Know When to Hold ‘em AND Know When to Fold ‘em
I hiked Mt. Whitney in California in August. It was an adventurous experience initiated by a question posed at a speech given to the Edina Rotary Club in October, 2013. I had shared some of the stories from my trek in Nepal with Above & Beyond Cancer as part of my message about living life resiliently. One of the attendees asked, “So, will you become a mountain climber?” I laughed and answered, “No, but I would climb Mt. Whitney with my brother, if he invited me.” My brother, Bruce invited. I accepted. And the adventure began.
Bruce is 73 years old. He is a lifelong Boy Scout, with vast experience in camping, back-packing and hiking. He has hiked Mt. Whitney 6 times in the past, most recently 5 years ago. Bruce is a 4 year, Stage 4 Prostate Cancer survivor (the cancer has returned in his torso) and he had a stroke 3 years ago, from which he is well-recovered. My request to hike with him was met with some fear and trepidation by my sister-in-law, Debbie. But as long as the doctor blessed the endeavor and one of his sons joined the group, it would be okay. My nephew, Kevin joined the team. The group was rounded out by my daughter-in-law, Jessica. Full of high expectation for the experience, we walked through the portal to begin our trek to the summit Mt. Whitney at about 8:00 a.m.. The altitude at that point is about 8,000 ft.
With a pretty good history of hiking in MN, WA, OR, CO, NM, CA, Italy and Nepal, I had confidence in my ability to meet the challenge of the trail. I do not have vast experience in back-packing, however. I think I was a 10 year old Girl Scout the last time I carried an overnight pack. I quickly renewed my appreciation for the Sherpa of Nepal as we embarked on this journey. It was hard to carry what I would need for one night of camping and the summit attempt. My pace was slower than Kevin’s and Jessica’s, and I was grateful to be able to match that of Bruce. The bottom of the well-maintained, winding trail is beautiful, verdant forest. After our stop for lunch, we quickly reached the tree line and began the remaining 2 hours of hiking on the very rocky trail. I was grateful for Bruce’s pace. We reached the campground (altitude ~12,000 ft) at about 3:00 p.m.. As the sun went behind the mountains, it got cold. After an interesting meal of a variety of freeze-dried entrees and a dessert to celebrate Jessica’s birthday, we climbed into out sleeping bags for warmth and the hope of restorative sleep before attempting the summit early the next morning.
With high expectations and confidence, the 4 of us set out. First we encountered the infamous 99 switchbacks, and then continued to traverse rocky terrain toward the summit. At about 13,500 ft, Bruce said he was having trouble catching his breath. The desire to complete the hike to the summit was there – strong as ever – but his body recommended reconciliation with reality. It was time to turn back. I told Bruce that I did not need to summit, that my purpose had been met: to have this experience with him and the success would be found in what we had already accomplished and returning home safely. So the two of us turned around and Kevin and Jessica went onto the summit.
After everyone returned from the summit, we had a quick lunch, packed up (did I mention that I really longed for a sherpa or a yak to carry my pack?!) and headed down to the portal. While going down is theoretically easier than ascending, the descent became increasingly difficult. I longed to be free of my pack and Bruce was having increasing difficulty with his stamina. With about 45 minutes left in our hike, Bruce’s pack was shifted to Jessica, Kevin carried both his own and Jessica’s and I carried mine down the remaining winding mountain trail. We reached the portal in less than grand fashion. After a brief respite, we piled our belongings and ourselves into the car and returned home – safe, exhausted and grateful.
So what did this experience teach me? That I am a very fortunate thriver: I have learned “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ’em”. I willingly initiated and entered into this experience with an open-mind, a willingness to be present and what I thought was sufficient physical conditioning to meet the challenge. I depended on the knowledge and expertise of those in my company to navigate the unknown. I measured success by the total experience, not by the achievement or failure of others. I went to hike Mt. Whitney together with my brother. Mission accomplished. I am very grateful.