It was high on the summit slopes of Mount Orizaba, during what felt like a complete crash, that I found myself reflecting on how I had become a mountain climber in the first place.
Back in 2009, I had suffered a different kind of crash. I was just out of university, and in the throes of a demoralizing breakup after five years of a difficult and enduring relationship. I don’t want to get into too many details about what she did, what I did, what happened to make it all go wrong. I just want to say this: my confidence, my self-esteem, my ability to believe in myself to achieve even the most modest of goals—all were shot.
With no confidence in myself, the idea of climbing a mountain felt like “Adrian’s going to go to Mars.” It was that preposterous.
The next few years were a process of building myself up again. I started with small victories: a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon. I did Brazilian jiujitsu, took up photography, volunteered with animals, etc. Eventually, I tried flying. More than anything else I tried, flying captivated me. It was a real adventure. My whole province turned into one big awesome backyard.
The Mountains Started Calling
In 2013, four years after the breakup, and after I had been flying solo for roughly 350 hours, I decided to make a trip across Canada. As I pulled in to Calgary, it was as if that old John Muir quote—“The mountains are calling, and I must go”—had taken hold of me. I don’t mean to be cheesy, but that’s kind of how it felt. I made a beeline for Banff, and kept going up to Lake Louise. When I got there, I started climbing. I didn’t stop until I had made it all the way up to the 9,000-foot-high summit of Fairview Mountain. Everywhere I looked, there were more mountains, stretching as far as the eye could see. I had a realization then and there that if I wanted to crank the adventure knob up from a 5 to a 10, I would need to become a mountaineer.
After my experience on Fairview Mountain it was like a switch had flipped inside of me. That word, mountaineer, played over and over in my head, like a broken record. I couldn’t quite figure out how to attach the title to my sense of self, but I knew that was what I wanted to be. As I researched and thought about what the next step might be, I came across Mount Rainier. Everything about that mountain screamed “climb me,” and without a further thought I signed up for a guided climb to take place the next summer.
Now, it’s not like I was fat and out of shape at the time, but it’s worth noting that I’m from Toronto. I hadn’t exactly grown up in and around mountains, and I wasn’t exactly physically prepared to just hop off the couch and hike up to 14,000-plus feet. And I knew it, too. So I set myself up with a training regimen that seemed like it should help me. It was all ad hoc training with no deep understanding of the fundamentals of “proper athletic training.” Kind of like trying to build a motor after watching a 5-minute YouTube video on how a piston engine works. I briefly read what the experience is like on Rainier and assembled a program.
I knew I would be going uphill for a long time with a pack on, so I did a lot of hiking up ski hills with a weighted pack. I did lots of cycling, running, and weightlifting, too. It may seem like a solid plan but I was cranking the intensity way too quickly, and problems and difficulties (such as knee problems) started manifesting.
It was about four or five months before my trip that I came across Steve House and Scott Johnston’s book, Training for the New Alpinism. Now, I’m an engineer by day, and I certainly gravitate toward ideas that have a scientific justification. So when I picked up TftNA, I was immediately taken by Scott and Steve’s deep theoretical knowledge of the training concepts. Even though the trip felt right around the corner for me, I switched my training regimen over to the one Steve and Scott advocated. I was just that convinced by the material.
All the training paid off, because Rainier actually went really well—even better than I had expected, and I summited in three days. It was in May, so it was the tail end of winter season, and the mountain was absolutely covered in snow. On the summit day, we ended up having perfect weather. I remember looking up into the moonless sky at night before we started. You could see all the stars and a bit of the Milky Way.
Pico de Orizaba in Mexico
Rainier was such an incredible experience that the next thing I knew, I was signing up for a climb of the Pico de Orizaba, an 18,491-foot volcano in Mexico. Rainier was no joke at 14,410 feet. So I knew that adding on another 4,000 feet would require a serious increase in my fitness level to achieve. I went back to Steve and Scott’s book, and started at square one.
Nine months prior to Orizaba, it was tough to train. The mentality of staying disciplined, eating correctly, that was a challenge. What happens when you fall off the wagon?
Sometimes, all I would want was to go out with friends and eat a cheeseburger and have some beers, but it would be a training night, and I had to find that discipline somewhere inside to stick to the plan. I even called Steve for a phone consultation at one point, when I wasn’t quite sure I was on the right course. Just a 1-hour phone call was incredibly helpful, as he took in all the specifics of my situation and goals and helped cater the remaining training to them.
It was that phone call, the training regimen, and really the whole story I’ve told you up to this point that I was thinking about up on Orizaba when I hit a wall. Was it the altitude, the cold, something else? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now. All I know is that I had a moment up there, only about 90 minutes from the summit, when I thought that I might not be able to make it to the top. To say that I felt panicked would be an understatement. Could all of the work that went into this really have been for nothing?
But then I thought back to the flatlands (and hard times) I had come from, and all that I had accomplished already. I thought back to all those Zone 3 workout days that I had hated and put off as long as I could, but always eventually ended up doing anyway. I thought about all the times I had wanted to quit during the training process, and every time I found just a little extra ounce of motivation, of try-hard, of determination in me to keep on going.
And then, I just did it again. I broke through my wall, and kept moving. My guide even offered to take a break, but I just shook my head and plowed onward. When I finally saw the summit crest, and realized I was going to make it, I literally broke down and started to cry. Moments later, I stood atop the Pico de Orizaba: the highest point in Mexico, and the third-highest peak in North America.
After coming back from Mexico, people kept asking me, why I had become so obsessed with climbing that mountain. I tried to explain to them that it’s type 2 fun, but a lot of people can’t comprehend or understand that. I know it sounds clichéd, but there really is some sort of beauty in the struggle. All of the difficulties, the challenges, and the obstacles, they make the summit that much better. When you reach the top, for me, it’s the last months of training and emotional turmoil that makes it so beautiful.
What I came to realize is that climbing actually changes the way you think about the world. Coming down from the summit, I felt like I could achieve anything I put my mind to. Instead of thinking that’s impossible, you start thinking, “What can I do to make it possible?” For me, that shift in thinking is worth all the hardship, all the struggle, everything that goes into it. It’s not about conquering the peak, and it’s not about conquering yourself. It’s about turning the impossible into the possible. If you can do that, you can do anything.
-by Adrian Balij