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My experience climbing a 20K foot volcano

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It’s the pitch black of midnight and we are huddled together in a group at the base camp of Cotopaxi volcano with all of our climbing gear on, ready to start our ascent to the summit at 19347 feet.

I had expected to be in an optimal state of mind and body before attempting this summit, but this was far from the case. Instead I had a splitting headache from the altitude and was exhausted from having spent the past 4 hours lying anxious and freezing in my sleeping bag, trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep, or at least, rest, before climbing.

This moment, the one that I had been nervously anticipating for the last 8 months since I answered a deep calling to sign up for this climb, was finally here.

For months, I had been preparing my body for this climb, through breathwork and physical training.

And while I had (mostly) enjoyed the process, a little voice in my head would ask “Yes but - is it enough?” and the question, “Can I really do this?” caused a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

So many people had expressed their belief in me. “You got this” was the phrase I heard over and over again. And that voice would say “No, I don’t know that I can do this.”

So many times, I kicked myself for being so public about having signed up for this climb. While I know there is no failure, that even by showing up, I already won, a very unclaimed part of me wanted nothing more than to summit. This part of me that had never been given expression before.

I had promised myself that this climb was not about keeping up. I was going to listen to my body, and take it slow and steady. I didn’t care if I was last.

There are no accidents, and there was so much magic that happened to set me up for the success of this climb. First was my amazing partner Adrienne, who stated very clearly to me that her will to get to the summit was a 9 out of 10. Gulp. This was the accountability that I needed.

Second were our guides Francisco  and Jose, human mountain goats, for whom these climbs are child’s play.

I can only describe the process of ascent as an experience that starts out challenging from the first step and then progressively gets harder and steeper as you get closer to the top.

As we climbed, it took everything to keep focused on just the next step, regulating my breath and not giving into the panicked thoughts that this was too hard and I could not keep going.

At our slow pace, we soon fell to the back of the pack.

About halfway up, we started to encounter the headlamps of some of our teammates coming down, either due to altitude sickness, or guiding decisions. And each time, my mind screamed “Take me with you!”. But I could not abandon my partner.

And in truth, another part of me knew that I could not abandon myself.

But there was still so much left to go. We would ask our guide “Does it get easier?” and his unapologetic answer was always “No, steeper”.

But between Adrienne and I, we took turns being strong for each other. Don’t get me wrong, until we got to a certain point, if she had said “Let’s turn around”, I would have gladly done so.

But then something shifted. As we continued with the climb, the internal dialogue inside my head started to change.And what once was “ Can I really do this?” started to become “Wow, I’m still doing this.”

And then when we were about an hour from the summit we started to pass team members who had summited and were on their victorious way down. The moment I locked eyes with Justin, one of our group leaders, and held his smiling gaze, the turning point happened.

A couple of months back, my daughter had been listening to a Kanye West song with a line where Kim Kardashian is heard saying “I didn’t come this far just to come this far” and I had joked that that’s what I was going to say when I was climbing Cotopaxi.

This memory surfaced out of nowhere right at this moment and I knew in my bones that I was going to summit. I recall turning to Adrienne and declaring “We’re doing this.”

We reached the summit right at cutoff time- 8am- gas masks on to protect us from the fumes of the volcano.

And after all of this, the proclaimed pinnacle of the experience- being able to see into the mouth of the volcano - was not even possible as it was shrouded by fog- but that was never the point for me anyway.

The point was that I found myself sitting atop the summit, taking it all in, present to the incredible, grueling feat we had just achieved, step by step, breath by breath.

And I knew that the person about to head down was not the same person who had started this journey.

I know I will continue to unpack and share more of the insights and lessons learned through this incredible experience. My mind is pinging with clarity and realizations.

There are so many people to be grateful for. To Mike Brcic and the amazing Wayfinders group that I shared this experience with who I feel forever bonded with. My trainers Darren and Andrea - and Brent from Think Fitness. And Anthony Lorubbio for his high altitude breathwork training, and my Cotopaxi guides Francisco and Jose and the entire SoYoung team, and of course, the loving support of my family and friends, who were cheering me on every step of the way.

And you, all of you, who have supported me and been excited for me on this journey. I am so deeply grateful to you all.❤️