I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d never been so close to death, or so I felt. We’d been hiking for 3 days with no food and little water. Five hours ago the muscles up the back of my legs and base of my spine were cramping in spasm but now there was little energy for them to even attempt self-preservation, let alone power my staggering footsteps further up the mountain.
I veered off the rocky path and collapsed into a heap, panting, sweating and freezing at the same time as the early spring sun set off the trail leading up to the top of Thunder Mountain, Bryce Canyon. My knee was shot, my body ached, my lungs gasped for air, my leg muscles where gone – completely done. And worst of all, so was I.
The BOSS (Bolder Outdoor Survival School) instructor approached me out as my unit of eight took a knee along the trail. “I think I have a problem” I spoke to him in a shaky voice. “I – I… I can’t go on.” I remember thinking around midday that I had reached my limit of distance and duration for the voyage without any sleep of this hell week simulation, but I’d kept on pushing in the hope that the instructors would have mercy and call it a day. But now it was midnight and we were starting to go vertical, chugging up the rugged mountain trail over boulders and along sheer faces.
“My right leg is locking… I can’t catch my breath, I feel like… “ I felt like I was dying. Not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. I’d felt my right knee pop about 8 clicks back – a partial re-tearing of the medial meniscus and aggravation of an old ACL tear. The muscles surrounding now fatigued from protecting the area. But worst of all, despite my best efforts to have my mind forget my last near death experience which lasted almost three years, the cells in my body could not help but remember and I became petrified.
“What seems to be the problem?”
The instructor asked candidly. This guys was a beast. Born and raised in the outdoors, he’d been a BOSS instructor for 10 years and counting and his mother before him, a founding BOSS member. He was a real mountain man, built his own house, wore clothes made from hides, taught hunting and gathering, and survived in the wild with a group last summer for 10 days without food because they could not find a kill – all while hiking 20+ miles per day! – My brain knew that I was in the best hands but that didn’t matter. I’d lost access to conscious thinking and was only capable of reacting to my body shutting down. I told him I was finished. That I couldn’t go on. Two members had scrubbed out the day before and now it was my turn.
“It’s just the farthest I could go, given my past experience and present condition” I rationalized, explaining to him how sick I’d once been and how afraid I was that I might have triggered something terrible. “Catch your breath” he said, “I think your fine.” Had he not heard me? Or just chosen to ignore me? “I don’t know”, I said. “Ben, I know you can do this” said the instructor.
Even if I could somehow continue I’d have 5 more full days and nights still ahead on a leg that barely worked. “I’m really afraid that I’m pushing myself too hard and that nothing good will come of it.” – “Okay” he said calmly in a voice that sounded uplifting, “I can see you’re scared, so why don’t you take a minute, change your attitude, and let’s keep moving.” – (WTF?) Change my attitude? like I had a choice?…. like I had a choice… is how he spoke to me. Not judging me, not challenging me to continue vs quit, simply stating his belief in me and trust in my abilities as someone who had lead thousands of people in all sorts of conditions. Yes! I had a choice and I chose, however reluctantly, and against all hesitation, to share his conviction and to keep moving forward.
I took about 30 minutes with the support of my unit, to catch my breath, convince my brain, re-animate my body, and cautiously find my feet. I reduced my attention to a single point of focus. Only paying attention to the simple four fold pattern: raise right foot, plant right foot; raise left foot, plant left foot. Nothing else existed, nothing else mattered. In this manner I would continue for another four hours before reaching the summit, plunging down in a huddle with the entire group, and having my first wink of sleep in over the three days.
The sun came out the next day and warmed my face and body which slowly began to loosen and relax having had a few hours to rest. Perhaps because I’d ventured beyond the point where I’d normally fail; perhaps because I’d changed my attitude, this forth day seemed easier than the last. And the fifth easier still.
By day 7 of this 8 day survival excursion, despite having little food and little sleep, and hiking long distances through changing elevations, I felt more energetic, more clear headed, and more vital than I could ever remember feeling at any time in my life.
Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see us for who we are and what we’re truly capable of. I was so lucky, in this instance, to have someone (who didn’t even know me well) tell me with such sincerity, calm and conviction that I could go on. Not every scenario will offer that. What is always available to us, however, is our ability to choose to believe in ourselves.
When you change your attitude you change your story. When you change your story, you change your concept of self and transcend the limits of what previously was impossible. Rationality must go out the window as your focus shifts from head to heart, from linear to non-linear; from content of thought to context of being…
It’s then that you cross the event horizon and reach the “zero point” where nothing exists but everything is possible. A fundamental shift occurs in body and in mind, and you find that you have transformed from limited to limitless.