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  • Olga Roman

How to Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Lessons from Denali

Every May Facebook sends me a memory notification about my travel to Anchorage, Alaska, to climb Denali. I thought it would be fun to reflect on that trip and some lessons learned.

Denali was my fourth out of the Seven Summits — the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. In the prior years, I climbed and summitted Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa), Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America) and Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe). I attempted to climb Denali first time in 2017, but we did not reach the summit because of adverse weather conditions.

Denali - also known as Mount McKinley - is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level. Located in the Alaska Range just outside the artic, this mountain presents climbers with violent weather and extreme cold.

While the West Buttress route is not technically challenging, the lower half of the mountain is packed with crevasses. Also, there are steep slopes of up to 50 degrees and many dangerous and exposed sections above 14,000 feet.

Another major challenge on Denali is that each climber is responsible for carrying his or her gear and food up and down the mountain. This weight could add up to 150 pounds per person.

I admit that cold, altitude, and carrying heavy loads made the Denali climb the toughest physical challenge I experienced. Generally, the West Buttress expedition includes up to 20 days on the glacier, and climbers spend every night of the expedition camped on the snow.

There were nights when I could not sleep, shivering from the cold in my -40°C sleeping bag. My body was continually aching from carrying a heavy backpack, which I nicknamed the Monster, and dragging a sled with gear behind me.

As we were ascending, I also started feeling the effects of high altitude on my body: tiredness, dizziness, and headaches. Going without a shower for over two weeks and pooping in plastic buckets (clean mountain cans) added another challenging aspect to our adventure.

Every day I was embracing my experience, focusing on the things that were within my control and what I wanted to accomplish. I reminded myself that it was my dream to climb Denali. I just kept pushing forward, focusing on one step at a time, no pun intended.

Sometimes, especially on steeper slopes, I would ask myself the questions that I often heard from my friends and family: “Why are you doing this?”, “Why are you spending all this money torturing yourself on the mountain while you could have a relaxing vacation at a luxury beach resort?”

There are several reasons why I climb mountains. I enjoy the feeling of being connected with nature and being surrounded by magnificent views. I love traveling, exploring, and meeting like-minded people from around the world.

But there is also another aspect of climbing that draws me to the mountains. It’s the way to test my limits and see how far I can push myself and experience the pleasure of overcoming pain and discomfort. It helps me to discover my resilience and inner strength.

It’s the game that requires every ounce of my mental and physical strength, and my mind can be either my primary opponent or my leading supporter. Mountaineering also taught me to look for humor, even in the most challenging situations, and stay positive.

You don’t need to subject yourself to the extremes of climbing mountains. Life can make you feel uncomfortable as you apply for a new job, decide to open your own business, train for a race, or break up an unhappy relationship.

Just remember, that uncomfortable feeling means that you are moving forward. If you can be comfortable being uncomfortable, you’ll handle whatever situation comes along in your own life.

As you are facing an uncomfortable situation, try the following steps:

  • Recognize and embrace the uncomfortable feeling, knowing that you are getting beyond your comfort limits

  • Focus on what is within your control

  • Remind yourself what you want to accomplish and why

  • Recognize your progress, including your prior achievements

  • Find some humor in a situation and allow yourself to laugh or at least to smile 😊

  • Stay focused and keep going, no matter how badly you want to quit

Most of us try to avoid uncomfortable experiences; some of us, on the contrary, are seeking them. By pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, you evolve as a person and discover your full potential.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was not able to summit Denali in 2019. I certainly want to go back for my third attempt to reach the summit, just not sure when.

“Why climb mountains?

It is the chance to be for a moment free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off non-essentials, to come down to the core of life itself… On great mountains, all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand, yet the summit is but a token of success, and the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for those reasons that we climb, and in climbing find something greater than accomplishment.”

Charles Snead Houston


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