Have you ever done the impossible? Have you ever done something that was so far out of your realm of comfort and imagination you thought for sure it could not be done?
We hear stories all the time about people who have performed amazing feats of strength or ingenuity or perseverance in order to turn the “impossible” into “finished.” When asked how they managed to complete such amazing tasks, these people inevitably spout words that speak of their mental mindset, their will to not give up, or their relentless desire to succeed. That’s supposed to be the magic formula, right? Get your head in the right mental state and there’s nothing you can’t accomplish!
But what happens when your desire to succeed and your mental state just don’t line up?
Every year our church youth group takes a trip to Colorado to hike up the mountains for Wilderness TREK, and this year I was asked to chaperone. I was pretty excited about it; I love hiking and it was a perfect last outing with Libby before she moved away for school. As soon as I found out I was going, I signed up for Camp Gladiator. You see, there’s a rule on TREK—either everyone summits or no one summits. There was no way that I was going to let my middle-aged body let down the youth group. If we weren’t able to summit, I did not want to be the reason why. So I worked out 3 days a week for 6 weeks to build up my stamina.
By the time the finally made it to Colorado, I was stoked! I was ready for this! One of the first things we got to do after getting settled in was try out a mini climbing wall. I’ve done that before so I was looking forward to getting to the top. Only…it didn’t work like it had before. Not only could I not make it to the top, I barely made it halfway up. And the only reason I can even claim halfway was because on my 2nd attempt I made a brave (but foolish) leap to try to grab a hand hold. I failed, scraped and bruised my knee on the way down, and landed flat on my back after my legs gave out. Hindsight being what it is that should’ve been my first red flag.
But I’m nothing if not optimistic.
One thing that was emphasized in prepping for the trip was to PACK LIGHT! I thought I did a fairly good job of this, despite actually bringing clean socks and underwear for each day (not on the list). We were provided packs, bedding and rolls, tents, and all the equipment needed to prepare meals, stay dry, dig cat holes, and treat creek water. All the crew gear was divided up among the hikers in addition to our personal belongings. There were only 3 female hikers—me, Libby, and T—another just-graduated senior. We were all sharing a tent so we were responsible for carrying it. Libby was loaded down with a couple of meals and tarps so T and I decided to split up the tent—I took the tent for the first day and she took the poles. They told us the packs typically range in weight between 35-50lbs. I won’t insult my fellow hikers by saying I had the heaviest pack—Lord knows I wouldn’t have been able to get it up on my shoulders if I did—but I will say it was much heavier than I was expecting. I was thankful I had good hips that could support all that weight, and prayed that they would hold out for the trip. That would’ve been red flag #2.
Once all the packs were loaded up in the trailer, we set out. After driving for an hour, we made a stop to go rappelling. I’d only rappelled once before but I couldn’t wait! That excitement died quickly, however, once we set out on foot. The path to the rappel site was steep and our cherub faced 19, 21, and 22 year old guides set a pace that let that little mountain know who was boss—and it wasn’t me. I may have missed those initial red flags, but as I was struggling to propel my body up the climb, my mind started screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson!” My heart started pounding in a desperate attempt to flee its confining space, oxygen suddenly pulled a disappearing act, and my bruised knee mocked me for thinking the hike would be easy after that climbing wall.
It was in that moment I realized I greatly overestimated my fitness level.
Once I finally made it to the top, we had quite a bit of downtime while they set up the ropes. I used that time to catch up to my runaway breath, calm my spastic heart, and have a come to Jesus moment with myself about what lie ahead. I signed up for what I knew would be a difficult trip, and I was still determined not to be the weak link. Surely the hike up the mountain wouldn’t be quite so steep or quite so fast, right?
Getting everyone over the edge of the cliff and safely ensconced on the side of the mountain took up most of the afternoon. After that, we said goodbye to the van and started our hike to low camp—one guide to lead the way and two to bring up the rear. Libby and I stuck together and I quickly found myself bringing up the caboose of our line. The trail wasn’t as steep and we didn’t push forward as fast, but my pack was heavy and I was slow. I wasn’t going to win any hiking awards but I made it there, and dumped my pack with great relief. After that we had to hike downhill to the creek to make a water run and then hike back up to camp with our haul. Between the steep rappel climb, rappelling, hiking to camp, and hiking for water, I was done. That’s when I knew I needed to say something to our guides.
I sat them down and, with tears in my eyes, I admitted that I didn’t think I was going to last on our trip. I didn’t think I could do it. I was too old, too slow, too weak and out of shape. I was terrified of ruining the trip for everyone. They were so gracious. They told me we would take it slow, take lots of breaks, and that there was no hurry—we would have plenty of time. They made me feel better; they made me feel like it was worth it to try.
The hike to high camp started right after breakfast the next morning. This time I had to pawn off my portion of the tent because I just couldn’t manage the weight. It was a very long day. I couldn’t seem to work up the energy to keep pace with everyone, so I had to hike at the front with one of the guides and set the pace. Let me tell you, it was a slow pace, a snail’s pace, a pace that could’ve easily been eclipsed by a granny in a walker. And all the stops! I just couldn’t catch my breath, so I stopped So. Many. Times.
I started out singing songs in my head to motivate myself to keep going. After hours of that, I became discouraged. I was so disappointed in myself. I doubted my own capabilities and wondered why I thought I could’ve gotten in shape to begin with. It wasn’t just the incline (which most of the time wasn’t bad), but there were also stairs built into the trail and giant slabs of rock or concrete where the trail had washed away. Again, I had to come to grips with reality—specifically the fact that my arthritic knees cannot handle double-sized stairs while hiking. For the first time in my life I felt old and incapable. I had a group of teens, a youth minister, an intern, and two guides trailing behind me who were being forced to move at a glacier’s pace because I had mistakenly thought I was all that.
Our guides constantly encouraged us to keep going while the teens kept up great conversations and even broke out in songs on occasion. Not me. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t sing, I just walked and rested. Walked and rested. For almost 7 hours.
The sheer joy at making it to high camp that evening cannot be overstated. We were all so ecstatic to be done for the day! The hike to get water was even longer, but that was ok—we made it to high camp.
But now I was facing another problem; I was getting sick. I hadn’t been sleeping well and I was getting run down. My tonsils were starting to swell and my body was starting to get chilled. After dinner, we checked my temp—100.3. I talked over my options again with one of the guides. We were in a unique position as a group as we actually had one more guide then we needed. If it came down to it, one of them could stay with me while everyone else summited. Or, because I’m adult, I could stay at camp myself with the radio. We decided to make the final decision in the morning based on how I was feeling. I skipped the devo and climbed into my tent for the night, relieved I wouldn’t be holding the others back from summiting and fully expecting to sleep in and just rest the next day.
I felt just as bad at 5 in the morning when everyone was gearing up to head out—headache, tonsils still waging war, low fever. But I was approached my all three of our guides. They said they’d never NOT been able to get someone to the summit, and they thought I could do it. I was understandably skeptical. Finally one of them said, “Why not just walk with us for a while and when it’s too much, you can head back?” Honestly, I just wanted to sleep, but I didn’t want to wimp out and besides, how can you argue with that? I agreed and hastily threw some supplies in a bag since they were ready to roll.
The hike to high camp? A piece of cake compared to what I faced that day. You see, it didn’t take long to get to the point where I felt like I couldn’t turn back. I had already come this far, right? But the whole day was a constant battle. I was literally telling myself, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” while forcing my feet to move inches at a time. Our guides pushed us harder than before and didn’t let us stop as often or as long. They knew exactly how far we had until reaching summit, but they never gave us a clue. The incline got steeper, the air was thinner than I was used to, it was hot and I was getting sunburned, and my throat was so sore. The only bright spot was that my fever broke somewhere along the trail. Logically I knew that given enough time, water, and breaks, I could make it, but my heart wasn’t in a single step. My brain was constantly reminding me how I was holding everyone back and that I wasn’t going to get it done. Libby walked beside me the entire way, holding my hand and physically helping me up rocks and stairs. All my fellow hikers and guides shouted encouragement and praise, and no one made me feel bad. I did that enough on my own.
Along the way we were passed by couples, families with kids, hikers with dogs—most having started much higher up and local to the area. One by one they would disappear around a bend until finally, as we got closer, we could see people disappearing over a ridge—the summit. We kept trudging onward and upward until finally, blessedly, we reach the top.
I’d like to tell you that the sense of accomplishment at making it caused me to break out in a smile and start celebrating. I’d like to tell you that the awe of the panoramic view of neighboring peaks wiped out the pain in my body. I’d like to tell you this but I won’t…because it’s not true.
I got to the top of that peak and I immediately sat down. I just collapsed. That was the most physically taxing thing I had ever done. I later told my guide that childbirth was easier. Once I finally caught my breath, I did enjoy the breathtaking views and I did celebrate with our group, but the whole time my main thought was…“Now we have to climb down.”
Do you feel like this is an anticlimactic end to the story (pun intended)? A bit of a let down?
Let me tell you what I learned from this.
After years of dealing with depression, I know your brain can lie to you. Mine does it quite frequently when it tells me life is too hard, I’m not good enough, I’m not needed, or any other insidious, but believable, deceptions that cause me to doubt, cry, retreat, lose hope, or give up. For the most part, those are kept under control with the help of a pill that I thank God for providing me to use as a weapon against my deceitful brain. But those voices, those lies were in full force—loud and clear—when I was trying to conquer that mountain.
And you know what? I did conquer it. I hiked to the top of the highest peak in Colorado—Mt. Elbert 14,443ft. It took almost FOUR HOURS to hike just 2 miles from high camp to summit, but I did it. I kept pushing myself even though I wanted to quit. I kept moving even when I didn’t think my body was capable. I took the next step, and the next step, and the next step until there were no more steps to take.
Because MY BRAIN DOESN’T KNOW WHAT I’M CAPABLE OF.
If I listened to all the feelings, doubts, self-talk, and critiques my brain put out, I never would’ve made it to the top of the rappel peak, much less the top of the mountain. I believe having the right mindset can help you do amazing things. But if you wait until you have the right mindset, you may not accomplish all you’re meant to do.
Surround yourself with people who will help push you on your journey and encourage you to succeed. Follow in the footsteps of those who’ve done it before and prepared the path. And remember who you belong to. The God who created the universe and everything in it, created you in His image. And He created you to do impossible things.
Thank you for your open – honest sharing. I was helped by what you shared from that experience … and so much of what you revealed about your “hike” reminds me of my journey out of guilt and shame to the summit of God’s mercy. You said: “Sure yourself with people” … you would be one of those people for me. May God work it out – so that we get to celebrate the summit of His glory – in His presence – together. I love you and am proud of you. Rex