“I can’t do this,” I said, wiping tears away from my eyes.

I was standing on a rock with a palm to my hot forehead and embarrassed I was crying. Down the trail a few yards our friends were politely pretending to not notice my breakdown.

“You kind of have to,” said my fiancé, apologetically. “Once we get back to the car, we’ll get your medicine, but you have to get to the car first.”

For practically my whole life, I’ve hiked up one — and only one — mountain each year.

They’ve always been small mountains and I’ve always pretty much hated it. I’d convince myself over the course of the year that I’d enjoy it, then I would get out in the woods and there would be bugs and I would be out of breath and sweaty and I would swear I was done with nature for good.

This time was a little different though. It was a big mountain. A high peak, in fact. And it was even worse than usual.

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It was rainy and muddy and cold and triple the length of any hike I’d ever been on before. The trail was so wet it was almost a flowing creek. Navigating it involved carefully hopping from rock to rock. My sneakers were soaked through and my frigid toes made squishing noises with every step. When we finally got to the top, the awe-inspiring views we had been promised were not there. We were in a cloud. The visibility was about 10 feet. There was nothing to see.

Then, on the way down the mountain, just after we left the summit, I felt the menacing twinge of a migraine begin to take hold. I would have to hike 3 miles with a head full of shattered glass.

I’ve always been someone who avoided doing scary things. If something seemed difficult or painful, I just wouldn’t do it. I would shake my head at friends running marathons or backpacking or hiking high peaks. I’d sit on my couch and browse Reddit and take the occasional Zumba class. I relished in being comfortable all the time.

But living in the comfort zone is sneaky. Over time, by eliminating anything uncomfortable from my life, I had unwittingly become boring with a capital B.

I was lucky though, because I did stumble into doing something difficult and scary by agreeing to hike that high peak, and I had to finish because the only other option was dying on the mountain.
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So I took one step. And then I took another one.

One step closer to the car and civilization and Excedrin Migraine and Diet Pepsi.

After two and half horrible hours, we made it back to the trailhead. I flung myself in the car and proceeded to flop around like a dying fish for the rest of the night.

But something strange happened.

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Despite being one of the hardest things I’d ever done, I felt like kind of a badass for descending a mountain with a migraine. I felt like I could handle anything if I could make it down a steep, wet, boulder-filled trail at a time when I usually lie in complete darkness with a cold cloth on my forehead.

I liked feeling like a badass. And I began to think of ways to feel that way again.

The trouble is, you can’t do easy things and consider yourself a badass.

So, for the first time, instead of my yearly post-hike declaration of “I’m never hiking again,” I reconsidered, and then bought some waterproof hiking boots.

That was two years ago.
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Last week I woke up at 5 am and hiked 11 miles in the rain with a 3,700 foot elevation gain.

The summit was cloudy again but this time it was also hailing with 50 mph winds. I was surprised to find myself laughing as I clung to the rocks for a quick summit photo. By the time we got to the bottom my legs felt like Jell-O and I was sick of rocks and roots and rain and wanted fries so bad. But I also had one of the best days ever. I laughed and made up trail names for my friends and ate brunch in the clouds. I marveled at the solitude and the wilderness stretching for miles all around me. I felt insignificant but also completely certain this was where I belonged in the world.

When we got back to the car I felt more alive and accomplished than ever. I was already suggesting the next mountain, next challenge, next thing to be proud of.

What I’ve come to realize is, by avoiding things that were scary or difficult, I wasn’t just sparing myself the pain and struggle of getting through them. I was also denying myself a sense of accomplishment and pride that can’t be found anywhere else.

Do hard things. You’ll be a better person for it.

Guest Contributor
headshotCristin Steding is a freelance writer and founder of Upstate Club, an outdoor adventure guide for Upstate New York. Check out their adventures at instagram.com/upstateclub