Some days, the hardest thing to do is admit that you aren't going to make it. No matter how many times people tell you it is all mind over matter or that you just need a positive attitude, sometimes you have to accept your limitations. While 'positive thinking' can help us endure adversity it should never be confused with blind optimism, which can cause us to make very bad choices. The courageous thing to do is to stare into the abyss and then back away.
I failed to summit Kilimanjaro in September. I didn't even leave camp that night at midnight. I was the only one of the group to fail. The peer pressure alone should have caused my competitive streak to send my hurling from the tent and sprinting up that mountain. The entreaties of the guides that I only had to have a positive attitude failed to wrest me from the tent I had retreated back to after walking ten steps toward the summit path. I had a little cry as I lay in my sleeping bag alone in the camp except for the cooking staff. I failed.
Except I didn't. Wearing five layers of clothes, my water already freezing in my pack, I stood in line with everyone else. I was ready. I had made it so far in the previous days. In my head, I was standing on top of the crater edge as the first light of dawn kissed the sky and on top of the summit shortly thereafter. I had all of the mental will and relentless optimism in the world. I took ten steps on that bitterly cold night and realised the truth:
This wasn't my mountain.
I had lain awake most of the four hours we had set aside to sleep that evening. Despite good blood oxygenation levels, I was struggling to breathe in the cold mountain air. Sitting in the mess tent for the final briefing, I was sucking on my inhaler like an addict, hoping my lungs would clear. Ten steps into the hike, I knew I wasn't going to be able to make it. If I couldn't breathe in the cold at base camp, I certainly wasn't going to be getting enough air into my lungs as we climbed. Putting myself, the guides, and the rest of the group in danger so I could have my summit selfie wasn't a success. That was idiotic.
Recognising that despite training and fitness, I had reached my limit was its own form of success. I stared at my fear of failure and embarrassment and realised that doing the right thing for myself was its own form of winning. Being there to greet each of the other members of the group as they returned was joyous.
On the way down the mountain, the other piece of the puzzle slipped in to place when Stuart said something to me about how I hadn't really come for the mountain. He was right. I had come to spend time with my sister. I had come to support her dream of reaching the summit. I was content because I had achieved my goal and returned with an extra bit of self-knowledge as well. It's a little bittersweet not to have reached the summit. Part of my brain wants to go give it another go. But really...I didn't come for the mountain.