Mountain climbing is tough, but failing to summit is even tougher

An adventurer has the courage to accept a challenge – and more courage to accept failure.

My big day had finally arrived. I was excited to achieve my commitment with my mountain!  

On the morning of June 18, 2021, I met my group and packed my portion of the group’s gear with my personal gear. When I lifted my pack, it was almost exactly 40 pounds, the weight I had anticipated and trained to carry. I was glad that I had trained so hard for this moment, as I now could lift and carry this load on my back. My hard work had paid off.

All set. Ready to see and climb my mountain.

My mountaineering adventure had officially started.

We drove a dirt road for 40 minutes from town through the forest to reach the Clear Creek trailhead. Clear Creek route is a strenuous 16-mile, 7,800 feet elevation gain scramble up the southeast side of Mt. Shasta to its 14,179-foot summit.

We had to transition to the Clear Creek Route to climb Mt. Shasta this year due to low snowpack.

On Day 1, I carried my 40-pound pack to hike the Clear Creek Trail through thinning forest to approach the mountain. The hike gains elevation along the ridge above the cavernous Mud Creek Canyon, with a vertical gain of 2,000 feet. I could clearly hear my own breathing as I hiked with my heavy backpack. While strenuous, I enjoyed the scenery and geology, especially when I looked back, I could see another small mountain far away and above the tree line. A breeze blew over my body, and I felt so fresh. In fact, the hike was not easy, because we were hiking uphill with heavy packs, but my eyes always searched my mountain, and I felt that we were drawing closer.

I hiked with a 40-pound pack up to the base camp, not easy, but I enjoyed the breeze and scenery of a mountain far away, above the trees.

We hiked for about 3 hours, finally reaching the base camp at an elevation of 8,500 feet. We erected tents under the trees, and reviewed climbing techniques, and use of the ice axe and crampons. We went to bed early that night, to be ready to attempt to summit early the next morning.  

We reached the mountain spring, the only place to get water on the mountain.
Our group set up tents at base camp, planning to summit the next day.
The view from base camp at 8,500 feet.

The summit day! How exciting. We woke at 2:00 AM, then had coffee and oatmeal. We attempted our summit bid at 3:00 AM. I wore a mountain helmet with head lamp, carrying the pack with layering and climbing gears, my trekking poles helping to balance my body, and started our ascent of the mountain. We followed the guide’s pace, rising around 1,000 feet per hour. In the dark, our head lamps illuminated the front and we climbed the mountain. It was a whole new experience for me. During my climb from the base camp, as twilight appeared, I witnessed the sky change from dark to a brilliant sunrise over my right side, with a spray of blue, gold, orange and magenta. The first ray of sunlight reflected on the edge of the mountain, peaceful and beautiful. It was one of the best moments on the mountain. When I got higher on the mountain, the wind grew stronger and blew me, the strong sunlight reflecting on my face.  

I climbed the mountain in the dark, saw the twilight and the horizon appear on the right edge of mountain.

For the first time, I felt mountaineering as a really challenging task: the mountain is constantly steep; I am wearing my mountaineering boots, carrying a heavy pack, climbing up loose dirt, ash, scree and rocks, and every 1,000 feet of altitude rise my whole body felt different, challenging my muscle endurance, core, cardio, balance and flexibility. I could clearly hear my heartbeat and breathing, and I used diaphragmatic breathing as I climbed higher. My feet climbed on the scree and rock with a steep slope, and as altitude increases, the mountain angle grows steeper. A few times, my feet were unstable on the rock and scree.

The sun was up, the wind was stronger, the altitude increased, and we stopped here to adjust clothes.

For safety purposes, we must stick to a climbing timeline. Turnaround time could be as early 11:00 a.m. in order to avoid potentially serious hazards that tend to arise in the afternoon. So we had to climb to the top of the mountain in eight hours nonstop, only taking 5-10 minute breaks every hour, to drink water, eat snacks and adjust our clothes.

However, the toughest thing for me on the mountain happened at around 9,800 ft-10,000 feet, after climbing up for four hours nonstop. My body, especially my leg muscles, started shaking, because they were so very tired. But I still continued to climb up the steep slope, my body and mind in great discomfort, especially my mind was conflicted, but I pushed on, telling myself that I must see the top of the mountain. I told myself: “Stephy, you cannot stop, you can do it, one more foot, please! The mountain is there!” Then I pushed myself to continue moving up again, even though I knew my body had reached its limited. My pace slowed, after traveling so far with my group, my mind still not willing to give up, always pushing myself to keep up.

I climbed up the steep terrain on the mountain nonstop. My body and legs were slowing as the altitude increased and we continued to climb nonstop. We hit 9,800 feet.

I was exhausted and in great discomfort, in shock physically and mentally. I insisted to myself to go another 1,000 feet – but my whole body would not allow me to continue. I could barely move my legs and maintain the exhausting pace required because we had a strict climbing timeline. I could not keep up the pace and reach the summit on time, so I had to make an extremely tough decision: to turn around! My final height on Mt. Shasta was 10,800 feet.

I pushed myself to look up the top of the mountain, and told myself to take one more step, please ! It would put me a littler closer to the top, but my body had reached its maximum.
On the mountain, I climbed the steep, sometimes vertical ground, and the elevation was an added challenge. I felt that mountaineering is hard.
My final height at Mt. Shasta was 10,800 feet. My legs were fatigued and shaking, my eyes filled with tears, my body and mind were in pain as I felt the physical pain and emotional disappointment of having to turnaround before I reached my ultimate goal.

At that moment, as tears shed from my eyes, I could feel my heart was broken deeply. It was very painful, no so much the physical pain in my legs and body, but the mental pain. To turn around short of my goal was one of the toughest decisions of my life. The pain was in my heart. I descended to camp with other groups who did not summit. It took two hours. I cried the whole time, my tears would not stop. I said to the mountain with sad emotion: “The mountain, you won!” I had prepared and trained so hard for this climbing trip for 7 months. I had traveled and drove alone, just to see and climb my mountain, but I did not get to the summit this time. I was very frustrated and felt like a complete failure and loser. It was my first time to feel pain and sadness so deeply from one of my adventures.

Back at camp, I sat alone on a rock, my eyes  swollen with tears. I  looked at the big mountain and felt: Mountaineering is tough. It is uncomfortable and a challenge. You must be able to climb about 1,000 feet vertically every hour, carrying a 40-pound pack, uphill, walking on rough terrain up and down, especially in the snow. It requires a lot of muscular endurance in your lower body, and you must  tolerate cold temperatures and strong winds, and icy conditions on the mountain. You must have a lot of mental fortitude and mental stamina.

However, I think, failing to summit is even tougher, because the painful is mental and felt deep in your heart. I could not complete the whole climbing trip after all the physical and mental preparation, a huge effort of 7 months preparation and travel, so that feeling of pain cut deep in mind and heart. It is especially difficult because I came so close to the summit; I could nearly reach out and touch the top. I counted my steps up the mountain, but I had to turn around, like all of my effort and hard work were thrown away. Failing to summit is very tough. This is definitely one of the toughest moments in my life. Words cannot express my actual feelings; it leads to a lot of pain in my spirit and soul.

I sat at the base camp alone, and kept looking at my mountain with tears in my eyes, as my unsuccessful ascent was very painful. It is the first time I had this feeling from one of my adventures.

All the emotions and pain came from this mountaineering adventure:

I started to doubt if I qualified as a mountaineer. Why had I made this commitment? Where had my  courage gone?

I told myself that my body could continue to the top, the mountain was not really steep and tough, a feeling of denial appeared.

Anger also appeared. Why does my stupid body climb so hard ? Why did I turn around ? Why did I put my entire heart into you, my mountain, but you hurt me so much? We were so close, so why could I not make it to the top? I felt like a loser and a failure.

I felt disappointment and depression, too. Others can make it to top of the mountain, standing on the summit to witness a fantastic 360-degree view. Why cannot I do so? Mountaineering is not my thing?

The hardest thing is to accept failure. I did not reach the summit this time. Mountaineering is not an easy feat for me, but if things come easy then they are not impactful. Although I failed to summit, it did not take away my hard work and training for 7 months. In fact, the mountain changed me, my body and my mind, as I got into good shape to prepare for this adventure. I saw a breathtaking sunrise on the mountain. I got a first-hand mountaineering experience. I took effort to come and see my mountain.

Hey, I am an avid adventurer, I love the challenge, learning new skills, new experiences. As a great adventurer, I have the courage to accept the mountain challenge, but I have more courage to accept failure in my adventure. I allowed myself to cry and accepted all the bad emotions in this attempt.

I still sat at the base camp and looked at my mountain with tears till the sun was all the way down. I thought about all my preparation, travel and climbing experience, feeling the mountain use its unique way to teach me something…..

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