The last 18 months has arguably been the most difficult season of my life. I wanted to mark the end of my journey with cancer with something big. I didn’t want it to quietly pass like a stranger, I wanted to honor it and to end with an exclamation point.
On July 2nd (2022) I found myself at the base of Blanca Peak in the southern chain of the Colorado Rockies. Blanca being the 4th highest peak at 14,350 ft is no snooze of a hike. In fact, it’s rated a difficult Class 2 climb. Now, to be clear, I’ve hike mountains before. I’ve hiked a 14-er before, too. However it, unlike Blanca, Grays Peak was a Class 1 snooze of a hike in the front range of the Rockies near Denver. This hike was no joke.
When you turn on to Blanca Peak Road toward the trailhead you’re at about 7,500 ft elevation. Most cars can drive up the trail about a mile before it gets difficult for anything without sooped up tires and a lift kit. The hike from where we parked was about 7 miles and 3900 ft of elevation gain – to the overnight camping spot – Lake Como. The next day, we planned to take a rest day and then on July 4th, head out to the summit. The hike from Lake Como to the summit was another 3 miles and 2600 ft in elevation gain. For those of you keeping track at home that’s a total of about 10 miles (one-way) and 6500 ft of elevation gain.
The last 14-er I climbed was 7.5 miles round trip with a total elevation gain of about 3000 ft. Blanca was over double that. Not only was it double the distance and double the elevation, I was doing it with one last cancer treatment still on the calendar.
If that still doesn’t sound hard enough, you have to pack in all your gear, too. I hiked up carrying a 42 lb pack.
The trail up to Lake Como is nasty – filled with large loose rocks that makes it difficult to keep your footing or move quickly. The trail is fully exposed with limited tree cover and on July 2nd it was 85 degrees with clear blue skies.
Within the first 30 minutes of the hike, I began to doubt myself.
Those internal voices began to question my health, my ability, my preparedness. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough. Maybe I couldn’t do it. I’m too slow. I’m too weak. I’m still too sick.
About 45 minutes into the hike, I unclipped my pack and sat down. My cousin (more like sister), Ronnie, stopped, turned around, and walked back toward me. “What are you doing,” she asked?
I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I am ready. I can’t breathe. I feel dizzy. I think I might throw up. Just go on without me. Give me the keys to the car. I’ll find a hotel and pick you guys up in a couple of days when you’re back down the mountain.
Ronnie looked at me, and in her scary big sister voice she’s been using with me since I was 5, said, “You got me into this. You are not quitting. Drink some electrolytes. Eat some candy and then let’s get up and go. We don’t have to go fast. All we have to do is keep walking.“
Life is funny like that. We come face to face with challenges everyday. Some of them small, like dropping a trail of socks on the way to the washing machine or spilling your coffee. Some of them big, like cancer or climbing a mountain. Either way, our bodies are trained to run away from danger, so our natural inclination is to run, hide, get around it, ignore it, or circumvent it. Yet, the challenges keep coming.
The truth is that challenge, hardship, and trial are inevitable in our lives. It’s not if we will have them, it’s when. No matter how hard we try to avoid, ignore, or circumvent them, they are always there waiting for us – sometimes growing stronger, more powerful, and more daunting by the day. We can’t run away from the stuff that feels hard or scary. The only way out of them is through them. We just have to keep walking.
I knew when I was diagnosed with cancer that the only way out of it was through treatment, through all the hard stuff. Circumventing it wasn’t possible and ignoring it would have only made it stronger. I never wavered on my commitment to walk courageously through my cancer treatment. But, here I was now, wavering on hiking this mountain. Why?
Maybe it was because I had a choice to quit or keep going. I’m not sure. But Ronnie’s words stuck with me. So I took a few sips of my electrolytes and ate a handful of Sour Patch Kids. I stood up, flung my 42 lb pack back on, clipped in, and kept walking.
When most people think about resilience, they think about how one bounces back from challenges or failure, but resilience is more than that. It’s advancing despite adversity. It’s looking at the challenges life hands us and actively choosing to keep walking.
Ten grueling hours later, we reached Lake Como. We were exhausted, hungry, sweating, and out of water. My feet were bleeding from the massive blisters on both of my heels. We quickly set up camp, ate dinner, and crawled into our sleeping bags as it began to rain. Overnight that rain turned to snow and then back to rain, stopping just as the sun came up.
I woke up the next morning to cloud cover over most the peaks, exhausted, yet thankful it was a day of rest. My feet were in bad shape and overnight I had developed blisters under several toenails and some rub rash in a couple spots from my pack and hiking clothing choices. (Don’t wear new socks when you hike a mountain). We spent the day resting, soaking up the scenery, foraging for dry firewood, and playing a card game called Exploding Kittens (which is reticent of Bamboozled from Friends).
The next day, July 4th, we had plans to summit. My feet were healing, but still weren’t in great shape. We bandaged up my feet and I put on my wool socks and Chacos [in lieu of hiking boots], determined to make it farther up the mountain. Ronnie and I lagged behind the others knowing that I was nursing two massive blisters and both her reconstructed ACLs were still feeling the pain from our hike up to Como.
The hike was agonizing, I’m not going to lie, but we took more stops, took more pictures, and tried to enjoy the hike unlike our hike up to Lake Como. There are a series of lakes on your way up the summit of Blanca. The first set is a pair of lakes called the Blue Lakes. Those lakes are about a mile and a half in and another 500 ft of elevation gain. When we got there, we stopped, took some pictures, and listened to the waterfall.
It was there, looking up at the next 300 ft of elevation gain, up over the waterfall, that I decided not to attempt the summit. I still had 2100 ft of elevation over about 2 more miles to do before the summit – arguably the hardest part of the hike. Every step uphill was excruciating and frankly I was exhausted.
My body just wasn’t ready for the technical and difficult hike that was remaining. I also knew I had to still conserve energy for our hike down to the car and I was worried I might do more damage to my already terrible wounds. So, I didn’t summit. I made the active decision not to.
Not every challenge ends in triumph. Sometimes, a lot of times, we fail. We’ve been taught, in American society, to see failure – losing – as a bad thing. I see failure as a gift.
It is in failure that we learn. It is in failure that we grow. In life’s challenges, when we face them and walk through them, we change. They prepare us, fashion us, ready us for our future – regardless of if those challenges end in triumph or failure. We can’t be afraid of challenges in life – and we can’t be afraid of failing at them either. Having resilience isn’t defeating every challenge. It’s advancing despite adversity. It’s facing life’s challenges – whether in work, family, relationships, faith, friends… It’s learning from each challenge and become a greater version of yourself as a result.
This challenge taught me that cancer didn’t win. That I was physically capable of more than what I thought I could do. That cancer taught me to listen to my body and trust what it’s telling me. It taught me that I am strong and only getting stronger.
The next day we hiked down the mountain on another hot, sunny day. It took 5 hours down the nasty trail of large loose rock. I left with a whole new set of blisters and a belief in my ability to do anything. We were tanner, dirtier, and more tired than we were four days before, but it was worth it.
There’s a quote from a children’s book that is a favorite in our family called Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty. I think it best synopsizes what I learn on my hike up and back down Blanca. It says:
“Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.”