“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
David McCullough Jr.
For whatever reason, I like writing about my failed adventures. Maybe it’s because I hardly ever see it as a failure. These days. It wasn’t always so. The world is full of success stories told by people who ventured into the mountains and summited the peaks. Hmm… I guess this one will be a bit unusual.
To fail is to grow. In order to succeed – first, one needs to make an attempt, then, naturally and inevitably you will fail. You simply cannot achieve anything without living through the disaster. Every successful person in this world had their fair share of failures before they managed to reach the top.
What makes a difference here, is whether you are willing to try again. If you want to be a great runner – you just need to keep running. If you aspire to be a successful entrepreneur you can’t give up at the first hurdle. And if you crave to be a great hiker you just have to keep hiking.
So yes, I have grown fond of failing over the last few years.
“Giving up is the only sure way to fail.”
– Gena Showalter
Do we ever really know how strong we are? Life is testing us all the time. Sometimes we ask for it and sometimes it just befalls. So I had this thought, specifically in times we live in right now (the epicentre of Corona pandemic as I write it) this perhaps not related story reminds me of how nothing ever goes the way we have imagined. And my attempt to climb that mountain proved this to be true.
So why do we climb the mountains?
Why would anyone? It’s hard. Painful. Far from everyday comforts. Requires preparation, stamina and above all, mental strength. Your body will hurt. You will struggle with every single step. Sleeping in tents, in the cold, with no showers. You’d be lucky if you slept actually. Doing your ‘things’ out in nature. While mules are watching (true story hahaha). Waking up at 5 in the morning and walking in the darkness. Just walking up. All the time.
I also personally experienced the fear of failure and disappointing others. The list of uncomfortable and difficult-to-express feelings is very long. Then why? Why would you ever want to put yourself through it?
Why did I?
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
– Jack Canfield
As a child and teenager, I was never really that athletic. Actually I wasn’t at all. I was one of those kids who would rather read books, hated playing volleyball at school. Yes, I admit it, I was always a bit of a nerd. And with that, comes this physical awkwardness and lack of trust in your abilities. Back then, not yet aware that we are engineers of our life, body and emotions, I just took it as a fact and embraced what was left.
Years past. I grew up a little. I grew out (slightly) of this unpractical romanticism of my early years and started understanding that life is what we make it. And as I grew into this consciousness, I started pushing myself outside of my comfort zone (this is a really long story told really short). This is when I realised that body is a vehicle which carries us through this life and I’d better look after it. Training your mind is not enough.
And then, just out of the blue – I fell in love with hiking.
I just love walking. Running? Don’t ask me! But my feet can walk me around the world and I decided to embrace this new found love. I hiked a bit. Every now and then. And oh, I felt like a big-time hiker after I ventured few smaller peaks back when living in Spain. No judgment here. Just a little ‘hmm.. you have no idea‘.
But hey, we all started somewhere!
And then naturally, as I think it lies in our nature, I wanted more! I wanted to hike a proper mountain. I wanted to achieve something that I never knew I could. On both physical and mental/emotional level.
So I challenged myself. And I challenged myself big!
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
– Paulo Coelho
On many occasions, this has actually been true for me. Whenever I set my mind on something but with this deep certainty and determination to do it – the Universe provided me with the opportunities.
So the opportunity arose to join the local charity I knew very well in the ‘Summit to Sahara’ challenge – a four-day hike in Morocco Atlas mountains. And I signed up. I decided to climb that mountain.
Six months to get prepared and train. I surprised myself. Created a gym and exercise routine I never knew I was capable of. Me, waking up early to go to the gym and train before work? Unthought of. Yet I did it. And I never felt better or more accomplished. And to be honest even only for this, it was worth it.
So the day arrived. It wasn’t just a regular Toubkal summit trek. It was a 4-day challenge. Two days acclimatisation walk to Toubkal base camp, summit and then walk all the way to the gate of Sahara. With three passages of over 3.6k each. We walked roughly between 10 to 12 hours a day. It was tough. Though even for those in the group who did the Kilimanjaro summit. I don’t want to be finding the excuses here. But it was bloody taught.
For me? it was tough after the first hour.
This is when I realised what I signed up for. The realisation came to me very rapidly. I was not fit enough to do this. I was out of breath straight away. My legs were on fire. My stamina was just not there. I was trying to catch up, all the time. Put a brave face and pretended all is well. After a few hours, I run out of energy to pretend.
And this was just a beginning. An acclimatisation walk.
Yet I’m lucky. Or maybe this was the first sign that mountain people are my people. Because the people around me were the reason I achieved what I achieved. It was bloody hard. They took their time to teach me. To teach me how. I was told how to walk up the mountain. I was told about the small steps and I was also told it is hard for everyone, No one ever judged me. No one ever made me feel like I was not supposed to be there. But I was always behind.
My biggest fear came true. I was the weakest one. The one that held the whole group behind.
There was a moment on that first day when I thought I will never be able to make it. But I knew one thing. I could not go back. I signed up for this. I am here with those people. I will have to do it. Inside – I wanted to cry and run away. I swear.
So that was the first day. I learnt my hiking technique. My baby steps. One foot at a time. Every 10 centimetres forward brought me closer to where we were going. And this remained to be the theme of the whole trip for me. Until the last day – but hold on until then.
I knew at this point I would be the one behind. And I was. And if this was not only my problem. In the mountains, unless you are very skilled, you can’t be alone. So someone would always stay with me. They took turns. I will never forget the support and encouragement I got from those guys. I kept walking. Slowly. Too slow. But I made it. We got to our first overnight camp on the trip. At this point, I thought I would be fine. I thought I got it now.
The second day with another 22km hike tested me to the limits I didn’t think I could get over. Getting up early in the morning and hiking up to 3600 with the continued ascent all the way. After a quiet breezy walk for a couple of hours, I suddenly stood in front of a nearly vertical wall with a zig-zag-like path of over 50 turns leading to the peak. As I stood in front of it, the sight of it nearly destroyed my will to survive.
But what do you do when you’re in the middle of the mountain range knowing the group of people ahead of you is counting on your ability to make it? You go on and keep walking, one foot in front of the other, just move forward. Finding it more and more challenging as the attitude went up it felt like a never-ending journey. I had to stop at every turn to take a breath. I genuinely thought I would never make it up there.
I wasn’t alone though. I actually never was throughout the whole trip. One of the guys would always stay with me.
And it’s funny how we meet people in our ways of life telling us to get over things, brush it off, move and carry on. True hikers won’t do it. It is equally hard for everyone, they understand that to do it you have to have this longing in your soul. And on that ascent, this crazy vertical path, I had someone telling me no less than how much I am capable of doing it.
I managed to reach the top.
I was so focused on walking. I took no pictures and I didn’t look up or down for hours. Yet at some point, nearly at the top, I stopped for a minute and looked …
I will never forget what I have seen. I can still see it so clearly – I don’t think this picture will ever vanish from my memory. The vastness of those peaks is frightening. I was so freaking scared. So small. But I have never felt larger than this, ever before and so far, never after
There is something incredibly majestic and timeless about the mountains. They are telling us that whatever we do and whoever we are – it doesn’t matter at all. Mountains are always going to be there. This incredible feeling of infinite space. Stillness. And peace.
I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. I made it to the top. And then we continued descending on the other side of the mountain which proved to be the absolute killer for me.
This is the thing. You think the worst is behind you. Yes, I thought this many times during this trip. But no! The worst is yet to come! And this is when your mental strength plays its role. Typically when you can see the goal, the end destination, it seems fine, seems achievable. You say, I will just do this 45-minute workout and then I’m done, I can see my house – I will get home in a minute. Oh, this thing is just around the corner!
Nothing like this when you are out there. What you think this is the end – is still just the beginning. Those paths are long! Really long. Never-ending. At some point, I could finally see the camp ahead, in the far distance. But by then I could tell that this is probably another two or three hours of hike. In the mountains, only because you can see your destination, it doesn’t mean it’s just there.
This steep descent was the worst. I was tired, cold, and mentally battered. I walked back down the scree and stones, fell, cried pulled myself up and continued walking. You need to have the strength and will to carry on. Actually, you have no choice.
You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. ~ – Bob Marley
After many hours of the most painful hike down, back in the camp I was destroyed and felt completely defeated by the mountains.
I got back to the camp around 2 hours after everybody else. Yet when I arrived they gave me hugs and congratulations! I was thinking: what is wrong with, you people! And then I understood.
I faced myself there. Myself. No one else. I wanted to do things I have never done before, and oh yes I did. I was done though. And the next day – it was the Toubkal summit day.
Nothing takes more courage than putting yourself back together again.
– The Better Man Project
So did I say that when you think the worst is behind you then the joke is on you?
The physical challenges can be overcome. I will just train more. I can do it next time. Next year, next trip. The mental one is the harder, and when you need to make the right decision and leave the ego behind – this is hard.
We had an evening briefing. Everyone was tired, very tired. It was a charity venture therefore the number of guides was limited. It was important that the group would stay together. I knew. I am too exhausted to make it. I knew I would be too slow. I knew I would hold everyone back. I could probably make it – but 2 or 3 hours behind everyone else. I had to make a call. I remember looking at the trip organizer’s face asking, do you think I should go? And this must have been such a difficult answer for him. He knew how much I wanted to go. But he had to think of the other 20 people. I knew.
Not wanting to hold the group behind as well as risk my own wellbeing and knowing how tired my body is – through tears of massive disappointment, me I and few others decided to stay in the camp and rest in preparation for the next day hike. As much as everyone was telling me how well I’ve done and how hard the trek was … I failed. Big time.
I cried. This is why I went there. To summit. To prove myself I can do it. And felt defeated and disappointed in myself.
“As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. ”
Here’s what it is. I made the right decision. I put myself in a situation I was completely unprepared for. And I could not possibly take any more advantage of people that were just so kind and supportive. I didn’t make the summit. But what I have achieved in the end, is bigger than this. Wait for it 🙂
I cannot speak for those who went up the peak and conquered the beast but what I know is that they are an amazing bunch of very determined, brave and fantastic people and all fought their own inner and outer battles. I saw it on their faces and in their eyes as they returned that evening.
On the 4th day, we set off early at 5 am to walk across the mountain passage towards the gate of Sahara and Lake Ifni. Gruelling 12-hour hike starting in complete darkness at 5 in the morning. We ascended 3600 again and when I reached this top I felt I had pushed myself further than I ever thought I could.
It started rough. You don’t get fit in 4 days. So I was still slow. I was offered a donkey ride. Meaning: you can sit on a donkey for the hardest part. I looked the guy in the eyes and said: ‘I failed once – I am not failing the second time‘. He picked up his walkie-talkie and said to the guy on the other side: the donkey is not an option. I walked. And I made it. Another 3600.
And then something happened. Something broke in me. The part of my being thinking I’m not capable – completely disappeared. Yes, I was rested in comparison to others. But I found the strength to walk the path I thought I could never walk. And I walked fine, I wasn’t behind anymore.
The descent after this last 3600 was probably even tougher than the one on the second day. The gravel is so hard to walk on. And it seemed to be never-ending. Hours. It took us around 7 hours. Challenging for most, with steep descents and ridges, with many of us falling and going through meltdowns and anger spells. The day started at 0 degrees and ended at the foot of the Sahara in the scorching heat, with broken boots, cracked lips, burnt arms and destroyed souls – we all made it to the end.
Yet I was a new me. I found a new energy. I was happy.
We got to the lake Ifni. Stopped for lunch. And when I looked around I knew there was probably another 2 hours of hike to the finish point. I didn’t want to wait, this was the first time I was ahead of the group. ‘The sooner we go, the sooner it will be over‘ was my attitude. And I went. On the 4rth day of this crazy hike, I managed to be ahead of the group. For the first time.
At the end of that day, we arrived at the HOTEL! We could take a hot shower. I gave up on any makeup a long time ago, didn’t wash my hair in days, my lips were cracked from the wind and heat, and I burned my hands from the scorching sun. I did not give a damn about any of those things, at all.
I have never felt more free.
It was some of the hardest and most painful things I have ever done. It was the best thing I have ever done.
Now I’m training again, the plan for next year is to hike in South America. Hopefully Patagonia. I will climb all the mountains and I want to feel the pain. This pain is the only way to freedom. Freedom from superficial, man-made issues, from ego and fake feelings of supremacy we people have on this earth.
And this is why you too should climb that mountain.
The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong in the broken places.
~ Ernest Hemingway
In case you were looking for your next adventure and wanted to join a bunch of amazing people please check Rifcom site for upcoming charity events. I could not recommend it highly enough. Here is the link; https://www.facebook.com/therifcommunityfoundation/
I would like to thank everyone who went with me on this trip, too many names to mention. You all know who you are. I will never forget :)