Misery on Mt. Madison

August 10, 2017

Today we climb Mt. Madison, an ascent of 3,300 feet from Pinkham Notch.  Beautiful sunshine and a gentle cooling breeze encourage us to leave the comforts of the Joe Dodge Lodge and begin our climb.  The first six miles are below tree line.  I am happy.

The trees thin, and we break out into high alpine countryside.  I discover Mt. Madison is not made of friendly granite.  The rocks are rough volcanic blocks, tumbled like a pile of rubble, haphazardly leaning against one another, for miles and miles.  I begin climbing, but acrophobia rises much faster than my bodily ascent.  I try to remind myself of the importance of living in the now.  Unfortunately, ‘now’ is terrifying, and I DON’T want to be here!  Panic brings on very real physical symptoms, and suddenly I’m not only fighting emotional upheaval, but also dealing with nausea, dizziness, and shaking muscles.

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Mt. Madison strikes fear in my heart on a gorgeous day!

Jay stops to wait for me.  I approach, with tear-filled eyes and trembling lips.  “I’m scared,” I whimper.

A look of determined cheerfulness comes to Jay’s face.  “You know this is irrational,” he counsels.  He gestures around us.  “The weather is perfect.  These are just rocks we’re climbing.  It’s not even cliffs.  You can do this!”

“I know,” I whisper.  I try to marshal what little brain the panic has left me.  “Please, just tell me that you’re glad I’m along.”

Jay looks at me in disbelief.  “You want me to tell you I’m glad you are here?”

I nod miserably.  “It’s important for me to feel like you are glad I’m with you.”

“Well, okay.”  Jay spaces out each word.  “I…am…glad…you…are…with…me.”  Then he turns and quickly strides upward, putting space between us.

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Mt. Madison has several false summits, all covered in tippy boulders.

I continue carefully inching along, grabbing rocks with a death grip, planting each foot as if it would grow roots.  I envy Jay’s quick stride, each foot skimming the tops of the rocks.  I watch him pause, arms akimbo, drinking in the incredible view.  In my panicked state, I can barely look from one rock to another.  The light breeze feels like a pounding force against my body.  The view is just so much empty air as far as my brain is concerned.

I try (oh how I try!), to conquer this fear.  I know this kind of mountain climbing is Jay’s favorite, and I hate to ruin it for him.  But I am gripped in unreasonable panic, and I have a long ways to go before reaching tree line again.

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Jay relaxes and enjoys the view while waiting at a cairn.

Jay waits for me at each cairn.  I try to smile at him, but I know it’s a miserable failure.  In desperation, I try talking again.

“I’m sorry I’m so scared.  You really have done everything you could to prepare me for this.  You’ve helped me lose weight, gain muscle, learn to walk with better balance.  Right now you are waiting for me often, and it helps as I see how much you enjoy the views.  I’m just scared!”  I wail.  “And I hate that I’m ruining this experience for you!”

“You aren’t ruining it,” Jay replies.  “But I don’t want you to lose focus and break a leg out here, just because I brought you up this mountain.”

A dim light dawns through my anxiety.  I try to explain more.  “You didn’t bring me up here.  It was my idea to test myself on the AT, knowing it would include the White Mountains.  It’s just, we are doing this adventure together, and if I think my presence can make you happier, it might help me get over my fear.  That’s why I asked you to tell me that you wanted me along, earlier.  But I am responsible for myself.  I just hate that I’m failing at keeping my fear of heights at bay.”  I start crying again.

Our hike continues.  Nothing is really solved.  I’m still scared.  Jay’s still stuck with me.  But I do know that we love each other.  And eventually, we’ll finish this mountain.

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Still climbing, with many false summits behind me.

Whether I’ll ever climb another mountain is still an unanswered question, I reflect.  Why couldn’t this mountain have a trail?  Negotiating this pile of rubble would have been a lot easier then.  Of course, it would take an army to turn this mound of debris and fragmented boulders into a mountain with a trail.  And I’m sure our generals think their soldiers have more important things to do than make a path for the comfort of one small, scared hiker.  Sigh.

The rest of the climb over Mt. Madison is spent in irrational misery.  That night, as we pitch our tent just a mile from the top of the mountain, I’m still very near tears.  Jay reaches out and gives me an hug.  Suddenly, I know tomorrow will take care of itself.  I am in the present, and that includes hiking with my husband, hiking with fears, just hiking.

Author: Sarah and Jay Bigelow

Hi! We live in the Carson Valley in Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Sarah is a retired elementary school teacher, and Jay is a retired fish biologist. We are in our 50's, and have been married for 30 years.

5 thoughts on “Misery on Mt. Madison”

  1. Sarah….I experience some ” fear of heights” panic every trip into the wilderness with Jerry…It happened this past trip as well..but lasted much less time than your Mt. Madison. It is tough to carry the fear and the panic along…I pray a lot and ask for courage, peace and strength…and safety on the journey..Then I try to see a bit of beauty…like a lady bug, flower or something. I will read on…..but I guess you are doing well…and have continued to move through the tougher stuff with Jay….
    Love you,
    Peggy

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  2. But you made it, right? You fought through that fear and came out the other side. I have my share of irrational fears so I can relate. However, each time I get through something the next time I face it I remember how I conquered it in the past. I’ll have read the rest of your site to see how you’re doing. 🙂

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