A Climb of Mt. Aconcagua Emboldened Me in the Eleventh Hour
February 07, 2017
By Lynn Hall
Last fall, when my friend and long-time mountaineering partner asked if I would join him for an attempt on Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, I thought he was nuts. I immediately dismissed the idea. Summiting Mt. Aconcagua seemed like an impossible goal, and for me, maybe even a foolish one.
At 22,841 feet, Aconcagua is one of the Seven Summits, the highest peak in both the southern and western hemispheres. It’s a simple climb, technically speaking, but the high altitude often causes climbers—even experienced climbers—to develop high-altitude pulmonary edema or high-altitude cerebral edema, both life-threatening conditions. I have a chronic daily headache syndrome with migraines, so for me to spend two weeks above 14,000 feet in pursuit of climbing to nearly 23,000 feet would be risking the altitude and exacerbating the pain to an extreme level I possibly hadn’t ever before reached.
Yet, I wanted to go with Matt. Badly. One of my favorite quotes is one by T.S. Eliot: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” I live by that ethos, and my longing to climb the highest peak in the Americas just might be worth the risk.
Climbing Mt. Aconcagua wasn’t the only event looming on the horizon which made me wonder if I was pushing too far. When I decided to go on the trip to South America, I was only three months away from my memoir’s on-sale date. At the time, facing publication felt even more perilous to me than extreme altitude.
Besides the obvious vulnerability created by publishing Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience—the exposure in making so many aspects of private life public, in becoming the first person to write a traditionally published memoir about rape within the military, and in criticizing one of America’s beloved institutions—this act was testing for me because it challenged everything I was taught for the first twenty years of my life. To publish Caged Eyes was to shatter two decades of messaging which programmed me into silence.
As a child, I was an emotional caretaker for my mother. I managed her feelings and hid my own. My role was to bury any injury or illness, hurt or sadness, so that my pain wouldn’t exacerbate hers. Life was far easier that way—for both of us. As an Air Force Academy cadet, the messaging deepened. The advice book to future cadets quoted an upperclassmen’s warning: “Just take whatever comes your way and shut up about it.” I may not have been able to do any pull-ups initially, and I didn’t excel at push-ups or rifle runs. But shutting up and taking it? That I could do. That was no problem.
I come from two disparate worlds which mirror each other in this one aspect: bad things happen when you express your truth. If you are a child and you cry, your mother spirals into sobs, sometimes even suicidal ones. If you are a cadet and you report a rape, you are punished for fraternization, sometimes even expelled.
Cognitively, I’m ready to give that messaging the ultimate shove. But unconsciously, the expectation to remain silent lingers deep within me.
Six months ago, Beacon Press mailed the Caged Eyes galleys to me. Holding the book in my hands filled me with the full range of feelings. Excitement that the book was finally forthcoming. Gratitude for my editor, Gayatri Patnaik, and all of Beacon. Pride that I had accomplished my dreams. And then fear. Panic. Terror even. Staring into my seventeen-year-old eyes on the cover drew me back into that world and into my younger self’s mindset. There were moments in those first several weeks after receiving the galley during which I would look at my own eyes on the cover, and earnestly wonder what the hell I was doing. I’d think I was doing an impossible thing. A foolish thing. Maybe even a wrong thing?
The incongruence between the expectation to remain silent and the publication of my memoir often made me feel physically ill. Somatically, I felt this stress most sharply. I was dizzy and nauseous, and my heart would race for no reason. It was almost like my thirty-three-year-old self and my seventeen-year-old self were in a tug-of-war inside my chest. The battle within paralyzed me.
I’d remember T.S. Eliot’s quote, and think, “That’s it. I finally pushed too far. I broke myself.” I sincerely wondered if I made a mistake by taking on this book. I questioned if I could handle the memoir’s release, if I was pushing myself too far and would cross some line into territory that would destroy me.
Maybe that’s why I said “yes” to my friend. It wasn’t just the thrilling pull of high altitude; it was because I had internal work to do if I were to survive the coming months.
Spoiler alert: I summited Mt. Aconcagua. The climb didn’t destroy me. Not even close.
We made smart decisions, taking plenty of rest days as we moved up and down the mountain to help our bodies acclimatize. Miraculously, only two days of the eleven we spent above 14,000 caused my headache to become much worse than usual.
On summit day, I took eleven hours to reach the top from our high camp. Each time I grew dizzy without oxygen, I’d slow my pace. I’d take one step, breathe, another. As a joke, I’d mentally congratulate each leg for each step: “Good job left leg!” “Good job right leg!” And then I’d laugh at myself. That went on for hours. It was completely silly, but it worked for me. The mantra kept me positive, and helped me to celebrate each tiny foot-long accomplishment. It was a way for me to prevent my mind from focusing on what hurt or what felt weak. I didn’t leave myself room for self-doubt. There wasn’t a single moment in those eleven hours during which I questioned the outcome. I knew I would summit.
During my ascent of Mt. Aconcagua, I recognized and celebrated my strength—both physical and mental. The climb redefined what is possible for me.
The accomplishment of climbing one of the Seven Summits changed my entire psyche going into the publication of Caged Eyes. During the three weeks between summiting and book publication, my outlook has been very different. There have been a few harder days of panic and somatic upheaval, but overall I’m much more focused on my successes and the journey which brought me to this destination. I’m much more focused on my original intention of the book: dismantling cultures of shame and silence.
Now when I look at the eyes on the cover, I remember the inner strength of that seventeen-year-old girl. She might not have known it was there, and she may not have known she had the capacity to shatter her silence, but I do.
Today is my publication day, and I no longer think my memoir will destroy me. Somehow, a climb of South America’s tallest peak made all the difference, as now I model what I practice on summit day. I celebrate each small step of strength, and I’m not giving myself space for self-doubt. Rather than cowering in fear and shame, I have the opportunity today to stand in the light of my accomplishment and the hope that Caged Eyes will create pathways for others to break their silences as well.
About the Author
Lynn Hall is a memoirist, essayist, and activist in the movement to end sexual violence. She is also a mountaineer who has summited each of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-tall peaks and a runner who has completed a 100-mile ultramarathon. She lives in Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnKHall and visit her website.