By Annie Dube
A little over a year ago I decided to take up mountain climbing. To preface this, I tend to live my life with somewhat of a “go big or go home” approach. Within 24 hours of deciding that I wanted to climb mountains, I had booked a one-way flight to South America with the intention to climb some of the high volcanic peaks within the Northern Andes of Ecuador. By the end of 2017, I had summited 15 mountains ranging from 14,000 to 21,000 feet in altitude.
People often question why I’m drawn to this sport. Heck, I think I ask myself this even more. I mean, there are a myriad of safer, easier, and less expensive hobbies to choose from that don’t involve waking up in the middle of the night and depriving myself of oxygen in order to climb a peak where, more often than not, the odds are stacked against me.
This summer I set a goal to summit Mt. Rainier, the tallest mountain in the state of Washington (14,411 feet) and the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, with 26 major glaciers covering the active volcano. The prominent snow-capped dome is part of the “Ring of Fire,” a string of volcanoes that encompass a horseshoe-shaped zone outlining the Pacific Ocean.
A thousand or so feet from the summit of this majestic volcanic peak, I felt the familiar burning in my lungs and shortness of breath start to sink in. The three fellas on my rope were an A-team bunch to say the least, one of them having completed the seven summits and was just about to check off his 50th state highpoint. They were cruising up the 40-degree slope like it was a walk in the park while I was beginning to feel a bit foolish for thinking that my months of marathon training would be enough to get me up this mountain. I felt nauseous and light-headed and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t felt my toes for over an hour and the pre-dawn winds whipping against my cheeks had me questioning my sanity yet again. Annie — you’ve climbed mountains way higher than this, you can do this — I had to keep reminding myself.
I glanced up at the starlit sky and felt at ease. I focused on my breathing, taking one step at a time, and soon enough a reddish-yellow band of light crept over the eastern horizon behind us. I stopped to watch the sky transform as the fiery yellows, oranges, and reds began to cast light onto the dark volcanic peaks below us. The triangular silhouettes of Mt. Adams, Mt. Saint Helens, and Mt. Hood hovered in the distance. A few minutes later, the sun crested the horizon, projecting a warm golden glow onto the glacier that revealed the intricacies of the crevasses all around us.
I climb mountains for many reasons — the challenge, the adventure, the tranquility, the beauty, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally reach the summit. I climb because it leads me to inspiring people and the special moments in their lives. I enjoy the adrenaline rush, the feeling of living on the edge, the chance of actually pulling it off, and the humbling reality that anything can happen up on the mountain. I climb because I believe it makes me a better person — more self-sufficient, more capable, more prepared for the unexpected.
But mostly I climb for the simple reason of being present. When I’m up on the mountain, any thought, task, or email that once seemed incredibly stressful has long been forgotten. The distinction between what is and isn’t important suddenly seems crystal clear. And when I’m completely engulfed in a moment, each of my senses becomes hyper aware while experiencing a sunrise just below the summit of Mt. Rainier.
If only I could bottle up the beauty of it all, the sky painted like a watercolor masterpiece and the warm kiss of the golden sun thawing out my popsicle nose and cheeks. I think then people might just begin to understand why I love to climb. Photographs and words can only capture a tiny sliver of these experiences. I suppose that climbing to me isn’t about reaching the next big summit, but about the transformative moments where I’m actually being.