The dawn of a new year represents a wonderful time for transition and renewal. For me it’s always been about hope and optimism for what lies ahead. It’s a new day, a new month, a new year, a new decade. The possibilities are limitless. But, in this time of transition, I want to reflect back on a recent journey. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the catalyst for major changes in the way I see myself, my purpose, my future.
I climbed a mountain. A real one.
It made me realize that life itself is like climbing a mountain. There are paths forward, sometimes gentle and easy; sometimes brutally steep, full of obstacles and challenging beyond what we think we’re capable of.
Those proverbial mountains can be tougher than real ones.
I want to say here that I’ve never felt better in my life, both mentally and physically. There’s a contentment that a few years ago, I didn’t think was even remotely possible. I have much for which to be grateful, and I’m happy being me.
Despite all the good, I am struggling with the thing that is missing. The path forward has yet to reveal itself, though I’ve tried many different routes. This is unusual as I have almost always been able to find a way through whatever challenges have come my way—and there have been plenty. Right now, I have more questions than answers. We’re talking heavy-duty, existential, soul-searching questions: What am I supposed to be doing with my life? What’s my purpose? Do I have a role to fulfill? Is there more? Do I still have value in a work capacity? Is it time to re-invent? Re-evaluate, re-calibrate, re-imagine what my career path should be?
The Hard Road
I’ve had my own communications, PR, and marketing business for 22 years in a couple of iterations. A boutique firm and then a solo practice. A few years ago, however, I had a notion that I’d like to return to a corporate environment. I wanted more income stability and I wanted to work among other creatives. I sent out countless applications, networked endlessly, made connections and connections of connections. I’ve been at this—consistently—for four years (sporadically for far longer).
There are endless articles on LinkedIn and elsewhere about ageism in the workplace. Some believe that it’s tougher to get hired once we’re past 35, (WHAT?), and certainly by 45. After 50, fuggedaboutit! I just don’t get this logic. At all. Employees with a couple of decades or more of experience have immense value. Personally, I am so much better in nearly every way than I was at 35. There is a certain wisdom that comes with years. And at least for me, a calm, earned confidence that did not exist in my 30s.
Is ageism really a thing in the corporate world or is it just my perception? Or excuse? After all, it’s easier to blame job rejection on age rather than another candidate being better qualified.
I don’t allow myself to dwell on not getting the gig. But not having enough work is forcing me to grapple with hard questions about what my future should be and I’m not sure I know where to keep looking for answers. Is there something I’m missing?
To the Mountain
I thought perhaps I might find clarity, or at least direction, on top of a mountain.
In October, my husband Paul and I celebrated an epic journey—25 years of marriage—with another epic journey: Climbing Mt. Whitney, which at 14,508 feet is the tallest peak in the Lower 48. It’s not the hardest mountain to tackle; you don’t need actual mountaineering skills, but it definitely isn’t easy. I had hiked on Mt. Whitney twice before, but never even tried for the summit, knowing my limitations. Paul, a cancer survivor, has summited three times , once with our daughter Sarah, then 16.
Paul and I talked early last year about taking on Whitney again. He wanted me to experience the exhilaration of reaching the summit and he knew I could do it. He nabbed a permit for October 2, because he thought it would be cool to summit on our anniversary. I stepped up my training with almost daily five-mile walks in my neighborhood, and then worked to increase my pace, eventually knocking 20 minutes off my time. I added in steeper hills and longer hikes, summited Mt. Baldy (10,046’) near Los Angeles and trekked 14 miles to Norhdhoff Peak in the mountains above Ojai.
Physically I felt ready. Mentally I’d been envisioning myself on top of Whitney for weeks.
Trying Whitney Again
We begin our adventure with a couple of days hiking in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to better acclimate to the high elevation before heading south to Lone Pine and west up the winding road to Whitney Portal.
Our plan is to get some rest, be up at 11:45 p.m. and on the trail by 12:30 a.m., with an expected summit by 11 or so in the morning. But we are delayed and hit the trail at 1:20 a.m., our headlamps illuminating the path. We carry our three-liter bladders tucked inside our jackets instead of in our backpacks to keep the water, tube and bite valve from freezing. It’s bone-chillingly cold but we warm up after a few minutes of activity. We don’t ’t realize it at the time, but the cold is slowing us down. When dawn breaks, we have been on the trail for six hours, an hour longer than we anticipated.
By the time we arrive at Trail Crest, at 13,600 feet, we are another hour behind. We still take a moment as we stand atop the magnificent Sierra Nevada to take in a spectacular view: A cloudless, blue sky that extends for 100 miles in every direction. We can see in the distance the tin-roofed stone hut that marks the summit. Just 1.9 miles. We embark on the last–and for me the most difficult–part of our uphill trek. .
The terrain is more technical than steep, we scramble over boulders in between sections of trail and power through the effects of the high altitude and thinner air.
Tough Decisions Along the Way
The time approaches noon and we must make a decision. Hitting the summit might be the goal, but it is only the halfway mark, not the end of the journey. I feel great physically and realize that I am closer to conquering this beast than I ever could have imagined. The cold dry air is a potent dehydrator and even little sips have whittled down our reserves. It is a concern. We see faster hikers who passed by us on the switchbacks coming down from the summit. Our decision is to hard stop and turn around at 1 p.m. no matter where we are.
We keep moving forward and I push myself to go faster, though at 14,000 feet, fast is a relative term. As we get closer, the mental picture I’ve had of Paul and myself on the summit comes into sharper focus and I am powered by adrenalin. We are within sight of the small snowfield that I know from recent photos is right before the summit. Half a mile. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. It is 1:09 and we’ve been on the mountain for nearly 12 hours.
Sometimes we have to make difficult choices and this is one of them. If we keep going, we’ll add close to another hour, with time to the summit, on the summit, and back to this point. We likely won’t have enough water to last the five miles before we can refill our bladders. We turn around, just half a mile from the summit.
The sun is high in the sky along the western side of the mountain as we approach Trail Crest and start our descent.. I feel a twinge of disappointment at not making the summit but am 100 percent sure we made the right call. We are out of water by the time we return to the water source and refill our bladders just before the last vestiges of daylight fade into night.
We are both tired. Our headlamps are on again, and Paul walks ahead of me. We don’t talk. I am in my head pushing my body to keep going. Paul has immense strength and an athlete’s mentality to push through pain. He doesn’t say anything, but after 25 years of marriage I can tell he is struggling.
Encouraging mantras run on an endless loop in my head: “One more step. You can do this. One foot in front of the other.” On a flat section through Outpost Camp, three miles from the trailhead, the mantras no longer work.. Paul coaxes me another 100 feet so we can sit on a rock. I honestly believe if I sit down I might not get up again.
Eventually, I see lights in the distance. And hear voices (thankfully, not the ones in my head). We keep going. I am so focused on my feet and making sure I don’t stumble that I have not looked up in a long while. I hear Paul call out that we’re here. It takes literally all the power I have left to lift my left leg into the car and collapse into the front seat. The time is 11:30 p.m. We’ve been on the mountain for 22 hours!
I don’t know if I found clarity, per se, on Mt. Whitney, but I learned this: We have greater capacity than we often give ourselves credit for to take on challenges that seem insurmountable. We have the power to dig deep and push ourselves to the very outer limits of what we think our capabilities might be and then push just a little bit more.
We must learn to let go of insecurities and fears that too often hold us back from realizing the outcome we want. Sometimes our goals elude us but it doesn’t mean we failed. It just means we have yet to achieve them.
Two weeks after our climb, I start thinking about making the journey again. And as for the job search and figuring out what I’m meant to be doing at this really amazing time of my life, I’m not giving up. It is after all a new year full of hope and limitless possibility. I’m just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other.