FOMO, Depression, and the Other Side of My Story
Given the highlight reel of powder, mountains, and sending that I portray, people might think I am a source of perpetual stoke and positivity. But really, I deal with periodic negativity just like everyone else. Some recent conversations with friends about handling negativity has led me to write this post. I think that a strong mental foundation is the key to success with basically everything, not just mountaineering. And learning to deal with negativity is a pillar of that foundation.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is probably one of the most common feelings in mountain sports. Weather windows come and go and opportunities are fleeting. Maybe you do not have the free time, maybe you are injured, or maybe you have commitments to family. Hell, sometimes I just need a rest weekend, but I still feel the need to send it like everyone else. Whatever the reason, nothing sucks more than watching on social media your contemporaries getting after it while you are stuck on the ground. It sucks, and social media has only made it worse. Isn’t the grass always greener on the other side? It’s always bluebird blower pow in the Wasatch, right? Always sunny splitter granite in the Sierra, eh?
During my first few years at Gonzaga University, I had extreme FOMO. For some reason, I chose to go to a university far from the bigger mountains while most of my friends went to the local University of Washington, in the shadow of the Cascades. I had no car and felt pretty trapped. I remember looking at Facebook posts of Larch Madness in the fall of my sophomore year and feeling like I had made the wrong decision, putting myself so far from the mountains I loved. I got to the point where it was just so destructive, that I had to just quit Facebook for a while and focus on my current situation. I diverted this frustration and restlessness into building websites and apps with my roommates, programming like a maniac. These projects led to a great job after graduation. This cushy software gig is what gives me the weekday flexibility to get out in the mountains a lot now. It paid off, in more ways than one.
During my junior and senior year, I had a car on campus but still not enough time to get out to the bigger mountains. Instead, I resolved that I would utilize all Spokane had to offer to become a lean sending alpine machine by graduation. At the time, I was just a non-technical mountaineer; I did not know how to ski, rock climb, or ice climb. So I hit the crags ten minutes from campus with rigor, teaching myself to trad climb. I made a few weekend trips to Hyalite Canyon, learning to ice climb. I utilized those $15 night skiing tickets at Mt. Spokane to hone my skiing (for more about my journey as a skier, see my article about learning to ski). And I dreamed of what I would do once I had more free time – researching, mapping, scheming. So when Kylie and I went on our two month graduation trip around the West, we were ready and we absolutely killed it. Training in Spokane allowed us to send it big time in the biggest places in the lower 48 – the Tetons, the High Sierra, the Winds.
In retrospect, I think going to college in Spokane actually made me a better mountain athlete, despite it being far from any real mountains. The technical growth I experienced, building completely new skills, has enabled me to do so much more now that I have returned to the Cascades. Additionally, it taught me how to channel that FOMO. Capture the flame, accumulate the fuel, and you will burn brighter than before.
While FOMO may be one of the common afflictions I hear of, depression is something far worse and more complex. Two years ago, Kylie broke up with me. She is a great person and we are still friends, but there were just undeniable reasons that we could not be together. To say I was crushed is a vast understatement. I was way too deep in love, way too committed for a twenty two year old. But where does flakiness get anyone? How do you complete a traverse of epic proportions but by making a rappel, leaving yourself only one path forward? I believe that most great things are only accomplished when you leave yourself no option of turning back. I have lived with the consequences of that philosophy, for better or for worse.
I have a great support network of family and friends. I have great privilege and a good job. But it was still tough for me. The mountains were my answer. They came more than just a hobby – a passion, a community, a reason. I have been playing in the mountains for seven years now, but that day at the end of March 2019, that was the birth of “Climber Kyle”. Yes, it was a creation out of desperation and sadness, a phoenix from the ashes. That is the day my relationship with the mountains reached a new level, because I simply needed it so badly.
“Climber Kyle” is vain. He goes on adventures, writing formulaic trip reports with eye-catching photos. He sprays about these trips all over Facebook, Cascade Climbers, and Instagram. He lives for the melodic “ding” of a Facebook like and checks his blog for daily viewing statistics. He covets words of affirmation from other randos on the internet. But the truth is, thousands of likes and comments cannot fill the void of just one. The endorphins wear off, the posts fade from the feed, and he is once again alone. This is the cycle, over and over. Each time he goes bigger, thinking this time it will finally bring him happiness, but it is never enough. Because all the chocolate in the world cannot replace the sweetness of a single strawberry that has gone sour.
“Climber Kyle” is inspirational. He dreams, he creates, he tells stories from some of the most epic and creative journeys in the mountains. He doesn’t just follow the herds; he listens to his soul and mind. He respects the mountains, takes beautiful photography, and takes readers with him on his journeys. Most of all, he inspires others to reflect on their pursuits, dream bigger, and create experiences that are beautiful and meaningful. He is an artist and the mountains are his canvas, drawing lines in ways people had not imagined before.
Over that summer 2019, I wandered through the mountains, looking for answers, trying to fill that void inside of me. Some of my greatest trips – the Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse, the Dakobed Range Circumnavigation – were a result of that soul searching. My motivation was two fold – I loved the mountains, but I also just so desperately needed them. Each step of my right foot was driven by love and wonder of these wild places, but each step of my left foot was driven by sadness, running from the reality I didn’t want to accept. I had an incredible summer fueled by pain and joy. It was a weird dance between negativity and positivity, but I held it together, at least for a while.
During late September 2019, a strong early season snowstorm hit the Cascades, blanketing the mountains in feet of snow, effectively ending my alpine season. We then entered a bizarre three month period where there was too much snow to run or climb, but not enough to ski. It was incredibly frustrating. It felt like shackles had been placed upon me. Denied from the alpine, I started to fall apart. I tried dating apps and quickly realized the sober truth: young Asian men are just about the least desire-able demographic. This only made it worse. For the first time in my life, I was truly depressed.
Enter fall ice climbing. The lingering snow and sunny weather led to some incredible alpine ice conditions, like once in a decade. I strung together an fantastic trio of challenging climbs – NW Couloir of Eldorado, NE Couloir of Dragontail, and finally Cosley Houston on Colfax. I was swinging way above my pay grade, sending the steeps not on fear of falling, but fear of getting off that roller coaster, coming off that high. Honestly, it might sound crazy, but at the time, it felt like ice was the only thing I had going for me. Ice saved me that fall.
At times, it can be hard to distinguish between stoke of the negative and positive kinds. That incredible ice season was definitely a dangerous mix of the two. My climbing was desperate, but everything felt desperate those days, and at least being gripped 500 ft off the ground hanging from my tools relieved my mind of its other problems. Paired with another strong, stoked partner, Porter, we made grand plans for the biggest prize of all – the unclimbed West Face of Sloan.
My adventure on Sloan still sometimes feels like fiction. Really it was the wild culmination of that synthesis of negative and positive energies I had been riding for so long. I love ice climbing – it still feels like the most ridiculously wonderful sport – and had dreamt of Sloan every since I learned to climb. But I admit that part of my motivation to go up came from the ongoing battle with depression – I saw it as an even bigger hit of temporary relief. Do I regret going? No. But maybe my decision making was subtly affected by my mental state. I was playing with fire, all that negative energy. In the heat of the moment, it is hard to distinguish emotion from reason.
As I laid in bed during March 2020, recovering from my fall and watching a pandemic turn the world upside down, I felt this bizarre feeling of calm take over my life. It was like I had left all that depression high up on the icy face of Sloan. I still do not understand what happened. It was like I was free again. Perhaps such a crazy turn of events brought new perspective to what is truly important in life. Perhaps I just needed an emotional release.
I still feel negative emotions from time to time like everyone else. During January 2021, we had a good alpine ice window, but I was out recovering from an oral surgery. I told my friends Michael and Doug about this sick unclimbed hanging ice pillar high on the west face of Chair Peak that I had scouted for a few years. They went out and sent the route “The Upper Westside“, which deserves utter classic status. I was absolutely stoked for them and the community, but I was also jealous. I wanted the glory and adventure too. Hey, no one is perfect. After all, I have a blog – I obviously at least dabble in vanity.
I used to think that my need for affirmation from others came from childhood experiences. First, they said I was too young to enter school. Proved them wrong. As I was younger than other kids in my grade, I felt overlooked as a basketball player because of my height, the fact I wore goggles, and the color of my skin. Proved them wrong too. This “underdog complex” was definitely part of my identity, and still is to a certain extent. People often ask me why I went to a “non-traditional” (ie not highly rated) computer science school like Gonzaga University, when I could have gone to University of Washington or Cal-Berkley. Subconsciously, maybe I just wanted to put myself at an underdog university also. It definitely worked out.
More recently, I have come to the conclusion that, I think most of all, I am seeking self recognition. Climber Kyle is out seeking public affirmation, but the true battle is for self relevance. Part of me will always feel like I have to do better. Call it insecurity, perfectionism, comparisonism, whatever you want – that is the part of me that drives me to work hard, try new things, and share my stories. But that part of me is insatiable. It will never be satisfied. I have to tame that flame, capture that drive, because it is both potent and harmful, a dangerous dance.
I think that most of us carry some baggage into the mountains. If you open the backpack, you might find memories, loss, resentment, or frustration. But the mountains have a way of transforming that sadness into something beautiful, something healing. Mountains are our therapy. For better or worse, we bring our whole selves into the hills, negativity and all. That negativity can be harnessed and utilized in a constructive way – to train, to plan, to dream, to discover. But at the same time, it can be terribly destructive. Everyone is different and needs to understand their unique motives and emotions. For me, that has only come through a lot of self reflection and different experiences. Most of all, remember that we, just like our adventures, are a process. And the only way is up.