Overcoming Anxiety Outside: Lessons Learned from Climbing Mount Saint Helens
I walked up to the steep snowfield where I almost quit last year. Looking up at it, I felt the familiar pounding in my heart and a sense of vertigo looking at how high I had to go, but this time I was prepared. I had spent the winter training for this. I gripped my ice axe and mentally went through the motions of self-arresting. I looked down at my crampons and attempted to remember how secure they made me feel a few weeks prior on a similarly steep snowfield. Then, I took a deep breath, and started walking.
Mount Saint Helens
Mount Saint Helens isn’t a difficult mountain. Don’t get me wrong, people have been seriously injured and died here, but this is usually from getting too close to the cornice and falling into the crater below or not controlling their speed while glissading down and hitting an obstacle. There aren’t crevasses to potentially fall into and it’s nowhere near as steep as other volcanos and mountains in the Cascades. It’s considered a good place to start if you are interested in mountaineering. None of this changed the fact that I was terrified of summiting this mountain.
Mistakes were made
When I climbed Mount Saint Helens last year, I wasn’t prepared. I had never practiced self-arresting. I wore hiking boots and microspikes instead of mountaineering boots and crampons. I didn’t own rain pants, so I glissaded down with a trash bag over my leggings and left with major ice burn on my ass. I also nearly knocked myself out taking a gnarly spill on the boulders on the way down from the weather station since I didn’t wear a helmet. A lot of things were against me, but somehow I managed to summit and make it back to my car in one piece. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My heart constantly felt like it was about to burst out of my chest. On the snowfield I mentioned earlier silent tears streamed down my face as I attempted to work through the crushing anxiety building inside. I finished the climb and vowed to never come back. I told myself mountaineering wasn’t for me because I had too much anxiety and it was insurmountable.
I always laugh when people tell me they think I am a badass. I try to accept the compliment, but I don’t show how uncomfortable I am in these situations. I have NEVER felt like a badass, I feel like someone who is terrified and cries through her fear until she somehow accomplishes what she set out to do. Driving home from that first trip up the mountain I felt excited at what I had accomplished but also defeated by how much my anxiety had ruled me. It took a couple of days, but I came around to accepting that I hadn’t given up, that I had pushed through the fear to achieve my goal. That was a win even if it didn’t feel like it at first, and if I did it once what was stopping me from doing it again?
I started looking into mountaineering courses. I could feel an addiction building inside me. Conquering my perceived mental limits became the most exciting thing I had ever done, and I wanted to feel that as often as possible. There are multiple options for mountaineering courses in Seattle, but I was extremely lucky and was able to join a group of women being mentored by Teresa Hagerty of Cascade Mountain Adventures. Teresa and our other mentor Sara generously donated their time and expertise to teach us the skills we needed in order to safely join a rope team. We had an on-snow weekend in March where we learned the ins and outs of safely traveling on snow as a rope team. When we finished, two of the women I was mentored with mentioned getting permits for Mount Saint Helens so we could test our new skills. I jumped at the chance to go with them and see if I could climb this mountain without the soul-crushing panic.
A new mental hurdle
Back on Mount Saint Helens, I took those first few steps towards the false summit and felt my crampons securely bite into the firm snow. My ice axe was secure in my hand as I waited for the panic to completely overtake me again, but it never came. I kept stepping higher and higher but all I felt was my own exertion. I crested the false summit and paused due to exhaustion. That’s the funny thing about anxiety, being trapped in a panic circle in your mind makes you forget anything your body is feeling. I practically ran up this section last year attempting to get it over with and calm down. This time I was in complete misery and had nothing to distract me from it. I laughed at the predicament I found myself in, I had conquered fear only to find a new mental wall to get over.
There was another quarter mile or so to the summit, but every step felt like torture. Part of me longed for the anxiety to come back to get me through it. I stopped looking up at the summit and only down at my feet. I counted steps and restarted every time I hit 100, eventually I lost track of how many times I had hit 100. After what felt like forever I flopped onto the summit with other members of my group. I know I didn’t look it, but I was elated. We ate lunch and took photos then I led the charge glissading down the mountain since other members of my group were nervous about glissading for the first time. We made it back to the parking lot and high-fived over our accomplishment. Another successful summit in the books and a new lesson learned about myself in the process.
I don’t know if I will climb this mountain again. Not because I am anxious, or don’t want to deal with the mental exhaustion. Because I want to keep testing myself on new objectives and see what I can accomplish. For someone that comes from a family with a long history of addiction and mental health issues, I think my addiction to overcoming my own mental barriers was the best possible manifestation of these things I could have ended up with.