What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Sobriety

Yesterday I met Mt. Evans of Colorado up close and personal and accomplished a big goal of mine = to climb a 14K mountain. 


Climbing a mountain is a big feat. 

Climbing a mountain of this elevation is a big feat. 

Climbing a mountain at this elevation, as a 46 year old woman from Chicago, was a real challenge.


You know what else is a huge feat and a big challenge? 

You guessed it, getting sober.


Throughout my entire climb I was trying to find the metaphors between getting sober and climbing a mountain, but they didn’t come to me, until the day after my climb.


I am first sharing my climbing experience with Mount Evans. Then, I will share the lessons I learned in retrospect. Let's start at the beginning. 

I commited to climbing a mountain a year ago, after a hike with a friend in Colorado. We decided to accomplish this goal together and we decided on Mount Evans. We got a parking permit, and put a date on the calendar. The mountain parking was scheduled to open a week before our climb.


Throughout the year I started following social media accounts dedicated for hikers. 

I purchased a backpack and started to break in my hiking boots. 

I participated in a Sedona (sober, naturally) hiking retreat.

I got an essential checklist, packed all the gear (including clothes for four seasons), spikes, food, a first aid kit, walking sticks, and more. I checked the weather more than I needed to.


When the day came we followed our plan. I got up early and drove to the park and ride. My friend picked me up on time and we head up, and up, and up.


I took my first look at that mountain and thought “Ok Mt. Evans, you’re mine. I’ve got you.” 

I was ready to rock to this feat, tame this beast, and whathaveyou.

I was playing the role of cocky extreme adventurer, even though I had never done this before.

I was scited, meaning scared/excited. 


I had a crew of people rooting for me from afar. Some people warned me. Some people prayed for me. One person sent me a reiki bubble the morning of for added insurance. 


I just kept hoping it would be easier than I thought. Hope is not a strategy, and yet, still…there I was high on hope, no pun intended.


I’ve heard all kinds of stories both good and bad from people that have climbed mountains. 

I was hoping for a I-reached-the-summit-and-the-sun-came-out-and-the-angels-sang, happy ending story of my own. 


We loaded our gear, got dressed and started our trek. 


It was immediately harder than expected. 

It was more of an actual climb, rock scramble, boulder maneuver, than a hike. 


Nonetheless, I had early optimism.

It would all smooth out to a nice moderate incline on a walking path in a bit. 


“I think that was the hard part and it’s over now.” 

“Oh good, the hard part is right in the beginning. It will get easier from here!” 


I said these things out loud. 

My fingers were frozen numb.

We kept moving.


It was hard.

Too hard.

Much harder than expected.

I was ready to end it and I was only 30 minutes in. We were nowhere near anywhere we were heading.  The wind was strong. It was in my face. We were literally sucking air. Is there a metaphor for that? Doesn’t the Irish Blessing wish for the wind to be at your back? There was snow. I sunk into my knee at one point. 


The wind got stronger.

When we made it to the other side of the first mountain we had to climb to get to Mt. Evans and the wind got worse.


We kept moving.


The wind turned treacherous. Feriouscious. Strenuous. Tornado-y. Dry Hurricane-ish. We were trying to find a word to describe the strength of the wind. Nothing in our language seemed to fit. I fell over twice from the gust. I had walking sticks to support me and I still blew over.  Twice.


We had to brace ourselves against blowing off the mountain for most of our journey.

The tension in my body from this additional stress was no joke. 


I was irritated to say the least.

I hated it. I was not enjoying myself. At all.


I was scared I wasn’t going to make it up, much less back down. I could hardly pay attention to what I was thinking or feeling, because the wind was so cold, that I had an ice cream headache. My body was shivering even in my warm gear. The wind was ravaging through me. I had to stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I needed all my strength and focus to just do this. I paused for a moment to wish for one second of reprieve from the wind literally blowing through my skull in one ear and out the other, under my hat and hood.


We were making such little progress with such huge effort.


We would check our map to make sure we were on course. The trail was hard to see in many places. Snow covered many of the markers, or shall I say cairns, now that I am a hiker?


We checked our distance to motivate us. It took heroic effort to get out our phone, take off our gloves, stop moving, try not to blow off, just to take a glimpse at where we were. 


The result was we had gone .2 miles from the last time we checked.


It was that hard. We had miles left to go. 


We let two groups of people pass us. We tried to follow their lead. We never saw them again. We never saw anyone successfully complete our attempt. No one came back down the trail to share their experience. People went ahead and never returned. The mystery of their whereabouts swirled in the wind.


We took pictures at one point on an early summit of another mountain, because to get to Mount Evans we had to climb Mount Spaulding first. I am so glad we took pics early in the journey when I still had some joy and glee and the sun was out. The view was incredible, but in my opinion it did not get better the higher we climbed.  


When we made it to the top of Mt. Evans we were too cold, too tired, and completely over it to even consider taking a picture. I didn’t even care to stroke my ego at that point. I was not happy I made it. I was only slightly relieved to have accomplished it. Mostly, I was thrilled we could turn around and go back to our car. I was hopeful going down would be twice as fast, and twice as easy, because obviously. 


At one point I said, I am scared I am getting hypothermia. I was shivering. I added another layer of clothes. We sat down and ate a few bites of food. We started our descent.

I was disappointed that it was not easier. It was harder.


It took physical strength to get up, but I was more scared of falling down than climbing up. 


The snow was slick. The rocks were wet with icy snow thaw. The path down was more confusing than the path up. We were off track a few times. My body was exhausted. I was tired of surviving, shivering, hoping, wishing, praying, focusing, and holding tension. I wanted it to be done. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to be back in the car. I wanted to be in a hot bath. I wanted a nap under warm covers. I did not want to be on this mountain any more. I had hours left to get down. Slipping, sliding (on my butt at times), ready to throw my walking sticks away, until I realized I needed them again. Ready to take off my hat, my hood, my sunglasses, my boots. Ready to call in for rescue but there was no one to call. One step, one rock, one move and then another. I was never confident I would make it. I didn't feel in the clear until I was 10 feet from the car.


The best feeling I had all day was walking through the parking lot with great anticipation that I had almost completely finished. We got to the car and started moving. I started to feel increasingly sick. I knew the signs. Altitude sickness. It waited until I was done to show signs. Or maybe once I got out of the wind I could finally notice them? Maybe my body was protecting me by keeping together until I got down? I felt nauseous. I had the chills. A pounding headache. Increasingly getting worse. It felt like the worst hangover.  Oh the irony.


I had hydrated. I had electrolytes. I had 2 days to acclimate to the altitude and yet still not enough for the exertion. It was awful. I got myself home. Got the shower. Got the blankets. Little by little I started to feel better. After a full night's sleep I woke up back to good. 

It was only then that I recognized the lessons for sobriety:


Set expectations. It’s going to be hard. I tried quitting alcohol so many times for a few days, but I immediately caved when I got into certain situations (i.e. having an uncomfortable feeling, having alcohol offered to me, having a stressful day ,etc). I could go without alcohol for a minute when everything was easy and in its place. When something got a little hard, I immediately looked to escape the discomfort by pouring a drink on it. 


I expected this hike to be something I could do with moderate difficulty. I did not expect the worst, and it turned out to be the worst. With drinking, expect the worst case scenario and prepare for it. You will be uncomfortable, don’t expect not to be. Preventing discomfort is not the goal. How do you take care of yourself when you are uncomfortable without pouring a drink on it? That’s the goal. I was cold. I was annoyed. How did I take care of myself? I put on another layer. I checked my progress. I told myself to keep going. I kept my eye on the end goal. I stayed with myself. You can too, even through the worst of it. Stay with yourself. 


Have the right gear. I had spikes, boots, and walking sticks. I had sunscreen and sunglasses. I had a snow hat and a baseball hat. I had pants, gloves, and a tank top. You need the right tools to get sober, and you need more of it. I had more water than I needed. I had more food than I needed. I had more than I needed for everything just in case. You need not one sober tool. Not enough sober tools. You need more sober tools and even just in case tools. That might be podcasts or essential oils. It might be podcasts and essential oils and alcohol free drinks too. Keep adding tools. Keep loading up on support and resources. You cannot accomplish this feat without the right tools. You need spikes AND walking sticks. Not one or the other. You need both. You need it all. Get more support. Get more gear. The right tools make it easier. It would be impossible for me to climb this mountain barefoot. You have to invest in sobriety. You paid to drink. Now you invest in setting yourself up for success. You might need a massage, a babysitter, a housecleaner, expensive chocolate, the best smelling candles, and as many books as you can read. You need all that and a bag of chips. Throw the kitchen sink at it. Invest in it as if your life depends on it. Because it does.


Check your cocky optimism at the door. As someone with a generally sunny disposition I am really sorry to say this. My optimism didn’t help me get sober and it didn’t help me to climb this mother-effer of a mountain either. Thinking the worst was behind me when I had only just begun was pure ignorance. It set me up for continual disappointment. Being Buddha-like and having no hope for ease, but instead the inner strength to handle pain is much more useful. The way down was as hard as the way up. There was no final point of “making it”, until it was over. Early sobriety is hard. Spoiler alert = it goes on forever. Eventually it ends. You keep practicing and your sober muscle builds in time. It is not easy and it doesn't get easier for a long time. Eventually it is the best possible thing in the world and you spend every moment grateful for your ability to overcome, but this does not happen as quickly or easily as you want it to. Not in a day, a week, or a month. Don’t be fooled by happy long term sober people, that is not how it feels at first. They took years to build that inner peace and joy and so will you. I love a “can do” attitude, but please understand it will be a challenge. Sobriety is a hard earned mountain, not a cake walk.


There is no easy exit. After reaching the summit we were looking for the quickest, easiest skip, jump, and hop back to our car. There was a road. It's the highest paved road in the United States and for a minute we considered walking this paved road back down. Yes, it would be steep and there would be cars, but it would be a sure thing. We knew for sure where it was going. It would not be a rock scramble, there was a definite route, there would be others, we would not be alone. This was very tempting. We were ready for the escape hatch. We ultimately decided to stick to the original plan. Our original plan was about 2.5 miles down. We later learned the road would have been over 5 miles. We made the right choice. There is no easy route. There is only the route you take. Do I sound like Confucius? I feel enlightened. Stay the course. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Stay the course. Stick with your plan. Decide you are not drinking tonight. You are taking a bath instead. Do not head to the grocery store. You know they sell wine there. Get in the bath whether you feel like it or not. The way out is through. Period. End of story.          


It helps to have a guide. If I could trust someone to lead us, someone that knew the path, someone that has done this before, I would have felt better. It is helpful to have a Coach. They know where you are, they’ve been where you’ve been, and they have gotten to where you want to go. Sure you can maybe accomplish the big feat of sobriety without one, but having one will make it so much more of an efficient and enjoyable process. You can work smarter, not harder, when you have a sober guide. I would have felt like I could trust the process if I had a guide. If someone had some knowledge and experience in this situation, I could have asked questions. I could have had encouragement. I could have been affirmed I could do it and live to tell. Without a guide, it was a dangerous and terrifying feat. With a guide, it could have been a courageous and safe adventure. Coaching support helps. This is the hill I am willing to die on. 


Your environment matters. The weather in early June did not set me up for success. I did not have enough acclimation time to avoid altitude sickness with this exertion. I learned from this experience. The first time you do anything sober it kinda sucks. The next time it's better. Eventually it’s amazing. If (big IF here) I do another 14er climb I will look to go later in the season. I will look to acclimate longer. I have some lessons learned. What this means to you getting sober, is that your environment matters too. For instance, if you have a house full of alcohol, that will not set you up for success. If you are planning on going wine tasting next weekend, but also don’t want to drink, that might not be the best plan for you. If you always feel anxious around certain people, but expect that you shouldn’t drink or feel anxious and continue to be with them, you are not setting yourself up for success. If your inner critic is constantly telling you that you can’t do this, you might need to replace those thoughts with belief that you can do it. Look at your environment, both the one where you physically live in and the one in your head. Make it a nice place to be. Set yourself up for success.

We need a community to do hard things. It would have been so incredibly helpful to have seen people succeed. If other hikers came back alive and happy, I would see that we could do it too. I would have been motivated that it was worth it. They could have told us what to expect ahead. When the very few people we saw went ahead and disappeared it left a very unsettling feeling. We need to see people making it. We need to see the light at the end of a tunnel. You have to do whatever it takes to find your sober team. You might try on some teams that don’t work, before you find one that does. It took me years, but I finally found my sober squad and you will too. It might not be on your first attempt. Keep looking. Look for the people. Look for the people who have gotten to where you want to go and ask them to help you. Surround yourself with people that inspire you to get there, stay there, be there.  

There’s unplanned magic around the corner. At the tail end of our descent we rounded a corner, and hello..the biggest, whitest, most magical mountain goat appeared. It was a huge surprise. We were within steps of him. He and I took turns noticing each other. I took in the wild, for only a moment, to lock it in my core memory. Quickly, I decided to play it cool. Keep walking. Do not disturb him or his home in any way. We all knew this was his house and we were trespassing. I didn’t want to cause any reaction. He followed us for a few steps with curiosity, not defense. When he stopped we turned and smiled goodbye. I silently thanked him and the Universe. I had manifested seeing him for the whole year I planned for my hike. I have always wanted to see a mountain goat in the mountains. I look for them on every mountain drive. I asked for him and he appeared, without a doubt as a gift for me. At that moment my adrenaline was pumping. I forgot how cold I was. My call was answered. The whole horrible hike was likely worth that moment. There is magic waiting for you in sobriety. I promise you that. Start manifesting it now. Call me for help. Your free complimentary call awaits. Your invitation to my insider membership is  here.




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