I’ve started practicing with a mask. I like to practice all parts of a climb that I can (while living at sea level) so that when summit day comes, I’ll have my systems all in order. I will be climbing with supplementary oxygen, or O’s as we sometimes call it, on Everest. The O’s are delivered from a tank in my backpack through a hose to the mask. The equation for me to use supplemental O’s is simple: the altitude plus my skill level plus my physiology plus my risk tolerance plus my wish to come back without frostbitten toes and fingers equals my decision to use supplemental oxygen which brings me back to the mask.
Put your two pinkie fingers together in front of your chest. Now raise your two hands up until your two thumbs cradle your jaw bone and your finger enclose your nose. You are now wearing the mask. Try to look down without moving your head. Notice you can now hear your breathing. Notice you suddenly want to say, “Luke, I am your father.”
Wearing a mask presents several challenges. The first is claustrophobia. I have heard stories of climbers ending their summit bids because they could not deal with the feelings of claustrophobia that arose on summit day when they donned their masks. When I first put on my practice mask, (a paint respirator from Princess Auto…I love that name…and I love Princess Auto because my dad loved Princess Auto. I call it “La Senza” for men) the first thing I noticed was a small sense of claustrophobia–a tiny inkling of rising panic–an urge to rip the mask from my face.
Then I noticed the sound of my breath. In. Out. In Out. Faster than normal. Hearing my breath isn’t normal for me. In. Out. In. Out. Breathe. I feel the claustrophobia rise further and know that I must work with it quickly before it gained more ground.
Like in meditation, I used the attenuation of my breath to pay attention. I observed my breath enter. I observed my breath go out. In. Out. I reframed hearing my breath. I said to myself, “That will make it easier to count breaths, make it easier to find a step to breath rhythm. I also flipped the claustrophobia in my mind. I turned it from stifling to comforting. The mask kept my face warm in the blasting wind chill. I decided to remake the mask into my happy place. A warm, nurturing space. It worked. The claustrophobia waves eased into a still reflection of my mind.
I kept climbing the hill, learning to step without seeing my feet. I felt like I was only a head–that somehow my body had been removed–and I was only a head somehow floating up the back side of Signal Hill. I realized I couldn’t see the chest strap of my backpack. That I must practice doing it up and undoing by feel, not by sight. I realized that I must sort out exactly where I will stash things like snacks, lip balm, and sunglasses that I can reach them by feel.
“I must remember to install different length zipper pulls, I tell myself so that I can easily know which zipper is which. Soon, I was moving easier over the rocks and roots. I could glance out at the steely blue sea that stretched to the horizon. At some point, I realized I can’t hear my breath anymore and wonder where it went. “Did my mind stop paying attention to the sound?” “Am I breathing quieter now?” “If I breathe in a mask and there is no one to hear it, do I make a sound?” All entertaining questions to me as I kept climbing up the hill hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone else on the trail. I was worried that I might scare folks by doing my best Darth Vader imitation.
A little higher on the hill, I realized the mask was chaffing one of my cheeks. “I might need to tape contact points or use moleskin to protect my skin,” I told myself. I also need to check that both of my pairs of glacier glasses will work with the mask as well as my goggles. More practice sessions will be necessary to keep finding out all the things I need to think about/plan for with the mask that I don’t already know as well as lots more practice in putting on the mask and surviving the first five minutes of wearing it. Fortunately, through practice, I know to expect the claustrophobia, I expect the sound of my breath and I expect to work with my mind on the mask and so many other things while undertaking this climb.
It’s funny that if you ask a Westerner to point to their mind, they will typically point to their head. If you ask a Tibetan, they will typically point to their hearts. If I ask myself where my mind is, I point to my keyboard (I learn about my mind through writing and reflecting); I point to my voice (I learn about my mind through telling stories and listening as the pieces come together; I point to my breath (I learn about my mind by breathing in and out and watching myself breath in and out) and finally, I point to my head/ears (I learn about my mind by listening/observing my mind narrate my life).
Wearing a mask with supplemental O’s is another way to deepen my understanding of the interaction of my mind/ feelings and navigating a way forward with/between/despite them and I know I’ll be practicing much more with the mask in the upcoming weeks…so if you see Darth Vader pulling a tire up Signal Hill or hiking the East Coast Trail, be sure to stop and say hello.