I love the mountains out west. I really do. My favorites press upward past the tree line and have snow draped around their summits year round, or nearly year round. During our recent vacation in Colorado, my cousin’s wife, Daisy, had a day picked out to climb Handies Peak near Lake City, Colorado (my new favorite place), and she talked my nineteen year-old daughter, Shalyn, who was home from college for the summer, into hiking to the summit with her. To round out the group, Daisy’s 24 year-old son, Austin, and his 23 year-old girlfriend, Kiana, were also planning to hike. Austin and Daisy had hiked Pike’s Peak (another 14ner) twice previously, but Kiana and Shalyn had never done anything like this before. Ever. Though Shalyn had played basketball and softball in high school, she was not in “mountain climbing” shape. Shalyn also did not have waterproof winter gloves, a proper hiking backpack, and her hiking boots were much to heavy, being made for fashion and not actually for hiking. To be clear, if you’ve never hiked a 14ner, the distance isn’t really how you gauge the level of difficulty. The hike Daisy planned for the group is Class 1 or Exposure 1, 5.7 miles total. That doesn’t make it an easy hike, since you start at 11,600 feet and must hike to the summit of 14,048 feet in elevation. There are all kinds of weather you must prepare for, physical conditions, and wildlife (bears), all while keeping your pack light enough that you can carry it up the mountain, all the way to the summit. Then you have to carry it back down, which can be just as challenging, though in different ways.
Now, Shalyn could have made excuses not to go on the hike. She wasn’t prepared. She hadn’t trained for it . She didn’t have all the right equipment (sound like any educators you know? Yourself? Myself?). She didn’t know what to expect, so she was a bit scared of the unknown. Shalyn has some health issues and cannot tolerate heat, which has been known to trigger a panic attack. She has anxiety. While not diabetic, she has low blood sugar issues. The list could go on, because it did while we packed her bag the night before the hike. Daisy and crew were heading out at six the following morning. My husband and I told Shalyn that she didn’t have to go. She could hang out at the cabin with me in the morning then go riding trails on her 4-wheeler with her dad, eleven year-old brother, my cousin Randy (Daisy’s husband) and his two younger sons (ages 13 and 11), all of whom would be on dirt bikes. Now Shalyn loves riding mountain trails, but the problem was, that is something she does every year. We load up the bikes and 4 wheeler and head out to Colorado. That wasn’t a new experience, and it wasn’t a challenge. During the whole trip out to Colorado from Missouri, I kept thinking of the challenge to try new experiences set by Denis Sheeran, author of Instant Relevance (a favorite book of mine) in his guest blog for Dave Burgess. To read that great post, click here. I sat there watching my daughter struggle with the decision to go on the hike or not. I wanted to switch places with her and try hiking a mountain, but my recent surgery prevented that. It would be physically demanding. It would be mentally demanding. It would NOT be easy. It would be new. It would be exhilarating to reach the summit. It would be amazing. I was concerned about her health if she went, but I would not stop her or tell her not to go. I’m not that kind of mom. She can make her own decisions, and she did. Shalyn went.
I helped Daisy pack the food for the hike, since their bodies would be burning through calories faster than they could replace them. We had been in the mountains (8,500 elevation or higher) for nearly a week by this time, so their bodies were already acclimated to the higher elevation. I woke up at the crack of dawn to make sure Shalyn had what she needed and saw her out the door. I then said a quiet prayer for her that all moms can relate to, and went back to bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.
Once they returned, Daisy filled me in on how their hike went. They showed up at Daisy’s cabin starving and exhausted, and I was amazed at how much food they consumed. Then later I got Daisy alone and she filled me in, which in turn, sparked this blog post. You see, Daisy was the guide on the side, and the three with her, mainly Shalyn and Kiana, were her students. Daisy and Austin had split the majority of things all four would need between them in their packs, while Shalyn and Kiana carried packs with stuff they would personally need. Daisy instructed the group to stay together, take it slow and steady, and that they could take as many breaks as they needed. To add to the stress of the hike for Shalyn, the area was flooded with people, since apparently a race up to the summit was taking place, and people and cameras were everywhere. While this reduced the chance of interrupting a bear’s daily routine, it did not lesson the anxiety my introverted daughter was feeling, but she listened carefully to Daisy as they prepared to leave the trailhead. Kiana, however, took off running. Daisy was baffled but just reminded Shalyn that this wasn’t a race (for them anyway, but it was a race for the people in the actual race) . They could go as slow as needed. After maybe one hundred yards, my out of breath daughter declared, “I’m dead. I can still see the truck, and I’m already dead.” Calm and reassuringly, Daisy explained to Shalyn how she managed to climb Pike’s Peak for the first time without knowing anything but what she’d manage to research on the internet. However, as with most experiences in life, there are certain intangibles that you can’t always discover online. Daisy was unprepared for the realities of hiking in higher elevations that first time, even though she had the right gear and knew the route and the destination. She made it to the top by simply placing one foot slowly in front of the other. Baby steps. She gave Shalyn the same advice. “Just take baby steps. Put one foot in front of the other.” Off they trudged.
Shalyn thought and verbalized on multiple occasions up the mountain that she was “dead,” or that she “died,” but she kept putting one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Daisy stayed with her the whole time. Kiana, who took off running from the trailhead, threw up several times, but she kept running ahead every time the rest of the group approached, didn’t stay with the group much, and wouldn’t eat to replenish the calories that they were all quickly burning as they trudged up Handies Peak. Shalyn, on the other hand, ate when she felt she needed to eat or when Daisy told her to eat. When she thought she couldn’t go any further, Daisy would say, “Let’s just go a few more feet.” And Shalyn did. A few more feet, a few more baby steps, and Shalyn climbed the mountain. At one point, Shalyn exclaimed breathlessly, “I think I died and lived to tell the story!” Daisy laughed and replied, “Let’s go a few more feet.” Baby steps.
Instead of the cold that the group had expected, they encountered heat. The weather stayed somewhat mild while they hiked, so Shalyn had to combat the heat that her hardworking body was generating. Her body doesn’t handle heat well, remember, so this added a layer of struggle to her efforts. When she struggled, Daisy was at her side saying, “Are you ready? We got this!” Once, when Shalyn kept repeating that she was dying, Daisy said, “Well, you can’t go back now!” My daughter replied, “Oh, I never said I was going back.” And she didn’t go back. She kept putting one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Slow and steady.
The snow they trudged through was wet and cold, the air was thin, and the hours mounted. Her muscles screamed, her boots were too heavy, and the backpack was killing her shoulders. Just a few more feet. We got this. Baby steps. And then they reached the summit. They rested there a bit, took a bunch of pictures with their cell phones (which I’m using in this post), and then had to begin their descent. Going back down would be every bit the challenge that going up had been, only the problems would be different. Their toes would hit the end of their shoes repeatedly. Painfully. Keeping their footing and balance was often hazardous. A thunderstorm moved in, complete with lightning. Kiana threw up some more, and kept running ahead. Daisy and Shalyn headed back down the mountain, with Austin somewhere between his mom and his running then stopping then running girlfriend. Slow and steady. Are you ready? We got this. Baby steps.
To break up the tension of physical distress with comic relief, Daisy fell down a lot. Okay, so she didn’t fall on purpose, but going down a mountain in snow, rain, and treacherous terrain is not easy to do without falling. Daisy fell, even though she was the guide, the experienced one. She fell, she laughed, she got up again and kept going. Shalyn, in her heavy Dr. Martens hiking boots, did not fall. Those heavy boots may have been killing her tired legs, but their tread kept her upright. She was the only one who didn’t fall, but each member of the group who fell got right back up again and kept going. Come on, Shalyn. Slow and steady. Are you ready? We got this. Baby steps.
The group made it up to the summit and back down the mountain, the measly but excruciating 5.7 miles, in approximately five and a half hours. They made it, even Kiana, who pushed her body too hard, too fast, and without replenishing enough of the calories. Daisy and Shalyn made it to the truck before Kiana, who had to stop repeatedly as her body reached it’s limit, but they all made it. Upon arriving at the cabin and eating macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and more, they told me about their experience. Kiana flatly stated that she’d never do it again. Shalyn said she probably wouldn’t do it again. Not without better equipment, like water proof winter gloves. No way she’d do it again. Well, not without getting lighter hiking boots. She absolutely wouldn’t do it again. At least not without training first.
Why am I blogging about this? I dare say many of you will have already seen the connection to education that I saw as this story unfolded, and I’ll focus on that in Part 2, my next post. However, this doesn’t just relate to education. This story applies to life. Your life, my life, everyone’s life. We all have mountains in front of us at one time or another. We all see the mountain of work or trouble that keeps piling up, making us think it is impossible to manage, escape, survive, or conquer. While my kiddo struggled up and down her mountain and prevailed, I was reading Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank, by Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda back at the cabin (and if you are facing mountains in your educational or professional field, get this book. It has strategies, advice, and will help prepare you to navigate the trail to the summit of your mountain). I was only in chapter two at the time, but the real stories of educators in the book who were facing serious mountains of their own, and my worry for Shalyn climbing her mountain, had me thinking that both situations were actually similar in some ways. Neither are easy, both may seem impossible to do or survive at first, and all of us want to turn around at some point, or at least think about it briefly. But what if we can’t turn around or leave the mountain, and instead we have to face it? How do we manage the mountain? Listen to your own personal Daisy. Your guide on the side, whoever it may be. You don’t have to go it alone. Find a we. Don’t have one yet? Then listen to my Daisy: Slow and steady. Let’s just go a few more feet. Put one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Are you ready? We got this!