The Mountain I couldn’t scale… A Lesson in Failure

    Posted on Monday, Jul 29, 2019
    I thought about this post 2 weeks back sitting with regret at an elevation of 13000 ft on Mt. Democrat in Colorado.

    I am sure everyone has failed at some point in their life in some aspect of their living. Be it a race, a football game, a job interview, a research proposal, a relationship or even PUBG! This post will make your neurons fire and lead you into a retrospective state. Moreover, as the new fall semester draws closer it is imperative for one to look back and learn and take advice from the past.

    It all started with 3000-mile road-trip from College Station to the majestic Rockies in Colorado. The last day of the trip was devoted to a 7.5-mile hike of Mount Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. Which is one of the most popular trails in the 14ers range (the 58 peaks in Colorado which are above 14000 ft in elevation). The hike is pretty steep and goes through areas of snow which makes Acute Motion Sickness (AMS) a high probability.


    The hiker community generally starts the trek at morning 6 and completes it by 2 pm. This schedule takes into account the everyday rain and lightning on the peaks after 3-4 pm. We were completely blind to this information and started our hike at 2 pm! LOL Noobs! I am a rookie when it comes to hiking and trekking with zero experience in very intensive and enervating hikes. Thus, having completed a 7-mile straight hike on the previous day I failed to anticipate the steep hike of Mt. Democrat and didn’t account for the problems associated with high altitude. Heedless of such things and filled with a fiery spirit and characteristic effervescence I started the trail from the Kite Lake trailhead which stands at around 10,500 ft.

    I didn’t at all anticipate the trail would have patches of sheer snow and was ready in my everyday sneakers and without a hiking pole. However, equipped with a handful of energy and bag-full of over-confidence I was trekking ahead of everyone else. Two of my friends, Parth and Suvesh were adept Himalayan snow trekkers. They were wise and adept to know that this is a marathon and not a sprint to the top of the mountain. They made sure that we strategically sip our Powerade and not chug it after long spells of hiking.


    After covering 1500 ft in altitude the fatigue started to set in. The rapid increase in altitude and the increasingly steep slopes made me feel out of breath and my legs started to give in.  The strenuous hike of the past day was showing its after-effects. However, the daunting fact was the trail treacherously traversing through the snow with inclinations of more than 70 degrees. Even if I wasn’t super fatigued, I could feel psychosomatic things kicking in and weakness starting to set in. The water breaks happened more frequently and I just wanted to take a ten and enjoy the mesmerizing view, skip the summit and just explore the area around.

    However, my friend pushed me at every patch of snow and steep ascent finally making it up to 13,500 ft and we could see the summit right in front of our eyes. By this time each step felt like walking in high gravity and breathing in thin air. Alas, I gave up! The three of my friends went ahead and I could see them in distance nearing to the summit. I just sat there and even though the expected lightning and storm didn’t faze me but my head was spinning with chaos.


    I started thinking that what would other people think of me knowing I couldn’t make it to the top. I should have a fitness regime and increase my endurance. In that span of 5 minutes, I concluded that I am good for nothing, weak and prepared myself for derision from fellow mates. I could literally enact the ridicule. Then I started to climb down the trail and 10 minutes later it struck me, my calf muscles weren’t aching and I was breathing normally. All my fatigue was just lack of will power to go through with a small patch of hardship to reach that Rubicon moment. It was more psychological than physiological. I didn’t want to get out of comfort zone and go that extra mile and the way I convinced myself of this was by telling my brain that my body can’t endure more. What a fool!

    The moment I realized this I could connect the dots and find similarities in most of the failures I faced when I was in my undergrad, in my high school and even in my childhood. I sat on a huge rock gazing at the most captivating view; mountains gleaming with sunlight, pin-drop silence and only the clutter of thoughts playing an orchestra. I dissected the events of that day and formulated three things that are characteristic of a failure and are corrigible.
    1. Anticipate the difficulties and make up your mind
    When we planned the itinerary, we didn’t do enough research regarding the terrain and the steep trail. What I had my mind prepared was for a 4-5-mile hike with gradual ascent and comfortable trail. The steep incline and the effects of elevation and AMS completely eluded me. Thus, my mind was not at all prepared for such a hike and I having zero experience in trekking made matters worse. The picture below shows the treacherous path to the summit.


    Translating this specific instance to everyday life I realized that anticipating the adversity and hardships prepares our mind and in turn our body to go through it. Similarly, As the fall semester dawns closer one needs to be ready for their research objectives, perils of a job search keeping in the mind the fact that it is going to be a ride on the Highway to the Dangerzone.  (Meanwhile, listen to this amazing sound-track from TOP-GUN)
    1. Start early and be regular
    As I mentioned we started the hike very late when most of the people were finishing their descent. Furthermore, most of them advised us not to hike in the evening because of thunder-strikes. The anticipation of bad weather, and the time constraint caused by us starting the hike late established a mindset of haste. This made me be at the front and hike faster without timely breaks. This stupidity obviously back-fired!

    This incident was ringing in my ears and I could contrast it with the times when I have started early and have been regular. For example, sitting on that pedestal I could relate it to my research schedule which is set in a sustainable way by the inclusion of timely getaways of gaming, road-trips and gatherings. Furthermore, most of us have taken the GRE and I remember practising in small chunks months before the exams rather than being in rush-hour situations 2 weeks before and being at it for day and night. In both of the above cases prior planning and consistency paid off extremely well.
    1. Lose your will and lose all your powers
    Perhaps the most important element of failure was the will to complete the hike at all costs without being affected by the weather, pessimism and physical hardship. I distinctly remember the moment I saw the long-winding road to the summit I lost the will to scale the mighty mountain I could fell lactic acid accumulating in my legs. Before that moment I had gasoline pumping through my veins. I was not at all concerned and even aware of how much distance to go and the altitude or anything; I was in the moment, bewitched by the picturesque panorama of snow, foliage and the tranquil silence. This became more evident after I started my early descent and then a few minutes later realized I was not actually tired and could have made it to the peak with some more frequent water breaks and some indomitable zeal.

    At the end I want to urge to reader to relate the three characteristics of failures to their own experiences and do justice to this post. I have analyzed the events of the past from the filter of the above three things and it has empowered me to dissect what went wrong in each of the cases. It has proven to be an effective tool for retrospection. I recommend you do the same and pull your socks and get pumped up for the new semester.

    Take Home Points
    • Be informed about the trail conditions, the exact route and AMS
    • You are a juggernaut till you lose your will
    • Starting early and consistency is paramount
    • Take a ten, indulge in the surroundings and then make headway.
    ---Niranjan Sitapure
    Niranjan Sitapure is a PhD student in Department of Chemical Engineering

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