It’s been exactly three years since my life shifted. On October 13,2017, a childhood friend of mine, Jesse Itzler, hosted an unusual physical challenge on Stratton Mountain in Vermont. The premise was simple. Climb Stratton Mountain seventeen times to simulate the 29,029 feet of elevation one would need to ascend to summit Mount Everest. Jesse appropriately named the event 29,029( Twenty-nine zero twenty-nine). I took a deep breath as I sent the email securing my spot. My life was eroding and I was grasping at any experience, or interaction that could help me rebuild. Hiking Everest was never on my bucket list, but I do love a physical challenge. I committed in July and had only a short time to prepare. I would lay in bed trying to imagine what the event would be like and a swirl of butterflies would take flight in my belly. I preferred the butterflies rather than the usual rocks pounding my stomach, ruminating over the agonizing decision I needed to make regarding my marriage. Do I stay or do I go. Maybe the mountain would provide the clarity I needed. The weeks leading up to 29,029 were spent running on the treadmill at the highest incline, hiking daily and collecting items on the packing list.
Arriving at basecamp, the air was crisp and the sun was unusually bright for Vermont in the Fall. Plopping my bags in the 3 person luxury tent outfitted with a heater, snacks, and plush bedding, I felt relief that my sleeping conditions would be more than adequate. From basecamp,I stared up at the green and brown patches of rolling grass and swallowed hard. The event was fully supported, meaning, food, water, and amenities were all provided. I just had to show up with my gear. The air filled with excitement as the pack of one hundred and forty-seven participants gathered at the base of the mountain ready for the first climb. While we were strangers in this moment, we were about to become part of an exclusive club where only those who participated could relate. My nerves melted and I focused on the uneven terrain, as the thick long grass knotted around my boots. The first climb was an education. My eyes searched for the least muddy path and my feet weren’t quite sure where to go. By the second climb, I had more confidence knowing what to expect. I peeled off the layers as the sun grew stronger and my body warmed up from the steep climb. I tracked my location by the massive numbered poles that supported the gondola above me. Pole eleven would become infamous for the most challenging section. It was steep and close to the summit. After dinner I was able to finish one climb in the dark, but then my body succumbed to fatigue. Many climbed through the night, getting a good chunk of their seventeen completed, but I only made it through four that first day. The emotional weight of what I brought from home, combined with the intense physical effort exhausted me.
Saturday brought unseasonably warm temperatures and strong sun. Six. I completed six climbs before the mountain was closed for the night. I felt good, but in hindsight I was dehydrated and lucky to have made it as far as I did. There were times when I was on the mountain alone, and times where I climbed with a new friend, distracting me from the rigorous effort. The extra two thousand pounds of emotional weight on my back were invisible. I never spoke of my situation with anyone on the hill. It was an internal conversation. I was trying to understand what was happening in my marriage. It seemed a puzzle at the time, but reflecting back I think it was more along the lines of disbelief.
The mountain was the most difficult physical challenge I have ever experienced. Even compared to the sprint triathlons, and half marathons I’ve completed, 29,029 was in a different class. I had hoped that the weekend three years ago would clear my head, or provide some answers, but neither happened. Once I arrived, my only focus was conquering the mountain. I didn’t once try to list the pros and cons for the hundredth time in my head. I remained where my feet were. One step at a time. I gave in to the fact that I would not be finding answers on this mountain. What I would be finding was myself. My own voice. Who I was innately without the heavy wet towel slung over my head at home. I was free of the weights that prevented me from rising to my potential. I had finally made my way back to who I truly was after letting her go for so long. There was no “aha” moment, no deep, inspiring,conversation. Just me getting back to being me. I didn’t eat enough that weekend, I didn’t drink enough water, and I didn’t complete my seventeen. Short by four summits, but I was ok with that. I left four summits but I found myself.
1,095 days have passed and the memories of that weekend still stir a feeling of gratitude.I didn’t realize those climbs would be the easiest hills I would battle throughout the 1,095 days that would follow. I am always up for a challenge, but a challenge I choose. A challenge for the betterment of myself. When life throws challenges that we don’t choose, they feel more painful, and the inner meaning and growth to be gained are often more difficult to recognize. Even as I climbed Stratton mountain, all thirteen times, I was living in a fog of confusion. While I preferred to keep my story closed inside, I was inspired by my new friends’ sharing their stories with me. It was difficult to be vulnerable because my life felt embarrassing. The difficult trek up the incline was filled with participants’ tales of career redirections, lost loves, illnesses battled, and a passion to prove they could conquer something difficult and uncomfortable. I just wanted to be free of the torment for the three days in Vermont. My mind needed rest from the constant swirl of indecision. Rest from the struggle to reconcile wrongs that had been bestowed upon. There were moments where I felt my secrets bubble up to my throat, but the need to focus and navigate the rocky terrain took precedence. The year leading up to the event was filled with therapy sessions, lengthy conversations, tears, fear, and a relentless pursuit of coming to terms with shocking realities in my marriageI was hoping for a light bulb to appear over my head like they do in cartoons. No light bulb appeared and the mountain was silent. I wanted to find answers, I wanted to leave Vermont feeling convicted about the choices I would make going forward in my life. Instead, I found a community who saw me for who I truly am. Respected me. Championed me. Wanted me to succeed. Those feelings followed me home. It only took a few weeks for me to see the disparity between those I connected with on the mountain, and what I was enduring at home. That summer during one of the many painful conversations with my ex-husband, we tried to understand each other’s needs. His words are seared in my memory. “I will never be your cheerleader. That’s just not who I am.” Yet, as I climbed Stratton mountain for my thirteenth and final summit, I had more than a hundred cheerleaders that I just met.