I’ll never forget my hiking holiday in the Austrian Alps – and not just because of the schnapps

Why on earth did I think the misery of hiking every day for a week would be a good idea?

 

I was surrounded by spectacular scenery and magnificent mountains I’d never seen before, but my mind was elsewhere. Was it my aching legs or loud gasps for air with every laboured step I took up the steep slope distracting me?

No. It was my inability to stop my mind focusing on my flaws and failures, and the many possible reasons I might not make it to the summit. I was trekking through the Alps, an activity I’d longed to do for many years, and I should have been immersed in the moment, but here I was with a mindset I thought I’d left behind for good. A mindset that was telling me I didn’t deserve to be there as I’d not worked hard enough to achieve such a feat.

In previous years I had put off spending a week hiking through parts of the highest mountain range in Europe until I was fitter, or leaner, or stronger or something else, until I finally took the plunge and booked the trip eight months ago. I had a plan of preparation so I could take on the challenging terrain with gusto and was brimming with excitement. But in the weeks before I left self doubt and dread started to creep in. I hadn’t completed all the hikes I had wanted to prepare for the trip, nor conquered Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, and here I was about to climb a mountain twice as high. I started to only focus on what I hadn’t done and my weaknesses, and before I even set out on the hike that day in Austria my mind was already exhausted from tormenting myself that I wasn’t good enough to complete these trails.

Rachel Flaherty hiking the Zugspitze Arena in Austria and Germany.
Rachel Flaherty hiking the Zugspitze Arena in Austria and Germany.

Tug of war

It was a tug of war in my head between deep down knowing that, while I hadn’t done all I wanted to do to prepare, I was stronger than I had been in years and the growing fear that I didn’t deserve to be there and wasn’t good enough to finish the hikes. In reality there were options of different hikes for whatever fitness level I was at, often to reach the same endpoint, so I was needlessly tormenting myself. I’d chosen the more difficult hike that day despite my worries. In hindsight it was the best decision to understand my niggling self doubt and fears better.

I was a few hundred metres from the top when the terrain turned to scree. I quickly decided scree, the small loose stones that covered this part of the sharp slope, was the devil and trying to break my spirit by stopping me from moving forward. It took much of what energy I had left to push my foot forward, only to then slide back a little down the scree with each step. It felt no matter how hard I tried that I wasn’t moving forward. It was gruelling and frustrating. My backpack pulled on my shoulders and grew heavier in the sweltering sun, sweat trickled down my neck and my body hurt, but the bigger battle was in my mind. I was beating myself up over having self doubt in the first place and annoyed I wasn’t being optimistic and positive about the experience. It wasn’t logical.

Gliding effortlessly

The group on the trip were good fun to hike with, chatty and encouraging. But at this part of the hike most people were silent except for noise of our feet sliding back on the fragments of rock. To me everyone else looked to be gliding effortlessly up to the peak (they weren’t) and I started to worry I would end up holding back the group. It felt as if I was standing still. I remembered what experienced mountain climbers and ultra runners had told me before: “Just put one foot forward and take one step at a time.”

Why on earth did I think the misery of hiking every day for a week would be a good idea?

I have never taken advice so literally. The group’s guide, who had an uncanny ability to give encouragement with good humour at the perfect time, told me to shorten my steps, take it slowly and steadily, and a break was “just around the corner”. He lied. I was grateful for his lie. The break was many corners ahead but it was motivation enough to keep going. I was on the final ascent to reach the 2,000m peak and I’m not proud to admit there were moments I decided I hated hiking up mountains and why on earth did I think the misery of hiking every day for a week would be a good idea? My energy had evaporated but I begrudgingly and slowly plodded up the final 100m to finally reach the peak.

Hiking in Austria.
Hiking in Austria.

Looking around at the scenery below while getting a grasp of the distance of the four-hour hike had covered was overwhelming and should have been exhilarating, but I still didn’t feel I’d earned it. I wouldn’t sit down and absorb what I’d achieved on the summit. The route we were guided down the mountain was a gentler descent. It gave me time and I properly looked around the see the magnificent views.

Cheeky goat

I felt energy surge back into my body as I dropped in altitude and passed crystal clear streams alongside majestic mountain peaks, enchanting turquoise lakes, Alpine forests and colourful wild flowers. The odd cheeky goat and horse came over to have a look at us but the brown and white speckled cows were uninterested in us, too busy munching grass as their bells chimed away. Sliding down the scree slopes was now good fun and a test of my balance. The Austrian Alps have beautiful huts everywhere with hearty and wholesome food to refuel you for the trip down. Everything felt special. I did deserve to be there and had achieved what I’d wanted to do besides being my own biggest obstacle.

I had put myself in a position where retreat wasn’t an option, or at least it was possibly a harder option than to not keeping going to the top, and it was the right thing for me to do that day. It forced me to recognise that I did deserve to be there and do something I hadn’t achieve before.

I hiked a mountain of a similar height a few days later on the trip and it was a completely different experience. I was immersed in the moment, of being outdoors, being comfortable with being uncomfortable during the long hot slog. My lungs still heaved but I enjoyed it. I knew what to expect from walking on scree now, walk a bit forward, slide a bit back – a little like my own weight loss and fitness journey– but ultimately keep going and you’ll get there.

Self doubt

I realised that self doubt, when trying something new, will rear its head every so often and it is part of being human. I can’t banish it, but I can handle it better than I have in the past. My doubts didn’t reflect what I was capable of achieving. Daring the do the very thing I doubted was one of the best confidence builders of all.

Hiking along the scree area on the Alps.
Hiking along the scree area on the Alps.

I love hiking. I love that it makes me uncomfortable and sometimes miserable as the rewards when finished are always worth it.

Hiking the Austrian Alps is a holiday I’ll never forget – the mountains, the people, wildlife and their schnapps (so strong) – as it taught me lapsing into old habits isn’t the end of the world, laughter is a great way to dampen negative inner talk and challenging myself in the smallest of tasks (taking one step) will ultimately help me achieve my bigger goals.

Rachel Flaherty’s column is about getting fitter and healthier

Contact Rachel on Twitter @rachelflInstagram or email rflaherty@irishtimes.com

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