It was my first climb up Mount Rainier. My party of 3 Iowa boys had been anticipating, studying, and training for this climb for the past several months, and we were finally making it happen. We had begun our ascent of the Disappointment Cleaver route two days prior, and had been climbing strong throughout the the night.
I was committed to reaching the top, to say the least.
But as we approached the summit crater, well over 14,000 feet in elevation, something weird happened. I gave up.
I just had nothing left. I was tired, frustrated with my teammates (who were wonderful), and completely disinterested in continuing. I was only minutes away from climbing a mountain I had been dreaming about for years, I had the easiest stretch left, and I had ZERO desire to finish.
Luckily for me, my partners shoved a snickers bar in my mouth and said, "Eat this, and let's go." And I did. The summit was covered in clouds and had a fierce wind, but it felt awesome to be up there.
I've climbed a lot of tall peaks since then, and have witnessed time and time again a similar breakdown in myself and my companions. A sudden disinterest, frustration, and anger sweeps over us like a tsunami, seemingly out of nowhere.
But just like a tsunami is triggered by an earthquake, this sudden attitude shift is triggered by an accumulation of distress.
Accumulation of Distress
An accumulation of distress is a build-up of factors outside your comfort zone that increase your overall level of stress. Everyone has a baseline level for dealing with stress. Some people are quick to ignite, while others are seemingly unaffected by anything.
There are tons of factors that can increase your baseline stress level in the outdoors. Not taking a shower for days, sleeping on the ground, eating different foods, fear of creatures and critters, uncertainty of being able to complete the next day's tasks, etc... The list goes on and on.
There are also a ton of factors that can reduce your baseline stress (this is, after all, why we call it a vacation). Not having to go to work, beautiful scenery, doing something you love, watching the sunset, time with friends and family, fresh air... This list also goes on and on.
So, a beginner backpacker who has more of these stressors might have a significantly higher baseline than someone like myself who has grown accustomed to some of them.
Let's use a theoretical hike up a 14,000 foot peak as an example. There are some HUGE stressors that can negatively impact your experience. Here are a few of the big ones:
Need to get started at 3am.
Need to summit by 11am at the latest, which adds time and pacing pressure.
Need to stay hydrated and fueled, which means carrying extra weight and being diligent on your self-care.
Increased danger of sunburn from high elevation, which means you have to take the time to lather and re-lather on the sunscreen.
Uncertainty and exposure to adverse weather (lightning, rain, wind).
Uncertainty about your ability to physically and mentally make it to the top.
Luckily, there are some very positive aspects to climbing a 14,000 ft peak that help offset these challenges.
Witnessing a sunrise from 12,000 feet.
The stunning 360 degree views from the top.
A quiet hike in the early morning hours.
Fresh mountain air.
Sharing a life-impacting experience with friends and/or family.
It it weren't for these positives, we would never chose to climb a mountain. These are some of the factors that keep our accumulation of distress in check.
If this hike went as detailed above, we would get up and down the mountain and have an awesome time every step of the way. Many times, that's exactly how it goes. However, there is one big factor that we haven't yet added in -- your personal reaction to exertion at high altitude.
Physiologically, there are a lot of ways in which the effects of altitude can present themselves (which is a whole other topic). They vary wildly, even within an individual. More importantly, they can have a swift onset that is often the tiny extra piece that puts your accumulation of distress over the edge.
Feeling downright crappy. Headaches, dizziness, lack of appetite, vomiting.
Poor self-care related effects of AMS leading to dehydration, blisters, sunburns, rolled ankles, etc...
Sometimes, it doesn't take much to put you over the edge.
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It sucks when this happens. In an instant, you're in a place where every part of your being just wants to get down. I've had this happen to me from time to time. It's never fun.
After seeing this present in myself and in others I'm travelling with, here's my main piece of advice for coping with this distress (and surprisingly, it's exactly what I did on Mount Rainier).
Give yourself a break.
Find a place to sit down. Put some food and water in your body. Let the emotions you're experiencing happen.
Try to look at things objectively. How close are you to the top? Are there any hazards that are above your level of acceptable risk? How's the rest of the group doing? What do you need in order to keep moving forward? If you don't keep moving forward, how does that affect the rest of the group? If you decide to split up, what's a foolproof and safe way to get back in touch?
Allow your stressors to reduce. Or, acknowledge that they are not going away until you go down, which is also totally acceptable.
It's common to see this happen up high in the mountains because that little extra strain altitude adds is often enough to put someone over the edge. But it can happen anywhere. Practice proactive self-care, and focus on checking in on your current stressors. If you keep at it, there's a good chance that a few minute later you could be standing on the top of a mountain!