Yesterday I hiked the last leg of the Appalachian Trail (AT) up Katahdin Mountain in Maine with my good friend and fellow humane educator, Freeman Wicklund. Freeman began the AT in Georgia in March and hiked more than 1,300 miles to Connecticut before a stress fracture in his foot laid him up for a month of healing. He hitchhiked up to Maine on Labor Day to resume the trail, this time heading south.
We started climbing the magnificent, but arduous Katahdin at 8 a.m. While the mountain was open to hikers, it was a “Class II” day meaning that hiking beyond treeline was not recommended. Katahdin was shrouded in cold fog with intense wind gusts. There are sections of the ascent where there are thousand foot drops on either side of a fairly narrow crest. There’s no question that this can be a dangerous mountain.
Just before we broke treeline we passed a small, older woman who had been hiking the AT in sections. She was about to finish the AT at Katahdin, having just turned 70 years old two days earlier. Shortly after meeting her we ran into two tall, strong, fit, 40-something men on their way down. Excited to see people already descending at 11 a.m. (we must be close I thought), I asked about their summit experience. Turns out they hadn’t made it. The stronger and fitter of the two remarked that they’d gotten within 1.5 miles of the top but turned back because the winds were so strong he was almost knocked down (despite, as he said, being 175 pounds). It wasn’t worth it, he continued. I think he was trying to convince himself of the rightness of his own personal decision, so I was not deterred, but I felt uneasy, especially given that I only weigh 96 pounds. I also found myself thinking about the 70-year-old woman who didn’t weigh much more than I. We’d encountered some very challenging climbing, and the rocks were slippery. The winds were already pretty high. If it was going to get even worse, would we make it? Would she?
As the ascent got steeper and more exposed, we encountered a young woman who had hunkered down among some rocks while her companions continued the ascent. She was uncomfortable with the quarter mile of narrow rocks in the high winds. Another warning. Freeman and I carefully continued, staying low and following the 3-point rule (keep three limbs on the rock at all times rather than stand up and walk on the slippery, jagged rocks and risk a wind gust knocking you off the mountain). We made it just fine and hiked the final 1.3 miles on the beautiful and flat Tablelands to Maine’s tallest peak. We ate a leisurely lunch in a spot protected from the winds, missing the successful ascent of the 70-year-old woman we’d met below. But we ran into her and her companion on the way back, and were delighted to know she’d made it. We descended in close proximity, all of us proceeding with some trepidation as the hard spots are often much harder coming down than going up. She managed each of them with such grace, and I found myself in awe of this remarkable woman, who at age 70 had accomplished an extraordinary feat – completion of a 2,000+ mile journey on a harrowing mountaintop. I thought of the much younger, fitter, stronger man we’d passed who’d turned back. I don’t by any means want to criticize his decision. More than half the climbers turned back that day – a wise choice for them. But the tenacity, perseverance, and joyful beauty of this dedicated and strong-willed woman inspired me. She was not at all foolhardy: she planfully prepared, gave herself plenty of time, and took great care in climbing safely. She was not in danger, because she was ready. Ready to succeed at her goal; ready to live every moment of her life fully; ready to embrace her dreams; ready to defy stereotypes that diminish us at all ages.
Would that we all lived with such exuberance and challenged ourselves to achieve all that we are able.
Author of Most Good, Least Harm
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Filed under: heroes, mindfulness, MOGO (Most Good) | Tagged: Appalachian Trail, authentic living, goals, hiking, perseverance, preparation, readiness, role models, strong women, tenacity | 2 Comments »