We arose early the next morning to the soothing resonance of the river beside us. We packed up our things and headed to the base of Mount Princeton, where we began trekking up a four mile dirt road. It didn’t take long before I became notably short on breath, as we were heading into the range of about 11,000 feet. Shrouded by towering pines, I was daunted by the length of the trek ahead of us, and the lack of a clear vista to look out upon contributed to an excessive focus on the monotony of these heavy steps. Our friend Will, of course, cruised along unfazed. I was in for a long day, but the presence of great friends committed to the pursuit helped me put one foot ahead of the other and press on.
Eventually, we came to the main trail where we followed a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. At this point, we could situate ourselves and our stature on this mammoth of a mountain as we ascended above the tree line and looked out upon an endless expanse of alpine landscape. I could feel the adrenaline pumping inside me as I resolved to make it to the summit.
After some hours of hiking, we came to an ice deposit sloping down hundreds of feet on the side of the mountain. The path proceeded directly across with some trodden footprints marking the way. The fear of heights I had combatted throughout our journey reasserted its ugly head, and I reluctantly crawled across on all fours, cognizant that one misstep could send me to a fateful end down the mountain. Fortunately we made it across in one piece–some of us more assertively than others–and proceeded to a steep slope face of loose rocks that pointed toward the summit.
At this point we were nearing 14,000 feet after a near 8 hour ascent, and our shortage of oxygen was apparent. I struggled to grapple up the loose rocks, laying prostrate on the rock surface every few strides in an attempt to catch my breath. My friend Soichi was hurting even more, and our attempt at conversation revealed that his exertion at this altitude brought him into a state of delirium. We shared our dwindling water supplies with him and slowed our pace in attempt to help him stabilize, but eventually he told us he had gone far enough. The summit was about a hundred more feet up the mountain, and we decided we would try to quickly head up there and turn back around to meet Soichi and descend down the mountain.
Will, Dan, and I made it to the top, which was one of the most sublime experiences of my life. We looked out in awe at an endless panoramic view of snow-capped mountains, and spent a few minutes in quiet meditation to sit with the experience and simply be. We headed back down to meet Soichi, and that euphoric sensation we had experienced on the summit quickly receded as we observed that his condition had gotten worse. He was increasingly less responsive and dehydrated, so we gave him what was left of our water and carried his bag in an attempt to get down as efficiently as possible. Out of water and thoroughly exhausted myself, I grew more and more light-headed and began to hallucinate. I wondered whether I would ever make it down this treacherous mountain.
As we reached the end of the switchbacks toward the dirt road, Soichi was so incapacitated that he collapsed on the side of the mountain in an ultimate state of exhaustion and incoherence. I was so out of it myself that I collapsed alongside him, and Will and Dan, who were in relatively better condition, decided to sprint down the mountain to get help. We were panicked. I struggled to keep conscious, but resolved to pester Soichi with questions about his family, his future in graduate school–anything to keep him from passing out. He responded with mumbled noises, but at least I knew he could acknowledge me.
Some inconceivable period of time later, a pair of hikers descended upon us, and I desperately begged for water. They were kind enough to give us a 32 oz gatorade and replenish one of our water bottles, while one of the hikers identified himself as an EMT and insisted on checking Soichi’s pulse. He was still with us–though his heart was racing–and I kept getting him to consent to pouring small quantities of gatorade and water in his mouth. They told us they would try to find a car to come get us, but I was discouraged to learn that the rangers’ station was closed this late in the day.
In my own state of delirium, I was enlivened to hear the sounds of ruffling in the trees–surely a car was on its way! As the mountainous winds receded, I was disheartened to realize it was only my wild imagination at play. I despaired thinking about whether we would ever get off this damn mountain. I deluded myself into excitement on a few more occasions, only to discover my enslavement to the impersonal transience of the chilling alpine wind. I resolved to keep calm and get us rehydrated–clinging to a small semblance of control in the midst of turmoil.
A ruffling sound emerged again, and some measure of regained consciousness from the fluids sheltered me from another impending delusion. This time, however, the sound persisted and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a jeep laboring up the rocky, dirt road toward us. In the back seat appeared Dan and Will, who had sprinted 4 miles down the mountain to find a kindhearted couple who would relieve us from our plight.
The experience rattled all of us, and I couldn’t help but question my intentions on that day. Why was I so set on conquering Mount Princeton after being at high altitude for only a day? Why did I press on to the summit when Soichi was clearly in such bad shape? Why did I assume that 2 bottles of water would be enough for me on a trek up a 14,197 foot mountain? I sat on it for a whole long while, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I gained real clarity on my intentions that day. I was with my good friend Amiya and Dan at a hilltop restaurant in Southern California, reminiscing on our cross-country journey. I recounted the story to Amiya, and instead of responding with some superficial bullshit, she actually pressed me on it. “Why do you always expect yourself to do everything to the extreme in your life?” I sat on it for a minute. And I realized she was right–every time I really committed to an undertaking throughout my life, I always had an expectation that I would do it to its logical extreme, even if it was actually to the detriment of my own well being. I realized that I had constantly tied my self worth to an expectation of accomplishment by outdoing anything and anyone–whether it be winning that tennis tournament, getting straight A’s that semester, or reaching the summit of that mountain. Not even to prove my worth to other people, but to myself–over and over again. My paradigm was such that if I had turned back on that mountain, and actually done what was probably best to take care of my good friend Soichi and my own health, I would have felt worse about myself, as reaching that mountaintop was the only thing that would have made me feel worthy that day.
And that wasn’t right. I walked away from dinner with a newfound understanding and acceptance that I am worthy of self-love and compassion regardless of the tennis matches I win, the grades I receive, or the mountains I climb. This may be my next chapter called the “Real World,” but if I continued to tie my self-worth to new sources of external validation–whether it be how much money I own, what kind of job I have, or how beautiful my girlfriend may be–I would never be good enough. And you know what, I am most certainly enough and a whole lot more.