Weekly Peakly: Volume 7
Or: The Rumor Come Out – Does Mountains is Snow?
Hey, Peakers! Buckle up for this one, it’s going to be a different groove than we’ve jammed to in the past.
I wish that I could return to you as triumphantly as I had in previous weeks, but that was not the case with this iteration. We’re going to go on a bit of a journey together, now, and because of that we must begin at a certain point. A point that is further back than this past Saturday, further back than the start of the year, and even further back than any of the legs of my fitness journey up to this point.
On February 6th, 2017, the Seattle area was granted with a rare snowstorm. We got a blanket of lovely white, then a brief period of freezing rain, followed by another fluffy layer of snow. Now, I am the type of person that generally finds alternate weather events delightful. Up until that point in time, I had thought moving further up north, ‘round the Canadian areas, would be a good fit for me. I love the cold! I love it when it snows! Of course, I can count the number of times I’ve interacted with snow on one hand, but it had been great previously.
I was one of the brave souls that went ahead and drove to work on an icy day. I made it there without issue. No sliding, no trouble driving, no getting stuck in a snow drift or spinning out of control. All was well. During my lunch break, I was able to drive out of the parking lot and head to a food joint to get some grub, as well as navigate through it all on the return trip.
Our parking lot at work was covered with unbroken mounds of snow. Not many people had come in, so there were only a couple of places where people had made tracks. I was heading back from lunch, and I couldn’t resist carving my own path through all that clean, untouched white.
I made it about halfway through the patch before my foot contacted a layer of solid ice beneath the snow. I slipped. I slipped in a full-on, ridiculous, physical comedy level accident. My feet flew out from under me, my arms spun helplessly, and I landed flat on my back.
Now, much of my memory of this event is muddled. I remember being more embarrassed than anything, shooting up from the ground quickly and dusting snow off my butt. I remember looking around and making sure nobody had seen me. I remember that I fell more times, though I don’t know how many. It was difficult navigating back out of the ice once I had found it.
I eventually made it. My ankle and wrist were sore from all the falls, and I made the guess that they were sprained. I could still walk and move them, though, so I didn’t think much of it. I went back in, completed my workday, then went back home. I told my roommates about it, and we laughed together. It was put up as a suggestion that I should maybe have the ankle checked out, especially since I was limping heavily at this point, but I brushed it off. I don’t like complaining about pain, and to me it wasn’t time for the doctor yet. When I was growing up, you didn’t go to the doctor unless you were pretty sure you might die. It was too expensive to waste time on something you could have powered through.
So, I went to bed, then got up the next day and went in to work. I had a mild headache, but it wasn’t anything I was focused on. I was thinking about my ankle, wishing it would stop hurting. I really didn’t want to go to the doctor for it. Despite having insurance now, I still don’t like making trips to the doctor.
I went out for lunch and returned as I normally would. It was around this time that I started getting indications that something wasn’t right, though I ignored them. My headache had gone nowhere, despite my use of ibuprofen to try and fight it. After eating, I could now pick up the rolling nausea plaguing my stomach. None of this raised any alarm bells, though. It wasn’t until just after 1pm that I got the final wake-up call I needed to start worrying.
I was in the middle of typing a sentence when the words stopped going. I blinked and tried again and was only able to get jumbled garbage. I could read things well enough but trying to replicate them wasn’t happening. It wasn’t even typos, just the completely incorrect letters. Sometimes words that were not even close to the ones I was aiming for. I blinked again and realized I couldn’t get my vision to focus.
I don’t actually remember anything at all from that point until 3:30pm, when I got off work, but I know I stayed at work. I got to my car and messaged a few people, trying to describe my symptoms. I don’t know how much sense I made, because I was using descriptive text to get the points across, since I couldn’t type. I told my roommate I was heading to urgent care.
I pulled up the doctor network that I used at the time, but they didn’t have an urgent care office close to me. I knew I shouldn’t be driving in the state I was in, but if I didn’t drive home it would mean leaving my car at work – 30 miles from where I lived.
So, I drove.
It is one of the biggest miracles in my life that I got to the urgent care safely. While there, the doctor indicated that I *might* have a concussion and asked if I wanted to go to the ER. I don’t know what I said, I don’t remember what happened after that, really. I remember my roommates coming to pick me up, one of them taking my car home for me while the other drove me to the ER. Apparently, we stopped at home because I wanted to change into pajamas. I have no recollection of this. My roommate who drove me said my speech was slurred and my pupils were different sizes. I remember that it was hard to talk, but not what I said. I was very sleepy.
At the hospital, they gave me a slew of scans. The damage, when all had been tallied, was a very severe concussion with a mild bleed, a sprained cervical spine, sprained wrist, and sprained ankle. I was given meds to heal and sent home.
It took me four days before I was no longer dizzy. It was two weeks before I could read without getting a horrific headache, and even then, only in small bursts. It was three weeks before the nausea went away enough that I could wean off the meds for it. It was five weeks before I could return to work with any consistency. It was one hundred and ninety days before all symptoms disappeared and I could think normally again.
Now, after that, I sank into a deep pit of depression. It led to some positive things, though. I started weightlifting, which is what got me in shape enough that I could start this hiking venture, which has been amazing. I threw in a few therapy sessions for good measure, got back on antidepressants. Things were going well. By and large, I had assumed I had put the whole experience behind me.
Which brings us to the hike I tried to go on this weekend and why I needed to tell you all of that.
I had been attempting to do Pinnacle Saddle, which is listed as a 2.5-mile trail with a 1000ft gain. The problem, though, is that I am bad at maps. I did not realize when I looked at the map how high on Mt. Rainier this trail would be. When I checked the weather for the nearest town and saw a lovely 60 degrees, I didn’t realize that this wouldn’t apply to the mountain itself.
I dressed in a tank top and my light jacket. I drove 2.5 hours to get there, and it wasn’t until I passed through the arches of the National Park that I knew something was wrong.
The drive up became more and more terrifying the higher I went. The highway itself was clear and dry, but on either side, I was faced with walls of solid white snow that scared the hell out of me. I didn’t realize how much fear I could hold for ice until faced with so much frozen water once again.
To complicate matters, the trail that I was aiming for was inaccessible. The road you needed to take to get to it was closed. I drove up the highway a bit, turned around, then found a trailhead that was about 2 miles away from the one I had originally picked.
The snow was thick. There were others parked around me, getting out of their cars and putting on snow gear. They had snowboards and skis. I looked at my grey skinny jeans and standard boots, and I looked back out at the mountain, and then I crumbled.
I sat there and had the biggest panic attack I’ve had in a few years. I was convinced that I was going to die if I moved. If I got out of the car I would be immediately swallowed by the solid white.
It took me about 45 minutes before I had calmed myself down enough to move, and I used that impetus to put the key in the ignition, start my car, and begin driving back down the mountain.
This was not easy. The disappointment at my reaction mingled with the fear of the snow, leaving a taste in the back of my throat like battery acid and bile. I wanted to cry, but my eyes were like stones locked in my head. I wanted to vomit, but my throat was shut so tight I could barely convince it to let air through. I was furious, I was scared, I was collapsing under the weight of my PTSD as it pushed through the gates of my control like an avalanche of misery.
I spend a lot of my time not allowing my PTSD thoughts to take control. They tell me that I am worthless, a failure. They tell me that everything I think and feel is wrong. They tell me that I am unlovable, that I can never be successful. They are wrong, and I know this. I know that I am worth more than my abuse taught me.
But in moments like this, I lose my handle on that leash, and it runs free. In this moment, I was a failure who had been sent fleeing by fluffy white pillows of ice. In this moment, snow was an unworthy thing to be afraid of, and I was unworthy as a consequence of my fear.
I made it a few miles down the mountain before I pulled up to the museum for the park. I entered the parking lot and settled my car into a space. To the left of the lot was a trail listed as “Wonderland Trail”, and I decided that I would try that one instead. There was still snow here, but less of it. It was not so intimidating.
I was still scared. There was no amount of logic and reassurance to provide to myself that could keep me from being scared. Every footstep I took, I was sure it would be the one that sent me tumbling. Flat on my back, down the hill into the brush, over the edge of a cliff into the rocky river. I think I imagined my death a hundred separate times.
I headed about a mile or so up the trail before I turned back. I investigated the edge of the river and took in some of the sights. I wish that I had been able to enjoy it. I wish that I had been able to shake the panic attack, but I spent most of the hike miserable over the fact that I wanted to be on the other one.
You see, this one felt tame. It felt small. It felt childish compared to the wild wonder that had been further up the mountain. I felt like I was missing out, like I had cheated myself out of something incredible.
I am working on ignoring those feelings. Because, and this is the truth of the matter, I had no business even thinking about getting out of the car near the peaks. I didn’t realize there would be snow, I didn’t have any of the equipment that one should have for snow, and I hadn’t done any research on how to handle it. I didn’t have any of the experience that would have made it a clever idea to try it. Even though I turned around out of panic and not by a rational choice, that didn’t mean it was the wrong decision.
As beautiful and wonderful as it has been, there are still dangers to hiking. Most of the trails I’ve done have been mild and safe, but I still brushed against danger more than once. Falling into the tide pool, sliding down that cliff above the waterfall. I’m like a fawn, just learning how to use my spindly legs to navigate all this unfamiliar turf. Throwing me into a hike that requires, at minimum, intermediate proficiency with trails and snow would be an equation that had several deadly possible outcomes.
Looking back at my pictures, I can see that I still went on a marvelous adventure. What’s more than that, though, is that I did overcome my fear. It didn’t sink in until later, but I hiked in snow! I was afraid, I was unsure, but I still did it. I did it, and I did it under safe and reasonable circumstances. I didn’t try to tackle the biggest obstacle I could find the moment I noticed it but approached it with the same caution I would with any new training. You start small, you start where it’s easy and painless so that you can see how it feels, and then and only then do you increase things to push the limits.
In the end, I made it 2.47 miles and 313ft of elevation gain. It was smaller than it might have been otherwise because panic attacks take a lot out of you. They are very physically exhausting, and the fact that I hiked anything at all after having one was impressive.
This hike wasn’t all bad, either. There were still pretty views, and there was a moment by the riverside where the breeze caught my face and the rushing water soothed my thoughts, and I glanced up at the peaks I had just left. In that moment, the fear finally faded, and I got a happier sense. It was similar to the one I got after my first hike. That sensation of a challenge being issued. That now I had something new to work towards.
After, I hopped back in the car and headed home. There were moments in the afternoon where I felt victorious, moments where I was less than happy. I think the shortness and easiness of the hike was weighing down on me. Not necessarily because I was disappointed in my performance, but more because of the lack of progress. It felt like a setback, though I’m trying not to see it like that.
When it all comes down to it, it was a big step forward. I learned a great deal on this hike, about myself and about the area, and that’s valuable information. I also faced something that was very scary to me, and challenging my own fears is not something I’ve been good at in the past. It may not seem like much, but I’d like to count this as a win.
Sometimes all you have is little victories, but they’re still worth savoring.
Mistakes and R E G R E T S:
1. Research. Research, oh my god research. I wish that I had taken a better look at the trail reports for this trail. If I had even bothered to glance at the first one, I would have seen the mention of snow. I’m not saying I need to read every bit of information about each trail, because I like the surprise, but checking for certain conditions – like snow – is something I’m going to make sure to do in the future. If I had known what was waiting for me, this whole trip would have been smoother.
2. Understanding my comfort levels. Part of the reason I reached maximum panic was because I kept trying to push through the discomfort I was feeling at the unexpected conditions. I should have turned back the minute my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel, because they were doing so for a reason. Recognizing that suddenly finding mounds of snow as a good reason to be uncomfortable would have been nice. Recognizing that it was okay to realize that I was out of my depth would have been even better. Sometimes it takes some doing to sort through what is standard anxiety and what is a self-preservation alarm bell, and I regret not being able to catch the difference here.
Hot Takes for Hikers:
Progress is Not a Straight Line
My inclination with all activities I embark on is to seek out constant improvement. It goes against my nature to accept that upward momentum doesn’t always face up. With physical activities, however, that point get’s driven home a bit harder than it might otherwise, and this is doubly true for hiking.
Adding new notches to the mileage and elevation records isn’t always going to happen. Sometimes there are other purposes for the hike that are just as worthy. Don’t count a trail out just because it seems shorter or less impressive, and don’t sell yourself short for doing less than “better than before”.
What matters is that you did it. End of story.
That’s true in all things, mind you. If you did it, whatever “it” is, then you are already surpassing those that didn’t. You are already making progress by the simple property of experience. Don’t let your brain try to minimize it by adding “just” or “only” in front of it.
I hiked this weekend. It was good.
A mountain, I’ve come to find, changes things. Especially a big mountain. They are almost like their own planet, gussied up and attached to our own. They’ve got their own vegetation, their own ecosystem, but most importantly for the purposes of hiking, their own weather. 1000 feet up the side of Rainier is vastly different than what lay at its floor. Don’t underestimate how much different it can be.
Song of the Hike: Not Your Fault by AWOL NATION. To be fair, this song didn’t pop on until the drive home, but it feels wholly appropriate, all things considered. It’s good to remember that sometimes shit just isn’t my fault.
Animals Seen: Ice monsters in the back of my head. Skiers. Not much else, honestly. Doggos aren’t allowed in the park, so no furry friends this time around.
Mood: Failure, followed by the forceful acceptance that I did a good fucking job and should be proud of it.
Trail Rank: Snow confirmed. Will return someday when I am better prepared.