Thursday, August 28, 2014

Catharsis @ 12,000 ft

The following piece was inspired by a story I wrote a number of months ago called, "A Semi-epic on Rosalie Peak". Murray Nossel, of Two Men Talking, challenged me to rewrite it from 15 pages down to 2. I thought it would be impossible but I did it and what came out was a new creation altogether. Enjoy.

It’s 9:15 on a November evening in Denver, Colorado and I feel an urgent need to get out. I need to challenge myself in a way that makes me feel alive, vibrant, graceful, and strong. I need to go to the mountains. I gather my map, compass, extra clothes, and some food and I check the weather. There is a snow storm expected tomorrow evening but I’ll be back before that. My wife reminds me that my good friend’s son will be circumcised tomorrow and I must make it back for the party.

I was late getting to the trailhead of course but that is to be expected as I was alone and not beholden to anyone’s more sensitive approach to punctuality than my own. I had enough food, clothes, and first aid equipment to spend a couple days out in the wilderness. That was not my plan, however. My plan was to climb to 13,757 feet, the summit of Rosalie Peak, and then hurry back to Denver for my friend’s party.

I am walking. No. Hiking. Hoofing. Maybe they call it ‘hoofing’ because that’s the sound of my breathing as I continue higher and higher on this mountain trail. The hoofing is appropriate because the oxygen saturation here is noticeably lower than in Denver so I intentionally breathe as if I am hyperventilating. My stride is strong and consistent as I let the rhythm of one step at a time lull me in to a trance. The muscles in my body work in beautiful harmony as I climb foot after foot and mile after mile up the trail. This trail twists and turns, crosses streams, and goes up steep switchbacks. Periodically I stop and look around noticing landmarks and looking at the beautiful views. Each time I stop I am higher than the last time and I am rewarded by feeling accomplished and the sight of even more mountain peaks below me as I strive for the great height of this summit.

What is a trail? A trail is a defined path made by others who went down (or up) this same way. I have always been quite compelled to hike on the trail and not to leave it. I didn’t even consider leaving the trail as an option until I went hiking with a good friend who said, “Ari, let’s just walk straight and see what we find.” A few years later I found that facing my fears and going off the trail would be and still is requisite for my personal and spiritual growth.

Photo Credit: Ari Hoffman
In what areas of your life do you walk on the trail? Do you feel compelled to keep the trail even though there may be other opportunities if you try your own path? Do you have a friend or a therapist that can help you create your own trail?

After a couple hours I am at 12,000 feet above sea level and two thirds of the way up Rosalie Peak. Now I choose to fail. I learned about failure many years ago on a flight in to LaGuardia Airport during a storm. Instead of completing the landing, the pilot chose to abort and go around for another try. The lesson was that sometimes I have to let go of what I expect reality to look like and accept it for what it really is, i.e. not landing or in this case not summiting. I chose to turn around because not doing so would mean missing the party.

Where in your life would it be healthy to fail?

There is a moment in every fall I’ve taken where I let go and just wait to see what happens, it is both terrifying and peaceful. So too here as I slip on a patch of ice and suddenly I notice everything happening in slow motion: the pop in my left ankle, my right leg unnaturally high, the branches on the pine trees assuming on odd angle, and my body falling to earth.

The trapped feeling of being in crisis is like pushing against the tight corner of a box with the belief that if I push hard enough I’ll get out. Proactive thought is benched during a crisis and the reactive parts of our brain have full control of the field. What, in your life, gives you this feeling?

“How do people die in the wilderness? They die of shame” (Anthony Hopkins, The Edge). I am sitting in the dirt, my ankle feels wrecked, and there are six miles of dark and icy trail between me and my car. My internal prosecutor jumps at the opportunity and starts yelling at me, trying to shame me in to emotional paralysis and then death. I refuse. He forgot who signs his paycheck and I shut him up with a deep breath and a long look at the dusky beauty of my surroundings.

Does it ever feel like your internal prosecutor is running the show? Whose voice is it that you hear shaming you? Next time he or she starts yelling try looking at something beautiful or funny or interesting. Never abdicate.

Place the hiking poles. Test the stability. Step. Place the poles. Test. Step. Place the poles. Test. Step. I take a moment to wiggle my toes to make sure the ace bandage is not wrapped too tight. I look around twice. Once to notice how dark it’s getting and the second time to notice the beauty. I am being pragmatic about the darkness but refusing abdication to panic and shame by focusing on beauty. The hours go by and I get in to a rhythm. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. It’s getting really dark. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. I wonder what’s wrong with my ankle. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. I can hardly see anything now. Step. Poles. Step. Ha ha, my friend’s party is happening as we speak and I’ve still probably got another two hours on the trail. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Beauty. Pain. Beauty. Pain. Beauty. Pain. Deep breaths. Poles. Step.
I strongly consider asking G-D to save me but then I realize this is an opportunity, not for begging, but for thanks. So I thank G-D for giving me the passion for the wilderness and the interest in the study of survival psychology so that I have the tools to get through this challenge.

I’m lost. I know I’m near the car but in the darkness of night I have missed a turn. I know this because the trail, my beloved trail, has ended. I’m lost. Brilliant. I stop.

I often hike at night and sometimes I feel afraid. I have noticed that when I feel that fear I walk more quickly and then I feel more fear. So I force myself to stop, take a deep breath, and look around. The fear dissolves. What causes you fear and then what causes you more fear? What is your antidote?

I have two options now and both are reasonable. I could stop and go to sleep here. I would make a fire, put on some more warm clothes and go to sleep with my head on my backpack. I am tired anyway and I’m sure I’ll find my way to the car in the morning light. Or, I could back track to where I missed the turn and risk getting more lost. I choose option two out of consideration for my wife and 10 minutes later I am touching the hood of my car. My grateful smile warms the night.

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