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Hardest hikes for the experts

Failing into Better Things


Some days I’m like, why am I here? But in the end, it’s all worth it!

-Simone Biles


I’m a type-A personality, driven to pursue success and avoid failure. This all changed one blazing summer day in Sedona, Arizona while on a leave of absence from medical school.

As an avid outdoor rock climber, I’m familiar with pushing myself to the limit. However, the trip to Streaker Spire was more than just a normal climb for me. After my first year of med school in the middle of the pandemic, I needed a break. 

I was nervous as I stared at the hour-long, 800-foot elevation hike up Twin Butte Mountain to the base of Streaker Spire. Even a local guidebook stated, “Recommended climbs: None. Never trust holds, never trust bolts or pitons, never trust cam placements, and just don’t fall period.”

There were no direct trails to the rock. Rather, it’s a rigorous approach through a series of class-4 slabs just to get to the desert spire with its dramatic red rock cliffs.

 

The climb began with a traverse pitch across a ledge just big enough for my feet to shimmy along. Then the 225-foot vertical trek of rock to the summit begins, filled with uncomfortable positioning and sometimes crumbly holds. Every inch we gained revealed more of the barren flats of the valley below. The trees and bushes beneath us shrunk to nothing more than green brushstrokes across a dull, sandy background. 

Red Rock Cliffs Canyon

Sometimes the cracks we followed up the mountain were too big for our hands and feet, but too small for our whole body. This is called off-width climbing, which requires cramming your body into awkward positions - whatever gives maximum friction to keep yourself in the rock. Even among climbers, off-width climbing is dreaded, and some call this sub-sport “ultimate fighting with a rock”. 

Not only was it physically grueling, there was mental struggle too. There were intense moments in off-width climbing where I asked myself questions, such as How am I going to move from this position before my muscles give out? Or Why did I do this to myself? 

During the final pitch, we realized serious problems: we were climbing too slowly and hadn’t packed enough water. As the mid-day sun was heating the rock like a frying pan, we scrambled to push to the top, where there wasn’t time for celebration. We now had to rappel and hike all the way back down the mountain.

It was on the rappel, dangling by a rope hundreds of feet in the air, that I started feeling nauseous and dizzy. All I could think about was stopping.

 It didn’t take my medical training to know that these were symptoms of heat exhaustion. 

I didn’t want to be the one struggling, the one asking my friends to wait. In addition, the heat exhaustion caused a mental fog that propelled me along the treacherous hike down the mountain, feeling worse with each step. Even breathing took effort. 

When I saw a pocket of shade underneath a tree, I hit a breaking point. I knew I needed to rest in this shade, or I was going to pass out. I realized that I needed to ask for help, and I did so. My partner stayed with me while our friends hiked to the car to get water. 

Waiting, I worried I might have to stay there until nightfall. Despite all this, I realized I was still happier than I had been the entire year. While medical school allowed no time for self-reflection, the combination of being outside, hiking, and now resting made my truth inescapable.

The twisties may be a gymnastic term used to describe the experience of being lost in the air, but I understood the twisties. I felt lost in my own life. Just as I had ignored the symptoms of heat exhaustion, I had ignored how miserable I was succeeding in what I thought was my path.

As I sat underneath that scrappy desert tree, I realized I wanted to leave medical school. I wasn’t going to be the fourth-generation surgeon in my family. I had applied to medical school, I had gotten in, I had done well, and yet I’d still failed. I’d failed to see that sometimes in life you have to give up something good for something great.

We have a saying in med school, if you’re not studying, you should eat; if you’re not eating, you should sleep. My creativity, my free spirit, even my physical and mental health had been set aside in search of success. I missed writing, climbing, and being outside. It may not be a planned path with every step mapped out, but I trust that, much like in rock climbing, I’ll feel my way as I go.  

When our friends returned with water, we began a slow descent and safely reached the car and its blessed a/c. Once I got home, I withdrew from medical school.

A view like none other


Here are some of the insights that failure taught me:

Failure teaches you to listen to your instincts. Recognizing my personal limits, and not listening to shame, allowed me to protect myself from worse things that could have happened. I didn’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, a psychological phenomenon where it’s our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it. That climb and heat exhaustion saved me three years of medical school debt.

Failure encourages creativity. When we started hiking again, I had to find a different, safer way down the mountain than we had taken on the ascent. Some creative failures of note:  Chocolate chip cookies, a complete mistake. Fireworks, a kitchen experiment gone wrong. Even penicillin wasn’t discovered until the scientist threw away his Petri dishes out of frustration.

Failure trains you to become more resilient and know what to do better next time.  Since this experience, I’ve learned that accepting failure is part of self-care. It may seem counter-intuitive, but studies indicate that acknowledging negative emotions leads to elevated levels of well-being. 

My grandfather used to joke that when I was okay with getting a B, he’d stop worrying about me. So maybe I’m a type-A- personality now.


The bigger failure for me would have been if I hadn’t ever tried, if I’d been too scared to take the risk. I would’ve missed standing on the top of Streaker Spire, arms stretched out, feeling the rush of nothing but air and desert beneath me. I would’ve missed the moment underneath the tree when I knew I needed to leave medical school to pursue my joy, freedom, and creativity. Returning to writing, to climbing, to pursuits that don’t end in grades or degrees, has brought me happiness I’d forgotten. I hope you’ve enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. 


 

Written by Amani Albrecht

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Comments

Judy S King - April 11, 2022

you are like your mom in many ways—maybe we have to walk in someone’s steps to feel if it is our way
actually any way is OK. /judy

Susan Doty - March 21, 2022

Thanks, Amani, for sharing your experience so beautifully with us. You are a wise young woman. Whatever path you choose will bring you joy. Keep writing and we will keep reading and cheering you on!

Lydia King - March 21, 2022

Actually crying. I’m at work, blubbering into my suit lapel.

Brian - March 21, 2022

Wonderful writing!

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