Continuing with our adventure stories, Barbara Stanifer shares with us her experience hiking up Mt.Whitney. An observation during her regular walk through the neighborhood reminds her of the hike that she did, not once but twice.
On a walk through my neighborhood the other day, I passed a mom, a dad and 4, count em’ 4 little girls between 10 and maybe 6. They had stopped at the steep concrete “hill” under the overpass. The girls had climbed up the hill and all but one had made it back down. The little one was stuck at the top, lacking confidence in her ability to get down. They all waited as she squirmed and turned this way and that, trying to muster some courage. The dad stood at the bottom and kept calmly telling her she could do it, and reassuring her when she made a move in the right direction.
Watching all this reminded me of a trip I took up Mt. Whitney several years ago. Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. If you make it to the top you’re standing at 14,505 feet! There are people who actually run up this mountain and might say it’s just another walk in the park. One man probably twice my age, in dolphin shorts and tennis shoes, ran right past me as I huffed and puffed. And there are other people like myself who were never athletic or necessarily adventurous, who take 3 days to do the whole thing and feel quite proud of themselves for even considering it. I made the trip with my brother and his wife who fall more into the athletic, adventurer category.
On that particular trip there was quite a bit of snow on the trail starting a little above 12,000 feet. Which meant you had to ascend by digging your feet deep into the snow and ice (ideally wearing crampons) and to descend you’d have to slide down a 1,000-foot snow chute (ideally with an ice ax – or at minimum a hiking pole – to self arrest if necessary). The evening before we were supposed to summit, a guy got “stuck” at the top of that chute. Very similar to the little girl on the concrete hill, he was terrified. He sat up there for hours, with everyone at base camp watching him from below. His friends yelling words of encouragement… He didn’t come down until late that night, not sure if he slid down or painstakingly dug a million footsteps into the snow. A ranger told us the next day that it was indeed dangerous and that someone just the week before had died when they slid down and piled into one of the giant boulders sticking out of the snow. I felt pretty sure that I would be that guy – sitting for hours at the top of that 1,000 foot slide, analyzing, terrified, freezing… I made the decision to turn back, vowing to return again and make it to the top. I felt like I had failed.
This father of 4 girls was still standing patiently at the bottom of the cement hill guiding his daughter. The oldest one clearly tired of waiting said, “Dad you know you could just go up there and get her”. The dad said “I know I could, but I also know she can do this on her own.”
I so admired this man’s approach and confidence in his daughter. If I, or the guy sitting at the top of that 1,000-foot snow slide had a dad like that would things have been different? Would I have grown up the kind of person who gleefully laughs in the face of giant boulders whizzing past me as I uncontrollably slide like a greased pig down a mountain of ice? Maybe… Here’s what I do know. I have a mom, who didn’t just preach tenacity, but modeled it at every turn. An equally valuable lesson I think is that when you do fall or fail, dust yourself off and get back up again. Keep on keeping on! The following year I did go back and I did make it to the top. And I think that summit may have actually been sweeter.
We all hope that the little girl made it down on her own. But maybe we should also celebrate the simple fact that she was willing to boldly follow her sisters up that concrete hill. Maybe we should respect that she didn’t just sit down and cry, but she tenaciously kept trying to figure it out. Maybe we should honor the next 5 times she climbs up that hill whether she makes it down on her own or not… We should celebrate all kinds of victories in others and in ourselves, the “try”, the “get back up again” not just the obvious win. They all count and sometimes the ones that are hardest fought, through fear and self-doubt make us more triumphant.