Monday, May 17, 2010
Seven years ago Phil and I decided to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. We recruited some other crazy hikers; we worked out a year long training schedule (he chose the trails and I planned the distances and elevation order); we went on several exploratory hikes in search of good training climbs; we ate, drank, breathed, and lived hiking for the majority of one year. On the day of the climb we woke at 3:00AM, packed 50 pounds in each of our back packs, gathered our group at the base of the trail...and headed up the ginormous mountain for a one day out and back adventure.
Phil and I trained religiously for this climb. We were both in great shape, had become pretty fast hikers, and were confident with the other's ability. But when we hit around 12,000 feet in elevation my head began to swim. The higher we climbed the less I talked. As we approached the fabled switchbacks on the trail I leaned into the rock walls to keep my balance. Every step felt as if I were wading through water while wearing one hundred pounds on my back. I began asking myself who the current President of the United States was over and over in order to convince myself that altitude sickness was not setting in on this of all days. Phil walked along in front of me looking over his shoulder like he had a twitch, taking weight out of my back pack to lighten my load, and handing me his water bottle every ten minutes like clockwork.
What we both knew was that if I couldn't complete the climb he would have to turn back too. Leaving another hiker who is struggling alone on the trail is dangerous both for the ill person, and for the husband who knew that his wife's mother would surely strangle him if he didn't bring her back alive and well! I pushed myself so he wouldn't have to turn back, and he held back unsure if I would be able to go on.
Finally we approached a place on the trail called "the windows," two stunning rock sculptures that arch majestically across a very narrow dirt bridge that drops off thousands of feet on either side. If you fall off the ledge on this part of the hike the chance of survival is slim to none. We stood together side by side facing the reality that I was not in the best condition to continue. Phil took me by the shoulders, turned me to face him, looked me in the eye and said, "I am not letting you cross that alone. If you insist on going forward I am going to tether you to me and we'll walk together one step at a time." Then he took a deep breath and without even chocking on the words continued with, "And if you don't think you can make it we can turn around here." With the peak so close we could feel it, I knew what saying these words cost my compulsively competitive man.
Every ounce of my fiercely independent self resisted the idea of being tugged up a mountain that I was completely capable of climbing on my own. But my husband was hearing none of my protesting. So this stubborn woman was tethered to her husband's belt and led to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Yes, I know ignoring how I felt and continuing up the mountain was not the smartest choice. What I didn't know at the time was that this experience would be one of my most powerful memories of my partnership with Phil.
There have been days when I wished that he could still tether me to his belt and drag me through the myriad tasks, challenges, and tumultuous emotions that living without him have brought into my life. And there have been other times when I feel the pull of his love like a tether reminding me that I can do anything if I believe in myself, and accept a little help from my friends.