We climbed Allen Mountain yesterday. It was my 40th of the Adirondack 46 High Peaks, and if everything goes as planned, both Jeff & I will be 46ers by the end of September. It was Jeff’s idea to pursue the 46, but I agreed without hesitation. “This’ll be great,” I thought. A challenge that will keep us moving, and exploring, and spending time in the wilderness.
During the first couple of years, I picked off 18 peaks, and had a blast doing it. My knees were mostly okay then, and I was in great shape. The third year, we barely hiked at all. We had a new puppy who was too young for mountain climbing, and the combination of dog-care issues and being out of the hiking flow meant we made almost no progress. Over the past three years, we’ve been creeping at a much slower rate toward the finish line, and it looks like this will be our year.
Now that I’m approaching the end, I have some mixed feelings about the whole endeavor – maybe about “challenges” in general. I started off with so much enthusiasm, but now sometimes I feel like I resent the obligation. I’m slower now, and my knees (and the rest of my body) are feeling the stress. We’ve started hikes extremely early in the morning on some of the longest days of the year and still found ourselves hiking out by headlamp exhausted and with aching feet. At times those last hours of a long hike have felt grueling. Why am I voluntarily doing something that feels grueling?
Allen Mountain requires hiking in seven and a half miles before you even reach the base of the mountain, then it feels like you’re moving straight up until you reach the top, and it was a challenge for short legs like mine. Many parts are muddy, and there are areas of exposed rock that can be wet and slippery with “red slime.” I was exhausted, sore, sweat-soaked, filthy, and disheveled by the time we reached the summit, but the amazing views coupled with lunch, rest, and the knowledge that the climb was over made up for the trouble.
Descents used to take me a fraction of the time that ascents did, but not now. Now I’m slower and more careful not to slip, fall, and do any additional damage to my knees, or anything else. It’s easier than the ascent for sure, but sometimes tedious, and sometimes frustrating to watch others (usually younger) passing at twice my speed.
Once we reached the bottom we still had the seven and a half mile hike out. Somehow it seemed twice as long as the hike in. For some of it I practiced a sort of hiking meditation, focusing on the feeling of the soles of my feet on the trail. The balls of my feet were absolutely burning in the last few miles, so this was a real opportunity to practice being with what is, getting familiar with it, and intentionally experiencing uncomfortability.
The physically challenging parts of a climb are a sort of involuntary meditation. I must focus single-pointedly on what I’m doing in the moment. If I grab that root and swing down and around can I land my left foot on that rock? If I step here and jump can I reach that hand-hold and pull my knee onto that rock? It’s physics and self-awareness and a big dose of intuition – for me, at least. And it doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes I panic a little. Can I jump down from this ledge with no hand-holds and land safely? I contemplate, try to come up with other solutions, and finally jump, only to find it was completely easy and anticlimactic. Laughable, even. Then I guide my attention back to the task at hand and keep moving forward. Just like when my attention strays in meditation.
Practicing on the walk out was different, though. The trail was easier and it didn’t require my full attention to keep from falling, so I was able to practice with challenges – distractions, painful feet, and needing to keep at least some attention on the trail. I tried to still my mind and simply be present in what I was doing rather than lamenting how much farther we had to go, and this, I believe, improved the quality of my experience on the hike out.
I wonder, though, would I have chosen to hike Allen Mountain at all if not for the 46ers? Maybe I just would’ve chosen to spend the day on a lovely smaller peak closer to home, enjoying the sunshine with Rio and Jeff. We didn’t bring Rio to Allen with us because of the length of the hike and potentially treacherous conditions, and we missed her presence.
So what, exactly, am I trying to prove by doing this? That I’m a bad-a$$? Seriously, with every person that passes me on the trail (and practically everyone does), I realize I am definitely not that. Just to prove to myself that I can? I already know I can. Because I promised Jeff I’d do it with him? No, if I didn’t want it myself, that’d be part of my reason, but at this point I think I’d finish even if he decided he didn’t want to, (not that that’s going to happen). Bragging rights? Probably a little, if I’m honest. Mostly I just feel like I’ve come too far to turn back. Plus we’ve saved a couple hikes for the end that I definitely want to do, 46er or not.
There are also parts of this experience I’m unquestionably grateful for: quality time in the woods with Jeff and Rio, for experiencing remote parts of the Adirondacks I otherwise would probably not have ventured into, and for challenging me physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Mostly I’m grateful for the wilderness itself – its peacefulness and its storminess, and its resilience in reclaiming itself from our interloping. I see these parts of the wilderness reflected in us.