I used to hate social media. In fact, in the midst of a difficult time in my life, I completely retreated from the internet in general. Most devastatingly, I stopped writing and I stopped connecting with other adventurers. It took me a few years to emerge from my own darkness, and in the process, I learned how to use social media as a tool for inspiration, rather than negativity. Instead of jumping down the rabbit hole of news, I put my efforts toward sharing my heart and meeting other, like-minded adventurous souls.
Taryn Simpson is one of those adventurous souls, and absolute proof to me that there is a beautiful side to social media. We, quite possibly, would not have crossed paths without the existence of the internet. I could roam around a crowded shopping mall for days looking for women who want to spend their weekends sleeping in a tent on the side of a mountain, and I might not find a single one.
Taryn is inspirational, genuine and has a deep love of the mountains. I am so blessed that our trails crossed, and I know that you will be inspired by her story as well.
1. Tell us a little bit about you and your hiking/outdoor interests!
A few years ago I started getting into hiking – I was involved in sports my whole life (gymnastics, soccer, track, snowboarding) but was never a hiker. A little background: my parents were avid backpackers for years (my dad was an Eagle Scout) and they basically spent their first 10 years together exploring the PNW on foot, so I always heard stories from them and loved learning about their adventures. At age 24 I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), a (usually) hereditary autoimmune disorder in which the immune system doesn’t recognize the fluid that lubricates my joints as belonging to my body, and attacks it as if it were a foreign invader. This causes pain, severe inflammation, and a whole slew of other symptoms. At 24, I couldn’t walk up or down a flight of stairs despite “looking healthy”. After being diagnosed, my world changed. I was finally able to make changes that helped me rehabilitate my body, decrease my inflammation, and not only walk up and down a flight of stairs, but up and down mountains. These days, I try to hike at least twice a week during the summer. Fall through Spring I’m in school full-time and work weekends, so getting out is much harder, but I try to make it work. Sometimes I try to trail run, but I’m REALLY bad at it… I still try anyway. Meh. For the last year or so I’ve also been indoor climbing and want to make the jump to outdoor soon. After summiting Mt. St. Helens in May, I’ve become more confident in my abilities in the snow, and plan on learning more about alpine climbing in the near future, with my sights on Mount Rainier by 2020.
2. What is your favorite trail food?
Dried bananas, Hi-Chew, those gluten-free Stinger stroopwafels, and for longer days the Good To Go meals (Thai Curry and Herbed Mushroom Risotto). I pretty much always carry coffee of some sort as well. (I legitimately ate instant coffee powder and washed it down with water yesterday on a hike… no shame).
3. What is your favorite outdoor experience?
I have two that really stand out. Disclaimer: one of these included poor preparation but served as an immense learning experience and had a huge impact on my life in the mountains (and everywhere else, honestly).
The first was last May; my boyfriend was visiting (he lives in Canada) and prior to his flying back home we decided to go out to the mountains to try to catch the expected meteor shower and do a sunrise hike. So I did a LITTLE research and we decided on Mount Pilchuck as our destination. I checked WTA.org for some info on the hike and it sounded pretty easy (begin poor-preparation/bad decisions here) based on the main entry for the hike (I still think this needs to be changed, this is NOT a leisurely stroll through a hill of wildflowers), but I failed to read any of the recent trail reports. Fortunately, we overslept our morning alarm and didn’t make it to the trailhead until around 5:00 am, missing the meteor shower – in the long run, a very good thing.
We both were wearing running shoes and what probably equated to cold weather running gear. I’m 99% sure there was a decent amount of cotton involved. We carried daypacks stashed with TONS of water (thankfully), snacks, breakfast for the lookout, and a blanket in case it was cold (good thinking). What we planned on being about an hour/hour and a half summit was more like three. Not even halfway up the trail we hit snow, and lots of it. The remainder of our ascent was a slippery, slidey, postholey, foot-soaky, exhausting laugh-fest. We had no traction and no poles, aside from a giant walking stick my boyfriend had fashioned out of a fallen branch for me. We managed to scramble up narrow, rotten sections of the snow-covered trail by clinging to tree branches; my boyfriend postholed only about a million times. When we finally reached the summit, we rewarded ourselves with coffee, breakfast, and a nap in the sun.
This sun, however, only proceeded to make the snow conditions worse and snow bridges collapsed over (what I know now after returning in snow-free conditions) over a trail that is essentially a pile of boulders. We warned ascending hikers we passed on our way down of the deteriorating conditions, and people passed us in droves. Sadly, as we would later find out, one of these hikers would fall down a tree well, breaking his leg and necessitating an emergency rescue. On a lighter note, we learned the art of glissading from a group of high schoolers (we had no idea this was a thing at that point), without the use of an ice axe (please, just don’t). We made it down in one piece, laughing about the whole experience, exhausted, and thankful to be safe.
This served as the beginning of my education in outdoor safety and preparedness, proper gear, and trip planning. It also was the first time I summited a mountain in the snow – I don’t care if it’s little, it was HUGE for me – and was truly a testament to how far I’d come in battling my arthritis. I went out the next day and bought hiking poles (a total game-changer for my knees that still aren’t 100% functional), followed by boots a few weeks later. After that, my hiking and my confidence took off, and I haven’t looked back since. However, that tough little pile of rocks will always hold a very special place in my heart.
My second favorite experience occurred just this May, a fitting anniversary to the Mount Pilchuck adventure. A friend invited me to join her on her Mt. St. Helens permit, and I agreed but let her know my hesitance since it would dominate any gain I’d previously done and my work and school schedule would limit my training to pretty much only the gym. But train I did, and come summit day I felt moderately prepared but determined to summit that volcano, even if it took me all day. We hit the trail at 3:45 am and hit snow a few hundred feet from the trailhead. The speed difference between the faster members of the group (four of whom are Mountaineers Alpine course members, beginner and intermediate) became quickly apparent. We decided early on to split into two group of 4, and my group consisted of a friend I had hiked and climbed with before, and two people I had only vaguely interacted with online. Man, was I lucky. Helens is no joke. Especially when you’re 5’1” with disproportionately short legs. From the beginning I vowed to summit and I was determined to do so no matter what (as long as it was safe to do so, just no giving up because I was sore or tired). We took a break at the weather station about halfway up for a snack, then pushed on. The weather switched from calm and sunny to vicious, biting wind every few minutes. And the whole way, one of these near-strangers encouraged and supported me. Turns out this girl literally runs up mountains and basically walked up Helens without traction (besides mountaineering boots) or poles. I was panting and burning and aching the whole way, and honestly, feeling slow and incredibly self-conscious about it. I hate being that person in the back of the pack. Always. So this mountain angel and I get to talking (between panting breaths) and it comes out that I have arthritis. Her response? “You have arthritis and you’re climbing a volcano? That’s amazing! Give yourself a little more credit!” Additional words of encouragement basically summed up this one idea: If you’re too busy killing yourself trying to keep up with others and you don’t even get to enjoy your climb, what’s the point? Go your own pace, enjoy your hike/climb, and be confident and proud of your own abilities because if you’re getting outside and working your way up mountains, that’s pretty incredible in itself.
That summit was brutal. My hip decided it wanted to scream at me and not really work with a little over a mile and more than 1,000 ft. of gain to go. I could only step up some giant’s kicked snow steps with my left leg and meet it with my right. I could see the rest of my team at the summit, and hear their voices encouraging me. I honestly had to try so hard to fight that self-conscious voice in my head, trying to make me feel slow or stupid for being the last one up. But I made it. And I stood atop a volcano after climbing 6,000 vertical feet (2,000 more than I’d ever done in one day) and took in the surrounding peaks and laughed and smiled with 7 amazing people (one of whom was wearing a Jedi cape. No joke). I then got a crash course in PROPER glissading and self-arrest technique and flew down a volcano, hitting 18 mph.
Looking back, I realize I was summiting with a group of 6 mountaineers, 4 of them who regularly had to complete timed, weighted hauls up Mailbox Peak and Mount Si for their programs, and two more who basically run up and down mountains more frequently than they are on flat land, and another who runs, hikes, and climbs every day possible. And I basically kept up. I was safe, I summited a FREAKING VOLCANO, learned to glissade and self-arrest, got to dig my friend out of a hole when she punched through the snow near an outcropping of boulders, had a round-trip time that probably no one would brag about, and I AM SO PROUD OF MYSELF. I made friends who I didn’t feel like I was holding back and who have taught me that I should be proud of my abilities, and putting those abilities into the perspective of someone who 7 years ago couldn’t even walk without pain isn’t an excuse, but pretty powerful motivation and a point of pride. And now, on to more summits and even more challenging adventures, because I know I can!
4. What have you learned from the mountains that has had a "ripple" effect into other areas of your life?
With education, preparation, and discipline you can do just about anything you set your mind to. I believe we are our own worst enemies and often defeat ourselves before we even try because we think something may be too hard, too technical, require more knowledge or experience than we have, etc. But no one reached the top by jumping from the parking lot. Everyone who has succeeded in their goals started at square one and worked their way up over time. Don’t sell yourself short, you can do just about anything. Also, please never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Rather than saying you “can’t do something,” try “I don’t know how to yet” or “I’m working my way up to _____”. At 28, I returned to college to pursue a degree in Biochemistry with a minor in Physics, and plan on pursuing a Master’s in Genetics (or Materials Science/Engineering… we’ll see where the world takes me). The discipline I’ve learned through honing in my diet and self-care for arthritis (primarily in order to be active again) has carried over in all aspects of my life. I wouldn’t have been able to stand up off the couch and meander up Mt. St. Helens, but by implementing a training regimen in the months prior and putting in some form of work almost every day, I was able to summit without throwing in the towel short of my goal. This has taught me to be patient with my studies and to remind myself that I won’t be trying to learn Linear Algebra, Physical Chemistry, and Thermodynamics without first building a solid foundation that slowly prepares me for these much more challenging subjects. Just keep working toward that goal, and enjoy every step.
Additionally, the people I have met on the mountain have inspired me to be more kind and supportive toward those around me and have shown me how powerful words can be. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we are valued, loved, and awesome just as we are. This support can be more powerful and influential than you think.
5. What's your favorite piece of gear?
I don’t have just one, but there are a few that I love and never (or almost never go without). The first are my Salomon Quest 4D GTX boots. From the moment I put them on they felt like heaven on my feet. I’ve worn them hiking, scrambling, trail running, and trudging up knee-deep snow on a volcano. The day I have to retire them will truly be a sad day. My big piece of advice: LOVE YOUR BOOTS.
Number two are my Black Diamond folding trekking poles. Trekking poles changed my life. My knees bear the majority of my arthritis pain and inflammation and will likely never function at 100%, so poles allow me to go farther and higher than I was able to before, and they especially help on descents when my knees are screaming and that little help can get me down a few thousand feet that would otherwise be nearly impossible. These specific poles are lightweight and fold up small enough to fit in the side pouch of my pack so when I don’t need them or decide to go scrambling, they don’t add much extra weight and don’t get caught or smashed on brush or rocks.
Item three is my fiercely-loved MSR Pocket Rocket mini stove. It’s tiny, lightweight, and I take it on almost every outdoor adventure (minus really hot and/or short day hikes). I’m a huge coffee lover and I burn through calories like crazy when I’m active (rough life, I know) so this little gadget goes with me so I can boil water for pour over coffee and meals on the go. The weight and size sacrifice is minimal and the performance is great for such a tiny little stove.
6. What is your absolute passion in life? What lights you up when you talk about it?
Science. Space. Mountains. Wellness. I’m a huge science nerd and there isn’t much science-related that doesn’t cause me to instantly light up. In the last several years, advancements in scientific fields that benefit the earth and our future are high on that list – renewable energy, reusable materials, sustainable business practices, etc. Also, don’t get me talking about health and wellness, especially related to food and how we fuel our bodies because I probably won’t stop. My arthritis first became controlled through a dietary overhaul, and I’ve since become mildly obsessed with diet and learning all I can about food sensitivities and inflammatory foods. If you or anyone you know ever has questions in this realm (inflammation, diet, fatigue, joint pain) please feel free to ask! I love sharing all I’ve learned and helping people brainstorm ways to improve the way they feel and get more out of life (I’m not a coach or part of an MLM company or any of that, I’m not trying to sell anything, I just like to share).
I’m also in love with photography. My camera goes everywhere with me.
7. Do you have any DREAM trips that you'd love to take? Where? What would you do?
I basically want to climb everything in Switzerland… and live like a hobbit in the mountains there.
More realistically, I’d love to backpack through The Andes – Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina.
10 years ago I spent a month and a half in Nepal and roughly a week trekking through the Annapurna mountain range, but more as a tourist than as a hiker/climber. I would love to return, carry my own gear, and undertake some lower-level climbs. Nepal and the Lower Mustang region (below Tibet) are quite possibly the most breathtaking, humbling, and inspiring lands I’ve ever encountered, and are filled with generous, genuine, kindhearted, hearty individuals whose lives are beyond comparison. If you ever have a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.
8. Through the lens of your own life, if you could give one piece of advice to others, what would it be?
You can do anything you put your mind to. Find what motivates you and use that to drive you towards your passions, toward greatness. Personally, I know I someday may not be able to walk very well, or run, or climb up mountains, or grip cracks on a wall, so I plan to do as man of those things as frequently as possible and to the most challenging degree I can while my body is still capable. Maybe someday modern science will cure rheumatoid arthritis (or maybe even I will!) but for now, I’m trying to live my life to the fullest and do everything I can while my wee little body lets me. If pain is guaranteed, I’d rather be in pain from climbing a mountain than from doing nothing.
Additionally, everyone starts somewhere. I used to cling to handrails with all my weight just to traverse a flight of stairs, and I could barely write because my hand was in so much pain. I would drop things constantly because my grip wouldn’t respond when my brain told it to hold things. My hip would dislocate when I walked. Through discipline, awareness of my own body and wellness, education, and lots and lots of practice, I have built my body up to do more than I ever thought possible. You can honestly do more than you give yourself credit for; bodies are absolutely amazing if you just let them do what they were literally made to do. Practice, set goals, work toward them, and don’t forget to let yourself rest. Your body will only continue to grow more powerful and capable; focus on your own growth and goals rather than comparing yourself to others. Someone will always be faster, stronger, leaner, whatever – don’t get caught up in that comparison game, it’s toxic. Do what makes you strong, healthy, fulfilled, and most importantly, HAPPY.