Two days ago I climbed to the top of Mailbox Peak, an adventure that my thighs remember even after days of rest. The trail boasts an incredible 4,000 foot gain over a mere 2.5 mile hike/climb/scramble–by far the hardest hill I’ve hiked. My adventure on the trail mixed with the insanity I am reading about in “The Will to Climb” (an account of one mountaineer’s climb of the world’s deadliest peak). During my hike and after, I keep wondering why exploration draws us in, and how it relates to ‘real life’.
Mailbox Peak Trail sits about 34 miles outside of Seattle, a little ways out of the cute town of North Bend. My fellow cyclist Jane, her new roommate, and myself set off on the trail early in the morning–after hearing about it from a Bike & Build alum. Before we got to the trail, a hiker and his dog passed us heading down. I asked the man if the climb was hard and, with sweat dripping down every exposed inch of his body, he merely nodded. All three of us became even more alarmed when we reached the trailhead. A sign stood in our way:
Mailbox Peak Trail is a very steep, wet, unmaintined, diffiicult, challenging trail.
Search and rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist distressed hikers.
Please respect your own ability.”
I sheepishly grabbed a hiking stick from the pile left by previous hikers and, not at all knowing my own ability, set out with the others.
What makes intense physical challenges so appealing? I have, until recently, stood at the other end of the spectrum–not wanting to use any of my energy on exploits of this kind. I didn’t comprehend why people enjoyed going out for a run in their free time, or playing sports of any kind. The desire to push my body’s limits was incomprehensible to me. And yet, crazily enough, in the last year I have found myself in situation after situation where I ask myself for more than I think I have. And again and again I surprise myself by giving more and more to the challenge.
On Mailbox Peak Trail, about half a mile of serious switchbacks up, I wondered aloud,
Why do I put myself in these situations?”
Jane, hearing my question, only chuckled and continued to hike. She, with her regular herculean endeavors, knows more about achieving the impossible than I do.
My next thought was, “can I make it?” Which was quickly followed by,”do I want to?” Instead of making any attempt to answer any of my queries, I simply put one foot in front of the other.
After some strange nausea left me (possibly due to altitude and my large breakfast), I found my breathing to be wonderfully regular (for the type of strain I was under), and my legs to feel great! I was able to look around me and feel the awe that always comes when contemplating the strange wonder of nature. Hundreds of the greenest trees enclosed us on all sides, their explosed roots acting as steps and hand-holds.
The switchbacks at the bottom of the trail gave way to straight climb–focusing on pressing us to the top in the most direct line possible. Just when we started seeing the sky through the trees above us, leading us to believe we were almost done, we were thrust out of the treeline and started scrambling up even steeper open hill. Rocks were strewn about haphazzardly, and we were able to see just how high we had climbed up! The view was breathtaking–mountains all around dripping with sweeping fog, a vast blue lake far below, and the city in the great distance. A few more moments brought us feebly to the top, and we basked in the amazing achievement with congratulations from our fellow hikers up top.
And so what is it that makes people desire to do these difficult hikes, what makes Ed Viesturs wish to climb the world’s scariest mountains, what makes us push forward into our fears? I’m sure each of our hearts hold a different, very personal reason. But I know that there is common ground as well. Speaking with Jane, and reading “Will to Climb,” I sense a nod of understanding between us all. For, despite differing reasons, those who adventure yearn to continue pushing boundaries.
I think that I have even begun to love the hurtful questions I ask myself during my moments of fear. I love realizing the horribly strong grip that my terror of failure holds me with, and then surprising myself by finding there is a power I have yet to exceed stored deep within.
I have already planned a longer hike for Friday, in the hopes of continuing to push myself, and perhaps astounding myself again with the depths of the well I have inside. I love knowing that the people I am surrounded by have deep potential too–and that perhaps each of us has pockets of ability we might never need to scrape the bottoms of.