This is part two in my recounting of my recent participation in a charity mountain climbing event called the Three Peaks Challenge where a group of us climbed the three tallest peaks in the Northeast US in three consecutive days. Not only was this a physical challenge due to the actual climbing, it was also one due to all the driving you had to do to get to each mountain. We raised money for The Conservation Fund, with the total currently around $15,000. Donations are still open if you’re interested in supporting this great charity. We felt the charity and the event were well aligned, and that became even clearer as we did the climbs and tried to respect the fragile land around the paths we hiked and climbed.
Below is a recounting of our second day on Mt. Washington in Northern New Hampshire. You can also read about Day 1 – Mt. Mansfield (VT) and Day 3 – Mt. Katahdin (ME). I try to share my experience on the climb as well as tips around gear, training, and – most importantly – mindset.
From my experience the day before on Mt. Mansfield, I learned a few things. First, I needed to protect my hands better from cold and wet conditions. New in my pack were two different levels of insulated Gore-Tex gloves. Second, I drink much less than I expected I would, so rather than filling my water bladder all the way, I put more like 1-1.25 liters in it. Third, and this ties to the first, cold hands don’t open food packaging well, so I pre-opened a newbodi.es slow carb nutrition bar and my package of Jack Links beef jerky enough to require zero fine motor skill to feed myself.
On the “I confirmed my knowledge rather than lack thereof” side of things, I ensured I had a good mix of compression clothing for my top and bottom half. You can see one of my Skins compression shirts in this pic, courtesy of The Clymb. I have several different Skins products, and my favorite lines are the A200 and Sport lines. The A400 isn’t tough or compressing enough for my taste, which is good because it’s the most expensive line I’ve seen.
I packed several different shirts for two reasons. First, I sweat a lot, and it’s nice to wear dry clothes. Second, the weather changes quite a bit as you move through different sections of a big mountain, especially once you break through the tree line, so you really want to be prepared with layers and different types of garments. I had a long sleeve Skins compression shirt for the start, then an Under Armor Heat Gear half zip long sleeve I wore to the summit. Up there, I changed into a Mizuno Breathe Thermo long sleeve shirt topped with an Adidas Supernova long sleeve running shirt (from the 2012 Boston Marathon). You should also think about your clothes changing strategy. I was lucky to have a lodge at the top of Washington, but none on Katahdin (when I really needed a dry, warm place to take off my shirt and jacket – too cold to do it on the summit).
On the bottom, I had some North Face convertible, quick-dry pants, and ended up removing the bottoms to make them into shorts about half way down the mountain. Under those were my Skins compression pants. I might have looked funny, but I’m a huge believer in compression, and felt very vindicated on this event.
On the “I wish I had learned what not to pack” side of the equation, my fleece jacket sucked up space, added weight and served no useful purpose. It could have been needed if the weather reports were accurate, so I won’t totally blame myself for this one, and I did freeze on Mansfield, so I wanted to be safe. Turns out, the only time I needed it was the only time I didn’t have it. Go figure. Equally unnecessary were climbing poles. You may want or need them, but I didn’t, and they just got in the way. They nearly sent me to my death on Mansfield when my poor packing skills meant they stuck down too far and caught on rocks I was trying to descend. I did learn to pack them better so they were on the side of my pack and a bit higher up so as not to risk catching. I did try to use them on the descent, but they just felt more awkward than useful, and the strap on one came undone, so I just re-packed them, and wrote the cost off as a waste. They were one of two items I shouldn’t have bothered buying, but couldn’t have known that going in.
One thing that this particular hike enabled was a real chance to enjoy the magnitude of beauty around me. On all three climbs, I could appreciate the nature right in front of me, but on the other two days, seeing more than 50 feet in front of me was tough given the weather. The gorgeous sun that came out as we started to break out of the tree line really gave my whole group a chance to take in a truly awesome sight. Breathtaking views for miles (probably hundreds of them) around; amazing interplays of clouds and the ravine at Tuckerman’s; getting a feeling of the massive size of the mountain and the lack thereof for the peaks around us. Given that these climbs were to benefit The Conservation Fund, it is only fitting that we got even a brief moment to take in so much of what our efforts were helping protect. I was really thankful, and very humbled.
I couldn’t decide on which photos to include from the hike as they really are all pretty awesome. Do have a look and enjoy.
What did I learn (aka the mind of the climb)?
Heading back down wasn’t hard, but it certainly was long. After doing about 14,000 vertical feet already, my legs were definitely tired – thank you, compression pants! It went pretty quickly, but members of my group were really slowing down due to fatigue, so we ended up breaking up into a few smaller groups based on speed. My five person team was way out in front when the two marathoners wanted to run the last 1.5 miles. The three of us left behind really started to drag. We hit a point we knew to be 1.3 miles from the end, and that raised our spirits. While I expected no more than 20 or so minutes to finish, we just kept going. And going. I kept worrying that we had taken a wrong turn or missed a branch of the path we were supposed to take. I saw a set of steps leading some water I hadn’t seen when we came up – and they were positioned so that I really would have seen them. We were on the wrong path! Oh no! All that wasted energy and growing knee pain!
No, we weren’t. My mind was. Some other hikers were coming up, and cheered us on saying, “Parking lot is just around the corner.” This is a great example of what I learned.
On my way up Mansfield, I saw all these boulders and rock faces we had to scale, and all I could think was, “Oh, man, how are we ever going to get down these?” I wasn’t sure if I’d be facing forward or backward, if I’d fall, if I’d get paralyzed with fear, or what. Every rock was easier to come down than I feared it would be. 100% of them. No exceptions. Not even the one I slipped on, caught myself, and then saved a team member from falling off the mountain when he fell on the same rock.
See, it was so clear to me after doing Washington that the body truly can do more than the mind thinks it can. You read about this a lot, and you hear about it. I read it in Runner’s World with stories of people swearing they had no gas in the tank, and then they suddenly sprint to the finish of their big race. I experienced it myself in the 5K I did a week before this climb. But that’s physical endurance and strength, not mental fortitude, right? I’m not talking about using lactic acid to burn through a finish line, I’m talking about knowing what to do and not having my body freeze up with fear because I’m looking down at my death 6,000 feet below me.
But that’s just it. Fear isn’t real in the sense that it isn’t a tangible thing. It’s a feeling you have that arises from beliefs. The reading I’ve been doing lately is focused on how we control our beliefs to impact our lives overall. A person cuts you off on the road. You get angry because you feel they did that to you. Maliciously. The nerve of them! You swear at them though they can’t hear you, so you’re just yelling alone in your car. Your reaction and anger and all that costs you does nothing for the overall situation. It doesn’t punish them or educate them about their bad behavior. It just takes you down and ruins your day (at least a little). If you believe they didn’t see you, or maybe they’re rushing to the hospital or something, then you become less angry and more accepting of what happened. You might even feel bad for them. Suddenly, the incident is irrelevant.
You see, this is no different. You go up a rock and find it challenging mentally. Because you are in good shape and lead a healthy life just like I’ve been helping you do (right? Right? No? OK, start here, and then go here), your body can handle the challenge. If you believe that your life is in danger, and you will fall to your death, then your mind will stop your capable body from achieving what it can. And while you might get up it fine, you believe it must be harder to come down for various reasons, so you continue the climb with a growing fear of the increasing number of insurmountable challenges that are between you and going home alive.
How are you supposed to get through anything believing these things?
I lived my life that way, and specifically did on prior hikes as a kid. I was so paralyzed by that fear I literally couldn’t move. And often that fear impacted what little movement I could make such that I would end up falling because my footing wasn’t right, which would confirm my fear and spark more of the same beliefs.
I got to see this on each mountain. No matter what little voice warned me of the difficulty facing me on the trip down, I learned on the first day that it wasn’t as hard as my fear thought it to be. The difference was that I allowed this evidence to take hold and didn’t stop to debate or refute it. I just kept moving. Action was my friend and coach.
Back to the base
So I learned that mental lesson while descending, and then was so tired and demanding (to myself) that I be done that I lost my cool and started to worry. I created additional and irrational pressure to be finished when I could have handled the extra effort of back tracking, and wasn’t likely lost. And I had people in my group that took the bus from the summit I could call to pick me up from some other trail if I had gone down the wrong route. And I wasn’t alone. And on and on. I allowed my beliefs to steer me wrong, and felt it overtake my mind and my body despite plenty of signs that all was well and that if it wasn’t, I could deal with it.
We finished, I ate lunch, we drove nearly five hours to Millinocket, Maine, and I went to bed feeling incredibly proud, empowered and accomplished. I also felt like I had grown tremendously through what I proved to myself via positive examples and control and showing myself what letting the bad thoughts in can do to make you crumble. I definitely enlightened.my.body on Mt. Washington.