Photo: Courtesy of Sabette McRae

Photo: Courtesy of Sabette McRae

"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love, You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on Earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. "


Louise Erdrich


Onlookers of climbing and mountaineering sometimes puzzle about what we do out there. The chief element to the bewilderment of those looking in is, why on earth would you endure so much pain? Pain is something to be avoided, right?  I am not so sure.

Discomfort is a big part of the mountain game. It starts on a simple backpack trip. The pack. I have endured many long days not only carrying a load, but being witness to those who are carrying one for the first time. It is brutal. The lead drag of gravity is in high resolution on every burdened stride up the mountain, causing bruised shoulders, hips and in some special cases chaffing and blistering on the back. Every step ascending there is a deep burning agonizing question as one fights this cargo inside and out. Why? I have seen this question on many young faces, as they try to connect the dots of all the things that brought them to this place of torture on the first day of their program. Why? Why me? Why this? Why was this not in the brochure? Why did I decide to do this? Why did my family do this to me?


There are also blisters on the feet. Some people get them and nothing can be done to prevent. No amount of leukotape, moleskin, second skin, or duct tape can avert festering wounds on heels. Some boots just shred the feet. We have all had a pair, and we throw them out. . .eventually, after spending equal value on tapes and synthetic skin. I remember one trip skiing into Stanley Mitchell Hut where a pair of leather telemark boots made Presciutto out of my heels. The whole week I felt a stinging oze on each genuflecting turn on my way down the mountain. I have taped, cut closed cell foam donuts, soothed individuals and performed minor surgery on many a friction burn. But blisters have never stopped me.


There is a line from an old 'Rocky" movie that I use to create humour around pain.  In the film the opposing characher Clubber Lang is asked for his forecast for Saturday's fight with Balboa and he responds; "The forecast is for Pain." I have used humour to deal with the pain of mountaineering because it masks. I tapped into this deeply on one of my many quests for knowing and discovered that I laughed suffering off instead of bringing it in close where I could deal with it head on. I laughed at the pain of my own, or my partner's hands warming up after nearly or partially freezing them on an ice climb countless times. Masochism. Humour is a way of deflecting pain, rather than healing it. Some pain is well beyond making fun, so comedy is a limited tool.

There is something that happens to pain with those who love. Talk to any mountain athlete worth their salt and they will tell you that they have made friends with the pain; that they love the activity to the point that there is no pain left. It is diffused. It disappears to a powerless place. They have mastered it through intimacy.  "I no longer feel the pain of a backpack" I tell my clients and students as they look at me quizzically as if to think me a liar. I still feel the pack, but I love it. I love how a backpack has shaped me. I know I can carry a load. I know it makes me strong. I understand that it will stop. . .sometime, and I love the feeling of using my body hard. But there is more. . . In loving what I am doing, it transmutes to something different, perhaps beyond words or my ability to understand completely. I have not figured out where the pain goes, but it does depart somewhere, or at least becomes something of value to me as opposed to something to be eradicated. Fighting a thing gives it energy. The same is true of pain.


The cynical part of me has always scoffed at the phrase, "Love heals everything."  For me it came off as some bullshit religious crap that I was supposed to somehow believe for it to work. My path has been to experience life all out. I have climbed with and ascended the best. I have seen beauty beyond measure, and I have lived and felt incomprehensible pain. I have learned lessons for myself, without having to be told, or having to believe in someone's dogma. There are deep knowings, now part of my being, gifted through experience. They are authentic because I have lived them and dealt with the result.

This week a person I love deeply told me something that was difficult for me to hear. What she had to say was searing for my heart. I spent a day in agony fighting this thing that was causing anguish. Like the first time backpacker, I tried to figure out the chain of events that put me in this place of torture.  Then something happened; I decided to love the pain I felt in my heart. I chose to love what the situation was. Like the pain of my backpack, it went to a place of healing that is universal and beyond my ability to comprehend. My burden transmuted to something beautiful. All that was left was love.


There is a long term resiliency that comes from being in high places, really living. Any  decent educator knows that you can't fake things with a set of rules or beliefs. Like the boldness of Eve in the garden of Eden, you have to pick the apple, bite into it and find out life's lessons for yourself. Pain is the best teacher. This is the real story of Eve, a woman who wanted to discover her own wisdom by living and leaning into difficulty. Experience life so it becomes something you know, rather than something you mimic. I know that love heals pain. I have eaten that apple. Embracing pain in the mountains, in life and love, carrys one to beautiful places that one could never go otherwise.


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