There’s a fine line between mental toughness and stubbornness. The line’s even finer between those two and stupidity. When you approach 14,000 feet on the side of a mountain, you start to question on which side of that line you stand.
I never doubted that I would make it to the top of Mt. Shasta when I started on the trail at 5:30 a.m. with my friends Jeremy, Matt and Tommy. It wasn’t necessarily any amount of pride that led to my confidence in success, more like extreme determination.
Perhaps it was extreme determination in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Both Jeremy and Matt are far more experienced hikers than I, and Jeremy had only reached the summit once in three prior attempts, while Matt had unsuccessfully attempted the climb once.
Even early on when they raised the possibility of failure I referenced such paragons of wisdom as Yoda (“Do or do not. There is no try.”) and said that I was either going to make it to the top or die trying. I repeated that ultimatum as we ascended the mountain, each time questioning just a little more which one would actually come to fruition.
Eight miles and an 8,000-foot ascent to the top. I had never done anything close to this. A month earlier I did a sunrise hike of Mt. McLoughlin, but that peak is just under 9,500 feet and the trail is only 5.5 miles each way. This was essentially taking half of McLoughlin and stacking it on top of what I’d done before, only doing it at an altitude where I wouldn’t be able to breathe.
Eventually we reached the summit, reveled in the beauty of the mountain and scampered back down. But to say that makes it sound so matter-of-factual. Such a given. That was not the case.
To call it the most physically demanding experience of my life is an understatement. As I embraced my “mental toughness” (read: stubbornness) to force myself to take the next step, I wondered if I’d crossed the line into stupidity. Why would I do this to my body? Why would I put myself through so much strain that I would stand next to the bubbling sulfuric acid at the summit and speculate on how nice it would be if the volcano erupted right then to save me the agony of climbing back down?
The determination worked and I survived the trip. While that may sound like an over-dramatic statement to make, it honestly does not feel that way. And while my body aches all over and my legs cry out in pain every time I try to stand up today, I have learned some things about myself:
- I am determined. I’ve always viewed myself as someone who will not give up until I achieve my goals. But never before had I set such a demanding and unnecessary goal. Half the people who attempt to climb Shasta don’t make it, and almost every hiker who attempts that climb is more experienced than me. But I decided that I would make it. Well, either that or die.
- I am stupid. Feel free to insert any joke here about how you’ve been aware of my stupidity for years. But there were many times both before and after we reached the summit when my body hurt so badly (especially on the way down when some extreme symptoms of altitude sickness kicked in and made me feel like I was about to pass out) that I wondered why I was so stubborn. Tommy was self-aware enough to realize there was a point he could not proceed, and he waited for us midway up the mountain. He was smart.
- I pray when I fear I might die. A lot. Looking back now from the comfort of my home it seems ridiculous, but at times I was genuinely convinced that I could easily not survive (some of Jeremy’s “shortcuts” near the summit led to particularly terrifying experiences). And those situations prompted me to pray probably more fervently than I ever have in my life. And whether or not God intervened, I’m still alive. For that, I’m thankful.
- I am physically capable of far more than I think. This probably is more of a discovery about human beings in general, because I’ve long believed that if I am determined (read: stubborn/stupid) enough, I can achieve some pretty cool things. One year ago at this time I never would have imagined I could climb Mt. Shasta.
I am and will always be thankful for the opportunity to climb Mt. Shasta. It was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. And I will never do it again.
As we neared the top and fatigue was killing us all, Jeremy mentioned the option of turning back and trying again a different time. For me that was never an option. I wasn’t turning back because I knew I could make it. I just held nothing back.
The climb reminded me of the movie “Gattaca.” The movie takes place in the future when genetic engineering has led to perfectly evolved children as doctors manipulate the DNA of parents to form ideal embryos. Occasionally parents will have babies outside of this structure, but those “imperfect” children lose out on every major opportunity in life because they are considered inferior.
I’ve only seen the movie once, nearly 10 years ago, but I’ll always remember a key scene. Vincent, the main character, is one of those “imperfect” people, and he’s spent his whole life competing with his genetically engineered brother Anton. Anton could always outswim Vincent because he was simply stronger in every way.
One of the climactic moments of the movie features one last challenge between a grown Vincent and Anton at the site of their previous swimming competitions. As they both press on further, Anton eventually starts yelling at Vincent that they need to turn around because they can’t survive if they go too far out. As a perfect human specimen, Anton can essentially calculate exactly how far he can go while still maintaining the ability to return safely.
But Vincent presses on and beats Anton, even to the point where he has to help his brother back to land. When Anton asks his brother how he beat him, Vincent replies, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”
There’s a fine line between mental toughness and stubbornness. The line’s even finer between those two and stupidity. When you push that line, you discover exactly what you are capable of achieving.