Anyone who has trained for a physical goal has dealt with this, it's that classic fear of failure combined with a sense of futility and inevitability.
It's particularly difficult when it's something you've failed at multiple times, and yet refuse to give up just yet. While training for ski mountaineering this season, I find that I again am going back to Shasta and will try to climb it. While training for skiing right now, I'm not completely convinced that my skiing confidence will be enough to make me feel ok in ungroomed areas like Shasta, as I'm only recently figuring out how to ski without exhausting myself, so I may instead default back to climbing.
Because I want to give myself the best shot I can, I've hired mountaineering trainers Body Results, and Courtenay is designing programs for me first aimed at ski mountaineering and then for climbing. Her idea is that if I concentrate on strength and intervals that may indeed help me with my altitude issues.
Courtenay says that women always underestimate what they can lift. Sounds right, it's what we've been taught. Well I got to see this theory in practice as I went to see her while I was up visiting my parents in Seattle. We talked about dumbbell rows (here is an example). I mentioned that I normally do them with 15 pounds, and she said ok. Try this. She pulls out a 40 pound dumbbell. Eek! But she was encouraging and said just try it. I was able to do about 6 and that's all she was asking. I had no idea I could do that without getting hurt. The training regime for the first month had me doing 30 pounds, which is a great confidence builder.
She also showed my how to set up and use a squat cage, and even though it wasn't a part of my program I have been doing them anyway just because of the shear novelty of them and because it was cool to get past being intimidated by it. Now I can squat weights that I had no idea I could do. I started at 45 pounds (that's the bar weight) and added 5 pounds each time. I'm up to 85 pounds and am going to stay either there or at 90, as it's getting difficult. She's also having me deadlift 40 pounds and that's harder as it's tough on my back though I've figured out how to make it easier by raising the barbell up on step risers (the big boy weights that are too heavy for me, are wider in diameter so they don't have to bend over as much as I do.)
But during training I still have this inevitable feeling that it's still not going to help me magically deal with altitude. I don't let it stop me but the feeling is still very much there. Altitude issues are tough when you live at sea level and I've written about them a lot before, I'm going to Shasta this weekend to snowshoe and will get above the magic 7500' level where I usually have trouble. I was up at 8000' at Squaw Valley but that's downhill skiing so I don't know how much of a test that was though I was going up stairs at that altitude and didn't feel out of breath so there's hope.
The thing that I have to keep in mind is that I have these great adventures, while not reaching my goals despite how disappointing as it is and how much of a failure it makes me feel like. I may not have gotten above 10,300' on Shasta, but I have been there multiple times and what a gorgeous place to be. I know my way around the lower Avalanche Gulch area very well and can tell others how to navigate it (not that it's that hard mind you, but in snow everything tends to look the same unless you're familiar with it.) I have good mountain skills, I'm comfortable in snow, and know how to snow camp (something that a lot of hikers dread and I think they really should learn how so they don't have to be so limited to just summer), I've been snowed on in June which is a magical feeling, and I'm a really good glissader. I'll glissade by someone struggling up the mountain and they say how they want to be in my position and I happily tell them: "It's the only way to fly." I'm also in the best shape of my life. My genetically inspired high cholesterol and triglycerides is under control with exercise, diet and supplements.
But it does nag. Struggling with altitude gives me a lot of self knowledge. I know that it's AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) treatable with Diamox, and not something more serious. Knowing this, I'm going back to Mt. Whitney this year and I'm going to summit if weather conditions allow. I've done the hard part (to Trail Crest at 13,000') twice and run out of steam. This time I'm not going to stop unless it's something more serious (I know the last time I was at that altitude I could have pushed myself, but it would have been an exhausting step by step grind). The gotcha will be if the 7500' altitude wall I've been running into of late (a new development for 2008) stays or lets up with persistence and acclimatization.
For not reaching my original goals I certainly have a fine time doing so, and I have to keep perspective on this, even it it means that I may have to find lower altitude adventures. Fortunately, there are many challenging mountains that are 10k' or close to it. The often challenging and sometimes deadly Mt Hood is merely 11,249'. Mt Adams in Washington state is heavily glaciated and is 12,281'. There are other peaks in Washington which are difficult and even lower.