“You don’t choose a life. You live one.” The Way
What an adventure 52 Peaks in 52 Weeks has turned out to be! It’s not the journey I would have thought it would be, but it was the journey I needed to take. When I left for Peru in June of 2016, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was setting out to do this really difficult task. I just knew, without any doubt, that I needed to go. Now, in June of 2017, I am convinced I chose correctly.
Every 525,600 minutes of this year have been life-changing. Some of them have been painful beyond what I thought I could take. Others have been filled with the most spectacular beauty. On the eve of my 45th birthday, I saw the most glorious sunset of my life from my camp on the Grand Teton. There have been times when I exceeded all expectations of what my body and spirit could do. There were other times when I had to learn to be kind to myself for needing to rest.
When the final numbers were tallied, I hiked 680 miles over 85 hiking days. This mileage is equivalent to hiking from Los Angeles, California to Salt Lake City, Utah. I climbed 230,170 feet of elevation gain. That gain is the same as climbing the entirety of Everest almost 8 times. I went through two pair of boots and three pairs of trail runners.
The logistics of 52 Peaks took months to plan. It took 69 different flights, 25 trains and boats, and 94 taxis to get to everywhere I needed to go. I traveled to six of the seven continents (no Antarctica) in 19 different countries and 27 different US states. I visited 105 cities and stayed in 93 different hotel rooms. Sixteen different times I had to exchange currencies. Most of the time, it required genuine effort to remember the correct time zone and day of the week. The final numbers: 79,600 miles flown and 20,150 miles driven.
The most important statistic of this entire trip is that 54 friends or family members participated in some part of the adventure of 52 Peaks. I only spent 88 days at home so having these people come join me meant everything. I received more love and support than I ever would have imagined. I made a tremendous number of new friends and became reacquainted with people I had not been close to in years. Friends from high school joined me on their first ever mountains. Friends I have met hiking flew around the country to join me on a peak. Friends opened their homes to me to stay and fixed home cooked meals. My hiking buddy Rose joined me for ten peaks. I met new friends during the 52 hikes, including Zeus, the stray dog that walked with TJ and I up Mt. Olympus in Greece. I cannot remember a time in my life when I have been so aware of how much love is in my life.
For four weeks, my mother joined me on my travels. She has become the true hero of this year. She lost 52 lbs to match my 52 peaks. She beat cancer this winter. And we had the best trips together that I will cherish for all my days. Mom and my Aunt Olivia spent a week with me in Boston. We were able to take a train to the top of Mt. Washington so they could stand at one of my summits (#23). Olivia saw the ocean for the first time. Then in April, my Mom and Aunt Brenda flew to Ireland and England. Brenda had never flown out of the country before. We are half Irish which gave this trip added meaning.
My cousin Jennifer came to Movara for 52 Peaks week in November. She took what she learned about nutrition and exercise home and since that week, she and her mom Beverly (my aunt) have each lost over 52 lbs. I think losing that kind of weight takes more discipline than climbing peaks. For me, this is the greatest thing to come out of this year. They inspire me every day.
The most special moment for me this year was when I reached the top of Mt. Wheeler, the highest peak in New Mexico. I was joined by my brothers John and Russ and my sister-in-law Arlene. Together we held the banner honoring my Dad at the summit. I dedicated each peak to my father’s memory by taking a picture with that banner. But it was never as special as that day. I also had his name engraved on my ice axe which I took a picture of in the snow on top of Mt. Elbrus in Russia (the highest point in Europe and one of the Seven Summits). If I could have any wish it would be that he could have experienced this year with me. Yet, I know he was there with me in spirit. I would get signs from him like seeing Caterpillar machinery at the top of Mt. Fuji or a Sherpani woman in Nepal wearing a Caterpillar hat. During a particularly rainy hike, I looked down to see a clover and in a small village on the Amalfi Coast I came upon an entire fence carved with four leaf clovers.
I tried to never play it safe on this trip. Every moment I was somewhere, I tried to be present and get every ounce of the experience. Go big or go home. The hike that pushed me most outside my comfort zone was mountaineering the Grand Paradiso in the Alps. I had never done a climb as part of a rope team or spent that many hours in crampons. My shin bruised and swelled up to the point where I had to cut my boot. Still, I made it to the summit. For 19.5 hours, I endured Longs Peak. The moment most outside my comfort level was bungee jumping from the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand. I had never intended to bungee jump in my life time. I had been going through my toughest emotional time on the trip prior to getting to Queenstown. Jumping from that bridge was exactly what I needed to regain my belief in myself that I could accomplish anything. Count down from three and jump. Keep the faith.
I love the spontaneity that comes when I follow signs from the universe. So many people contacted me to go to Santorini when I was in Greece that I cut my time in Athens short to spend a day and a half on that island. Along with the Amalfi Coast and New Zealand, Santorini ended up being one of the most beautiful places I went. I had a spontaneous stop for five days on the Amalfi Coast in my new favorite hotel in the world, The Santa Caterina. Ten days later, I stayed in my other new favorite hotel in the world, The Ashford Castle in Ireland with my mom and Brenda. I am fine in a tent, but sometimes a little luxury helps.
I tried not to have expectations before I went to a new place, but that’s nearly impossible. One of the interesting things about this trip was how places I had not fully expected to be great turned out to be the best. Places I thought would be amazing didn’t always live up to the picture I had in my mind. The best example of this is the camel ride through the Sahara Desert. I had in my head this image of Arabian night type tents blowing in the breeze with lavish silk pillows inside. Not even close. We slept in a hut made from three poles and a rug and I got food poisoning at the camp. Better are those places that exceeded my wildest imagination. Early in the trip, Rose and I stayed at a town in southern Spain called Lanjarón. It was love at first sight for both of us and a place we intend to return and disappear into for a couple of weeks. I had no great hopes for the food in Ireland, yet it turned out to be my favorite food country on the trip. Along with a sushi crunch role from the pool at The Four Seasons in Maui, I had a cauliflower soup in Ireland and a lamb shank in rural England that I will remember for all my days.
The mountains took me to so many wonderful places that I had wanted to see. St. Petersburg, Russia was radiant in its history and beauty. Museums like the Winter Palace and the Art Institute in Chicago, I got lost in for hours. The landscapes of New Zealand lived up to their reputation. Lake Louise in Banff and Crater Lake in Oregon were stunning. Standing on the Great Wall of China moved me in an indescribable way. Uluru in Australia was magical just as Oprah said it would be. Riding around the island of Santorini, Greece was a spontaneous gift from the universe. I saw the most beautiful sunrise while walking alone on the beaches of Stromboli, Italy.
In the past few years, I have avoided the safe path and lived big. With the death of my father three months before 52 started and my mother’s cancer, now more than ever I feel the need to leave nothing on the table. Therefore, the end of 52 Peaks is only the beginning of my journey. My travels and the sharing of my adventures will continue. As of this morning, there were 135 items on my bucket list. I have completed 58. This past year, I checked off some big ones. Completing 52 Peaks was #1 on the list and reaching Everest Base Camp was #3. In 2019, I plan to complete #2 – hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I bungee jumped, paraglided, and white water rafted. I secretly hope my bucket list is never finished so that I never run out of goals in which to challenge myself. Perhaps the bucket list item that I hope to finish the most is writing the book about my 52 Peaks journey.
One of my bucket list items is to see all 59 National Parks. 2016 was the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. Several times, I drove out of my way to see a park. I saw 15 parks during 52 and I have visited 23 in total. In my immediate future, I will be going to Glacier Park in Montana and the three northern Utah parks: Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands.
Along with the National Parks, I am on a quest to hike all 50 state high points. I have completed 12 so far with almost all of them being on 52 Peaks. I hope next up will be Kings Peak (Utah), Granite Peak (Montana) and Gannett Peak (Wyoming). All are on the more difficult side with multi-day backpacking and the last two require rock climbing. I hope to visit many of you as I pop into your states to pick up high points or parks. If all goes well, one day I will have to do Denali to finish this goal. I’ve got four years before I turn fifty….
It has been my goal for years to hike the 25 most dangerous hikes in the world. These are non-technical hikes. The climbing and mountaineering routes are a higher level of challenge. Nevertheless, these are hazardous for all kinds of reason: Extreme weather like wind or lighting (Half-Dome and Mt. Washington); Drowning (Kalalau in Hawaii); Falling (Longs Peak, Via Ferrata, Angels Landing, Wayna Picchu). Those hikes I have already done. I look forward to Bright Angel on the Grand Canyon, Cascade Saddle in New Zealand, Maroon Bells in Colorado and the other 14 left to hike. More than any other dangerous trail, I long to return to the Plank Walk on Mt. Huashan in China. For 100 feet, this trail is nothing more than wooden boards set into the side of the mountain about 9,000’ in the air. Many consider it to be the most dangerous hike in the world. I have hiked every other bit of Mt. Huashan, but the day I was there the plank walk was closed to snow. I will return.
I plan to make 2018 my year of mountaineering and meditation. I have unfinished business with Mont Blanc. I decided that I needed to do mountaineering peaks close together so that I can practice my skills and improve. The mountaineering season starts in late May and lasts through the summer. I hope to return to Nepal to do Island Peak and then do Mt. Hood, Mt. Shasta, and Mt. Rainier before heading back to The Alps and Mont Blanc. There is a good chance I will see India this next year and if I do, I plan to visit the birthplace of yoga and practice there for a week. I am determined to finally make meditation part of my daily life. Along, these lines, I also plan to visit Big Sur and Esalen for the first time.
The future goal that I am most excited about is doing National Geographic’s Top 50 Adventures. I picked up the magazine two years ago and I have looked at it about a hundred times since then. I have completed most of the hiking ones and done 12 in total. To complete this list, I am going to have to learn a lot of new skills, many of which I have never done: skiing, kite-boarding, long-distance biking, scuba. This will be the goal that pushes me to overcome my fear of deep water. I overcame a fear of heights, so I know I can conquer anything when I put my mind to it. Some of these fifty will take me to exotic places I have always wanted to go: Turkey, India (for wild Tigers), South Africa (for sharks), and the Galapagos Islands. Once I get the other 49, I’ll look towards the one that I think might require the most suffering: reaching the North Pole (which requires 50 days of sledding in the cold).
I have learned so much about myself during this odyssey. Two themes have emerged for me that I think will define what I do with the next chapter of my life. The first is a work-life balance revolution. I am completely transformed from the woman who believe working 80 hours a week was a good thing. It’s not good for the person, the business or the profits. It should never be a question of where we work, but how we work. I have better clarity and problem solving on a trail than I would ever have in an office. Companies need to change. It is possible. I want to be on the forefront of that change. This is my office!
The other theme is depression. I hope I can be courageous enough to continue to share my own issues with depression. People who experience bouts of incapacitating sadness have nothing in which to be ashamed. More people than you realize experience the exact same feelings. The more I can talk about this issue, the more I can help myself and the more I can help others.
I want to embrace the lessons I finally accepted fully into my heart the past few months. It is okay to let go of the things that no longer serve a purpose in my life. Let them go with love and gratitude for the positive gifts they gave. Lean into life each day with acceptance. An extremely pivotal moment for me in finding my way was sitting at the top of Kala Patthar in Nepal and taking in the view of Mt. Everest and the surrounding Himalayan Mountains. In that moment, my heart was at peace and I knew I was going to finish my last six peaks in a way that was completely authentic to my true self.
Trust the universe. I truly believe that when you are on your true path that the universe will move mountains to make it happen. The entire journey of 52 Peaks was about trusting in my true north. Nothing about this year was conventional. Yet, when I needed it most, the universe sent me reminders this was the road I was meant to take. In Kyoto, Japan, I found a hidden room within a garden. In the room, there were writing tables to write verses. Someone had left this verse:
“Today is a very good day to die.
Every living thing is in harmony with me.
Every voice sings a chorus within me.
All beauty has come to rest in my eyes.
All bad thoughts have departed from me.
Today is a very good day to die.
My land is peaceful around me.
My fields have been turned for the last time.
My house is filled with laughter.
My children have come home.
Yes, today is a very good day to die.”
It was exactly the message I needed to hear at that time. In a canopy of trees, along the Katahdin trail in Maine, I had a feeling come over me of the most loving embrace. In that moment, I reached a new clarity about how I could do more with This is My Office. In Tenboche, Nepal, I sat in a famous Buddhist Monastery listening to the monks chant. I felt closer to my father than I had since I was a child. I sat on that floor and let the tears stream down my face filled with more gratitude and love than I had thought was possible.
I have often been asked what my favorite hike was during 52 Peaks. Picking the best peak is as impossible for me as picking a best moment from my life. Each peak had its own experiences and lessons. Mt. Katahdin in Maine was profoundly meaningful as it was the last 5.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Mt. Huashan, covered in Taoist temples, red ribbons, and snow was serenely beautiful and spiritual. Half-Dome will forever be my mountain. The other 49 peaks were just as special in their own way.
Thank you for sharing my journey. For loving me when I wasn’t strongest enough to love myself. For joining me on trails and sharing your homes. For never once telling me I was crazy or my dream was impossible. You have my forever gratitude. May I always do the same for you.
The light and the love in me sees the light and the love in you.