Travel provides me the gift of exposure to new things — especially opening my mind to all that is considered “different”. When I make the choice to walk the road of discovery and face vulnerability that can come along, it usually leads to a deeper connection to nature, self, and humanity.
Writing about travel is a joy because it allows me to relive the journey over again. Although the impulse to romanticize experiences — the social media point of view — can be strong at times, I work really hard to access the deeper feelings as a reminder that travel is not always easy. Agreeing to be uncomfortable is not easy. But the rewards that come with self-discovery can be huge.
For example, ten years ago this week I stepped atop the 14,411-foot summit of Mt. Rainier on a day when the clear blue sky matched the radiance I felt from within. The climb was intense and leading up to this euphoric moment I felt very uncomfortable — largely because of a lack of proper preparation while making a major move across the country (from Washington DC to Seattle) just weeks before this adventure.
The final push up to the summit happened in the middle of the night while clinging to the freezing open face of the mountain. Our expert guides required us to consume 200 calories every hour and I couldn’t stomach eating any solid food — despite a backpack full of pizza, Snickers, and other assorted snacks.
Instead, I relied on tiny packets of Gu energy gel, which are 100-calorie envelopes of nasty gelatinous substances swirled together with artificial flavors. In my case, the flavor was artificial pineapple. To this day just the sight of a pineapple presents an awkward moment of cringing amongst beautiful thoughts of Mt. Rainier.
But when memories take me back, what rises up into my heart is the deep learning I experienced around humility. There was humility in understanding that Mt. Rainier could’ve thwarted us at any moment — via inhospitable weather or opening crevices. There was also humility in the realization that my weak preparedness for this arduous journey would beget nausea, fatigue, and frustration. But the biggest lesson of humility came with the experience within a rocky scramble they call “Disappointment Cleaver” — a halfway point in the wee hours of the morning.
Disappointment Cleaver gets its name for offering a moment of truth to climbers — usually because this is where the weather can change for the worst. It’s also the point in the journey where hikers (on a guided trip) must self-assess.
“Am I in good enough condition (mentally and physically) to both reach the summit, and complete the 9,000 foot, descent back down the mountain?”
An assessment is crucial because after this point the climb is mostly on an exposed slope of the mountain — a dangerous place to facilitate turn-around missions. There are only enough professional guides to usher one group back down (from Disappointment Cleaver to Camp Muir) in order to have enough support for the rest of the hikers making the ascent. After this “point of no return”, if a member of the group cannot continue up the mountain, for safety purposes, everyone must descend.
Our 3 AM stop at Disappointment Cleaver felt like an intense but blurry dream. One person was crawling on all fours on the rocks, trying to continue, but was pulled back by a guide. Many others did not appear in dire shape but were engaged in intense conversations with the leadership. As I choked down a second 100-calories of Gu (in view of a guide), sick to my stomach, I had to make a decision. My heart and body said yes while my mind was in a state of disarray.
Half of the 16 hikers made the decision to end their dream of reaching the summit and turned around in the crisp alpine air. The rest of us hitched back up to ropes, dug our cleats into the icy chunks of snow, and made our push to the top. Our final fuel stop (to consume at least 200 calories) was spent on the side of the mountain with nothing but a snowy slope and the vibrant colors of the sun creeping into view.
The buttery glow of yellow and orange filtered over Eastern Washington. The beauty delivered a huge jolt of energy, convincing my stomach to finally relent its control over both my mind and body. I celebrated this small win by choking down a piece of pizza. I later realized I was actually out of Gu by this point in the climb.
Eight of us made it to the summit and snapped our “hero shots,” as the guides put it. It felt so freeing to remove the cleats and freely bumble across the crater at the top. Reaching the summit is never quite the experience I imagine — there always seems to be a rush to start back down — but the shortness of breath gave way to euphoria as wide as the Pacific Northwest sky.
As we descended to Camp Muir (10,060 feet), the guides prepared us to meet the other partition of hikers. It would be an uncomfortable reunion — one group in jubilation and the other in states of disappointment. We’d fold into one unit for the final walk down the snowy face to Paradise Lodge. As we walked through slushy snow a few people asked me what it was like to reach the summit.
My heart sank and I didn’t quite know what to say. It was a really uncomfortable moment because I had so much light within me, celebrating the accomplishment of trusting myself to be able to do this, despite nausea. At the same time, I felt deep humility and gratitude for their decisions — which helped ensure we could successfully reach the top of the mountain. Everyone inadvertently worked together to achieve a goal that only half of us realized.
I am proud of this accomplishment, but the memory I hold closest to my heart is the “moment of truth” amongst the jagged rocks of Disappointment Cleaver. The inspiration from some everyday heroes — mostly strangers from all walks — rekindles my faith in humanity. There is also tremendous gratitude for Mt. Rainier, and nature, for offering the venue for this memorable experience.
We live in trying times right now for sure, but the stories of my life and my travels help me remain grounded in what really matters — the goodness of humanity and the power of nature to teach us and connect us to important healing along the way.
How do you connect with nature and humanity? What’s a lesson you’ve learned in facing humility?
Happy Travels, Matthew