He was my best friend, my inspiration and my hiking buddy. He was my favourite person to share the outdoors with and I absolutely loved watching him take everything in from behind his camera lens. In July of this year however, I lost that one half of a partnership when my on-again off-again relationship came to a screeching halt.
To say I felt completely lost was an understatement. Not only did I feel like I had lost a part of myself within this sinking ship, but I felt like my ability to experience the beauty of travel and exploration rested on the shoulders of someone who wasn’t willing to stay. I wanted so desperately to try and heal. However for me, healing meant creating opportunities to breathe in the mountain air – a job I typically and naively left to him. I had not realized how much I actually relied on him to foster my own happiness – but I was ready to start creating my own again.
I have always prided myself on being as self-sufficient and independent as possible, not only to foster my own personal growth, but also to protect myself against getting hurt. Somewhere along the way however, I forgot about growing on my own. I was so engrossed with another human being that I structured each day around what he would say, how he made me feel and what we would do together. We had so much in common that eventually the things I loved became the things that we loved, the things that were once mine now had his fingerprints resting all over them. Unfortunately through this process, my passion for the outdoors became something that was almost exclusively ours. When everything came to an end, I had no idea how I was going to reclaim such a massive part of my life for my own.
I began calling upon friends and family to help me rediscover my passions, but deep down I knew that I needed to prove something to myself, I needed to prove that I had the ability to push my own boundaries and take the first step away from loneliness and towards truly enjoying my own company again.
One night in July, I scanned through my contacts desperately trying to find a companion to help me tackle a trail I had wanted to explore for quite some time. I had heard amazing things about a particular area in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and I craved the feeling of freedom and child-like giddiness that never fails to envelop me when I explore the Rockies. However, it seemed that my last-minute texts at 10pm, the night before an early morning hiking plan didn’t quite fit into the schedules of many of my close friends.
Honestly I felt a bit defeated. In the past I had always known I could rely on someone not only to provide companionship on my (typically last minute) outdoor excursions, but also to give me somewhat of a safety blanket against potential risks that could lay ahead for a hiker on her own. I have dealt with a number of anxiety disorders throughout my life, so in addition to wanting to take back my love for the outdoors, I felt I needed to be able to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing past certain barriers that hindered me from feeling confident alone in the outdoors. To me, tackling this trail solo meant accepting the risks, both physical and emotional, while knowing that I alone had the tools to conquer this small challenge that felt like such a huge step in the right direction.
So I went.
Being ever the last minute planner, most of self-guided preparations consisted of screen-shotted trail reports and hastily scribbled map notes shoved into my hiking bag. Up at 6am and scrambling around house in order to beat the city to mountain traffic, I was a walking contradiction between over-preparedness and impulsiveness, as I clipped a cowbell to my backpack (like a bear-bell I figured, but about forty-times as loud).
As I pulled up to the unfamiliar trailhead, threw on my boots and made sure I didn’t lock the keys in my car (this had happened once before), I felt a small pang of uncertainty, setting off without anyone else walking beside me. This slowly dissipated as the mountain peaks came into full view across the crystal-blue lake’s edge, allowing me to believe that the universe was providing a bit of encouragement to move forward. The first few kilometers of the trail offered a flat, scenic introduction to my trek, giving me some time to talk myself out of the slightly irrational fear that there would be a bear waiting for me around every corner. The cowbell was already driving me crazy.
When I reached the point in the trail where the steep incline began, I couldn’t quite figure out why this felt like such a big undertaking. It wasn’t like I was a stranger to going it alone, I’m a seasoned traveller and I had spent two months out of the previous year backpacking through New Zealand, however I had always been able to surround myself with people. This time I found myself completely on my own, isolated from familiar faces, cell service and the general public – save for a handful of fellow hikers in passing. The initial realization of my utter solitude felt a little overwhelming, so I pushed hard up the pitch allowing the pulse in my ears to drown everything else out.
I drove my legs up the mountain face, however I made sure I gave myself a few extra stops to inhale a granola bar or two, take in the view, and record a few videos of me updating nobody about how out of breath I was. Turns out one the best things about hiking by yourself is setting your own pace up the mountain. Not having to worry about maintaining my own athletic pride while I desperately try and adhere to a pace generally set by a few extremely aerobically inclined friends was a breath of fresh air for my asthmatic little lungs.
I started to realize how odd it felt having a constant stream of thoughts I wanted to immediately vocalize, before quickly realizing that the person who I expected to hear them wouldn’t be there to dish out his usual sarcastic comebacks. So I kept up my pace, encouraging myself to walk through these emotions and continually cast them aside. This was my journey and I was going to make sure it remained my own.
The sense of relief I felt when I reached the top was immediate and overwhelming – I had seen the pictures but it had surpassed my expectation tenfold. As a resident of the Rocky Mountains I occasionally find myself somewhat accustomed to the viewpoints on Kananaskis trails, but this one absolutely floored me. The colours of the lake hidden behind the pines created an oasis-like sanctuary and the glacial wall behind it humbled all that rested below. Everything I was working through internally fell away in a second, as the ground I was stepping towards gradually turned from green to white. I always appreciate a good July snowfall.
I made my way around the perimeter of the lake, settling on a rest spot hidden enough to maintain my solitude, but open enough to have enough time to escape the family of grizzlies my anxiety assured me were lurking around the rock scree in front of me. At this point I had become a bit more accustomed to my own company and allowed myself to jot down a few life-decisions I had made on the way up.
“Be brave, blaze your own trails and be your own biggest fan”
This small alliteration I scrawled down in my notebook felt a little bit cheesy to me, but it paired well with the sense of pride I experienced sitting at the edge of that lake. How lucky I was to be able to explore such a breathtaking area without anything holding me back. It suddenly occurred to me how important my solo outdoor adventures would become, and how this would now become integrated into my routine in order to help me continue to grow and uncover aspects of my own life.
The silence was no longer deafening – I sat quietly nestled between the mountain and the water for a while, watching fish jump and chunks of ice break off the glacier into the scree below. All of the original doubts I had about my own capabilities to explore unknown territory by myself had vanished and I felt awesome knowing that I wouldn’t have to always lean on someone else to create opportunities like this for me. Although my heart was still hurting, and there would be many days after this where I would still feel like a piece of me was missing without him, I no longer felt as if my world revolved around someone else’s anymore. The mountains gave me all the comfort I needed that day.
Whether it’s simply tackling a trail you’ve never hit before or solo backpacking across a foreign land, I believe that venturing outdoors with no one but an obnoxiously loud cowbell to keep you company can do wonders for the soul (cowbell optional). From this small step outside my comfort zone, I was able to discover a whole new side of my independence by realizing sometimes the best person to turn to when things get a little rough, is you.
Pushing yourself to tackle something that seems a little daunting – whatever that may mean to you– has the potential to open up a new world of confidence previously overshadowed by self-doubt. This day remains as an important turning point in my life, as it was the first time I knew that going forward I would be able to tackle whatever mountain – physical and metaphorical – I set my mind to, and I would do it on my own terms.
Be brave, blaze your own trails and be your own biggest fan, you never know where it might take you.