I had never wanted to climb a mountain before. But the decision to climb Mt. Shasta was not what surprised me most about my mountaineering adventure. It wasn’t the stark volcanic beauty of the Shasta Wilderness or the soft-shouldered summer wind that whipped through basecamp once dark fell.

What surprised me was the shame I felt for being the slow hiker on our way up to basecamp, for struggling to carry 40lbs on my back when everyone else seemed to be managing their packs just fine. I even felt ashamed of the nausea that relentlessly kneaded my stomach.

I know very little about climbing mountains beyond what I learned on this trip, but I know a fair amount about shame. I’ve read BrenĂ© Brown’s books and listened to her TED Talk a number of times. Brown says, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It's the most primitive human emotion we all feel—and the one no one wants to talk about.”

Forget about the inspiration that drove my decision to climb Shasta in the first place. Forget how strong my legs felt from hours of training. Forget how much I needed the experience, the nature, the quiet, the exposure to people nearly half my age. All of that faded once my friend shame arrived, all hot-necked and subversive.

Shame didn’t offer to carry a water bottle or anything, just strapped itself to my pack and tried to pull me off-balance.

There were moments during the trip when I managed to shrug it off. Like around 3 am the morning we attempted to summit and I looked up, after climbing for an hour or so, to see that the bright lights of people’s headlamps were staggered along the ghostly plane of the glacier above me like a constellation. I had somehow stumbled into the Milky Way and it was exactly as breathtaking as you would imagine.

And near dawn, when I decided to stop climbing, shame was nowhere to be found. When I stopped to rest and shifted my gaze up to see how much further I had to go, I felt my own limits as clearly as if they were a snow bank pressed against my knees. I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt clear and calm. Prescient and present.

Brown says shame needs three things to grow in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Part of me still doesn’t want to write my Shasta story. For months I’ve kept all the burning shame-y thoughts to myself, made lists of the things I did wrong and the things I should have done better. I’ve called myself names and imagined how everyone in the group must have judged me, too.

Shame makes narcissists of us all, and you start to see why no one wants to talk about it.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that feeling shame and not talking about it may have been more damaging to me as a kid than anything else. I had a teacher in elementary school who let me hide under my desk and read novels because, I imagine now, he knew my home life was messy. And he knew that letting me read under the desk was how I would get through the day. I’m sure he also knew it wasn’t a good solution, but it was better than anything a social worker could offer. I didn’t really understand any of this at the time; I just knew by the way he looked at me when I walked into class late everyday, my face haggard, eyes puffy, that he felt sorry for me. But like the other adults in my life, he didn’t actually do anything.

The message I got as a kid was that the adults in my life didn’t want to know the details, but because their eyes and their actions showed me that they knew something was wrong, I took their silence to be some sort of judgment of me. Shame made me believe I was the problem. And that’s when shame grew its claws.

I understand now that this is why I’ve always struggled in group situations – in a group, I feel different, unworthy, like I can’t possibly belong and even if everyone else doesn’t see it right away they’ll figure it out soon enough.

Shame became a huge hairy monster, and I knew when the light shined a certain way everyone could see it riding on my back.

Brown says vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. What she doesn’t mention is that sometimes admitting to ourselves that we are vulnerable is just as difficult as admitting it to someone else.

In some ways the northern slopes of Mount Shasta were a birthplace for every person in our group. At one point or another, we all had to face weakness in ourselves, whether it was in the form of monstrous blisters, throbbing muscles, fear of drinking contaminated water, inability to recognize our limits and foolishly pressing on, impatience with those who struggled, or disappointment at not having made it to the summit.

We all shared photos so I have no idea who took either of these.
As I climbed, I found I had no choice but to face my own vulnerability and shame. I had to look them in the eye, and I had to let them watch me. When I hiked back down from basecamp, I felt differently than I had on the way up. I felt like part of me was in on a secret, and the rest of me was just figuring it out.

Somewhere along the trail, each climber had to dig deep and find the determination to keep going, the strength to speak up when they knew they needed to stop, or the flexibility to change his or her approach.

Change, for me, came around 2 am with the first step I took in crampons, the moment I felt the steel points bite the hardened snow. The wind shoved against me in gusts, not too cold but forceful. I hadn’t slept but my stomach had finally settled down and I felt strong. I felt ready. I don’t often feel that way in regular life.

Which maybe explains why I’m so eager to try summiting Shasta again.


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