Shelly Zimmerman - The Healing Power Of The Mountains

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hi, I’m Shelly, mom, mountain climber, hiker and outdoor enthusiast.  My favorite place to be in the world is anywhere the sky is my roof and dirt and rocks are my floor.

And that has always been my preference, as far back as I can recall, the outdoors has always been the place where I feel like I belong.  It feels like home. It’s where I feel safe and free to be completely me.  

Growing up in Minnesota, we didn’t have mountains to climb but we did have great expanses of land and water to explore and play in as well as bluffs and rocks to scale and boulder. Which, at the time, my brother and I didn’t know we were bouldering, we were simply climbing up to the top to get a better view.  

My brother was my companion and cohort in my adventures and misadventures.  In the summers, we used to leave the house in the morning and stay out exploring the woods and creeks all day.  I think I was 10 years old on the day we didn’t notice the sun had gone down and we were still far from home. My mother had been calling all over our very small town inquiring if anyone had seen us.  We knew this because as we neared our home on our return, several people told us to “hurry home, your mom is worried.” The last person to tell us this added with laughter that our mom was going to be furious when she saw us.  I was confused but hurried.

We got home and yes, she was furious and relieved and then furious again when we started to go inside.  I didn’t understand until she told us to look at ourselves. My brother and I looked at each other and immediately started laughing. We were covered in mud from head to toe. My mom grabbed the garden hose, made us stand on the front lawn yelling at us for our bad behavior while she hosed us clean.  

30+ years later, I still, quite often, return from the mountains looking that same way.  No one is yelling at me for it but my kids laugh as they pull twigs out of my hair and point out that I have mother nature’s floor covering most of me.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

My mountain story started in Southern California when I was a sophomore at Whittier College.  That year was a very difficult one for me as I was struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and was on a path of self loathing and destruction.

At the suggestion of my counselor, I joined in on a hiking field trip led by one of the geology professors.  It was my first hike in the mountains and I was instantly hooked. I loved everything about it, the beauty of the  land, the exercise aspect, the solitude. And for a large part of the day, I got to leave my sad world behind escaping to play in the dirt just like I did as a young child.  I went on as many of these trips that I could. 

But that part of my mountain story had to end when I realized how horribly sad I was whenever we returned.  I tried so hard to keep those good feelings but every actual and perceived failure of mine led me to a very dangerous place of self hatred with more self destructive behavior.  And after one particularly bad night that ended with paramedics needing to be called, I made the decision to drop out of school and go to live with my parents who had recently moved to Washington State.  That’s also where the next chapter of my mountain story starts. The chapter where I fell in love with the mountains and stopped feeling like a total failure.

Being that this was pre-World Wide Web days and having never visited, I had very little knowledge of the state.  The only mountain knowledge I had of the Washington mountains was knowing about the eruption of Mt. Saint Helen’s from seeing the news coverage.  I had no idea what unimaginable beauty this state held.

I learn how far I can push myself, how it feels to succeed at extreme tasks, how it feels to fail at my goal but still feel good about myself.

My dad, also an outdoor enthusiast and experienced backpacker/hiker, had been here before for work but didn’t get to explore the area much at that time but was also in awe of all the mountain beauty.  So the two of us started to day hike and explore the area whenever we had the chance. Moving out of Southern California as well as spending so much time outdoors was making me happier and generally feeling better but I was still struggling with feelings of failure and low self-esteem. 

I don’t really remember how long we had been living here when my dad told me he heard from someone that we absolutely needed to go backpack in a place called the Enchantments.  

And so we did.  

We had a map of the area and the essential gear, all new, as this was going to be my first backpacking trip.  But we really didn’t know anything more about the area other than it was supposedly one of the most beautiful places in the world.  So when we stopped at the ranger station to get a permit we spoke to the ranger who suggested for our first trip there we set up camp and stay at Colchuck Lake, the gateway to the Enchantments.

Hiking with my heavy pack for 5 miles with over 2400ft of elevation gain was one of the hardest things I had ever done, and I wasn’t even the one carrying the heaviest load, but I loved it. I felt strong and capable of accomplishment.  There was amazing beauty everywhere and when we arrived at the lake, I understood why it was called the Enchantments. It looked like a scene from a magical land. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had never seen anything like it. I remember feeling so small as I looked across the lake at the two peaks that filled and almost blocked out the sky.  I was overwhelmed by happiness and a sense of pride. I suddenly realized it was the first time in a very long time I felt proud of myself at all.

I got to have many chances of feeling those same feelings all weekend as my dad taught me the right way to cook and clean up without polluting the lake and camp site.  He showed me how to read a trail map and use a compass, made me navigate us on our journey attempting to get to the core of the Enchantments. And to my surprise, I succeeded at all the tasks while having the time of my life.

That weekend was truly enchanting, in just a few days, I learned how to appreciate, respect and navigate life not just in the mountains but also my own.  My first steps on my own path to self love and worth and finding the confidence to believe in myself.

Over the years since then I have had many ups and downs and twists and turns, as that is simply what living a life is.  I had even stopped hiking for many years as I stayed at home to raise my two children.  

5 years ago is when I started hiking regularly again.  My brother and original outdoor adventure buddy, who grew up to be a very talented photographer, was going through a rough time and started isolating himself.  In an attempt to help get him out of his funk, I asked if he would teach me how to photograph nature. He reluctantly agreed and we went on our first hike together in over 15 years.  

We both had a blast exploring and once again I was witness to the magical healing power of the outdoors.  But this time, just as a spectator.

My advice to new hikers is to just get out and start.  If the weather is good, the trail is well marked and easy to follow, then go.

After this outing, my brother started planning weekly hikes with me and he was excited to be outdoors taking photographs and teaching.  As the weeks went on he got out of his funk and I began to realize how incredibly happy I was to be hiking again. I thought I was doing this to help him but I didn’t realize how much I needed it too.  

So I didn’t stop.  I kept hiking and mountain climbing at least once a week.  I even started mountain running. I couldn't imagine my life without it.  Until last spring, when I punched through the snow while hiking and tore all of the ligaments in my right ankle.  It was really hard at first but after a month or so, it made me appreciate and be grateful for the times I can get out.

I’m still not 100% healed but I am recovering and have started hiking and slowly running again.  I was just chosen to be a hiking brand ambassador for the Salomon sports company.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Mountains can teach us so many lessons.  Some days you climb to the summit with relative ease and feel like a superhero.  Some days you can barely make it to the top and some days you have to turn around without summitting at all. 

But what is consistent, is that it is always one step at a time, so I just keep going and trying.  I learn something new about myself every time I go out. I learn how far I can push myself, how it feels to succeed at extreme tasks, how it feels to fail at my goal but still feel good about myself.  

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

I love my Black Diamond Z trekking poles.  They are so lightweight I often forget I’m holding them.  But I do hold them to alleviate the swelling that I get in my hands when I hike.  I use them to test the snow I’m about to walk on, testing the depth, is it compact or will I punch through (no, I didn’t use them the time I injured my ankle)? And I use them on slippery descents and river crossings.

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

My advice to new hikers is to just get out and start.  If the weather is good, the trail is well marked and easy to follow, then go. 

Do as much research as you can.  When I am doing a new trail, I will read every trip report and take screen shots on my phone with the description highlighting any big markers to look for.  

Join a Facebook or meetup type hiking group.  There are a lot of them and usually are happy to help answer questions and give updates on trail conditions.  It’s the way I have found my hiking friends.  

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

My dad has been the most influential person in my outdoor adventures.  But the friends I have made through my facebook groups (Washington Hikers and Climbers, PNW Outdoor Women)  are where I have learned the most technical skills. And they are all amazing people doing amazing things.  It’s easy to be inspired by them and we all cheer each other on whether we are hiking together in a group or individually.

Where’s your next adventure?

I am currently training  for my first 50k trail race (The Wallace Falls Trail Run).  My ankle and I are still in negotiations about it but I’m feeling fairly confident that it will happen.  After that, learn more mountaineering skills to climb all the highest peaks in Washington State. Then who knows, I don’t ever put a limit on my dreams.

Where can others learn more about you?

My instagram is @talkingtomyselfandfeelingold

Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

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