Finding a Foothold on the Mountaintop

I like to hike. Drive 40 minutes out of San Diego and you’re in the mountains, 6,000 feet up amidst whispering pines. So I turned to my favorite guidebook (Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad) and picked out a new hike for my day off: Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 850′ elevation gain. That seemed like a lot of elevation for me, but the description said there were switchbacks that made it doable and a magnificent view at the top. I laced up my boots and set off.

On the way there I thought about the mountain metaphor and the mountain/lake meditation I sometimes do. I hoped to find inspiration on my hike and to come back and write a blog post about the qualities of the mountain, that I would easily find steadiness and solidity. But that’s not quite what happened.

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

I found the trail head and looked up. Oh. Wow. That’s really high up there. I stopped to read an interpretive sign about how the mountain was formed, and cautioning against rattlesnakes and not hiking alone. A family with young children was just coming down the trail, the little boy riding on his father’s shoulders. Well, if they do it, so can I, I tried to convince myself.

The ascent began almost immediately. I could feel my heart beating fast and my skin getting hot. But I stopped to rest now and again, taking in the ever-increasing view, and plodded on. I passed many other hikers, including lots of small children and dogs. This reassured me.

The hike seemed to go on forever, a relentless uphill climb. But then I glimpsed the peak about 100 feet away. My first thought was, “Hallelujah! I’m at the top!” But then a wave of panic spread over me as I saw how I was supposed to get there.

The Final Ascent

The Final Ascent

There were natural rock steps with a handrail, and on one side the face of the mountain, the other side a sheer drop down 850 feet. I began to feel dizzy and very, very afraid (my heart rate has increased just writing about this). It was the same feeling I had at the top of Monument in London, atop the Eiffel Tower, and in the whispering gallery in St. Paul’s cathedral. Acrophobia. Fear of heights.

My first reaction was to get mad at myself. No no no no no! This can’t happen now! I was aware of what was happening, yet I couldn’t seem to stop it. Then I tried denial, and started to march up the steps with determination. Damn you, fear! You’ll not stop me! But then it got even worse. My palms were sweating. My hands shaking and fingers tingling. I began to get tunnel vision. I freaked out.

I had noticed a man in a green shirt already at the top platform when I first arrived. I figured he would come down soon, and I would just ask him to help me down. But I waited, and waited, and the green T-shirt didn’t come. Then I spotted a family lower down the mountain, posing for pictures. They’ll come! They’ll be here any minute! But, then they turned and headed down the trail instead of up. I felt panicked.

I knew I was hyperventilating, and began scanning my mental toolbox. Okay, you need to find a focus. Gripping the rocks with my sweaty hands, I began to stare at the side of the mountain, just one little patch a few inches wide. At the same time I tried to slow my breath. I began to notice all the different colors in the rock, and the little flecks that sparkled in the sunlight. The only thing happening right now is this mountain, I told myself. Be the mountain. Feel your feet. Feel your heaviness. Breathe like a mountain, slow and even.

I felt a little better. I noticed two butterflies dancing along, just above the summit. They seemed okay. A few more breaths and I found the courage to turn my head and look out over the valley. Wow. So spacious. So still. Like meditation, I thought.

For a few minutes I just stood and took it all in: the view, my reaction to the situation, and my ability to respond and adapt. I had basically meditated my way out of my panic. I felt gratitude for my tools, especially the breath. Then I realized I was going to have to get down the mountain by myself, so I scooted down on my butt a few inches at a time, sort of crab walking my way down the steps. At the bottom I stood and brushed myself off. The precipice out of view, I let out a deep sigh.

Just then a couple walked up, about to make their own final ascent. “How is it up there?” the man asked. I hesitated a moment, about to launch into my story, then said simply, “It’s amazing.”

Whether you’re climbing mountains or struggling to keep your focus in meditation, it can be helpful to find a foothold, something to focus on and bring you back to the present moment, and to the steadiness that is your essence. This foothold could be as simple as the breath, or a mantra, or exploring the detail in a patch of rock on a mountainside. It really is amazing.

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