Written by Rozalynn S. Frazier
So here I am—somewhere in the middle of hiking up the Vertical KM in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in the French Alps, and I'm really frustrated. It's chilly and raining, and the elevation is challenging my breathing and causing me to move like a turtle. Oh, and I'm using trekking poles—for the first time ever.
I stop and look up. I can't see the crest, so I have no idea how much more I have to climb. I'm so fatigued. I guess my body hasn't acclimated to the time difference. (Chamonix is six hours ahead of New York City, so it feels like it's 4 a.m.) "I can't believe this trip is so [insert expletive] hard; it's only day one," I think to myself.
I'm starting to question my decision to go on this weeklong trip to try out Columbia's spring 2017 gear and trek part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race. Let me be honest: I was never confident about how I'd fare in the mountains. Sure, I'm a fitness editor, and I work out hard and often, but I am a city girl. I don't hike, I don't camp, and I hate trail running—pretty much what this trip entails! In my job, though, I'm always preaching about how, to see change, you have to step outside your comfort zone. That is what the Alps represent for me.
This trip came at the right time. I knew that I'd been playing it a little too safe lately. What had happened to the preteen who successfully maneuvered down a black diamond slope three days after learning how to ski because her brother dared her to? Long gone. The spring breaker who cliff jumped (twice) at Rick's Cafe in Negril, Jamaica? Nowhere in sight. The college senior who exuberantly conquered white water rafting in Tennessee? Hadn't seen her lately. I'm not sure when it happened, but as I got older, I stopped taking risks, gravitating toward safe activities that came naturally to me. Only, right now I'm doing the opposite: I'm daring to do something scary.
Facing my fear
I look down and am briefly comforted: I have actually made some progress. Then I quickly stop looking down because I start to get dizzy. I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and begin mouthing power words. I have three phrases on top that I'd been practicing before the trip: 1. You are strong. 2. One step at a time. 3. Nobody puts Baby in a corner. I throw in that last Dirty Dancing reference for comic relief when things get really rough. It works; each time I say it, I chuckle.
Finding a safe place
I continue climbing. To feel more in control, I pretend that I'm back at Velocity Sports Performance in New York City with my trainer, Frank Baptiste. I imagine that the backpack is the 250-pound sled he had me pull and that I am Carioca-ing (the same sideways stepping pattern the mountain guide has instructed me to use because of the steepness and to avoid fatiguing my calves) across the turf. I felt strong during those workouts. I felt prepared—well, as prepared as I could be with just six weeks to get Alps-ready. The gym is a safe space for me; it's where I excel. And since I worry that I'm not excelling on this climb, perhaps imagining myself there will make this trek less daunting.
And it helps. Or maybe I just finally check my ego at the door and stop competing with the other climbers. Instead, I focus on doing my best, even if that means going at a slower pace and taking breaks along the way. Two and a half brutal hours later (after hiking straight up a slick, rocky trail, scrambling over jagged rocks and hoisting myself up with cable wires drilled into the side of the mountain), I reach the top. I'm exhausted and in a state of shock. I think, "I just hiked up the same path as the Plan Praz cable car."
And as I join the group, they cheer for me. I, in turn, sob—uncontrollably. The climb is now hitting me.
I'm so happy it's over. I'm afraid of what's to come. I'm proud of myself. I feel strong. But most importantly, I have pushed past all my doubts and completed my first climb in the Alps, all while wearing a 25-pound backpack. Talk about tough!