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The Greatest Fear

Set a goal, plan, execute. This is the dogma adventurers know because it is what is shown to us time and time again in movies and books with seemingly limitless characters who push beyond their normal capabilities while coming out on top. But how does this ethos play out in real life? In New Hampshire, Mt. Washington alone has

claimed 150 hikers’ lives since 1849. Understandably, the fear of a risky situation should not deter us from ever stepping foot outside, but the hint of a small voice inside us should also say, “Prepare for the worst.” What is the worst, though? Death? Injury? The northeastern US is riddled with sirens, drawing us in with alluring outdoor beauty, tales of summiting challenging peaks, and the relentless portrayal of Instagram athletes “crushing it.” No, the worst for those without a full appreciation for the power of nature is turning back, and this pressure can be magnified in a group setting.

Mount Mansfield on the northern edge of the Green Mountains in Vermont was the last peak on the 4,000 footer list that my friend needed to complete before driving his SUV-turned-apartment back to California. In late November last year, we set out on a Thursday afternoon and made the six hour haul to Essex Town, VT, punctuated by a spicy pick-me-up at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Early Friday morning, the four of us piled back into the roving storage unit and weaved through the white dusted farms to the service road for Mount Mansfield. In the back, I gazed out at the birch, their white silhouettes interspersed with brittle tan leaves. The rolling image of these light-colored trees came to an abrupt halt as the van stopped in front of a large snow bank. “Hmm. I guess this is where the snow plows stopped,” my driving friend said. This sudden halt for our vehicle left us and the few visitors in the park to find our own way to the trail head nearly a mile up the road. The “plan” part of set a goal, plan, and execute had already taken a detour, but we shrugged, figuring, “What’s another mile?”

“Pretty significant” was the answer shortly after as we made our first ankle-deep steps into the snow. We realized the day would be more challenging than we had anticipated, but fueled by bagels and leftover hot wings, we soldiered on. Oh, did I mention that all of us except for one only had microspikes? That “plan” part took another hit, and we let the only person with snowshoes lead the group hoping that she could at least slightly tramp down the powder laid out before us.

To no one’s surprise, yet to all of our disappointment, the one pair of snowshoes did not pack

the trail down in any significant manner, and us three microspiked-musketeers took turns making the initial postholes as the other two followed. Little by little we made our way through and realized that climbing the steeper grades was significantly easier as the snow was shallower in these inclined parts of the path, and I use the word ‘easy’ liberally. I had never despised switchbacks as much as I had that day.

Hours of gradual ascent later, we progressed closer to the treeline, and we noticed a minuscule version of the snowbank we encountered back at the road; even the backcountry skiers had decided to turn around and head down.

Of course, we took this as a sign that we should trudge on. We were all seasoned enough, young, strong, motivated by the high of going where others dared not. We broke through the bank and began to make our way through the waist-deep snow. Above treeline, the snow had completely obscured the path, or lack thereof, such that our only indication of the right direction was up. With spirits beginning to dampen and dehydration setting in, we stopped about 100 meters into the uncharted whiteout to rest. My fingers, encased in their soaking wet gloves, were in limbo between completely numb and searing pain.

Being a less experienced hiker and female in the group, I was reluctant to discuss my discomfort with the other hikers. I felt this would mark me as the weak link, the problem the others would have to solve. I began to think about turning back. Well, I say ‘began’, but this was not the first time on the trip I had had doubts; the first was back at the road and seeing a two-foot high wall of snow and looking at my own ankle-high boots and track pants in concern.

I had to speak up, and this was difficult even in the presence of friends.

“We should go back,” I panted heavily. “Let’s take the loss for today and go back down.” Nobody said anything, and the wind running through the trees and mountains had a sustained cry during our group’s silence. My friend, the van-man-4,000-footer connoisseur, shrugged his shoulders; nobody said anything. A few more seconds went by, and I broke the silence and attempted to address the one thing nobody wanted to admit: the fear of turning back. “We’re under a mile from the peak, but the weather, lack of direction, and not having snowshoes all make for a bad feeling I’ve got,” I said. A few more seconds of no words passed.

“Yeah, Gillian’s right,” another friend affirmed.

“Totally,” responded another. Being the first person to voice concern is a lot of pressure, but doing so opened a floodgate of worries others in the group had. Sometimes our greatest fear is just speaking up.

We called it and headed down Mount Mansfield to the snow pile that awaited us below. My friend started the van when we arrived, and an incredible relief went through me as I began taking off my boots; we looked awful. Nobody looks amazing after a long summit, but a long hike with no summit makes for an extra tinge of aesthetic unpleasantness. I saw signs of relief also graze the faces of my mountain friends but not without a tinge of disappointment as well.

I was fortunate to be with friends that were supportive enough to come back with me, but regardless of their external validations, pangs of guilt and shame plagued me into the next week. I felt weak, even though I did exactly what my gut told me.

Despite recounting my perceptions of inadequacy, I want to affirm that these feelings are important when you’re hiking. Use them as your compass, regardless of what you think others will think, because after all, when you come out together, you signed a social contract to support each other. Do not keep going if you feel unsafe. If you must, turn back and have the conviction to say enough is enough. For me that day, I had had enough and felt unprepared to continue. Had I worn snowshoes or been hiking in those conditions before, I may have felt differently. But I didn’t and I hadn’t, so I made the best choice for myself to go back.

It’s now months later, and I can confidently say I made the right choice for myself; I am a better hiker for doing so. My life may not have been threatened in that situation, but among the uncertainty, I made a judgement call. Dying while doing what I love sounds poetic but isn’t a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve seen too many horrifying headlines of young people implementing their passion for exploring and dying in situations for which they were underprepared. I learned so much that day and continue to learn from it even while writing this piece.

I was with hikers I trusted, but I failed to look for myself at what lay ahead and followed blindly. If you can, take an hour or so before a big trip and research. Research the mountain, the weather, and hiking blogs. Take a serious look at your wardrobe and ask yourself if you have the right gear. If not, ask a friend to borrow their jacket or gloves, or if worse comes to worst, just sit it out. Turning back may be the greatest fear, but dying is the greatest danger, and one that is avoidable if you’re willing to face your fear.

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