DBT Skills for Mt Whitney - Center for Evidence Based Treatment Orange County DBT and CBT
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DBT Skills for Mt Whitney

DBT Skills for Mt Whitney

I believe they were calling me most of my life, but only with a regular mindfulness practice over time was I able to hear them. I decided last November to hike Mt Whitney in 2018 – the highest peak in the lower 48. I would hike 22 miles, close to 7,000-feet elevation gain in one day. I trained hiking local peaks most weekends, going to boot camp class four times a week, yoga twice a week, and walking my dog a couple miles a day, as well as regular bike rides. Talk about building mastery –I was determined to do this and I trained for the best chance of success. Whitney, I’m -a -coming.


The day is a near – two days until my hike. I have had intermittent back pain for months. I had used my PL in PLEASE and iced, only did low impact exercises and put a pause on hiking. My back stopped hurting until today. I start tearing up, with that thought, “I’m not going to make it.” I try to leave the thought on the conveyor belt and look up at the horizon. Mt Whitney, foreboding in the distance. I start to cry just a bit. Again, I have the thought, “I’m not going to make it.” I am mindful of my current emotion – fear. I’m afraid I will be in too much pain –afraid that I will get sick –afraid of being afraid on the high narrow trail in the wind. I put a heating pad on my back and take some more ibuprofen and read for a bit.


Later in the day, my back spasms and I start to doubt myself again. I decide to consult wise mind. My wise mind says that it would be ridiculous to hike 22 miles in so much pain. I start to think of potential solutions. I remembered that I have KT tape with me and I research how to use it online. I follow the instructions and put the tape on my glute to my lower back on the other side . My husband and I go on a small hike at altitude to acclimate. My pain is reduced to a much more bearable level. My wise mind says we can do this. I think.


1:00 AM wakeup and it is time to start hiking after getting my gear on and ready. I put fresh KT tape on my glute/lowerback and start walking towards the trail. At the trailhead, I notice an uncomfortable feeling in my back and bargained with God. Maybe we can count this as an IMPROVE – prayer skill. Radical acceptance I tell myself along with a big smile and check into my excitement –Mt Whitney day is here! I was so worried about not being able to make it or being in pain, that I forgot how excited I was for this day. Opposite action all the way.


I make my way up and almost immediately I am overwhelmed with my thoughts. Hello there autopilot. A surge of distressful emotions that I passively avoid by the jumble of thoughts — “I can’t do this”, “what if the pain get’s worse,” “what if I don’t make it”. The cold kicks in and jolts me out of my thoughts a bit. Sensations to distract –thank you cold mountain air. After some time, I notice the slightest pain, but I also notice how my attention wants to go there. I think, “allow” on my in breath and “soften” on my out breath. I think, “it’s working.” I think of Marsha telling me to love my emotion (for some reason I find this humorous at that time) and continue with my “allow, soften” mantra.


The rest of my ascent I am able to stay present. I just put one foot in front of the other and occasionally check into the beauty of my surroundings. As I get closer to summiting, I am afraid of the rocks around me, but my joy overrides my fear. When I summit, I experience so much joy it is as if the universe is hugging me. I allow myself to experience my tears of joy. I did it! I really did it!


The ways down is easy. Think again. My vulnerabilities start to kick in a little after the 99 switchbacks (yes, you read that correctly). It is hot, I have a terrible sunburn on the back of my calves and I am tired of eating bars and goo packs. It is over a half a day of hiking – 11 miles of it at 550 feet per mile ascending. I want it to be over. There it is again. I bring myself present, but towards the last few miles I really want it to be over. I am hungry and start thinking about what I am going to eat when I am finished. I notice this makes me very hungry. I had jokingly told my husband on a previous hike that I am going to get a tattoo on the other arm “the hamburgers are calling.” Fast forward I make it because quite frankly, what are the options?


I reflect on this the next day. How difficult it was for me, but how I was able to regulate my emotions and tolerate distress on my ascent. I talk to my husband about a cope ahead plan for descents moving forward (e.g. regular breaks, checking into our surroundings, and bringing distress tolerance snacks). I will keep in mind Thich Khat Hanh’s teaching on washing the dishes just to wash the dishes. For me, lovingly it is a work in progress.


I wrote this because I wanted to share my struggle and how I used DBT skills to reduce suffering and experience joy and a sense of mastery, while learning from my experience. I have become even more compassionate for the suffering of our clients, as well as more grateful for the work of Marsha Linehan and DBT experts.