When I'm asked what it is like to trek or climb mountains, I always compare it to my perception of natural childbirth from stories from the various mums I know. At the time it can seem like the most difficult thing in the entire world, but give it a while and youll be ready to do it all over again!
Perhaps the following is just the musing of an inexperienced adventurer or maybe I haven't taken on a climb tough enough to warrant such an opinion but I actually think the hardest part about climbing mountains is after you descend. More often than not the truly hardest part comes weeks, or even months later. I trekked Mount Kilimanjaro for the second time in 2010 in my role as a tour leader for a fundraising charity challenge organisation. The group was made up of 30 participants from all over the UK and Channel Islands fundraising for their local radio station children's charity plus a trip medic, me and all our fabulous local staff. The going was tough, with some of the group succumbing to the altitude related illness and exhaustion that comes with trekking to a peak almost 6000m high! Indeed, even I suffered the effects of mild acute mountain sickness which led to me being unable to continue to the summit for my second visit to Uhuru Peak.
The vast majority of people who climb mountains intend to reach the summit, but no-one tells you that physical training and acclimatisation doesn't prepare you for the mental strength you need when you have to be to admit to yourself and your guide that you have to turn back. You then have to deal with that decision in the weeks, months and years following your attempt. This decision is often more difficult than the actual climb itself. Getting altitude sickness and the awful feeling that goes with it wasn't the hardest part of the Kilimanjaro trek for me; at the time it was the only decision to make while I still had the ability to judge that continuing would put myself (and possibly my fellow team members) at risk. The hardest part came around three weeks later upon reflection of the trip as a whole when I started asking myself what more could I have done to have made it to the summit?, 'if only I had done X,Y or Z'. This thought leaves a sinking feeling in your stomach, a feeling that is more intense than disappointment, more helpless and powerless.
Anyone who has attempted to summit a peak but been unable to reach it will surely relate to this; it haunts you. For those who are successful in their attempt at their summit goal, the hardest part still comes later (albeit in a much more positive way!). Short term, the adrenaline of reaching the summit wears off fairly quickly and then the tiredness hits, leaving your body fighting to keep you awake and moving down towards your camp, while the pressure on your knees builds and your pack digs into your hips and shoulders with every footstep. Long term, climbing mountains is very addictive, perhaps enhanced by the feeling of intense elation and happiness beyond belief once you hit the top, which leaves you with an itch which is difficult to scratch without a fairly significant amount of money and time depending on the mountain in question.
You also tend to be attracted towards bigger and better mountains, to quench your increasing thirst! From my experience, while you are on a mountain you become part of a family with your team of guides, staff and climbing buddies and you bond with each other. In this unusual and often extreme environment you simply forget your day-to-day worries and concentrate on being part of a team and trying to reach the top. Weeks after your climb is when you feel the sad pangs of broken bonds, when you miss your climbing family and the experiences you had together, which to outsiders seem insignificant but to you are the small things that made a difference on your adventure.
Just remember that what goes up, must come down and sometimes the time to come down is before you think you are ready.