Beast of Burden

In a way, my journey with a heavy pack started from my horrific bout with post-partum depression.

Holly and Isabella
Holly and Isabella

There was nothing that John and I wanted more than a baby, but we had paid a heavy price. Labor hadn’t gone well – 40 hours with no pain medication, life threatening complications including an allergic reaction to a drug that put me into convulsions and made me lose touch with reality, and then a devastating emergency C-section. My mother and I had had an enormous fight a couple of weeks before and were barely talking. My friends hadn’t had babies yet and didn’t know how to help. John and I were very alone. There I was with my new baby – cut open, traumatized, sleep deprived, nipples scabbing and bleeding after a difficult first month of nursing, feeling my mother’s anger towards me from afar. It’s no wonder that I fell down to the lowest place. For the rest of our 10 year marriage, John and I were to call that time “The Dark Year”.

The day Melanie was born
The day Melanie was born

When Melanie was born 3.5 years later, I was determined to not fall into the same traps. I had my work cut out for me – another difficult labor, this time 30 hours without pain medication, and then another emergency C-section when they began to lose her heartbeat. After cutting me open they said “Normally we cut along the old C-section scar, but your uterus was so paper-thin there, we didn’t think it could hold the stitches you would need to be put back together. If you had labored any longer, your uterus would have burst and you could have died.” John brought me home, took care of me in every way possible, and I set an intention to not have another dark year. There were a number of things I decided to do differently, one of which is that I decided that I would get outside and exercise more. As a yoga teacher, I certainly exercised plenty after Isabella was born, and as an outdoorsy family I had hiked at times with Isabella on my back, but I knew I needed more consistency this time around. I didn’t have a lot of childcare, so I was going to have to execute on this new plan with Melanie in tow. I set a schedule for myself – I was going to hike 2x a week, rain or shine, whether or not I’d been up all night nursing. Just 9 weeks after I had been cut open, I strapped Melanie to my chest and began. Oh I was so tired and it was so hard! I focused on one easy trail (Tiger Mountain) and it took me 8 months of hiking 2x a week before I could make it all the way to the top. When it rained, I wrapped a jacket around us such that Melanie’s little head could poke out. When it was snowy and icy, I put microspike traction devices on my boots so that I would not slip while carrying my precious Melanie cargo. When I was exhausted and depressed, I went anyway, holding myself to the schedule. These hikes were the best possible thing for me. I always ended in a better mood than I started. I didn’t even have to sacrifice time with my baby. If she was hungry, I could sit down right there on the trail to nurse her before continuing with my hike. Often, she would sleep against my chest, gently rocked by my steady gait, happy to be nuzzled against mama. If she cried, I would sing to her as I plodded on. We were happy.

Hiking with Melanie
Hiking with Melanie

I continued to carry Melanie on my hikes twice a week until she was 2 years old. By that time, she was no longer in a pouch on my chest, she was in a serious framed hiking carrier with deep pouches for diapers, water, food, and other gear. I took her on even longer hikes and let her out of the pack at times to toddle around in nature. Melanie plus the framed pack plus water and gear edged up towards 50lbs. I had become strong again and felt healthy. Around that time, Melanie became more of a kid and less of a baby. She wanted to move more. She didn’t want to be stuck in the pack and began to pull my hair and holler in my ear when she was bored. I put her in a French pre-school a few mornings a week and began to hike solo while she played with her new friends and learned darling French songs.

While my hikes without a Melanie cargo were still lovely and relaxing, I found that I didn’t get the same endorphin kick without the 50lbs on my back. I didn’t sweat as much, work as hard, or get that lovely blissful high I had become addicted to. So, I began to hike with sandbags and gallons of water in my backpack. That’s right, I voluntarily weighed down my pack to make the exercise more rigorous, wanting the endorphins, needing the endorphins. People noticed my large pack on the trail and kept asking me “Are you training for Mount Rainier?” I said no, thinking to myself “Not training, just combating depression.” Then, after a year or so of hearing this question on the trail, I thought to myself “Why the hell not? Sure, I AM training for Mount Rainier!” My Mountain Woman self was born and I was to spend the next few years training intensely and climbing various peaks around Washington state and in the Alps.

My training at times bordered on obsessive. Actually, I can’t even give myself that much slack. I didn’t border on obsessive, it was completely and utterly obsessive compulsive. I allowed myself the luxury of a ‘light’ 50lb pack when I was tired but pushed myself to carry 60lbs when I felt decent. Sometimes I carried as much as 65lbs – 43% of my body weight. I carried this heavy load on 6-8mi hikes 2-3x a week to the point where the skin would regularly get sanded off my back in large patches by my backpack. I didn’t slow down, I just bought huge roles of moleskin and kept going, joking with friends that all the training in the world couldn’t negate the laws of physics and friction on my skin. I wore my wounds like badges of pride.

The fact is, that even with these minor amounts of suffering, I was happy. Endorphins were my drug. I was strong and so alive! The strength I built allowed me to summit Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Mount Stuart, and Mount Saint Helens. I found peace and clarity when standing on a glorious peak, above the clouds, looking down on the world. John swelled with pride and loved calling me his Badass Mountain Girl. Still, I took it too far. When I was scheduled to climb Adams for the first time in 2013, I had a horrific head cold and went anyway. I dragged myself up the mountain, coughing and wheezing. Halfway up, I was pelted by a hailstorm with no shelter. I had to curl into a tiny ball on the ground for 30min to reduce my exposure to the bruising ice. Still, I went to the top, and after I got home I had walking pneumonia for a month. I continued to train and in fact continued to over train. I carried heavier packs than I needed to carry more often than I needed to carry them.

I began to wonder, a couple of years ago, about the symbolism of the heavy pack. Why did I choose to make myself suffer more than necessary? What burdens was I carrying? Did the pack represent some sort of energetic burden I had in my heart? Some sort of burden that I was manifesting as physical weight on my back? Why was I so critical of myself on the rare occasions when I lightened my pack to a ‘mere’ 40 or 45lbs? When I felt the instinct to lighten my load, I would tell myself that I was a wimp, that I was lazy, that I didn’t know how to suffer like a good Mountain Woman. No one was ever more critical of me than I was of myself. I had plenty of ideas as to the meaning of it all, but still I kept over training, I kept bagging peaks, and, although I suffered more than I needed to, I also experienced a lot of joy. Mountains brought me peace and happiness and I kept going.

I kept going, in fact, until the day that John died in an avalanche and everything stopped. Unable to eat, I lost 10 pounds in 8 days. At most I was able to sleep only 2-4 hours a night, and in fact it would take over a year before I could get as much as 5 hours some (but not all) nights. In the first 3 months after he died, I lost 25% of my hair and literally feared I would become bald, as I heard could happen in extreme cases of stress. Before he died I was comfortably able to carry 60lbs 8-10 miles in a day. Six days after he died, I could barely hike 4 miles with no pack at all.

Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 - 2mo after John died
Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 – 2mo after John died

Being the hardass obsessive compulsive warrior woman that I am, I was determined to get back on the trail and regain my strength. I began to train again, and 2 months after he died I carried 60lbs up Granite mountain – a brutal and steep trail. Although I made the summit, I was slower and weaker than I had been when climbing Granite in the past. I continued to hike with a heavy pack twice a week in addition to my regular yoga, bouldering gym, and running practices. The hikes were a bizarre oxymoron of incredible joy but also haggard exhaustion. Almost all of the emotionally ‘good’ days in that first year after loss were hiking days, so much so that everyone jumped through hoops to make sure I had childcare and could get away. When I hiked, I didn’t want to die. When I was in the mountains, I found glimmers of hope. When I sat by myself on various peaks, I connected with John’s soul. At the same time, these hikes with a heavy pack drained reserves that I didn’t have to spare. I was always slower than I should have been and made excuses, to myself, that it was just that one time, that I would do better once I got a good night of sleep. I stopped noting my round trip time, because it was too disappointing. I kept going and continued to be soothed by the beautiful Pacific Northwest, but the literal spring in my step was gone. I had been running on adrenaline, and adrenal fatigue began to kick in. Still, I kept hiking with the heavy pack.

The funny (or not funny) thing is – after John died I had even less justification for the necessity of such rigorous training. Most mountaineering can be done with a 45lb pack or less. You really only need the 50-60lb pack for technical climbs of big mountains, where lots of extra safety gear is needed – harnesses, ice axes, snow pickets, extra bottles of fuel to melt snow for water, and the many extra layers of warmth that are needed when you are sleeping on ice. These big, technical glaciated peaks had been my true love, but John died on a glacier. Within days of his death my children and Mother-In-Law made me promise that I would not climb Mount Rainier or other dangerous glaciated peaks again. I was no longer allowed to climb the mountains that called my name, no longer needed to train with that heavy of a pack. Regardless, I couldn’t let it go. I came up with lame justifications for my heavy load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, I would get fat. I needed to carry the heavy pack so that I would be able to carry extra if I was out with friends and someone didn’t want to carry their stuff. I had to be able to carry a huge load so that I could take my kids out backpacking and let them go sans-load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, then…then I wouldn’t be John’s Badass Mountain Girl anymore.

I carried the heavy pack for over a year after John’s death, making excuses for how slow and haggard I was, making excuses for why I couldn’t stop.

Then the day came, a month ago, when I was to finally have the chance to climb a big mountain again – Mount Adams. Yay for Mount Adams! At 12k feet, Adams is the second tallest mountain in Washington state, dwarfed only by Mount Rainier, the mountain that took my John. Adams was a perfect gift because it was huge and snowy but non-technical (no glaciers or avalanches). It was a mountain that I was still allowed to climb without risking my girls becoming orphans.

Except, it didn’t really pan out that way. My true exhaustion and depletion reared its ugly head and on the climb my anatomical heart physically hurt. I thought it might beat out of my chest. My brain flashed to a recent conversation with a young widow I had just met. Her husband was jogging up a hill in the heat when he had a coronary episode and dropped dead. Later they discover he had a congenital heart defect. In fact, perhaps due to some dark foreboding, just a month before I had sent a frantic email to Bev and Nika, telling them where the one signed copy of my will was, stating guardianship and trustees should anything happen to me. It began to occur to me – I could die. My kids could become orphans. According to Elizabeth Harper Neeld (author of The Seven Choices and expert on grief and loss), a widow(er) is over 2 times more likely to die in the first 2 years after loss, either from a car accident, or illness that takes hold when one’s immune system is weakened from grief, or in my case from perhaps a heart attack.

Still, after that Mount Adams climb I stupidly kept carrying the heavy pack! I had a 93 mile Wonderland trail trip planned, and had to stay in shape! I kept hiking unhealthily through brutal heat! I couldn’t give up, because then I would have to face my ridiculous fears. Here, I will list them so that you can laugh at me. I’m afraid that if I don’t keep carrying the heavy pack, then…
..then I will get fat.
…then I will be lazy.
…then I won’t be impressive anymore and people won’t think I’m interesting.
…then my muscles will atrophy and I will be a big fucking wimp.
…then a will be a big loser 40 year old over the hill widow.

But really, I have to face the biggest fear, the fear that I kept saying was silly but really is much less silly than all the other fears.

I’m afraid I will die and that there will be no one to care for my children and Mother In Law.

So, I canceled my Wonderland trip. I finally gave up. Part of me hated myself for doing so, but part of me knew it wasn’t giving up, it was giving in. Instead of going hiking, I went to a wellness spa, and the last straw was the acupuncture session I received mid-week. I told the therapist that my husband died last summer and that I’m exhausted. She smiled kindly and began to take my various pulses. Her face became genuinely concerned, and she said

“Your heart and kidney pulses are almost non-existent. Your spleen, where stress and anxiety are held, is hard, jaggedy, and too full. It feels like your brain is too active, like it never stops. Would you say you push yourself too hard?”
“Your session is scheduled to end in 50minutes, but I would like to work on you as long as possible. Can you stay later?”

She put needles in various places, turned the lights down, and left me alone to cook. I immediately began to cry, partly from continued grief, but mostly from relief. Crying while getting acupuncture is a funny thing! My hands had needles, so I could not move them! Tears rolled down my cheeks and into my ears which were covered in needles, so I could not touch them! It’s ok to laugh. It was such a funny place to be! Crying, covered in needles, tears in my ears, powerless! There was nothing to do but surrender, so I did.

I took a long walk afterwards and cried a bunch more, but also felt very peaceful and grounded. It came to me –

I was carrying the heavy pack all of those years in preparation for carrying the heaviest load I will ever have to carry – that of a widow with young children, that of woman who gladly told her husband that she would care for his mother if anything ever happened to him. I am the matriarch. It is all on me. I must be strong for everyone. If I fall apart, there is no one to pick up the pieces. For years, I have been training for this role. I have been training to be able to suffer on the trail and still keep going. These burdens are no longer encapsulated in sandbags and water jugs that go in my pack, they are on my shoulders, and I am not allowed to put them down to rest. I must put the physical pack down so that I have the strength to carry the energetic load of a widow, a single mom, and the head of household for a traumatized family. I let go of my 60lb burden and my Badass Mountain Girl ego so that I can begin to restore the reserves I will need to stay alive and remain on this planet.

So, I put down my beloved custom made high capacity Dan McHale pack with purple and green straps. I will continue to hike, because mountains bring me great joy, but I will do it differently. I commit to not carrying any extra weight (beyond what is bare bones necessary for the activity at hand) through the end of 2015. No more sandbags, no more extra water jugs. Amusingly, I just could not convince myself to put down the heavy pack for a full year, only through 2015. I start with where I am right now, and I say it out loud so that I don’t back away from my promise. It’s time to let go of being perfect, time to be a human being, time to surrender, while also admitting I still haven’t fully let go. My work is far from done, but that’s ok. I’m putting down my pack for a while and setting an intention to remain on this planet for many years to come. For today – that’s good enough.

Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died
Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died

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