It was the millionth cough of the night. Or was it the million and first? I’d lost count and all I could focus on was the penetrating pain in my ribs and the feeling of drowning. At close to 20,000 feet, every ache was amplified and every cough drained my energy significantly more than at sea level.
I continued to gasp and fight the dry urge to wake my tent mates and surrounding climbers with more desperate hacking. Though we’d ruled out high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) in the preceding days, I couldn’t help but wonder in my exhausted, oxygen-starved state—was this something serious?
That was early morning on day 10 of our climb up Aconcagua. We had already summited days earlier than planned and with less acclimatization than anticipated. Of course, it was too early to sit back and congratulate ourselves on a successful climb as we still had a long trek down to Casa de Mulas on the west side of the mountain. In the dark of the early morning, I was slowly convincing myself that trek was nothing short of impossible.
Nearly a year prior my husband Eric, friend Charlotte and I hatched a plan to climb Aconcagua— the highest peak in South America. Having cut our teeth on Mt. Rainier with Charlotte showing us the ropes, Eric and I felt ready to take our climbing to the next level. We soon started planning the trip. For months we prepped. We researched and bought gear, regularly teleconferenced about trip planning, trained our bodies and mentally prepared ourselves.
I was ecstatic with the preparation. Every piece of the puzzle coming together was a reminder of the adventure that lay ahead. The challenge, the self-discovery, the bragging rights that come with a long expedition all served as motivation. But, as expected, accompanying the excitement came the dreaded thought that plagues anyone undertaking something out of their comfort zone. “Can I really do this?”
View from The Cave — approx. 22,000 ft.
While much of a big climb is a group effort, there are certain parts of everyone’s experience that are solely theirs. The lonely moments of individual challenge, the silent reflection before bed, the radio of thoughts as you walk the trail, all belong to you. In those moments only you are accountable for your experience.
Knowledge gleaned from prior climbing trips taught me that accountability in the mountains is a different thing. It’s not solely a matter of following the Boy Scout rule and being prepared. It means owning my experiences good and bad and recognizing that every trial presents an opportunity for a thought—a thought, which leads to a behavior and a behavior, which influences an outcome.
I knew this trip especially would test me in ways I’d not yet been tested and there was no getting around it. No matter the parallels with my team, my experiences would be mine and I was the only one who could deal with them.
That night at camp three, I continued my coughing and finally, when I felt I could no longer stand the pain, my stress response kicked into overdrive. I was sure I was dying. I frantically tapped Charlotte on the shoulder. She awoke as if she hadn’t been asleep—between my ruckus and the altitude; it was unlikely she ever was.
“I can’t breath.” I said tentatively.
Based on my ability to sit and speak, this was clearly hyperbole. Still, she humored me as I continued to describe my condition. I described how I felt, how I just couldn’t stop coughing. I concluded with an exasperated “I really think something’s wrong.”
Groggily, she pulled out her pulse oximeter and clamped it on my finger. We sat and waited for the results. Pulse fine, oxygen levels fine. It was then she asked, “What do you want to do? We either get a helicopter out or wait this out and trek down.” I sat quietly; hating to admit to myself that what I wanted was sympathy, and that ultimately I was fine. Uncomfortable yes, but in terms of health, it wasn’t a medical emergency. In that moment, I had to face the truth that somewhere in my mind, there was a deep-rooted anxiety and an unwillingness to be uncomfortable any longer. I continued to cough, still feeling the sting of shame at my fear and anxiety. There would be no external force to soothe my discomfort and fear; I would have to own it.
Sarah on a mule
Charlotte rooted around in the tent. Some minutes later, she pulled out a boot and an iPod that she then handed to me. “Prop your head with this.” She said referring to the boot. “Put on some Norah Jones and sleep.” It was clear in that moment, I was getting no sympathy. So, with a boot under my head and “Come Away With Me” buzzing in my ear, I reluctantly owned it, taking deep breaths, choosing my thoughts wisely, mindfully taking stock of irrational fears and replacing them with more soothing thoughts. In through the nose and out through the mouth, I finally floated off to sleep for what remained of the early morning.
Before I began spending time in the mountains, I was telling myself a half-truth about accountability, and acknowledging it only on a surface level in terms of what I was accomplishing or what material items I was prepared with. The whole truth is that accountability permeates much deeper and colors what we put out into the world and therefore what we get back from it.
Accountability is owning your experience—every piece of it without the delusion of being completely in control of anything but yourself. It’s knowing that in every dilemma, discomfort or awkward situation there’s an element that you own and that ultimately, you create your own reality.
We of course made it down that final day. Not without more challenges and not without choosing to own them.
Sarah Zerkel is an Alaskan-based writer, outdoor enthusiast and personal trainer. Her inspiration as a writer, fuel as a fitness freak and motivation for adventure-seeking revolves around her time in the outdoors. While she tries to keep it all together, she finds her house is chronically messy and her mind is chronically on the next adventure. When she’s not writing or playing in the mountains, she likes to share what inspires her most on her blog Sarah Elaine Outdoors. http://