and almost immediately begin the steep down. After maybe five minutes of hiking in an enclosed tree-lined trail, all of a sudden the sky becomes big and we see a view of Mt. Osceola. "Oh my God!" I say. Pat is quiet - but I bet she is thinking the same thing. It is straight up all over again and looks oh so far away.

I am cold now that we are going down, but I don't want to change into dry clothes because I know I will be climbing soon and will sweat all over again. I'm hungry and Pat takes out one of my power bars. We almost break our teeth taking that first frozen bite of the bar and then we wash it down with water, that is more ice than water, which produces an immediate piercing cold headache. I look up at where we are going, take another breath, flex my courage muscle to prime it and take a step.

We arrive at the "chimney," a literally straight up section of trail. I remember this when we climbed it during our first summer hiking season. I was scared then and it was July! Now it is covered with ice and snow! We change into crampons and I start up. I just keep moving up and I am okay until I hit a section of rock on the chimney where there is no place for the crampon points to grab. That sends a jolt of lightning fear into my belly and I freeze for a moment. My courage muscle flexes. I lift my left foot and put it way up on the next rock ledge, lean my weight on it as best I can and take the next step up...and then the next. Once on top of the chimney, it is a series of small ups and downs to the summit of Mt. Osceola. We arrive at 12:20 pm and only stay long enough for a picture and boot tightening before heading back.

It is a long slog back to the summit of East Osceola. We are hungry and I am cold but don't want to stop to change. I just want to keep going. I am worried about going down that steep section we hit on the way up East Osceola and I want to get that behind me. It turns out that it is not as bad as I feared thanks to my crampons.

We arrive at the bottom of the steep section and I take a deep breath and let the relief flood through me. We are going to make it. Another deep breath - in and out. The last mile and a half feels like forever and my legs are tired. But my courage muscle got a great workout and is stronger for the experience.

As I walk the last mile I think about the questions I asked myself on the steep trail climbing up East Osceola, struggling with my fear. The answers come.

What am I thinking? I am not. I am following my heart and my heart knows I can do this. My heart wants to do this. My hearts wants to show me what I am capable of, so that I will know what I am made of, so I will know who I am. So that one day I will stop questioning myself and rest in the knowledge that I am a strong capable woman. These hikes don't make me stronger; they show me my strength. I am doing this because it is what I am supposed to be doing. I am hiking in the winter because every step up that steep slope in my crampons reminds me that I am alive.

Why am I doing this? Because I love a challenge. I love it and I need it. When Pat and I finished the New England 67 4,000 footers this past October, we were left for a period of time bereft of goals and I felt completely lost. I couldn't find my enthusiasm. Luckily winter kicked in and climbing New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers in winter is the most daunting goal I have ever had the courage to commit to -- ever.

Having a challenge in front of me, in the form of goals or my life list, keeps me alive and awake and focused and motivated and excited to be here on this planet, thrilled to have a chance to experience more and more and even more of life. My goals are my mirror, revealing who I am, reminding me what I can do, showing me I have all the courage I need.

Is this supposed to be fun? You know, years ago when I first started going to exercise classes, Pam, our instructor, used to say, "Now we're going to have some fun!" and then she would have us do some horrendous exercise that pushed us to our physical limits. Pam would be smiling at us, loving every moment of it, as we all struggled to get our bodies to respond and not give out before she reached the magic number of 10. And when it was over, Pam would look at us, eyes twinkling and say, "That was great! Look how strong and fit you are." And I would let that in. Pam taught me the "other" definition of fun: a challenge that will show you your beautiful self. It is fun to meet the challenge head on and realize I am a healthy, strong woman who can do anything she puts her mind to? There is joy in feeling the thrill of facing your fears and taking the next step up. Big joy.


I have dinner to celebrate my 55th birthday with two dear friends, Marty and Kate. I tell them about Pat's and my hike up the Osceolas and share my fear of the cold and ice and snow and steep sections. They listen, they worry aloud and they ask me why I am hiking in winter if it is so hard. They suggest I might want to dial it back a bit. They love me.

Then we talk about my new job as a fitness instructor, which starts in a mere two weeks. Yikes! I confide in them that I am afraid I can't do it, that I won't be any good at it, that the people in the class will hate it. Tears fall. My friends are shocked and they immediately become my mirrors. They remind me of my journey losing 75 pounds, becoming fit and changing my life. They remind me of my enthusiasm for cheering for others and my ability to motivate people. And they remind me that what I really want to do is inspire others on their own journey to discover themselves. They remind me, just like winter hiking reminds me, of who I am.

Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Marty and Kate. Thank you, Mt. Osceola. Thank you, Pat.

15 and 16 out of the Winter 48