Mind Games: Taming Goats and The Inspiring Moss Piglet

Mountain lesson #1: To climb the trail underfoot, first you must overcome the mountain in your mind.

I’m pretty sure there were knives involved – millions of them. Floating and microscopic, every breath closed my lungs in an iron maiden.  My boots were frozen, my socks were frozen, the bit of earth illuminated by my headlamp was frozen. The ice glittered and winked in the beam, laughing at me. I was sore (and tired) from hauling 60 lbs on my back for what felt like an innumerable amount of miles and elevation gain. From erratic temperatures to hail, wind, and lightning, in a matter of days I had experienced every tantrum the Rocky Mountain summers had to offer. I had no idea what I had signed up for – and once I knew, I wanted out. But for the third day in a row we were above tree line and, far from civilization, “out” wasn’t an option. That only made me want it more.

Outward Bound and three weeks in the backcountry of the San Juans were my choice. Fresh from Florida and more seaworthy than rock-steady, I barely noticed the altitude or the weight of the pack – at first.  But as the days passed my relationship with the hills became a yo-yo of love and hate: moments of tranquility quickly drowned by a cacophony of screaming goats.

(Don’t know what a screaming goat is? No worries – here’s a video.)

These are the wild, obnoxious, no-you-can’t, this-hurts-too-much, quit-now voices that will not be ignored. In any given moment, they would stir my oxygen-depleted brain into a spiral of unmotivated grumpiness. At their quietest, they were nagging, at their loudest they were deafening. I gave up struggling with my frozen boots and turned my headlamp off to have a good cry in the dark.  Sitting alone, I felt very small and defeated. And then I noticed the stars. They were everywhere.

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Enter the inspiring Moss Piglet. Scientifically known as Tardigrades, when the going gets tough, these little guys get tougher. They don’t give up – even in outer space, trapped in ice, or swimming in boiling water, they adapt.

Most hill-lusting, mountain-addicts probably remember their first Moss Piglet – that moment when the burden of the journey was accepted as a part of the experience, and the realization that summit vistas, warm camp meals, and dark sky stars were made even better by the pain and endurance it took to get there.  Rather than silence negativity, Moss Piglets adapt and are motivated by it. They crave harder, limit pushing challenges, knowing the payoff (and the high) will be that much better. (For the record, Moss Piglets AKA Water Bears AKA Tardigrades are real animals – click for more info –  but to me, they are emblematic of mental strength.)

The early morning sky looked like glowing sand on the bottom of an inverted ocean. I could still feel the cold biting at my body and stabbing my lungs, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I felt simultaneously insignificant and powerful, the days of pain and struggle amplifying the beauty that surrounded me. Truly transcendental…Thoreau would have been proud. I came back to myself as the stars faded into the pink-orange air of sunrise. Others in my group were reluctantly leaving warm sleeping bags, fumbling with icy boots, and moaning over frozen water bottles.  I realized that I was present, that I felt alive in a way I never had before. This was our third day above tree line, far from civilization. “Out” was not an option I would ever consider again.

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