Mountain Climbing for the High Functioning Depressive, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle
From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle

This is the penultimate week of my research fellowship here in Boston, which means that my summer of nomadic living will soon be drawing to an end as I head back to my parents’ house in Dallas for a few weeks to pack up for Moscow. Since the sale of our house was completed in early May, I have not stayed in any one place for more than two weeks, having visited five states and covered thousands of miles by airplane in a little over two months.

Included in this farewell tour of the US was a visit to Deer Valley Ranch near Buena Vista, CO, an establishment owned by long-time family friends and site of annual visits for my family for over twenty years. It’s one of those family vacations that makes you happy to be amongst a crowd of introverts, as our family of nine adults (and one toddler) can easily pass an entire afternoon reading and only occasionally talking for an entire afternoon (or for as long as the toddler is napping). In the evening, me, my sisters, and our spouses play Settlers of Catan, a ritual that very often sends us to bed hating each other but doesn’t stop us from starting another game (or two) the next night. (Josh, my sweet, infinitely patient missionary-kid brother-in-law is the most quietly ruthless player and regularly makes us feel like complete assholes for telling him where he can shove his Monopoly card. Anyway).

That level of competitiveness tends to bleed into more athletic pursuits as well. Five of the nine of us play tennis, and I suspect that if I were one of those, no one in my family would speak to me again. Ever. I don’t really excel at sports but do like intense physical activity, particularly hiking. This means that at the end of our week, I typically join my dad and now the aforementioned brother-in-law on an all-day mountain climb with Actual Mountain Goat Bob Marken. If you have never attempted climbing a Colorado peak, let’s just say that they are called the Rockies for a reason and with altitudes over 14,000 feet present a significant challenge for anyone who spends 51 weeks out of the year at sea level.  For that reason, the rest of the family, my spouse included, tends to opt for spending the day sitting on a deck looking at the mountains rather than scrambling over them. My other BIL, a Colorado native, swears that the next time he’ll climb one of the state’s famous “fourteeners” is when the Goths invade. And as my dad says, the two things required for this sort of adventure are a high threshold for pain and a bad memory.

The first major ridge we had to climb.
This was one of the easier parts

I’ve been up a half dozen or so fourteeners and other local peaks, and this year, our intrepid guide proposed what he called a “more interesting” thirteener. At 13,860 feet, the North Apostle is just 140 feet shy of the prestigious 14,000 but sits on the same ridge as two other thirteeners that present one of the greatest challenges in Colorado mountaineering. The mountain doesn’t have to be high to completely kick your ass. The North Apostle is the easier of the three in the sense that the climbing is non-technical and no special equipment is required. However, unlike the many Colorado mountains (including the most trafficked fourteeners), there is no trail for the last half of the four mile hike up, at which point the elevation gain becomes so precipitous that you are basically climbing a ladder for about 2000 vertical feet.

Uuuuuugggghhhh
Uuuuuugggghhhh

This is my way of explaining why, even though I made it to the summit, this mountain basically broke me over its knee Bane-style and has left me to painfully recover at the bottom of a sunken prison while it destroyed everything I loved. Not that I didn’t help it or anything. The day before, I neglected to get on top of my hydration and, not wanting to get stomach cramps, I didn’t eat anything on the trail until we’d already gone almost three miles. What this meant is that by that point I was dehydrated, hypoglycemic, and hyponatremic (salt-deficient), and throughout the day, my body would never really be able to catch up. 1400 vertical feet from the top, I got a calf cramp that made me see white. This is honestly probably where I should have stopped and waited for the rest of the group to pick me up on the way back. But no. I pressed forward even though my body was screaming at me not to. I was able to stretch it out, but in order to keep it from happening again, I had to take an unscheduled food and water break, and slow down and ease up my pace each time I felt my muscles start to seize up.

Summit Ridge
Summit Ridge

This meant that I fell considerably behind the rest of my group and therefore never got to rest with them, even at the top of the mountain. Getting to the summit was exhausting enough, but after I snapped a couple of pictures and wolfing down half a sandwich, the sleet started, which meant we needed to face what I had been trying not to think about all the way up: climbing back down the steep rocks, which were now wet.

F*** this
F*** this

Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking can tell you that the descent is often worse than the ascent. For one thing, you have no choice about it. While summits are optional, getting off the exposed peak before the lightning shows up—not to mention getting home—is not. For another thing, if you have terrible knees—which I do thanks to heredity, dance, and high school track—walking down a flight of stairs is way worse than walking up. And these stairs were slippery, uneven, and constantly moving around under me. About 500 feet from the top, on the way down, with 3.5 miles still to go, in addition to dealing with knees and sleet and burning quads, I hit what runners call the “wall.” I had completely burned through my glycogen stores. And I was still dehydrated. So, around 1000 feet from the top, I was not only physically running on fumes but had lost the ability to make good decisions about where to put my feet. Mountain climbing is a mental challenge as well as a physical one, and if your brain is basically just buzzing inside your head, then the physical side of things starts getting much harder as you slip all over the rocks, struggle to right yourself, and thereby make yourself more and more tired than you would be otherwise. At one point, my father had to start hiking right in front of me so that I could just step in all the places he was stepping.

Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.
Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.

Along the way, I ate the rest of my sandwich, a bunch of chips and other snacks (yay salt), and drank three bottles of water, but as a testament to the fact that my body was using every available resource for cell maintenance, I didn’t have to relieve myself once the entire day. By the time we got back, I was clearly in ketosis (which some extreme dieters and athletes try to induce but really doesn’t feel good). It took me an hour longer to get down than it had to go up, and in the car, I was too tired to talk and couldn’t eat anything without choking because I was so dried out. When we arrived at a gas station, I did what I never do and bought a 16 oz. full sugar soda and almost instantly felt better (protip: have these waiting for you in the car next time). But I was so physically defeated that getting to the top of that mountain feel like a pyrrhic victory. It’s been five days, and my legs are still a little bit sore. I also immediately came down with a cold, and there were a few other physical after effects of extreme exertion that are a tad too personal to mention here.

You could argue that the views are worth it. I'm not going to right now.
You could argue that the views are worth it. I’m not going to right now.

Mountain climbing is the source of a number of self-help clichés that I could no doubt spend another thousand words listing here. There’s the one about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And the one about taking everything one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles. Humility while standing before nature’s grandeur. None of those are the epiphanies I had while I was barking my shins repeatedly on boulders. No, the persistent thought I keep returning to—that I’ve actually been turning over in my head all year—is that there may be something really wrong with me. Because this flogging myself up a mountain even though I know that it’s probably going to wreck me, that I am probably going to embarrass myself while climbing with three men over six feet tall in top physical condition (there are plenty of female athletes who could have breezed right past them, but I am decidedly not one of them), is pretty characteristic. I am ambitious, competitive, challenge-seeking, and I see stuff through to the end no matter what. Those all sound like strong qualities. They are without question the reason I got a PhD, why I am moving to Russia, why I double-majored and graduated with enough credit hours for two degrees, why when I was thirteen, I went to Honduras for a month to lay concrete with a crazy fundamentalist mission group. While basically a home-body and not much of a risk-taker, I have a tendency to push myself in ways that get me things I want but that also know can become maladaptive.

For example, panicked about money and my job search, over the course of my last year in Austin, I was working no less than three part-time jobs at any given time. For a few months, I was working four. Granted, one of those jobs got me the job I have now, but piling on that many commitments is inadvisable if you are also supposed to be writing a book.

On that note, there seems to be no project so difficult that I can’t find a way to make it even harder. My dissertation project should be strong enough for publication with some straightforward revisions and the addition of a new chapter to replace one that no longer fits the book’s scope and methodology. Having spent almost three weeks in an archive this summer, I’ve come up with ideas for another two chapters and two articles with little clarity about how to prioritize what I want to do.

Again, all of this sort of sounds like good stuff. Having more ideas than time to write them is a high class problem. So is having more paying gigs than you can possibly juggle. And it sounds like all of this could be waved away with “work smarter not harder,” and “give yourself a break,” but this is as useless to a high-functioning depressive (which is what I am) as the advice to not worry so much is to someone with an anxiety disorder (which I have). But the truth is that this past year (the past few years, really) has taken me to absolutely terrifying physical, emotional, and spiritual lows that I might blog about one day if I’m drunk enough. And because I do not behave in stereotypically depressed ways, because I get out of bed in the morning and generally get shit done—whether or not I have to go cry for an hour in my office after teaching class—my particular form of depression is very difficult both to acknowledge and to treat. What it costs you to get to the top of the mountain and back again isn’t as significant to most people as the fact that you got there.

So, rather than write for another 2000 words on what should by now be the obvious similarities between mountain climbing and academic high-achieving (both are endurance games, both require mental toughness and very high tolerance for discomfort, etc.), so instead of that, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to recognize the wisdom of doing to reverse of making it to the top. Sometimes it’s ok to bail out. Sometimes it’s ok to not make the climb in the first place.

Critical to making those choices are enough self-awareness to know why you are doing what you’re doing. I am at the point where I can recognize what itch I’m trying to scratch but don’t quite have the will-power to stop myself. I attempted a hike I knew would be very difficult under circumstances that were less than ideal because I enjoy challenges, yes, but also because I was mad at my body. Moving around a lot has meant falling out of a regimented workout routine, usually only getting to it 2-3 times a week, and between that and new medication, my weight has creeped up bit. As someone whose all for body positivity and HAES and all of that, I’m a bit ashamed that that sort of thing throw off my equilibrium so much, but I live in the world, and sometimes it gets to me.

Likewise, I think some of us tend to pursue our academic careers, pursue a PhD or a particular job or tenure because of the feeling that it will fix something that we think is deeply wrong with us or because it will prove something about you. I defended a year and a half ago and spent the following two weeks in a post-partum fog expecting to change color or something, expecting some external sign that I had arrived. As anyone who reaches that milestone can tell you, it never really comes. You don’t suddenly become a different person (just as you don’t when your body changes, much as the diet industrial complex would like to tell you otherwise). And of course in a career like this, the goalposts just keep moving, so there’s always something new on the horizon to be neurotic about.

And finally, what it costs you to get something really does matter. I’m not just talking about the consequences of putting off family or neglecting friendships or whatever. There is a personal cost to everything that—especially if you are a very sensitive person—can be very, very real and long-lasting. And that is a thing that is worth weighing any time you are facing a difficult endeavor. Deciding that the terrible, never-ending scrutiny of grad school is just not worth it is not cowardice. It’s wisdom. And deciding that a job that is less prestigious or *gasp* not even academic is more amenable to your lifestyle preferences is knowing yourself, not selling out. I’m lucky in that I really do enjoy what I do and can’t imagine really being happy in other line of work (one of the things I learned from the multi-job clusterfrack of the past year is that I hate, hate, hate working in a normal office and love the fact that my schedule completely changes every few months). It’s also true that when the challenge is well-matched to my level of conditioning and acclimation, mountaineering is really fun. But with the work ethic of a Puritan and a masochistic streak, you can sure find a way to make it torture.

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One thought on “Mountain Climbing for the High Functioning Depressive, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

  1. Well written, great points. Much much deeper than most of the “self help stuff” you tease in your post. “Critical to making those choices are enough self-awareness to know why you are doing what you’re doing.” – that’s an important principle in all sports where the wrong choice can easily kill you… and in life.
    Cheers:
    Dan, a climber guy who bailed out of his PhD program towards the end

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