Discomfort: Suffering in the Mountains

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I’ve tried to climb Mount Shuksan twice, and had to retreat both times.

The first time was while guiding, when I had to turn around and descend with a client who forgot his helmet. The second time I attempted the technical Fisher Chimneys route with a friend from the guiding company where we both worked, and thunderstorms turned us around. The experience was one of many that taught me about experiencing suffering and discomfort in the mountains and how, ultimately, suffering can help you grow as a mountaineer and as a person.

My friend Angela and I had hoped to climb Shuksan in just two days, and started on a relatively clear afternoon. With light packs, we went up the 1,000 feet of unroped climbing and scrambling that constitutes the actual chimneys section of the route. And as the sunlight faded, we looked above the clouds and laid out our sleeping bags on a long, flat boulder. Hoping to go light and fast, we had brought minimal gear, and in my case just a bivy sack to sleep in.

It was just after midnight that I heard the first roll of thunder. I turned over and looked out of my bivy, and saw that the stars were now hidden by dark clouds. Water started to fall, and I zipped up my bivy sack and hoped for the best.

bivy high on a mountain ledge overlooking a sky of clouds and mountain peaks.

After just a few hours, my bivy sack started to leak. I would doze off, and then water would drip in through the mesh near my face. Before long, I would drift off only to feel like I had a wet blanket on my face, and, filled with a sense of claustrophobia, I would unzip the bivy sack and come up gasping for air. While we were both miserable, Angela and I also chuckled at one another as we sat in the rain. Our current state of being was so uncomfortable that it was just plain funny.

At first light, we talked and decided to call it. There was no way we were going up the mountain’s final rock pyramid in slick, wet conditions and with ongoing lightning risk. I was crestfallen—the Fisher Chimneys is an alpine classic in the Cascades and well within my ability to climb. I couldn’t believe I had to turn back again without having reached the summit. And to top it off, now we had to downclimb—which is harder than climbing up—1,000 feet of wet rock in our mountaineering boots.

Angela and I made our way down the long, slick sections of rock interspersed with scree and scrub brush. As we descended, I thought over our attempt to climb Shuksan and didn’t regret a thing. Angela and I had bonded in our shared misery. No serious harm was done—while we were wet and cranky in the rain, we were confident enough in our self-care that neither of us was going to get hypothermia. Our experience of suffering made us that much more confident that we could handle the next time, and the next, through all our many adventures to come in the mountains.

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