Finding My Tribe Out In The Wild – My Adventures At The First Ever REI Outessa Summit Part 1

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As we pulled up to the Dallas Love Field Airport, I kissed the Hippy Hubby goodbye and loaded all of my camping gear onto my back. I was ready for a weekend of summiting mountains, kayaking, camping under the stars, and most of all making friends with other badass outdoor loving chicks at the first ever REI Outessa Summit. I stumbled clumsily towards the airport check-counter with my huge load of gear and smiled at the Southwest Airlines representative, happy to relieve myself of the massive weight that all my gear was putting on my small frame. I couldn't help but speculate how my weekend would go. Even though I had been putting my schedule of classes together for months before this event, I still spent all of my travel time looking over the hundreds of classes I could take that weekend. Before I even landed in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had once again rearranged my schedule for the weekend to fit my changing moods. 

Meeting my surgery twin in the unlikeliest of places

On the airplane, I was prepared to sit in awkward silence next to someone who clearly didn't want a conversation with a talkative stranger, but instead, I was lucky enough to have a young married couple sit next to me, that had astonishing things in common with me. Over the last 25 years, I have met plenty of women who have, like me, suffered in some way from scoliosis, but I have not met anyone who has gone through the same type of major surgeries that I have gone through. That is until I met blogger Mollie Tunitsky and her awesome hubby, from FitFabFodmap.com on my plane trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. It was the most awesome encounter that kept us excitedly talking throughout our entire plane trip like we had already been BFF's forever. We both instantly felt like friends and by the time we exited the plane, we had made plans to keep in touch as often as possible. I couldn't believe that I had already achieved my goal of making like-minded friends before I had even landed in Utah! What are the chances that that friend has also experienced intense scoliosis surgeries, blogs about healthy eating, and lives in the state of Texas too? Pretty slim if you ask me!

Making our way up the mountain to the summit

My plane landed in the Salt Lake City International Airport at 4:35 pm Thursday afternoon. I was extremely anxious to get to Powder Mountain and get my weekend of outdoor fun started. I hugged my new friend Mollie goodbye and went looking for Marie, a fellow Outessa Summit attendee that agreed to carpool with me from the airport in her rental car. We drove the hour drive from the airport to the top of Powder Mountain chatting away about our lives, our jobs, and what we were looking forward to that weekend. It seems the common theme that united every woman that weekend,  was our need to make friends with other adventure-loving outdoor goddesses that loved to push the limits and aren't afraid of a little dirt or sweat. Marie was no exception and was excited to make friends with other women in their late 40's+ that were looking for adventures like her. No matter the age, we all seemed to have the same common goals.

As we neared the base of Powder Mountain and started up the winding drive that leads to the top, our excitement was palpable.   With every curve around the mountains, we saw the terrain change and the temperature drop. Deer and other wild animals greeted us along the way as we tried to spot the tiny 8 1/2 by 11 paper signs that pointed us in the direction of our campsite. As we drove up and over the ridge, to our final destination, the neverending horizon of mountains and valleys smiled at us through the intermittent rays of the slowly setting sun. We were in awe of the view that would be our campground for the next three days. We got out of the car, said our goodbyes to one another, and went our separate ways to set up our tents and check in.

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Setting up camp on top of the mountain

After checking in, I lugged all of my gear over to where I saw a group of designated volunteers willing to help me set up my tent. Knowing how simple my Kelty TN3 was to set up on my own, I thanked them for the help and proceeded to proudly put up my tent alone. Some lovely soul did, in fact, help me to stake down my tent, though, and later that night I would be beyond grateful to have my tent staked down so well.   After getting all my gear unpacked and in my tent, I decided to go down the hill and see if anything fun was going on this night before the summit began. I was apprehensive because I was alone, but I figured I couldn't make new friends without trying, so I sucked up my fears and walked down the hill from my tent, where many of the sponsoring brand's tents were. There were two rows of tents that were separated by a gravel walkway. The walkway was decorated with chairs, sitting pillows, hay bales, and blankets, all sitting around these beautifully placed propane fueled fire pits that were decorated with black rock substrate. Many of the chairs and hay bales were already filling up with the women who had arrived earlier than me. I scanned the growing crowd and randomly picked a fire pit with an open seat by it, hoping I chose the right group to sit down with.

As I apprehensively approached the group of women, I noticed all the ladies were excitedly chatting with one another, and they already had drinks in their hands. The smiles on all of their faces washed my apprehension away immediately, and I grabbed a Lagunitas beer (my favorite!) and sat down. I couldn't believe my luck. All of these ladies were amazing and I was already making fast friends with each of them. It would turn out that these ladies would become my steady group of friends throughout the weekend, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends to experience Outessa with! (Love you ladies!!!!! I am totally coming to CO to adventure some more with y'all!) The fire pits were shut down early that night since the summit hadn't actually started yet, so we were ushered back to our tents to tuck in for the night. Following my new friends to their premium tent space that was set up by REI, we all hung out and drank a little more before heading to our own tents to go to sleep. At least, I thought I was going to sleep…

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There's nothing like organic caffeinated love after a night of hell

That Thursday night, when I got back to my tent, I was already feeling the cold creep into my bones. I realized, as I proceeded to unpack all of the clothing that I had brought with me, that I had packed for Texas hiking weather…not the Utah mountains. I had brought my favorite Prana bathing suit, yoga shorts, plenty of Prana Capri yoga pants, and a couple different Prana tank tops; but I had only brought one sweatshirt, one jacket layer, one long pair of yoga leggings, and on a whim as I had left my apartment I had the brilliant thought to grab my windproof beanie (literally the best last minute subconscious advice ever!). As I sat helplessly in my tent that night, I made the decision that I would layer my Capri leggings over my long leggings and double up on my wool socks. I was super stoked that I had thought to buy myself a new Kelty Tuck EX 20 Degree sleeping bag before this event (totally the BEST sleeping bag ever! It's got so much room for a side sleeper like me to turn over in!). Still, I would not get any sleep that night, but at least my sleeping bag was nice and toasty.

The wind on the top of the mountain began to pick up until it was beating my tent so hard the walls were hitting me on the head as I lay there trying to sleep. The noise of all the tents flapping in the wind drowned out everything around me. At one point during the night, I had become paranoid that my tent was the only one making such a racket, that I stuck my head out of my tent to find all the other tents also violently shaking with the mountain winds. I was glad that I had let the helpful Outessa volunteers stake my tent down with the heavy duty stakes. Otherwise, I am pretty sure I would have blown away, down the mountainside. When 5:30 am finally rolled around, I couldn't take lying in my tent any longer.  Since the Hippy Hubby is a Barista, I knew that it was the Barista's time of day and went looking for organic coffee to help me get going. Taylor Maid Farms didn't disappoint. They made me the most delicious organic maple syrup sweetened latte with a little bit of love on top! I was almost hesitant to leave the warm coffee-scented atmosphere when it was time for my first class.

Some of the best days start with a paddle on the water

Even though I had just pulled one of the worst all-nighters of my life, after a good cup of coffee (or two…but who's counting?), I was ready for my first class of the weekend, “Intro to Kayaking.” There is nothing like starting your day with a paddle on beautiful crystal clear water. Earlier this summer I took the plunge and decided to buy myself a kayak. Because I can no longer drive and Uber drivers frown upon kayak rack installations on their car, I made the decision to buy an origami inspired folding kayak by Oru Kayak. It's the perfect kayak for me because it's super lightweight, it folds into a box when you aren't using it, and it fits in my apartment closet! Needless to say, when I found out that they were one of the sponsors for the Outessa Summit  as well as the kayaking instructors, I was super stoked to get to meet them in person and learn all that I could while I was in their class.

To get to our class, we all had to pile into a little bus that we rode down to the bottom of the mountain. I don't doubt my driver's skills driving down such steep switchbacks, but I would be lying if I said that I felt safe on that drive down the mountain to the lake. After making it safely to our class, we all excitedly hiked down to the lakeshore where our kayaks and instructors were awaiting our arrival. On shore, they gave us instructions on holding our paddles, safety, and basic strokes. I was extremely excited to get a chance to try out their Bay model since I already had the Beach model at home. As we got into our kayaks and prepared to push off, I realized THIS IS IT! This is one of those perfect moments where I am completely in my happy place. Those moments are the ones that I've been craving intensely lately, and I was glad that I get to memorialize it while I was there.

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He seriously rolled his kayak and came out of the water again!

As a group, we began to paddle out from the little beach we had launched our kayaks from. I instantly noticed a difference in the Bay model versus my Beach model at home. While it was a little bit less stable, I could feel how it easily sliced through the water at a faster speed than I was used to. I glided through the water, not realizing I was leaving my classmates behind. Reversing my stroke, I slowed my kayak down to take in the views around me. THIS IS THE LIFE!!! Hearing our instructor call out, I quickly snapped a few pictures and then turned to get closer to his boat so that I could hear what he was saying to the rest of the class.

He was instructing our class on one of the most important lessons that we could learn, what to do in the event that you tip your kayak over. After demonstrating two different ways to get back into the kayak after capsizing, he then proceeded to demonstrate one of the coolest kayak tricks I have yet to learn, rolling your kayak. If you know you are about to go under, you just go with it and roll your kayak all the way under the water and back up again. Watching an expert perform this trick makes you think it's easy peasy, but let me tell you, it's not. I was thoroughly impressed by  how easy he made it look. As we paddled out further, we learned a few intermediate strokes and battled the wind that was picking up. All too soon our class was over and we were waiting for the shuttle to pick us up and take us back up the mountain. I was tempted to schedule kayaking for every class all weekend long. I hadn't been kayaking long, but I was already completely addicted to paddling.

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All that I wanted was to summit a mountain

After eating lunch, I had one more epic class scheduled for my Friday afternoon. I was going to hike 5 miles to summit the James Peak mountain. This was one of the goals I was most looking forward to achieving on this trip. On the shuttle ride down to our trailhead, our instructor went over the important basics of how to use trekking poles, while our crazy shuttle driver performed a miraculous death-defying u-turn practically over the edge of the mountainside road. I kept my eyes locked on our instructor, trying not to pay attention to what our shuttle bus was doing. When the bus pulled up to our trailhead, we all eagerly departed the bus, happy to be on solid ground and ready for our hike. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was around me. It seemed like everywhere we turned, we could see mountain ranges for miles and miles. I couldn't wait to see the view from the very top of the mountain.

We began our trek, immediately taking layers off as we all hiked. With no wind blowing, we were instantly sweating. Having come from practically sea level at home, I noticed immediately that hiking up at 8,000+ ft. was intensely difficult on my lungs. I began to slow my pace, taking up the rear of the group. It felt as if I had never exercised in my life, as my lungs gasped for air with each step that I took. I kept going, though, knowing that pain is always a part of the pleasure of hiking. I knew I could do it, one slow step at a time. Nothing would stop me from achieving my goals that day. We hiked as a group, slowly making our way over the rocky terrain, towards the base of the summit. My lungs screamed at me to take breaks with every step. I listened to my lungs, leaning on my trekking poles as often as possible for a break, hoping that the others weren't annoyed by my slower pace.

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I cried as I sat there waiting on everyone else to come back down

Even at my increasingly slow pace, we were making excellent time to the base of the summit. My lungs didn't stop burning, but I couldn't imagine stopping. I pushed through the pain, excited to see what view awaited us at the top. At the base of the summit, I stared up at the trail apprehensively. The incline from this point to the summit was so steep that I wasn't so sure my paralyzed feet could make the climb safely. I started to climb up the trail as the incline increased dramatically. My numb feet slipped on the rocky terrain with every step that I took. I told myself internally that I could do it, but I was beginning to wonder if I should continue because it was getting harder and harder for me to keep my balance. After my foot slipped on another loose rock, I stopped and looked up at the mountain. I knew for the sake of my safety, I should probably wait here for my group to summit the mountain and come back down. I didn't want to give up, but I knew that if I wanted to keep hiking for years to come, I would need to make a tough decision for the sake of my safety. I yelled up to my group and told our leader that I would be sitting on the rock that was nearest me, waiting for them to come back down. Knowing my medical history, our guide agreed and told me to stay put so that the group didn't lose me. I nodded to her in acknowledgment, waited for the group to continue on without me, and  sat down on the rock nearest me.

I had tried to ignore the sadness that was creeping into my heart, but I couldn't help myself and burst out in tears once I was sure everyone was out of hearing range. I sat there crying because I was so disappointed that I did not accomplish what I had set out to do, even though I knew my choice was the right one. One of the hardest parts of dealing with a disability is knowing your limits and sticking to them. I know that summit fever is a real thing, and that people die from not stopping when they should, but it didn't make me hurt any less. I hate giving up.

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I was sweaty, I was dirty, and I was most certainly happy

After letting myself have a good cry, I pulled myself together and took out my phone. I noticed that I up there, I had a full signal! I decided to call the Hippy Hubby while I waited on my groupmates to return from the top. I excitedly told him about everything I had already experienced in the last 24 hours. I missed him so much because these were the things that we normally did together. I told him about my decision not to summit and he wholeheartedly agreed that I was making the right choice. Our conversation helped lift my spirits and by the time I saw the specks of my groupmates making their way back down the mountain towards me, I was feeling better and was ready for the hike back down to the trailhead where our bus was waiting for us.

That night after dinner, when I was back in my tent, I was so grateful for all the experiences I was living. I couldn't believe how awesome the weekend was turning out to be. I felt accepted and part of this awesome tribe of women with immense amounts of passion. I didn't feel like my disability was holding anyone back. In fact, most people were extremely surprised that I could even walk or hike with the rest of them. I loved how there were no judgments, simply the chance to do the things that we loved with one another no matter our level of experience or abilities. I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted from the day I had had. I was sweaty, I was dirty, and I was most certainly happy. I closed my eyes, hoping that I would finall get some much needed sleep.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2….

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Christina