On Doing Hard Things

or

The Lesson of Hiking the Ausangate Trail

Last month we did a four day hike around the majestic Ausangate mountain near Cusco, Peru. It was one of the hardest, most enjoyable, challenging, delightful, fulfilling things I have ever done.

Before we left I was obsessed with reading reviews and watching videos about what the trek would be like. I knew almost nothing about where were going or the terrain in that area except that it would be at high altitude and on our last day we would see the instagram famous, Rainbow Mountain. So I watched everything on Youtube with the words “rainbow mountain” in the title and I read every single entry on trip advisor about the tour company we were working with. 

Every review I read and every person I talked to about hiking in Peru said it was exhausting and they all recommended avoiding it unless you were really physically fit. They said the altitude and the weather made what could be an easy hike at sea level, the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

This emphasis on physical fitness in particular made me entirely doubt my ability to handle the full for days. I had picked up running in the months leading up to the trek but I had not even remotely stuck to the training schedules I found about how to prepare for long treks at high altitude. After running two half marathons I know how to train for a physically taxing event and I felt woefully unprepared for what was ahead of me. I imagined myself having to take breaks for emergency oxygen and in my worst case scenarios I was being carted off on a horse on day 2.

With all the scary reviews and my own doubts looming over my head I became so worried I was tempted to forfeit our deposit and not put myself through the humiliation of not making it. Thankfully I wasn’t doing it on my own and Jeff convinced me we would be fine or at least make it for the full 4 days.

On day one and two I became obsessed with taking pictures of the difficult parts. I planned on writing the most thorough and descriptive review for anyone who, like me, wished they could know exactly what to expect before doing the hike. I would be the beacon of honesty and truth in a sea of “It was hard, but amazing!”

I did a pretty good job. I took about 50 pictures of the trail. I paused every so often on steep climbs and long walks through flatlands to make sure I was creating the clearest impression of the trail that I could.

On day three, practicalities got in the way of my documenting. We woke up in a snowstorm and had to wait out the weather in order to do the day’s steep climb up with any semblance of safety. When we finally got started we had been killing time in our tents for over 5 hours, were somewhat hungry, and were torn between reluctance and just wanting to get it over with. On the way up I paused to take a few pictures of the most notable “seriously? this trail is a stream!” moments, but for the most part I was simply focused on not sliding down the mountain. When we reached the top I was tired from a technical climb, and from 2.5 days of hiking, and from trying to document every moment.

As I made my way down the mountain my mind started wandering, as it does when the body is so physically taxed that putting one foot in front of the other has become an act of muscle not brain or willpower. I started wondering if I had really known exactly how challenging hiking a 1000 meter ascent in the snow would be, if I would have actually done it. I think if I had somehow been able to watch a video of the entire hike I probably would have deemed it way too hard for the pathetically unfit person I believed myself to be.

But the reality was, I was perfectly fit enough to do the entire hike. I was somewhat underprepared without waterproof shoes, but otherwise, there was never a point where I thought I actually would not be able to do what I had set out to do, hike for four days in a gorgeous place.

This got me thinking about all of the things I would never had done if I had know exactly what the course/trajectory/path looked like beforehand. There are so many situations- relationships that ended badly, college classes that were way out of my league, working for too long at dead end jobs- that I would be inclined to warn my past self from getting into now that I know exactly how hard they were.

But, as sad as it may be that I spent precious time or energy on things that were more difficult and less rewarding than I expected, most of my greatest accomplishments and most cherished memories were only possible precisely because I didn’t know exactly how hard they would be.

I am not one of those people who thrives in challenging environments or loves the thrill of the chase. I like the predictable and the known. 

But if I were to say I was in for one big lesson on this round the world trip it would be learning to accept the gift of the unknown. Anyone who knows me well knows this is something I’ve been trying to learn forever, it might as well be the biggest lesson of my life. And with this particular hike, I gleaned a new level of insight. As difficult as it may be to let go of the need to know what could happen, the real crux of the lesson is to keep myself from worrying about not knowing. To look that fear in the eye, and say I am going to do it anyway without wavering or wanting to give up.

What better time than the new year to commit to this new mentality. I have no idea what the future holds, and with each month on the road my ideas about what my life could look like becomes hazier rather than more clear. So I remind myself there’s no way I could ever truly know how great the challenges or how sweet the rewards will be. Instead I’m going to do what I did on the hike, take it one step at a time and do my best to remember to bask in the gorgeous scenery.

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