Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversation, “Extraordinary Women Change the World.” In our last post, Maira Holzman shared the beauty of starting right where you are. Today, Barbara Stafford shares her experience facing adversity in the wild.
There I was hunkered down in a treeless barren landscape at 11,000 feet in the Sierras, shivering in a raging storm and watching lightning bolts strike the peaks all around us.
There was almost no time between the lightning and the deafening booms that thundered through the valleys below us. The storm was right overhead.
It was both awesome and terrifying.
We’d been racing to get over a pass before this sudden storm hit, and now we had no choice but to hunker down, well away from the metal in our packs and wait.
People get killed by lightning in the mountains all the time. And crouching there, praying and crying, I was sure that was going to be our fate, as well. But luck was with us, the storm passed, and I survived to tell the tale.
To say that I was way out of my comfort zone is putting it mildly.
Almost getting killed by lightning was just one of the challenges I faced on a 21-day backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. It was the adventure of a lifetime – hiking with my best friend from Yosemite 200 miles south to Mt. Whitney through the rugged, beautiful and isolated High Sierras, crossing increasingly higher mountain passes, the last over 13,000 feet.
Hardship and Challenge Build Soul Muscles
The deepest and most enduring gifts I got from this 200-mile trek came from the challenges – both physical and mental.
Don’t get me wrong, I had many magical, fun, and even spiritual experiences. But ask me about the trip, and soon I’ll be happily telling you stories of mishaps and near disasters.
How, bare-ass naked at 3 a.m., we scared away a large bear who was intent on stealing our food. How my training for this arduous trip consisted almost solely of worrying and smoking an occasional cigarette. How we were often so hungry we spent hours on the trail fantasizing about food. How the trip triggered every one of my deep-seated fears – about lightning, bears, being alone in the wild, and my own multiple inadequacies.
The reason I’ll be smiling as I tell these tales of trial and tribulation is simple. The trip showed me what I’m made of.
When you’re out in the wild for weeks – a full one or two-day hike away from civilization – you’ve got to meet the challenges that confront you. You have no other choice. Your very survival depends on it.
There’s a huge gift in this.
And that is that the more challenges you face, and conquer with integrity, the more character you develop.
Character is a powerful resource you can draw on in hard times. Indeed, memories of that summer have helped me weather several very dark storms in my life since then. For that, I am eternally grateful and also, I have to admit, a bit proud.
Here are three of the dozens of lessons my friend and I learned on that trip.
- Don’t let initial failure stop you.
Or, in our case, don’t give up when a bear eats all your food the night before your trip begins. Crying all the way home (angry we should have known better) in my friend’s battered car that reeked of bear, we resupplied ourselves, got the car fixed and started on the trail in 5 days. (The high point was when the entire claims department of the Marin County AAA emptied out to see our bear-damaged car.) When we faced our next bear two weeks later, we were ready!
- You can get over the next big hump. Just put your head down and keep going.
We faced another high mountain pass every few days. Some were relatively easy. Others took everything we had. The worst were the ones where you couldn’t see the top. We’d think we saw the pass, but often we were seeing one false summit after another. When you’re exhausted, scorched by the sun and hungry, it’s easy to let yourself be defeated by this. We dubbed it PPS (“Pre Pass Syndrome”). It helped us laugh at ourselves and keep going.
- The journey literally is the reward.
Yes, the way was often hot, steep and filled with biting flies and thunderstorms, but we soon came to realize that the hiking was the best part of our trip. It’s exhilarating to stand on a mountain pass and look 50 miles north at the pass you crossed a few days ago. And 50 miles south at the pass you’ll be standing on in another few days. It’s freeing to be out in the wild with none of the distractions of modern life. The journey is always the reward, of course. But we knew it in our bones on that trip.
You’ll always need another mountain to climb.
It’s been too many years since that trip. And, 7 years since I’ve gone backpacking. So this summer I’m hiking back into my beloved Sierras for a week with a few friends to refresh my skills and test my new ultralight backpacking gear.
If all goes well, my plan is to do the entire John Muir Trail again next year – part of it solo this time. The solo part excites me and also scares the bejesus out of me.
And that’s a good thing.
About Barbara: Barbara Stafford is in the process of launching Outsmart PTSD, a new website which will empower women and men to take charge of their healing from Post Traumatic Stress and the anxiety, depression, and addictive behavior it causes. An experienced marketing consultant, Barbara also helps small businesses and solopreneurs overcome their marketing challenges and flourish. Connect with her on Twitter @BarbaraStafford or on LinkedIn.