That feeling when you try something really hard and your body totally breaks down
**Photo by Julia Maehner (@ampsonears).**
Shame. Guilt. Failure. Embarrassment. Frustration. Shame.
We've all experienced these feelings but to what end? I certainly haven't mastered overcoming them. I do, however, feel myself progressing. Below is my story of how my first backpacking trek helped me make strides in the right direction. But consider this a call for advice. I’d love to hear how you get past these feelings. Here’s my story.
My friend Julia and I meet up once a year. She lives in Munich, I currently kind of live in Portland, OR. Having fallen in love with hiking and mountains over the past year, when she told me she wanted to hike across the Alps, I obviously invited myself. She found a route on the E5 that was a good length--challenging but not impossible.
We set out from Oberstdorf in Bavaria, made our way through a stretch of Austria and ended in Merano, Italy.
I felt pretty great on day one. We definitely had an "oh, this isn't going to be easy" moment, but it was a fun challenge. I was surprised at the decent shape I was in considering I did very little “training” prior to heading to Germany. We hiked up 1,029 meters (3,087 feet) that day--about 200 more meters than I had ever climbed.
Night one, however, was my personal hell. The Hütte only had floor mattresses available so we slept in a dorm-style room with 40 other hikers snoring, moaning, farting. And of course, there was only one communal shower with cold water. We got up early, resorted to our protein bars and apples (sans coffee) for breakfast and headed out.
Day two was difficult for me. I was grumpy from not sleeping, my stomach hurt from the weird food, and I'm pretty sure I had caffeine withdrawal. The day was mostly descending as well, which kills my knees and hips. I was starting to second guess my decision to do this trek. We descended 778 meters (2,334 feet) and then ascended 793 meters (2,379 feet) that day. We did cheat and take a bus for a part of it or it would’ve been more. ;-)
Fortunately, night two was much better. We had to shower with cold water and were in a room with snoring people again but I actually slept. We ate a real breakfast and I got my cup of coffee because the addiction is real. I was in much better spirits.
Day three was the most challenging one but we totally slayed it. I'd even call it fun. We climbed up 357 meters (1,071 feet) to what some would call a technical peak. I'm sure it would be a cakewalk for others. Either way, it was mildly terrifying. We then made our way down 1,824 meters (5,472 feet) mostly through scramble with an hour long break through a beautiful meadow and forest. Just because I feel like it’s important to emphasize this - that’s a lot of feet for me to descend given my knees and hips.
After an arduous hour downhill finishing the hike, we treated ourselves to a bed in breakfast in the town of Zams, Austria with hot water, a private room, and real beds. We also treated ourselves to a nice dinner - two very large schnitzels.
When we got to the room, I wasn't feeling great but I thought I just ate too much. About an hour after falling asleep, it happened. I got so sick. Then again, and again, about ten times more. I was shivering and sweating and had a fever. I'll spare you the gory details but it was not pretty. I thought I was dying. Initially, I thought it was the schnitzel.
Turns out it was altitude sickness. Who would've thought, climbing up 7,686 feet and down 7,806 feet for the first time in three days without any anti-altitude sickness meds would make me sick. Or that one should train before such an endeavor. 🙄
I can't express how terrible I felt. Not just physically, but emotionally for ruining the trip. At least that’s how I felt in the moment. I was the weak link and I hated myself for it. I was also crying because when I'm sick like that, all I want is my mom and she passed away eight years ago. It's interesting how your brain can kick you when you're down like that.
Of course, Julia said all the right things. That I couldn’t have helped it, it is what it is, etc. She also said we could just grab a train back to Munich but I could tell she wanted to see this thing through. As did I.
After some debate around what we should do, we decided to make day six longer and skip days four and five to stay at that B&B another night. I slept literally the entire next day. I couldn't move. I've never felt so drained.
When we woke up on day five, I felt better but afraid to carry on. After further deliberation, we decided to take a bus to another B&B in Vent. I was not only nervous to commit to that plan, I was downright terrified knowing our new day six was the longest and highest climb.
Fortunately, with help from the very kind B&B people, we made it to a pharmacy before they closed at 10:30am. This was a miracle considering that nothing is open on Sundays in a place like Zams. I grabbed some altitude sickness meds and we carried on to catch our bus two hours later.
It's in this two hours that I seriously (internally) considered convincing Julia that we should just get on a train to Budapest or Vienna. For us to have a real vacation - a relaxing one. Not this adventure stuff we were putting ourselves through. But we had set out to accomplish something and we were determined to finish it. We had to continue on. And we did!
Day six was rad. We ascended 1,123 meters (3,369 feet) to a peak that was 3,019 meters (9,057 feet) -- the highest point either of us had climbed to. It was a moment worth celebrating with a 30-minute break. We then descended 1,308 meters (3,924 feet) to Vernagt. That was it. We were done.
Here’s what we climbed in total throughout the six days (with the 1.70-day break):
- Ascended 9,906 feet
- Descended 11,730 feet
- Traveled a total of 57.5 kilometers (approx 36 miles) in the four days we hiked
I know that the outdoor community, though friendly, can be competitive and that people have accomplished a whole lot more than this. But it was my first backpacking trip, my first trek, and I am hella proud of myself and Julia. We pushed ourselves like never before and were champs.
Getting past the shame, the fear, and the guilt
Working on getting past self-imposed shame, fear, and guilt has been somewhat of a 2017 theme for me. I’m my meanest, nastiest critic and I recognize the need to put an end to that. Nothing will do that quite like reaching literal new heights. I almost cried when I did the math of what we descended on day three. All of the guilt and shame washed away.
Of course, I got fucking sick after hiking down nearly 6,000 feet pretty freaking quickly. Of course, my body broke down without proper training or preventative measures. But on the flip side, of course after some rest, it mended itself and I was able to finish strong. Our bodies our incredible that way. If you’re kind to them and treat them with love, they will repay the favor.
I can’t say I’ll never feel bad for inconveniencing someone or getting sick again. I can’t say that I’ve conquered guilt or shame. But every time those annoying feelings start to creep up, I will always look back on this moment and remember that I’m doing my best and as long as I’m always moving forward it’s all good.
For those of you who hike or would like to get into it, here are some of the things we did right and terribly wrong so you can hopefully learn from our experience.
- Train more than you think you have to before your first multi-day trek. A one-nighter at least is probably a good idea.
- Bring and take altitude sickness medicine.
- Pack about ⅔ of the clothes you think you need. For our six-day trip, I would’ve been fine with one pair of pants, one pair of shorts, two shirts, two pairs of hiking socks, sleeping clothes, one pair of clean socks, and cold weather and rain gear.
- Make reservations if sleeping in Hüttes or hostels to secure real beds. Actually, camping would’ve been even more comfortable but we didn’t want to carry all of that.
- Your body adjusts quicker than you’d think. We were sore, sure. But we were constantly surprised by how fine our muscles felt each day.
- Pace yourself. Just because I can climb up a mountain pretty quickly for my level, doesn’t mean I should. I had to learn to pace myself after getting sick.
- I love ascending. I strongly dislike descending.
- To prevent blisters, wear thin nylon socks under your hiking socks, use a special cream on your feet at night and in the morning, and tape where you think you’re likely to get blisters. Julia learned all of these tips on her Portugal Camino trip and our feet looked so much better than everyone else’s.
- Bring magnesium and ibuprofen. It will save you.
- Use hiking sticks. They will save your life, maybe literally.
- More obviously, of course, drink tons of water and bring protein and carb-heavy snacks.
How do you deal with feelings of shame, fear, or guilt? Any words of advice?