The Mountain That Gave Me Clarity

In August I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles California, staying just outside in Topanga Canyon.  I got to experience some of the most epic views during my hikes and shed this negativity that had been settling deep inside of me.  But once I returned home and back to work, that freeing calm, quickly vanished and the negativity came rushing back.

Normally, I don’t write about jobs I’ve worked, but after my recent trip hiking the 41.5mile Timberline Trail loop that circumnavigates the base around Mt. Hood in Portland Oregon, it put things into perspective for me and I had to write about it.

Let’s start off with saying I work in the restaurant industry.  With that comes a high level of stress, gutting through tough days, long hours on your feet and some days better than others.  Sounds like hiking, right?  Just like any hike, there are warning signs, and with every job those signs are there as well.  When I spoke to a friend after just getting out of my interview, he warned me that I would not like it and knowing me, I would end up walking out.  He went through everything, no different than preparing for a long distance hike.  When I first started the job, I immediately saw everything my friend warned me about.  For me though, I wasn’t trying to manage the place and fix all the problems.  I just wanted a job that I could go to, do the work, collect a paycheck, pay the bills and hopefully have enough left over to travel a bit and do some epic hikes.

Within the first month, I quickly realized there were no standards, no policies, consistency and more importantly, discipline.  As a hiker, there has to be a level of structure that we follow.  Nobody in their right mind just packs a bag and runs off into the woods without some structure.  All that gear planning and preparation studying maps is our structure so that we can escape our very calculated structured lives.  We ended up losing our Head Chef in this very Jerry McGuire style way and in that moment everything in me told me to bail.  I ignored that warning sign because the path in front of me looked very promising.  Our Sous Chef was promoted to Head Chef.  This individual had the support of the entire kitchen and the restaurant as a whole.  While everything at first glance appeared to be the perfect conditions, there would come a point I had to make the decision to bail.

When you venture out on a hike you hope for perfect conditions, but you know not every day is going to perfect weather, perfect temperatures and these amazing scenic views.  Some days absolutely suck.  You’re body hurts from hiking for 10 hours, you just spent the day getting rained on that feels like needles hitting your skin and the cold wind is slapping you in the face.  When the hike is just miserable day after day, you honestly have to ask yourself if this journey is worth it or not.  We all know Mother Nature has her way of pushing people to their limits but you do everything to mitigate the unnecessary elements that can ruin a hike very quickly.  If the temperature during the day is going to be 60 degrees but at night it’s going to drop down to 30 degrees, you wouldn’t bring a 40 degree sleeping bag.  If you’re going to encounter water, whether with river crossings or rain or a combination of both, you wouldn’t leave your dry bags at home and jump on trail without your rain jacket.  You want to be as prepared as possible for your trip and make sure you have the right gear with you that not only keeps you safe but also makes the trip as enjoyable as possible.  If you’ve ever hiked before you know what I’m talking about because at some point, you weren’t as prepared as you should be and you didn’t bring the right gear, but you learned very quick and you fixed those issues for the next trip.

Day after day I would come into work and just immediately get irritated.  There would be product left out from deliveries that should have been put away as soon as it was delivered.  The result was food that would spoil quicker than it should or was ruined right away.  Kind of like leaving your gear out in the rain without dry bags and your down sleeping bag just immediately was ruined.  The kitchen was an absolute mess, stations on the cook line were disgusting and the recipes that needed to be followed for prep were completely wrong.  Prep lists weren't properly filled out so prep was constantly missed. I would communicate with the chef as well as the owner constantly about the amount of money that was being wasted in food and labor as well as other issues that were happening in the kitchen.  Nothing was fixed.  The result of this made my job harder than it needed to be.

For four months I ran the kitchen although nobody knew it because there was never any credit given while our chef sat in another room pretending to work.  In reality they sat watching movies on their laptop.  The funny thing was if something went wrong like a $3,000 variance in numbers one month, I was the one approached about waste.  This made me laugh because I’ve been complaining about this for three months with nobody doing anything about it.  After we lost our original chef I’m the one who changed the recipes because they were generic, lacked inspiration, and frankly were just not very good.  In the time I was there, I created dozens of menu items, changed recipes, trained staff, fixed issues, made sure things were ordered and communicated with the staff so everyone was on the same page.  Again with no help from the chef who's job this actually was.  I had no title, no raise, no authority.  I did this because it needed to be done and nobody was doing it.  The amount of preparation I was doing for my job on a daily basis was the same type of preparation I was doing for my upcoming trip to Portland to hike the Timberline Trail.

The day finally came when I was boarding the plane, and honestly, I couldn’t wait to get on trail.  I had already put in my letter of resignation prior to leaving for my trip and needed my feet to touch rough terrain.  The owner did not want me to leave and asked me to give my resignation some thought.  I figured I would go on my trip and reflect and gain clarity in my decision, and that’s exactly what this hike did for me.  I got off the plane and met up with my friend who was joining me on the hike.  We stopped at REI to gather a few items I couldn’t bring on the plane, stopped for a bite to eat and headed for the house to get everything packed and ready to go for the following morning.

Anticipation built up on the drive to Mt. Hood and once the mountain came in view, time stopped and beauty was right in front of me.  A smile came across my face and I was filled with excitement.  As we approached the trailhead I knew this was going to be more difficult than what we had planned for, but I was optimistic and confident because we had planned this for two months.  We watched every video we could find, read every article we could, and studied every trail map we could find.  I knew where all the water sources were, and camp sites and which sections were going to be harder than others.  I was aware of the dangers, the river crossings and a few spots where the trail was very thin.  We knew to be mindful of each other’s hiking pace, breaks that we would need, breathing, and what we would do in the case of an emergency.

The first day was grueling.  Our first water crossing sketched me out and there were a few spots on the trail that were so thin, one slip would take you tumbling down a thousand feet.  The views though were so rewarding.  I have never seen so much beauty in one place.  While I hiked, I tried not to think about work but every now and again the thought would creep into my head.  I thought to myself, I planned this trip out and thought of every possible scenario and had a way to safely execute the hike.  With each turn we had an idea of what to expect and we were well prepared.  It made no sense to me that at work we knew what to expect but yet nothing was ever planned out and the amount of defiance that staff had for doing things the right way made me bang my head on a wall daily.  I was like man, while this hike is hard right now, it’s a lot easier than it would have been if I didn’t plan this out.  Why couldn’t we operate the same mind set at work?  I hated “just getting by” day after day.  By the end of day one we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to have camp set up so we could relax for the rest of the evening.

The following morning started off bad.  My buddy was extremely sick and we would find out he was suffering from altitude sickness.  Ten minutes into our hike after tearing down camp we would realize how serious the situation was and we needed an immediate exit to get him off the mountain and into lower elevation.  We turned back and headed toward a sign we saw for a parking lot which was several miles of hiking.  Not an ideal situation considering he couldn’t walk more than ten feet without getting sick, and his equilibrium was causing so much difficulty in staying up straight.  We prepared for this though.  Because of months of planning and previous experience we safely made it to the parking lot and after begging fellow hikers for a couple of hours to take my friend down the mountain to a place where he could get reception we finally found a couple who was nice enough to take him.  I stayed behind to finish the journey.  I went through my gear and unloaded several more pounds of gear that he took with him because I knew I was going to have to crush some serious miles to make up for the lost time.

By the time I got back to where we jumped off trail, the day was wasted when it comes to forward miles needing to be hiked.  I set up camp and decided to re-evaluate my own hike and whether I should push on.  Fear and anxiety was setting in because I knew I was going to have to cross rivers alone and if anything went wrong I would be by myself waiting for another hiker to pass by since I don’t bring any type of gps system.  The following morning I woke up early, made my Peak Refuel breakfast, drank my coffee and packed up my gear into my Hyperlite Mountain Gear backpack.  I decided to press on.

I was prepared; I planned for a contingency and was confident I could successfully complete the hike.  It was fear that was standing in the way, but I knew once I started moving, I’d be fine.  I ended up crushing 18 of the 22 miles I wanted to crush that day.  Everything was going fine until about three quarters of the way into the day.  I came across a river that scared the life out of me.  I didn’t have anyone to turn to for help getting across and I don’t do well with water.  When I was younger I had a drowning experience that almost left me dead.  Seeing this river running so fierce didn’t set well with me.  I thought about times I went into new jobs and was nervous because of the unknown and how I used my experience to get me passed the nerves and everything turned out fine.  I applied that experience here, sucked up the fear and made the decision to move forward.  If I didn’t feel safe, I would hang back and wait for another hiker to come by so we could cross it together.  With overwhelming fear I took that first step along with a deep breath.  Whew, I made it safely across.  I turned back to look at the river and admired it because it forced to me to face a fear and I accomplished it.  With another huge smile on my face and my heartbeat finally slowing down, I pressed on.  I came across another river that was much easier and such a wonderful view that I stopped for a break, ate lunch, and splashed around in the freezing cold water for a little while.

Once again, I packed up and pressed on.  I only had a few more miles to go before getting to my next camp site.  I knew coming up there would be a spot that I would have to do a butt slide down to a river and cross a river that was more dangerous.  I wasn’t looking forward to this but I was confident after crossing the river earlier in the day.  My pace slowed down as I met up with another hiker who was heading in the same direction with the same goal in mind.  Get across this river and hike up to the next campsite.  My nerves eased a bit and I had an awesome conversation with the hiker as we crushed these miles together.  The problem was, by the time we got to the river the sun was going down and this was not the river to cross in the dark, nor the cliff to butt slide down with just a headlamp.  But I needed to get across this river tonight and reach my goal for the day.  I had miles I needed to make up from a lost day of hiking and I had a timeframe I needed to be back at the Timberline Lodge the following day.  When I came upon the butt slide cliff, I laughed and said you have got to be kidding me.  This isn’t a butt slide; I need Alex Honnald here to teach me how to be a rock climber.  There was so much lose gravel with random boulders sticking out of the side of this nearly straight down cliff side that I almost had a panic attack.  One mistake and you were falling straight into this violent river and that was it, you’d be gone.  I took a deep breath, looked up at the sky and said well, here goes nothing.  If I die, at least I’m in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen and I’m dying doing something I love.

As I took that first step and crouched down onto to my butt, I knew this was about to be the dumbest and most dangerous decision I’ve ever made.  Even more dangerous than getting under three feet from  a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake in California just to get video of it.

I leaned to one side sliding down on my right butt cheek with a grip of death on each boulder so hard my knuckles were turning white.  I kept thinking of watching Free Solo and taking each step with calculation and precision.  Take your time and commit.  As I reached with one foot after the other finding a foothold and each hand finding a rock or boulder that felt safe enough to put my weight on and my life, tears filled my eyes from fear.  One foot after the other, one hand hold after the other and I finally made it down.  It was pitch black and all I had was my NU25 headlamp to see in front of me.  Like I said this was not the cliff to scale down at night.  As I inched towards the river, I could tell that river was not friendly.  The water was moving so fast and it was deep.  One wrong move wouldn’t be fun.  Because it was dark, I couldn’t find a safe place to cross.  The only thing I could find was to scale two boulders first in a Spiderman pose and then into a superman pose from one boulder to the other and then find a foothold on the slippery edge on the other side.  As I bear hugged one of the boulders, my left knee was submerged in the water.  The sound of the rushing water was so violent.  I took another breath as I super-manned my left leg onto the second boulder feeling for a foothold.

Once I reached the other side and got to a safe spot to catch my breath, I fell to my knees and almost broke down hysterically.  This was the scariest thing I have ever done.  Adrenaline had taken over with the first footstep down the cliff that I didn’t have time to be scared.  But now it was rushing throughout me.  I kept looking back at the river and the cliff and thanking whatever is up in the heavens for getting me through this safely.  I continued on an insane incline to the campsite.  Oh, I almost forgot, I did this alone because the hiker I was with decided to stop just before the river in a tiny spot meant for one, that he was going to camp at for the night because he felt it was too dangerous to cross the river at night.  I finally made it to the campsite and some hikers I had hiked with on and off throughout the day were excited to see that I made it and rushed over to help me get camp set up.

The following morning we agreed to hike the last 14 miles to the lodge together and thank god for that because I was about to be tested again.  As we reached the point of the mountain and 7200 feet of elevation it began to rain and hail and what I guess to be at least 50mph winds came over the mountain.  She was not going to let me off this mountain easy.  As we reached the ridge the gusts of wind were blowing so hard that we were constantly off balance.  I was not comfortable with any of this and was even more scared than I was with my nighttime river crossing.  I was with other hikers so I have to admit that a bit of bravado took over and we trekked on.  Had I been alone, I would have turned back and bailed.  There were two occasions I thought of bailing on this trip but I needed to press on.  I needed to prove to myself that both physically and mentally I could accomplish this hike alone.  When we were about a mile away from the Timberline Lodge I was exhausted.  Every ounce of energy was drained from my body.  I was so sore that every muscle hurt and didn’t want to work.  I had to keep telling myself it was almost done and mentally encourage myself that I could complete this hike.  A half mile to go and my buddy who had to bail due to altitude sickness was on the trail waiting for me so we could hike to the end together.  The three hikers I was with stopped just up ahead also waiting so we could all finish this together.  As I reached the lodge this huge sense of accomplishment rushed over.  I had just done the hardest, scariest and most dangerous hike I’ve ever attempted.  I had seen the most beautiful varied scenery I have ever seen but that mountain made me pay for it.  As always after a hike, I feel more centered and humbled.

My buddy and I went to the lodge to have a celebratory drink and then I visited the gift shop to grab some cliché souvenirs and then we headed back to the house.  Later that night we had some dinner and went out for a night on the town since I had never been to Portland.  On the plane ride home I looked at all the pictures and video I had taken and couldn’t wait to get home and into a hot bath and my bed.

Normally I take an extra day off work to recuperate from a grueling hike but I spent a lot of money on this trip so I went back to work a day early.  As I walked to work, I prayed that everything was going to be alright when I walked in, but I also knew better because the night before, one of the employees and I had talked so I already knew about some of the nonsense I was about to walk into.  Within an hour of clocking in and setting up my station that irritation and negativity came back.  Prep wasn’t done, things weren’t ordered, my station was wrecked and it was clear nobody expected me back that day.  When I’m not in the building, nothing is done properly because nobody is held accountable.  The shift was a disaster.  By the time I got back home that night I was done.  I unpacked my gear, once again reflecting on my trip, took another hot bath, some ibuprofen and headed to bed.  The next day I got ready work and headed in.  Immediately walking into work, more drama, and more unnecessary nonsense.  I stopped for a minute and said don’t do it.  Five minutes later I looked at the chef and said sorry, I’m done.  I have worked so hard trying to fix issues in this restaurant with no help, I can’t do this anymore.  I grabbed my knives, changed my shoes, headed upstairs and clocked out.  As I walked passed one of the managers, I said goodbye and that I was sorry but I just had enough.  He knew what I was talking about because we had many conversations about this prior.  Several people in the restaurant knew that I ran this kitchen despite not having the title or the pay and that my frustration was growing as the days went on.  As I headed outside and began my trek home I felt a sudden sense of relief.  Just like any hike where problem after problem builds to the point you just have to bail, it’s exactly what I had to do in this situation.

I had just done one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever attempted and staff couldn’t do simple tasks like putting lids on product so it wouldn’t spoil.  The care and attention I put towards my gear and staff couldn’t take care of kitchen tools.  What we do in the kitchen is difficult but nowhere near as hard as the mountain I just got off of.  While I didn’t want to leave my job because I truly loved the job itself, I had to make this decision for my own mental sanity.  It was time to move on and find another journey that has a more promising end to it.  An adventure that I wouldn’t have to bail on.  A mountain gave me the clarity and courage I needed so I could live my life with a more full intention.