Such Great Heights

June 2001, my family moved out to San Diego after my husband, at the time, had just completed his MD/PhD program in Texas. I had also finished a postdoctoral and my son had just turned one when we moved.  It was definitely a time of change. With my husband gone most of the time due to demands of residency, I found this transition extremely tiresome and lonely.

I had two small children, no close friends and very little energy and self esteem remaining by the end of the summer of 2001. With the onset of 911, my resumes/CVs were often pushed aside as many biotech companies were closing down or having a hiring freeze. I had very minimal adult interaction and no career to drive me in the forward direction. I felt lost and alone, that is, until I decided to do what I used to combat stress in graduate school; I decided to get back into aerobics and fitness.

Fitness instructors come a dime a dozen in the health-conscious city of San Diego. This did not matter to me at the time because I needed an out and this was the move I needed to give my life direction. At first I contacted the local YMCA and had no problem subbing a few classes here and there, and eventually taught my own classes. I had taught several aerobic classes in grad school and my first brush with true appreciation came when I really inspired an international doctor to continue with classes. Like many moms, she had gained weight after having children and couldn’t seem to lose the extra pounds. She lost focus in herself; and as mothers we are trained to take care of everyone but ourselves.

With a little coaxing and direction, she continued the classes, lost the weight and I am still in touch with her today.The reward of improving and helping others seems was addictive. After getting back into teaching a variety of fitness classes along with some personal training, a strange twist of events led me into the opportunity for international travel and extreme mountaineering treks. This was definitely outside my comfort zone. But when I was on the coaching/training end, I taught my participants to take baby steps and eventually any goal was attainable. So how could I be the exception to this rule? Once I had a taste of what I was cable of, there seemed to be no limits!

Eventually I trekked through the Himalayans, trained up Mt. Adams, Mt Whitney and eventually stumbled into a painfully challenging trip in the Andes, up the infamous Mt. Aconcagua. This is a very big, rocky, tough, intimidating mountain. It is of course a metaphor for all the journey of hardships in our lives. One of the leaders of our group was also a bit adverse to guiding women and often left us feeling inadequately prepared.  Regardless of his attempts, we all eventually got to high camp at over 16,000 feet. I was feeling amazingly strong.  Unfortunately, a group in the adjacent tent adjacent was not.  Our guides were aware of all the danger signs of altitude sickness and when the hiker had difficulty talking and standing, they knew that cerebral edema had set in.

Later, one of our guides and a few of our stronger climbers offered to help the hiker back to base camp where he was taken by helicopter to lower altitudes.  Our team had saved this inexperienced hiker’s life, but by the time we returned, storms had kicked in and we were trapped in our tents with snow blowing horizontal for over 48 hours. One of our guides had their tent partially collapse in the storm. Winds whipped in around our camp at nearly 100 miles an hour.  This was the first time I had ever experienced the ‘train’ sound bellow through the mountains.  It was next to impossible to sleep, and I remember gripping my pocketknife as I laid in my sleeping bag, in case I had to cut free from the tent in the middle of the night.  This was not a very comforting feeling!

Without physical exertion for over 2 days, the shock of the altitude finally ended my journey. I had failed to summit Mt Aconcagua and felt defeated in all respects of the word. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this climb was in no way a failure. It simply made me realize that I wasn’t ready, emotionally, physically and mentally, to summit this mountain now. It did not mean it was not going to happen – it just meant this wasn’t my time. After all, I still had my health and nothing was lost except my pride, temporarily. This lesson was a hard one to accept and made me bitter for a long time afterwards.

The reward came much later when I realized what I must do – simply train wiser, with more direction and enjoy the experience, not just the summit.

I haven’t gone back to Mt. Aconcagua yet, but I did summit and enjoy some very impressive and beautiful peaks – Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Orizaba, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Whitney and 5 mountain in the Swiss Alps including Mt. Blanc.  I hope to use this lesson to help others triumph over their own Mt. Aconcaguas in their lives.  If we accept the realization of what we need to do to accomplish something, then there are no failures and there are not limits.

Dr. Tracy Purcell is a PhD with clinical laboratory experience in cell biology, ophthalmology research, reproductive science and clinical trials.  Her work in vascular nitric oxide culminated in a dissertation titled: The Role of Nitric Oxide in Rodent Gestation:  From Implantation to Placenta Maturation. Her interests in fitness, teaching, hiking, climbing and running have allowed her the opportunity to train, teach and climb some of the most challenging mountains nationally and internationally.