Tales of the Trails: Mt. Whitney Pt. 1

Today’s podcast is the beginning of a new series about my first Mt. Whitney conquests.  I share more about how previous experiences have contributed to my drive to be relentless with every mountain that I face, be it literal or figurative.  My hope is that this story encourages you to be relentless in the face of the mountains in your life–the obstacles and challenges that cause you to want to throw in the towel and surrender to hopelessness, mediocrity and regrets.  Be relentless!

Tales of the Trails: Mt. Whitney Pt. 1

Previous episodes can be downloaded from iTunes.

Life on the Edge: Chapter 8

Here is today’s podcast.  This runs a couple of minutes longer than the others.  I try to limit each episode to five minutes or less, but some will occasionally run longer, but not too long.  🙂

You can listen to and download all previous episodes on iTunes.

Life on the Edge: Chapter 8

Tales of the Trails – Mt. Whitney Edition Pt. 1

I know I shared this story in my previous series, so forgive me if you have already read this. Since this is a new series, I feel the need to share it again because it ties in so well with this tale from Mt. Whitney.

When I was in my late teens, I was an active figure skater and even competed in a local championship in Houston, where I placed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in three categories. After the championship, I wanted to embark on a new quest, so I decided to take up ballet.

I had just graduated from high school and got a part-time job at a local department store. I worked two evenings out of the week, so I wanted to find a beginning adult ballet class that would fit around that schedule.  I discovered Act One Conservatory of Dance and, although they offered a beginning class, it wasn’t on the nights that I could attend.  The only class available was the advanced Company Ballet class, a class designed for professional-level ballet dancers.

The owner of the company, Mary Niles Warren, a retired principal dancer of the world-renowned Houston Ballet, said that she’d only had two beginners start in that class and they both quit.  She allowed me to come to class one evening and observe.  When asked if I was up for the challenge, I said yes.

So I started attending this class twice a week.  Though much smaller than I am now, I was the largest dancer in the class, plus, I was top-heavy, which made the training slightly more difficult.  Initially, I had no idea what any of the five basic positions were, let alone a simple plie.  But I listened and took notes on everything Mrs. Warren taught.  Eventually, I became stronger, and soon I was able to dance in the lead position at the bar during rehearsals.  I was also cast as a Swan Maiden in the Company’s production of Swan Lake.

It didn’t faze me that I was attempting something that could potentially defeat me.  Actually, the thought of failure didn’t even cross my mind.  I embraced every day, one step at a time.  Each time at the bar in front of the mirror was a new opportunity to shine.  I didn’t see myself as inferior to the other dancers, even though many of them could lift their legs high above their heads, do the splits, and extend their limbs further than I could even imagine. I knew I had a place in that class and in that company.

In a rehearsal for Swan Lake, one of the principal dancers was absent.  When it came time to rehearse the Pas De Quartre, there were only three dancers present for the number when there should have been four.  Because I had watched the routine so many times–even practiced it at home when my parents weren’t around–I knew the number and offered to stand in for the missing dancer.  Surprised that I even asked, Mrs. Warren allowed it.

At the end of the number, Mrs. Warren jumped up and shouted, “Wow, Joyce!”  She was amazed and excited, as were the other dancers.  The beauty of Act One was that there was never a spirit of competition amongst the dancers.  We were all very supportive and encouraging of one another.  That I came in with no ballet experience, whatsoever, and then stepped up to the plate for this crucial dance routine was an encouragement to the other dancers to push themselves and work harder.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be performing the Pas De Quartre in the production of Swan Lake, no matter how well I did during the rehearsal.  The part had already been cast and I was just filling in during an apparent emergency.  However, I still approached the work with precision and grace and I owned that moment in the spotlight as if the role were mine.

My first trip to Mt. Whitney on August 21, 2011 turned out to be one such “rehearsal.”  My intent, of course, was to reach the summit that day.  I had trained and conditioned myself for months, read books and performed Internet research on the hike and brought along everything I thought I needed for a successful climb.  I even began the hike two-and-a-half hours ahead of the group, so that I wouldn’t be so far behind.  However, I didn’t reach the summit that day because of several factors, which turned out to be a good thing, because if I had tried to push for the summit on that particular day, I quite possibly could have died.

Life on the Edge…(Chapter 14)

Years ago, my ballet instructor told me that the word “can’t” is non-existent in my vocabulary. I was 18 when I started taking ballet. Because I worked on Monday and Wednesday evenings, I was interested in taking a beginning adult class that was offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I called the studio and spoke with the owner, Ms. Warren, who was once a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet. “The only class that I have on Tuesdays and Thursdays is the Advanced Company Ballet class,” Ms. Warren said. She then went on to say that started off in that class and they both quit.

She welcomed me to come and observe one evening. I was like, okay, sure, I can do that. And that was despite the fact that I had never danced a step of ballet in my life. I didn’t even know the simplest things about ballet, such as the five basic positions. However, I went and observed the class.

Even though I was slightly bigger than the other dancers and not nearly as flexible (some of the dancers could stretch their leg above their head), I wasn’t intimidated. Everyone was nice and welcoming and I felt at home among them. I wanted to be a part of the Company.

Ms. Warren looked at me after the class concluded and asked, “Do you think you can do it?” “I think I can,” I replied. And I did. A year later, I performed in their production of Swan Lake.  When I stepped in and danced the Pas De Deux during a rehearsal in place of a dancer who was absent, Mrs. Warren was blown away.

I absolutely couldn’t give up on Half Dome, no matter what. Something miraculous awaited me at the end and I wanted to reach for it. I had to touch it.

Life on the Edge…(Chapter 5)

First of all, I have a back condition called scoliosis. It’s not some contagious or debilitating disease. It just means that instead of being straight, my spine is curved. It has never hindered me from participating in any of the activities I like to do, but I try not to lift or carry things that are too heavy.

What a normal spine looks like

My spine looks like one of these

Second, I was tired from lack of sleep and my energy level was probably at just 35% or less at the beginning of the 16-mile trek. Come on, let’s say it altogether: C-R-A-Z-Y. Third, the big toe on my right foot was broken years ago and healed wrong, so occasionally, I have pain when I put too much pressure on it, such as when I do strenuous hikes.

When I was in my late teens, I trained in figure skating and also joined a company ballet troupe. Although I was never a skinny girl, I was much smaller than I am now, so I was able to do those activities successfully. Somehow, and apparently without my knowledge, I fractured my toe. My guess is that I must have broken it while dancing en pointe in ballet class, or maybe during one of the tough rehearsals for a production.  Yeah, somebody say, “Ouch!”

My ice skates were too sturdy and stiff for me to have broken a toe that way. To make a long story short, my mom took me to a podiatrist after I had been complaining of moderate to severe pain for a while. I had an x-ray done and the doctor told me that my toe had been fractured at some point and had healed incorrectly, causing the pain. He told me that he could re-fracture the toe and allow it to heal normally, or he could leave it as is and I would experience occasional pain. I chose the latter.

To this day, I still experience that occasional pain in my right foot, but it doesn’t prevent me from hiking or any other exercise. However, the hike to Half Dome was pretty miserable because I had hiked earlier in the week and aggravated the toe. The one day of rest in between didn’t help much, so I tried my best to ignore the pain.

The fourth challenge was that I wasn’t in the greatest shape as I had not participated in the rigorous training schedule that our leaders had designed for Team Half Dome several months prior to the hike. I went on a few more hikes than I normally would and chose some fairly difficult ones to do, but there’s nothing like getting up at 5am to run up and down stadium stairs to get you ready for the Mist Trail and Vernal Fall steps, as well as the dreadful Sub Dome steps.

Mist Trail Steps Leading to Vernal Fall

Steps Toward the Top of Nevada Fall

My fifth and final challenge, which was perhaps the greatest one of all, was that my backpack was overstuffed. Our leaders, who didn’t accompany us on this hike, had told us in our briefing not to fill our backpacks up with too much water because there were people hiking with us that had water filters. We would be able to refill our Camelbaks with spring water along the way if we ran out.

Well, I wanted to be over prepared rather than under prepared, so I packed a lot of food and filled up my 2-liter bladder with water. (For those of you who are non-hikers, the “bladder” I’m referring to is a sack that you fill up with water that fits into a special slot in a backpack with a tube that allows you to conveniently drink water while hiking.)

This Camelbak is similar to the one I carried

In addition to that, I carried an extra liter of water in a plastic Camelbak bottle.  I packed all those things because I didn’t really know what to expect on this hike and didn’t want to be out in the wilderness starving and/or dehydrated. I later discovered why our leaders advised against overstuffing our backpacks.