By nature, I am not passionate about the outdoors. My foray into being a Person Who Enjoys The Outdoors was a result of my time spent in pre-tech bro San Francisco. I had moved there after college. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by apple-cheeked people with a propensity for Patagonia hard-shells who showed up to bars with a pair of rock-climbing shoe sticking out of their Chrome bags. Most people looked like they were either headed to or returning from yoga. Everyone was hyped up on a combination of self-satisfaction and endorphins.
I spent my first year demurring invitations to hike, climb and camp because I enjoy the outdoors the way it was intended: with a beer in one hand, a book in the other, and my toes buried in warm sand or fragrant grass. Eventually, I caved to peer pressure. I was young, impressionable, willing to try something new.
The allure of being outside is that nature is free. Hopping in someone else’s car and driving across the Golden Gate to the desolate headlands of Marin is free. Throwing a bunch of newly-acquired fleece outerwear into a daypack and car camping for a few days in Big Sur is relatively cheap. The stars, the smell of the woods in the morning, the virtuous feeling that accompanies gnawing on a granola bar and drinking lukewarm water out of a Nalgene are the rewards.
I started small. I tried one indoor climbing session, nearly conquering my fear of heights and watching as nine-year-old girls lapped me on a treacherous stretch nicknamed “The Princess Walk.” I went on day hikes that took me through sunny meadows in January, sharing the space with cows. I hiked to a lake with a rope swing and scrambled down cliffs to reach the beach, to stand with my feet in the Pacific. I dabbled in car camping, putting cardboard boxes full of Trader Joe’s trail mix and avocados into the back of Subaru and driving out of the city, to pitch a tent in a copse of trees and drift off in complete silence.
With each tiny start, I gained confidence.
“I’m going camping again,” I’d tell my dad on the phone, waiting for the inevitable guffaw, the declaration that I had been replaced by a nature-loving impostor of the daughter he raised.
It was at the peak of my confidence that I decided to level up. When a friend suggested ditching the city during Fourth of July weekend to climb Mt. Shasta, I was all for it. While everyone else in town will be spending their day wrapped in scarves and straining to see the fireworks through the fog, I will be summiting a mountain. It’s easy, I told myself. It’s a big, long hike. All you do is go up the mountain and then come back down. This was my test. I was sure of it.
I had to buy things. So many things. Things I never thought I’d spend money on. I went to Sports Basement and REI, I sent emails to friends inquiring about spare sleeping bags. I debated the merits of a camping pad (borrowed one) and what size Platypus water bladder thingie to buy (I got the largest). I spent a half hour on the fake plastic mountain in the shoe department at REI, testing out hiking boots, envisioning myself somehow ascending a real life mountain.
I would love to say that I climbed that mountain, conquered it smiling, and returned back to the city in possession of that coveted self-satisfaction I saw on every single young person’s face. Instead, when we signed the registry at the bottom of the mountain, we realized there wasn’t enough snow to summit. We hiked as far as we were going to go, and set up camp at a beautiful spot between giant boulders, near a running stream of snow melt, and ate dinner by the light of our headlamps and the stars.
The next day, we explored a giant ice field, wearing crampons, carrying ice axes, taking baby steps in single file. Upon misunderstanding my friend’s command NOT to follow his very steps, I slipped and slid at a rapid clip towards a giant pile of rocks. I broke my fall by slamming into a giant boulder. I spent the next half hour being coached to the bottom, where I promptly burst into tears. That night, we watched fireworks over Lake Shasta from camp, passing around a flask. I slept like the dead.
The descent was uneventful. We were mostly grateful to make it back to the car, to take off our packs, and to use a real restroom. I nursed a giant bruise on my left thigh for a month, watching it turn from purple to a sickly yellow. I left San Francisco a year later and the remnants of my life as an outdoorswoman came with me.
Here’s how much it cost to almost climb a mountain.
• 1 REI internal frame multi-day backpack: $144
• 1 pair of the cheapest hiking boots I could find, honestly: $100
• 2 pairs of hiking socks, now used in lieu of slippers: $14.50 each
• 1 set of Helle Hansen moisture-wicking long underwear: $40
• 1 moisture-wicking, breathable, hideous T-shirt: $24.95
• 1 pair of those atrocious pants that zip off into shorts: $44.95
• 1 headlamp, used primarily for reading in bed: $29.95
• 1 “mountaineering” package from REI in Berkeley: $40
• 1 Platypus water bladder system thingy: $12.95
Not ending it all by slamming into a pile of boulders wearing aforementioned zip-off shorts/pants(shants?): PRICELESS
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.