Edge of Comfort
Posthole, slip, clutch trekking pole, repeat. Raindrops swelled in size over the course of the last hour and cut through the soft and recently melting slow. Heat was rising out of the openings of my rain jacket as my heart rate climbed and the mix of hot and cold caused my breath to steam. I was thrilled and proud to be out with a group of women in the middle of April rain, but a curtain of doubt closed in as the rain drops grew in size.
Emboldened from a successful first long hike after injury, I had high hopes of reaching the alpine lake destination for that day. Stepping out to hike with total strangers seemed not only possible but a necessary step forward. So, I pulled into the parking lot to meet with some of the Washington members of the Women Who Hike group, slung on my pack, and nervously greeted the other early morning arrivals.
At first I did well and kept up with the dozen or women making our ascent up the trail. I carefully navigated some areas of hard snow, and even took up the offer from the trip leader to wear her more robust spikes for added stability. Gaining elevation was slow going and I know that I wasn't the only one whose legs were starting to shake. Eventually my arm ached with stiffness from the cold and I was exasperated from the useless weight of my camera clipped to my pack strap.
When we encountered running water and an overhanging cornice overlapping the trail, I was relieved to have more than one person with mountaineering experience around. But then the snow turned to slush and destabilized under my feet as the rainfall got heavier. Two women and a dog dropped off from the group to turn back and I questioned whether I wanted to continue, knowing that I was compromised physically. I instead said I'd be up for proceeding a few more minutes and see how I felt.
Those few minutes passed and embarrassment rose hotly into my cheeks and I was lost in my own apprehension. This was becoming increasingly impossible, knowing that a couple exposed avalanche chutes were ahead on the trail. The space to place our feet on the trail kept narrowing, and I saw one of our crew slip on their snowshoes and almost slide downwards into a tree well. The two hours of slogging through wet snow made my feet feel as though at any moment they'd give out from under me. Guilt washed over me at the prospect of asking to turn around and shame made my voice shake when I declared that I couldn't continue. It was though I was depriving these awesome women of their experience and getting lost in a cycle of thoughts surrounding my own perceived inferiority.
But after some group discussion about how to proceed, one of the women familiar with mountaineering led the others up to the lake, and our trip leader, Lindsey, hiked back down with me. After about a dozen nervous apologies, our conversation turned to general chit chat about the outdoors, thru-hiking, the community, and the rock that had dropped into my stomach when we turned down the trail away from the others started to shrink. Maybe this kind of acknowledgement that I couldn't do this task was a good thing in a way, and maybe it was OK to not tear myself apart because of it.
Time went by quickly on the hike down and on the approach to the cars I could even find myself smiling and laughing comfortably. Our jackets were dripping with rain water and my shivering hadn't really stopped, and it was all I could do to not stop repeatedly thanking Lindsey for her understanding. This wasn't the proudest day I'd had outside, but this kind of experience, having now had some distance from it, was likely inevitable.
A few weeks later, I returned to this trailhead for an introduction to trail maintenance course. Those patches of slick snow that made my body lurch and tense up were less daunting and I confidently stepped ahead at the front of the group. I was called out on my timid footing during the lone water crossing on this trail by one of the trail stewards, and on the return trip splashed my way across without hesitation. He smiled knowingly and with encouragement and my heart lifted.
Focusing on the destination can be a great motivator, but it can't be a reason to self-depreciate, and it can't be a good reason to stay in situations where all you can sense is danger (even if that danger is isolated to specifically you). This is something we all seem to understand in theory, but the hesitation to put the words together in group settings is a difficult barrier to overcome. What happened on that group hike may have been something that had only manifested in my own mind, but in the moment it was very, very real. The decision to turn around when your body is telling you that you need to stop can act as preparation for more urgent conditions on more objectively treacherous days.
These events have turned into pivotal points of self-reflection, and I know I'll find myself revisiting them as I continue to push myself outside. I cannot recommend joining your local Women Who Hike group enough! You can join, get your own patch, and find a Facebook group in your area at womenwhohike.com.
If you've experienced a similar situation in the outdoors, or found your own boundaries of comfort and confident, I'd love to hear from you. Please share in the comments below!