It's Not The Mountain We Conquer, But Ourselves

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What draws certain people to seek adventure? To try new things; to learn a new skill; to challenge their abilities; to push beyond their limits?

Well, I am that kind of person; a daring soul eager to experience what life has to offer to the fullest, to dig deep within myself to know what truly moves me, to discover the unknown, to walk off the beaten path; for it is these moments in which I am able to self reflect and discover something new about myself.

My real journey began at age 22, after the passing of my mom from breast cancer at 45 years young. I realized life is too short to simply exist. Now I live by the motto: Live Love Life! In 2011, my friend Arturo Codina posted pictures of the Grand Canyon on his Facebook and I sent him an email, saying "I want in next time!" A year later, with no camping or hiking experience, I joined a week long adventure, which turned into a life-changing experience. Ever since then we have managed to take a yearly adventure, from hiking in the Grand Canyon to rappelling in Zion.

This year, six of us new and old buddies reunited and planned a mountaineering trip to The Grand Tetons at 13,775ft in Wyoming. After a year of talking, planning and prepping, the day was finally here. We hiked and camped one night out at Surprise Lake at 9,580 to acclimate to the altitude and took two days of skill work with Exum Climbing School, learning how to belay each other, rappel, tie figure eight and bowline knots and how to stay safe on the mountain. Little did I know then that I could not prepare enough for the discovery of self that was about to unfold.

Day 1:

We hiked about seven miles, gaining over 5,000 vertical feet to the saddle, which snuggled between the Middle and Grand Teton. The terrain we trekked covered smooth dirt trails alongside trees and meadows and natural springs, to rocky gradual incline switchbacks, to open mountain views of 50 shades of granite, a maze-like of oversized boulder fields to climb, up through glacial moraine, to the last stretch of very steep, rocky dirt trail leading to the alpine saddle at 11,600ft . As we hiked all of the varied uphill terrain, I found myself dismissing my perception of what a mile means.

Our resort suite accommodations consisted of sharing a 15x15 tarp with 14 other people. My friend Bianca and I were the only two girls on the expedition and it felt quite empowering to hold my own on an adventure mostly dominated by men. Winds blew at 50+mph, but we were treated to a front row view of the sunset painting the skies bright orange and red, leaving only the outlines of the mountains to see. Once the sun left, pitch darkness was born, not a city light or car sound to be heard, just the whistling of the winds as I snuggled caterpillar style in my sleeping bag.

Summit Day:

Answering to a 3am wake up call, we gathered our headlamps, climbing gear and packs. Blasting winds and pitch darkness greeted us the minute we stepped out of our hut and began to scramble up rocks. As a yoga teacher, I've learned so much about the importance of breathing; but in this moment, taking the conscious effort to execute something so innate seemed so demanding. Every step I took, my breath seemed to dissipate into thin air. I was just starting and I was struggling. I kept telling myself "slow and steady wins the race".

I could only see a foot in front of me with my headlamp; I had no clue what I was climbing, no perception of height or depth, except that each step consisted of a steeper scramble than the one before, requiring me to use all four limbs to climb over rocks, which seemed to grow in size right before my eyes. We took 17 pitches to reach the summit, via the Upper Exum Ridge, a North American classic. We belayed each other one at a time by a rope and a figure eight knot, entrusting one another with our lives over ledges of thousands of feet to death.

Whether it was the battle of our breath against the lack of oxygen, letting a fear of heights grip us, or a lack of trust- the mental scrutiny we endured was far more intense than any physical demand encountered. There were moments I wanted to give up, moments I second guessed my abilities, moments of feeling like I hit "the wall" that I crave the most. Between these moments of weakness, I was able to witness my own grip strength holding my body weight, to notice the power of my big toe as it balances alone on a foot hold smaller then my foot.

My thoughts moved at the speed of light, but I tried to remind myself that my mind will try to break me long before my body gives up. The exposure of granite standing sturdy for over millions of years gave me fortitude to push beyond my perceived limits. Giving up is not an option in such a scene. The only option was to dig so deep, deeper then what I was previously capable of imagining. Reaching that depth is what living (not just existing), is all about. It is like taking your first breath into this world.

I remember sitting atop the summit and saying "This is it! We are here!", in disbelief. The 360-degree panoramic views seemed like a blur to me. Our time was limited, because we needed to begin our descent. We had reached our destination, but the journey was not over. On our descent we were greeted with rain and hail, needing to watch our step even more closely than before to avoid a slip, fall or twisted ankle on a slick rock. My cold hands grasped my hiking poles and with every breath and movement I built more internal heat, avoiding any stops. I looked at the horizon and thanked God for the timing of the weather, for just a few hours ago, it could have stopped us from summiting, or made the climb off the peak that more dangerous and frightful. It was miserable being cold and wet, but a blessing at the same time. I focused my breath and mind on beating the sunset to the trailhead. After 18 hours, we had officially completed our summit!

Reflection:
It is not until I am back home living my routine life that I am able to digest, to process and reflect on my adventure. Looking back at pictures, I can feel every physical sensation. My sore body starts to recover, my bruises melt away from my skin and my toe nails begin to regrow. I can feel my awareness awakening.

This euphoric feeling fills my inner soul. I feel accomplished, I feel blessed, I feel alive. The summit of The Grand Tetons not only tested my physical endurance, but it tapped into my consciousness. It reminded me that there is nothing I cannot attain. I value the resilience of my body, the beating of my heart, and the power of my breath. Mountains are a reflection of our souls; strong yet humble- to see the views, you must be willing to surpass the difficult terrain or weather to begin to understand your highest self.

This adventure could have not been done alone and I am very grateful to have shared this journey with some amazing souls and trusting friendships. Thank you Arturo Codina, Jonathon Diego, Bianca Alvarez, Renz Castle, Sean Regan and our two amazing guides Brian Campbell and Scotty McGee.

Until the next adventure!


Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and NoMiddleman.com, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.