We had been hiking for seven hours in the Tetons and I was done.
I’d left my trail runners in a friend’s car and each step in my clunky old hiking boots tore at the back of my heels. We’d hiked out of our backcountry campsite at Surprise Lake from the night before, gotten in the car, driven to the Paintbrush Canyon trailhead, and begun hiking again, wading with our giant backpacks through day hikers in jeans at Leigh Lake to get into the woods. The scenery changed every couple of miles as we ascended, thick forest shifting to boulder fields and finally opening up into a wide bowl still flecked with patches of stale snow still clinging on.
Sometimes hiking you feel strong, energized by your muscles working to get you where you want to go, revitalized by the fresh air and scenery around you, and other times you feel like you want to find the nearest flat spot of ground and curl up and sleep. So much of it is in your head, so much of how you feel and how you experience the time passing can be linked to the thoughts passing through your brain, and today I was tired, I was fed up, and I was ready to be done. My feet hurt, my legs ached, and my pack felt like it was crushing me little by little. I was in one of the most beautiful places in the country, but destination desire had set in and all I wanted to be doing was sitting in camp, eating dinner straight out the pot.
These moments happen often, moments where the one thing that feels most difficult to do, to go on, to keep moving, is the only thing we can do. Moments when our feet hurt and the load on our back is heavy and our attitudes suck and we are still miles from our destination. It is easy to let the negativity build, to enter a mental state of misery and defeat. All we can see is how far away the destination is and how many steps we have left to take.
We were nearing the back of the bowl when my cousin Julie and I started to make stupid, naive comments to each other about how high the walls were and wondered where the trail was going to go next. Our campsite for the next was in the canyon over, so there had to be a notch somewhere, right? A col? Anything that was lower than the towering rock walls looming above us. But as we continued to ascend through slushy snowfields, it soon became clear that the only way this could go was up and over.
I saw it first, the switchback that cut across the steep, narrow scree field in between two peaks. I laughed and Julie looked up, and I just pointed at it, at where we would have to go, and we both stopped. The run out was thousands of feet of loose scree peppered with stretches of thin snow, and after the first switchback the trail seemed to disappear, with only this faint idea that somehow we were supposed to end up on the ridge above.
We briefly reviewed self arresting technique and set off across the snowfield toward our imminent ascent, knowing the day was waning and we still had to get up, over, and down into the canyon next door, ideally before nightfall. The switchback, though appearing well defined from a distance, turned out to be less wide, less stable, and less clear than we had anticipated. Training my eyes to focus on the ground ahead and not the drop-off below, I began to make my way across, checking in with Julie every few steps to make sure everything was still a go.
Something happens when you enter technical terrain, when things become difficult in a way that requires not just stamina, but intense focus. No longer are you able to think about the entirety of the distance in front of you, of how long you have before you can rest—all of your mental energy is required for each step. The scope gets smaller, the lens narrower, until nothing exists in the universe except finding a stable place to step.
Across the switchback, we reached the base of the far peak, and the trail disintegrated. With the peak to our right and a steeply angled snowfield to our left, the option to sidehill disappeared, and the only way to go was straight up the scree. We took turns scrambling up, shouting directions to each other and staying out of the fall line. What had before been a weary fatigue in my legs had turned into a nervous weakness. Each time the scree slid from out below my feet my entire body tensed, sensing if not seeing the long fall that would await if I were to lose my footing.
After slowly but safely navigating ourselves up to slightly more solid ground, the trail vanished entirely. I started to scout a route up to the left that I didn’t feel great about, but seemed to be one of our only options. As I started to move up the rock, a voice called out from what seemed to be the heavens. “THE TRAIL IS UP TO THE RIGHT!” it said. I swiveled my head around, disoriented, wondering if the mountain gods had finally decided to intervene so we wouldn’t end up killing ourselves on terrain we had not been prepared for. Instead, I saw two tiny figures standing up on the ridge above us, pointing at the right side of the chute. From where we stood, it was impossible to see where the trail went—we were too close to it. But from their perch up on the ridge, our two hiker angels had a perspective we did not—one that allowed them to see the exact route that would take us where we wanted to go.
Once I had backtracked and met Julie at the top of the scree slide, we located the faint trail and followed it up toward the crest of the ridge. We were so close—only a few dozen steps separated us from the top of the ridge. Julie, a climber, negotiated herself easily across the cruxiest spot of the whole pitch—a muddy, snowy incline we were forced to traverse across. I watched as the ground started to slide slowly as she moved across it. There would be no stable foothold to be had, and this was my Achilles Heel of climbing mountains—the precarious sidehill maneuver with a giant drop off below.
Legs wobbly beneath me, I got myself right into the thick of it, one foot on solid ground behind, the other in the mud and scree. I held on to the rock with my hands, an almost 90 degree hold, and tried to take the next step, a step up onto the ridge. But I couldn’t move. I froze there, feeling my right foot starting to slide down, unwilling to remove the left from its stable position to take the step. I could feel it in my body, the fear starting to build up, the mental paralysis begin to set in. I called Julie’s name in a strained voice.
“I need help,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, trying to jam my foot even harder into the mud so it would hold. It was hard to admit out loud, hard to say to the mountains, that I had reached a spot I couldn’t move from and would need someone else’s hand to pull me through.
Julie shrugged off her pack and leaned down, reaching her hand out to me to use as a hold, to give me some sense of stability to swing my left foot up to where it needed to go. With a deep breath I was up on the ridge—we were out of the woods.
And when we stepped up onto the unusually flat, wide ridge that allowed the nervous energy in my body to begin to subside, we were nearly bowled over by the view that awaited us. Mount Moran and Leigh Canyon to the North, the Grand Teton itself to the South, and range beyond range of jagged mountains to the West. We kept turning around and around, not wanting to look at any one spot for too long in case we missed something, both of us shouting repeatedly about the astonishing beauty, the grandness and vastness and dizzying scale of everything around us. It filled us up all way past the brim until the adrenaline, the gladness, the awe, spilled over into the canyons below. And though of any hike we did during our stay in the Tetons, it had been easily the most miserable, the most frightening, the most challenging— it was also without question my favorite.
Sometimes you don’t know what is waiting for you up above, up unrelenting switchbacks and precarious scree fields and snowfields in July. You can’t see it from below, you can’t know it until you’ve reached it, you can’t fully understand how it will feel until you get there. And you can’t get there if you stop when it gets hard, you can’t get there if you let your fatigue and your weariness and your apathy get the better of you. The only way to get there, to get to that 360 degree view of mountains beyond mountains stacked on top of one another till they knock up against the horizon, is to keep moving. To keep pushing, to keep taking steps forward and telling yourself you can do it. Telling yourself you have to. Because often we struggle the most to get to the greatest things. Your feet may hurt, your legs may be tired, you may want to be anywhere but where you are, doing what you’re doing, but none of those things should deter you from getting up every morning and climbing upward, into all the glorious, unimaginable beauty that awaits.