I fell again. The first time, I was curious. Why would my leg buckle under my bodyweight like it did? It was reasonable to expect, I guess. I was physically exhausted. My wife Lori and I had been hiking, scrambling over and around boulders, and rock climbing for over 12 hours. We had been up the mountain and were now on our way back down. We still had a mile or more to go down the steep rock-strewn descent of Katahdin (meaning: “ greatest mountain”). It was my fifth time to climb this highest mountain in Maine, and it had been some years since the last time. It felt harder now. And I was older now, into my seventies. Although I felt in good shape, I could tell that the stamina and endurance of the younger me had waned a little.
I lay on the ground in the dark (we were now using headlamps since the sun had set a few hours earlier) and saw my mind beginning to conjure up thoughts like “what if I can’t get up,” “I should be able to do this,” and “I’m letting my wife down” and “she will be afraid if I can’t get up.” Drawing on my many years of watching and noticing my thoughts in my daily yoga and meditation practice, I chose not to indulge them further. Instead, I felt my body. Right now, I was not injured. And my body, although exhausted, still felt like it has some reserves from which to draw.
I decided to breathe, sensing that lungs full of air might oxygenate my blood enough to bring new life to the muscles now saying “no.” I inhaled to the count of four slowly, and out to the count of five. I repeated this several times. I attempted to return to standing and succeeded. My legs held firm as I stood and took the next few steps cautiously. I walked for about 10 minutes and fell again. I repeated the breathing, got up continued. I don’t recall how many more times this happened, but about an hour later, we stumbled in the dark towards the parking lot at the end of the trail.
Along with the purely physical experience I engaged in getting my body to respond and support us in getting off the mountain, there was also the engagement of my mind. My practice came to the fore. I became very present-centered. I deliberately chose not to indulge in any story about what had happened so far or what might happen in the future. I remained steadfast in my focus on the moment I was in and making choices on being present. In retrospect, I believe this is what helped the most. It made the pain bearable, and it also gave me hope with each step.
To her credit, Lori did not panic either. I’m sure she was concerned but chose to put her energy into checking in with me and asking me what I needed. We both trusted ourselves and each other to choose wisely. Earlier in the day, as she had struggled with fear, I had done the same. She had a fear of heights and a few times became temporarily frozen as she lay on the top of a huge boulder just ascended and looked over the edge to the thousand-foot drop below. Near the top of the mountain, she was exhausted and scared. She had wanted to find an easier way down. But there was none. There are no easy ways up or down Katahdin. Just different. And with this mountain, the descent is at least equally tricky as the ascent and generally takes longer.
Why would anyone do this, you might ask?
Well, at the end of the day, although exhausted and sore, we were also both very much at peace. At peace with the world, at peace with each other, and experiencing peace with life. We had taken an adventure together. We had faced ourselves and our fears, and we had shared the experience and supported each other. That made it not just worth doing but gave us both a deep sense of gratitude that we could do it and did do it.
The next day, Lori began a conversation about which trail we would take next year. I must say I was a little surprised and asked her what inspired such a discussion. She laughed and recalled the birth of our first child and enduring long and difficult labor. The next day she had held the baby in her arms, felt the love, and was ready to do it again. And we did.