Adjusting for Conditions: Lessons from an Unexpected Year

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we hear from a member on the challenges she faced in 2020 and the value of slowing down and re-evaluating.
Teresa Hagerty Teresa Hagerty
2-Year Member & Owner of Cascade Mountain Adventures
January 01, 2021

This year was a hard one. I hit rock bottom mid-May when I unexpectedly found myself crying alone in a tent in the middle of my living room floor. The chasm between the person I had planned to be when I set goals for 2020 and the person I actually was felt insurmountable. My carefully made plans, proudly anticipated fitness milestones, and dreams of adventure were slipping through my fingers.

Like many in The Mountaineers, my personal goals, social circle, and a primary source of my self-worth are centered around the outdoors. I am a backpacker. I am a skier. I am a climber. I am a trip leader. I am an outdoor mentor. This is who I am. These identities anchor my place in the outdoor community and provide the foundation of my identity.

The reality and vulnerability of this singular focus began crashing down in March. First came the statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Next was the closure of our public lands. These events were followed by the cancellation or deferral of countless outdoor goals, mentorship commitments, and dreams of mountaintop summits with the people I love.

I resolved to keep training throughout the lockdown and focus on doing what I could within the boundaries of quarantine. A hit-and-run accident in mid-May ended this dream. In the blink of an eye, I could no longer carry a backpack. Whiplash and a lower back injury stole the limited outdoor activities I was still able to enjoy.

I was no longer the self-sufficient and physically capable person I prided myself on being. This realization unleashed a tidal wave of grief, self-doubt, shame, and depression. Who was I if I no longer practiced those activities that had become the core of my identity? What would I become if I could no longer function in the capacity in which I had invested so much value? Who was I if I could not - quite truly - carry my own weight? Were these the right values to focus on in the first place?

Students of AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) will recognize the importance of always creating a primary route plan and multiple alternate trip options. This practice provides the well-prepared backcountry group with the freedom to assess real-time conditions, make alternate choices, and minimize the single objective focus that can lead to big trouble. I now realize that my life had fallen into this heuristic trap.

These thoughts have taken center stage as I struggle through a slow and steady recovery process. Patience is not my primary virtue. I am currently four months along an estimated twelve- month rehabilitation. I am blessed with a capable health team by my side and a prognosis for a full recovery. I understand how different things could be.

During this process I was invited to join a climbing partner, mentor, and friend on a five-day Pickets expedition in August. The pre-trip communication was different than any I had experienced before. I was forced to openly discuss my current limitations and make adjustments to the trip plan to accommodate. One of these accommodations was hiring a professional porter to carry a large portion of my gear. I am blessed to still have the financial means to offer this opportunity to another outdoor professional, but I will admit, I was crushed to have to request it.

However, something profound shifted in me during that August expedition. I learned how to ask for help. I became comfortable openly admitting that I was the weakest link on the team. And, somewhere along the way, I began to understand that this didn't have to be a source of shame. I was watching the sunrise over Luna Peak when the realization hit me that we all experience the outdoors in the ways in which we are able. A flood of gratitude washed over me for the place I was in, the people I was with, and the experiences I could still have. My current abilities were not less than - they just were.

This year has caused a tectonic shift in my approach to life goals. It’s still important to make audacious, ambitious plans. It’s great to push myself further, set intentions towards becoming stronger, and continue to dream big. It’s also vitally important to accept the realities outside of my control and meet myself where I am. I’ve discovered that it’s risky to invest too much in the way things “should be.” It is far better to embrace the reality of how things are right now and commit to savoring the joy around me. There is always something beautiful to celebrate. It is enough. And so am I. And so are you.

As a wise man once said, attachment is the root of all suffering. I had attached myself too deeply to the year that should have been, the goals that I should have achieved, and the person I was supposed to be. All of these dreams were subject to change by factors outside of my control.

I don’t know what the future holds. A part of me - and perhaps a part of you too - still mourns for the year we wanted 2020 to be. This feeling may continue for some time, but I am committing myself to the practice of gratitude, giving myself permission to stop and smell the flowers, and allowing space to celebrate every moment outdoors. I resolve to be as joyful on short paved strolls as I will be again on big mountain summits. Anything less is cheating myself out of the extraordinary experiences I am still blessed to have. Thank you 2020 for this big and beautiful lesson.


This article originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Lead image of rope team training on Tahoma in April 2016. Photo by Teresa Hagerty.


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Ellen Passloff
Ellen Passloff says:
Jan 01, 2021 08:25 AM

Thank you, Teresa, for this beautifully written and meaningful message for all of us to bring into the New Year! Wishing you a very speedy recovery and great outdoor experiences in the New Year!