Written 5~27~99

My Second Hike

    I didn't intend it this way, but the next hike opportunity I got after my first hike was to hike on Mt. Rainier, from Paradise to Camp Muir. This is a four-and-a-half-mile hike that begins at a 5000-foot altitude and ends at 10,000 feet.

    Before the hike, I was really nervous. Would I be able to make the grueling 8-hour (round-trip) hike? More importantly, would I be able to make it while keeping my composure, not complaining, not holding up the group? I told myself it was simply a matter of will. That my body is up to it. I do have asthma, but it's mild, and since I've had my inhaler, I've never had a problem. I didn't really think it would be the asthma that would stop me, just sheer exhaustion. Which is where the willpower comes in. If I'm just tired, I told myself, I can overcome that. I can.

    I was very prepared. I packed my bag with the "ten essentials" and many non-essentials. Extra gloves and headwear and jacket. Lots of food and water. A journal and a book. The book shows the seriousness of my doubts; because it was to occupy my time in case I had to wait for the others to come back down (assuming I had to turn back early). All in all, though, my equipment left me with the feeling of excitement that comes from having a whole collection of new toys. Even the backpack was brand-new. I couldn't wait to use everything; and when I focused on that, I could almost overlook my anxiety.

    My most vivid memory from the hike is of footprints, indentations of boots in the snow. I spent almost all of the hike up focusing intently on finding the next bootprint and stepping into it so I wouldn't slip. At first, the hills were covered with an array of tread marks, and following a single person's trail was tricky. But closer to the top, all the footprints converged into a single path: left, right, left, right. Like steps, they provided traction and balance to the single-file line of hikers winding up the slope. Left, right, left, right. Once I got into the rhythm of it, I was able to plant my hiking poles with my opposite hands without thinking. I could also, once I got going (left), forget my altitude-induced heavy breathing (right), forget my companions (left), forget the beautiful view behind me (right) and the mountaintop ahead (left); and focus carefully on flexing the muscles (right) and contracting the tendons (left) that pulled the next foot up (right) and placed it in the next bootprint (left). As I hiked Mount Rainier I measured my progress not by miles (four and a half), not by altitude gain (five thousand feet), but in each short stride, each successful step that placed me that much higher up instead of slipping or sinking into the snow.

    I'm glad I did this hike. It was a victory of will and adhered to my personal policy of not giving into unreasonable fear. That said, I didn't enjoy a lot of it. It was as hard as I expected it would be, and I really did have to exercise my willpower to persevere. I never stopped breathing hard - the altitude (not my asthma) made getting enough oxygen a laborious task. The breaks we took were great: my breathing slowed, I had water and snacks, and enjoyed the view.

    But starting up again after a break was the hardest part. I always got tired right away and didn't get my rhythm going for several minutes. I wasn't sure I'd make it all the way until Camp Muir was close. I doubted myself and my reasons for the hike. I suffered the heat of exerting in the sun and the sudden chill when the wind whipped around the mountain. But I couldn't dwell on any of that. It was all there in my subconscious, yet my conscious mind was entirely focused on the left-right-left of getting to the top. I didn't have the luxury of dwelling on physical worries (shortness of breath, exhaustion), let alone emotional issues.

    When we finally reached our goal, I was surprised by my complete lack of elation in the accomplishment. Instead, the moment I sat down, I was flooded with all the emotions I had suppressed in my single-minded struggle up the mountain. I sat hugging my knees and felt the physical and emotional exhaustion wash over me. (I'm not sure if the ten-thousand-foot altitude contributed to this; I've heard that altitude can cause mental confusion.) It took a good fifteen minutes to rise to the surface again and cheer up. Only then did I really take in the stunning view and enjoy the peace of such a high vantage point.

    I also chatted and ate lunch with my friends. Despite the fact that I came with a group of seven, hiked with two others, and the mountain was crowded with hikers, the hike up was very solitary. We talked a bit, but air was a commodity so we tended to save it for breathing. I was so wrapped up in making it up the mountain that I stared almost exclusively at the ground in front of me. At Camp Muir, it was an explosion of human interaction which continued all the way back down the mountain.

    We started down joyously, in big leaping strides that spanned three or four uphill steps. The simple act of walking, so difficult before, was suddenly many times easier. Now, slipping and falling in the snow was no longer a setback, but fun. We spent much of the first hour down experimenting with the best way to slide down the hill on our backsides, enjoying the surprised and envious looks from those still trudging uphill.

    Because we were sliding so much, we wore our waterproof coats and pants. This protected us from melting snow, but also prevented air from passing through. After more than an hour, our enjoyment of going downhill went downhill as the sunburns we had been cultivating all day began to glow with heat. Because sliding downhill was the easiest way, we kept wearing our waterproof outfits despite the humidity. The loss of altitude brought a warmer air temperature too, accompanied by softer, meltier snow. Eventually, sliding opportunities became rarer, and we went back to walking. Plodding through knee-deep slush, we realized we had underestimated how far it was back to Paradise. Walking so laboriously in the fierce sunlight made us sweat under our outerwear and rediscover exhaustion, despite the downward slope.

    By the time we reached the parking lot, the excitement of bounding downhill and the onerous fatigue of slogging ahead had been replaced by a calm sense of relief and accomplishment. A burden was lifted: I had done all I came to do. I stepped onto solid ground for the first time in eight hours, and was finally free to relax.


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