March 2015: Turning 30. Single. Broke. Eating Disorder. Chronic Depression. Need I go on?
Kristina Bushman’s blog post said it all. Barely surviving here in Minnesota, she went to Colorado’s mountains to heal and reclaim her life.
The 30-year-old former personal trainer, who briefly lived there, planned to hike 55 Colorado “14ers” — mountains that reached 14,000 feet or higher — before winter came once again to the peaks. Thousands of people hike one or more 14ers each year, but far fewer have hiked all of them — a count that ranges from 53 to 58, depending on who’s counting and how.
For Bushman, of Forest Lake, the quest that ended Oct. 4 was about recovery from her six-year battle with bulimia. Her parents and treatment team didn’t think it was a great idea, fearing she wouldn’t get enough nutrition or might relapse. But Bushman wanted to prove she could overpower the eating disorder voice in her head — a voice she and others dub “ED.”
“I needed to remove myself from the pulls of society,” she said. “It would be a time that I would look at food as fuel instead of good and bad food. I literally wouldn’t make it if I couldn’t eat enough.”
According to the most recent tally kept by the Colorado Mountain Club, 1,684 people have hiked all the 14ers since 1923, said club spokesman Jeff Golden. “Those are just the people who have reported it,” he said. “It’s probably double that.”
Still, it’s really an “elite group,” Golden said. Even fewer have hiked all of them in one season. Teachers, students and those who are unemployed might have the ability to complete them in one summer, but most people take three to five years to do it, Golden said.
Bushman had long struggled with her body image, thinking she was “chubby” in fifth grade and dieting in sixth grade. When she was cut from her college volleyball team her sophomore year, she sought a “better body” by exercising three hours a day or more.
But combined with depression, her body couldn’t keep up. So she started purging. “I had a roommate who was bulimic and anorexic, and I said this was way easier. I wouldn’t have to spend all day at the gym. And that’s kind of has been my fight every day since.”
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June 8: It was a very interesting first attempt at climbing a fourteener. … But to sum it up, this is what I learned. ED has NO place on this journey. I under packed my food on purpose because I felt I had gained weight because of all the eating out I had been doing. DUMB. NEVER AGAIN! I was actually concerned that I wouldn’t make it out because I was so exhausted. … As soon as I started walking, my lungs were burning and working as hard as if I was sprinting. My legs burned. … Imagine being on a stair stepper, feet weighted, lungs and legs burning, constantly gasping for air, for 6 hours and you can imagine my pain.
Her failed attempt at Grays Peak was a teaching moment. She got a water purifier so she could drink more, and learned to carry denser foods like Pop-Tarts, Clif Bars and trail mix — foods she once feared. She also needed more time to train and get acclimated, all the while hoping more snow would melt from the mountains.
Mapping out her summer, Bushman first hiked the easiest 14ers, giving her time to gain experience and strength before she tackled the most difficult. On June 24, she completed the first 14er on her list: Mount Bierstadt.
Most hikes took about eight hours to complete, although Snowmass Mountain was a 17-hour climb that started at 3 a.m. with a group of five men she met at the start. “My feet hurt so bad,” she said.
Bushman hiked other mountains with others she met along the way or through her blog. Mostly, however, she hiked alone, following the maps and photos she downloaded from 14ers.com.
On Mount Eolus, she lost her directions and went up the side of the mountain instead of zigzagging up its front. “You’re on top of skinny rock and if you fall down either side, you could die,” Bushman said. “So I crawled across the rocks to get where I needed to go. … By the time I got to the summit, I actually cried from being so scared.”
She carried her cellphone and a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, an off-the-grid device that allowed her to get help if she needed and notify her mother when she reached a peak and returned from one.
“My mom lost sleep,” Bushman said. “She was always worrying.”
But Bushman grew more confident, scrambling up the tougher climbs, using strength to pull herself up boulders while keenly focusing on where to take her next step or place her hand.“I was always focused on where to put my next foot and where I needed to put my hand,” she said. “As long as you focus on that and throw all emotions to the side, it becomes this puzzle. And that got me through.”
Focus on the mountain also helped push Bushman through three relapses that drew her back into her binge-and-purge cycle.
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September 16: I drove back into town and spent $20 on binge foods and sat in my car most of the day bingeing and watching “Breaking Bad.” … I was sad and depressed, and I just wanted to numb it all and have it go away. This trip is getting harder each day with new challenges. But I try to remind myself with tears in my eyes that this is absolutely worth it. That this will all make me stronger. That this is a once in a life time opportunity and I can do this for a couple more weeks. I can! I can! I can! I will get it together!
“I didn’t go to the mountains to lose weight,” she said three weeks after returning from her trip. “But I would be lying if that didn’t cross my mind. There were definitely days when I probably did skimp a little bit on purpose.”
But eventually she would shut down the eating disorder. “It’s about finding a voice and a purpose louder than ED,” she said. “There were a few times ED would win. But the feeling of wanting to complete something I started was greater.”
Oftentimes, recovery isn’t this “straight, perfect line,” said Heather Gallivan, a psychologist and clinical director at Melrose Center, a treatment facility. “There are going to be pitfalls and hurdles. ”
While eating disorder experts advise those in recovery to try new things and develop an identity outside of the eating disorder, Gallivan said she and other experts would likely discourage someone new in recovery from taking on an extreme sport or endeavor.
“You’re replacing one extreme behavior with another,” she said. “Sometimes they can be fine, but oftentimes it doesn’t work well for the person. … It’s still hard to know and judge how often and how much you have to eat to support that.”
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October 4 #55 Crestone Peak: I continued to climb searching for cairns through the fog and somehow found my way to the summit! It was such a strange moment. It was so quiet, so cold and I couldn’t see anything around me. This is my finish? It honestly felt so anticlimactic.
Back in Minnesota, Bushman knows “ED’s” voice will continue to pop up in her head, challenging her will and recovery. But her journey through the mountains has made her feel stronger. And she hopes it will inspire others recovering from addictions to live life without fear.
“It restored hope that I can live an extraordinary life,” she said. “Before that, all I could imagine was quitting every minimum wage job I had and going in and out of treatment my entire life. It taught me that I have the determination to do anything I put my mind to.”