Giving Up — Lessons Learned from Defeat

Sunrise from Iztaccíhuatl climb (photo by Adrián Moreno)

“I can’t keep going. I need to head back,” I told Adrián. I knew those weren’t the words he wanted to hear. “But you can keep going, and we can meet back at the car,” I tried to reassure him as I avoided making eye contact. I didn’t want to see his disappointment.

It was now 8am and we had been climbing the mountain Iztaccíhuatl for just over four hours. Based on our estimates, we had about two hours left to finally summit.

But I couldn’t continue.

Physically, I felt fine. My legs were stronger than ever. My heart rate had maintained a steady rhythm. We had planned our ascent from the day before, but I couldn’t.

It didn’t matter that we had made our reservation months in advance, purchased new sleeping mats, helmets, and hiking poles, or that we had camped the night before all in order to summit this morning.

My toes were frozen. At this point into the ascent, I was unable to bend my toes. It had started out cold, but I had expected after sunrise that the temperature would also rise. But that isn’t what happened. After 6am, a constant cold wind began ripping across the mountain, even freezing the water inside my drinking tube that extended from my hiking pack.

We had made it to our resting point, where we had planned to eat breakfast and then continue climbing. But the rest of the way up was hidden in shadow, with no sun reaching the trail, and my spirits had dropped.

My toes wouldn’t move. And I just wanted to cry, but I feared the tears freezing on my cheeks, so I breathed deeply and removed one boot. While Adrián worked to re-circulate the blood in my foot, I drank some of his water and contemplated our options.

For me, it was clear. I wouldn’t summit this day. I needed to head back to make sure my feet were okay. And if I continued, who knew what would happen. The uncertainty alone made me lose all motivation.

“I’ll go back with you,” my husband reassured me. “We started together, and we’ll stick together. Let’s go.”

And with that, we were defeated. We had given up on our goal of finally reaching the summit. We headed back to camp.

To be honest, most of 2020 felt like a defeated year.

Goals we had set never materialized, or plans we had made had to be abandoned.

But what happens when a goal is abandoned?

What do we do when we look back and feel defeated by circumstances beyond our control?

What can we learn when we give up on a dream?

While it’s easy to be goal-focused, I believe it’s more important to evaluate the purpose of the goal.

Why was summiting the mountain important? Why was visiting Germany in 2020 crucial? Why was seeing friends a part of the plan? What would seeing extended family in person on Christmas change?

Most often, our goals are connected to our feelings.

Summiting the mountain would make me feel like I had done something very few other people have. I would feel unique.

Traveling to Germany would have allowed us to visit family and see new places together. I would feel worldly.

Spending time with new friends would help me feel connected to others and help me help me socialize in Spanish. I would feel loved.

Seeing extended family from the U.S. would have given me a sense of connection, would have made me proud to show off my current home city. I would feel valued.

Just like deciding to go back down the mountain came from a sense of fear about losing sensation in my feet and the long-term consequences, changing other plans also came out of an understanding of the risks involved.

Fear is not always a negative emotion.

If I would have ignored my fears of my toes continuing to re-freeze as we ascended Iztaccíhuatl, but we had finally reached the summit, would I have fully enjoyed the experience? Would I have been consumed by worry more than the monumental moment? Would I have ignored the natural beauty around me and been focused on my inward anxieties?

By choosing to listen to my fear and abandon my goal, I was able to regain full feeling in my feet within 40 minutes and was warmed by the sun as we descended for another hour — to the point that when we reached our base camp, I felt foolish for worrying about my feet as I was then warmed by the 55 degree weather.

But that cold, freezing wind was a reality. And the frozen toes were a real medical issue.

And so, I don’t regret my decision to turn around.

And neither should you.

This year, if you chose to miss out on certain opportunities, to turn down invitations, to cancel travel plans, to stay at home — you made those decisions based on calculated health risks.

And you made those decisions to keep you and your loved ones safe.

And so in the face of failed dreams and disappointed resolutions, don’t focus on what you missed out on.

Focus on what you gained.

You gained another opportunity to live those experiences. Waiting to realize our goals doesn’t mean they won’t ever happen…it just means we might have to wait a little bit longer to fully realize our dreams.

That climbing trip to Iztaccíhuatl was still memorable. We shared a camping experience and watched the sunrise for the first time from atop the mountain.

We may have not experienced what we thought we would have, but we still had much to be thankful for.

So while this year may not have brought what you had hoped for, remember that there is still much to be grateful for.

Sunrise from Iztaccíhuatl (photo by Adrián Moreno)

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.