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What the Mountains Mean to Me as Someone With Insomnia

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Dr. Schneck is the founder of SoulTrek, which aims to bring the healing power of nature to those who struggle with mental health and wellness. SoulTrek hosts in-person hikes around the general New York City area that focus on meditation, healing, and mental and physical wellness. To join a SoulTrek and get updates about more blog posts, please subscribe here.

I started sunrise hiking with a group of friends and immediately fell in love with it. Over time though, a worm of anxiety began to creep in. My whole life I’ve struggled with insomnia. I’m naturally a bad sleeper and any kind of pressure around my sleeping easily brings about sleepless nights. I started to worry, “what if I don’t sleep and then have to wake up in the fours?”

Before long it became impossible for me to sunrise hike with other people. The pressure of committing to an early morning with someone else inevitably led to sleepless nights. I once committed to going sunrise hiking with my niece and nephews and got only 45 minutes of sleep the night before.

In January of 2023, my oldest daughter had a day off of school, and the snow and ice had just started to accumulate in the Catskills. The Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain hike provides massive east-facing views of the rolling Catskill mountains. We had never been to the Catskills, my daughter had never done a sunrise hike, we had never climbed above 3,500 feet, so this would be the first for both of us. I knew sunrise here would be perfect.

And yet…

The stakes felt higher and more overwhelming than before. My daughter’s first sunrise hike, first Catskills hike, first 35’er. With 1.8 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing from the trailhead to the main view. We would need to arrive at the trailhead by 6:20 am, which meant leaving the house at 4:20 am. You can’t just wake a 14-year-old up at 4:20 — you have to warn them. All the perfect conditions for insomnia. Preplanned expectations, someone else relying on me who I could not stand to disappoint. Beyond that, I had a two-hour drive to get there and then back. I couldn’t afford to sleep for only 45 minutes. I had to make it work. I had to sleep.

And yet…

Ultimately, I went to bed, because I had no choice, because I didn’t know what would happen, because I’d rather try something hard than shy away from it, because I was scared and hopeful and sick of worrying about it. I went to sleep because that’s what you do, you go on, that’s what you do. And luckily, this time I slept.

We arrived at 6:20 am at the Giant Ledge Trailhead parking lot. One of the challenges of super early sunrise hiking is that your body still expects to be asleep when you start moving, so the warm up period takes longer. My daughter was really feeling this and said she felt like she had asthma (she doesn’t). She hit her wall at about 1,000 feet of climbing. She stopped and said she couldn’t go on. But we kept going on, because that’s what you do — you just keep on going.

We arrived. The woodland valley stretched out beneath us. The tops of mountains rolling from one to the next like a rippling of water, mist hovering in between the mountains tops quietly reflected the fuchsia of dawn. After a couple minutes three rays of sunlight beamed down from just above Slide Mountain, the bowl-shaped behemoth just off to our right. One ray arced down across the slope of the mountain, lighting a spotlight on the valley floor. One beamed across the tops of the mountains igniting the mists between them with bright pinks and orange. And one blended into the narrow band of pale pink orange underlining the bright winter blue of the sky. The clouds facing us began to glow from the back like an electric burner turning on behind them. The deep somber purple of night held to the western sides of the clouds facing us while their east-facing backs increasing lit up with scintillating gold, pink, and orange — a shining silhouette outlining the darker purple. The whole cloud cover seemed on the verge of shattering into a crimson golden explosion. While at the same time, a gray purple line of winter-bare trees rolled across the mountain floor like a soft fur, broken only by the occasional band of evergreen trees standing darkly in scattered groups.

Mountains at sunrise with clouds and gold sky above them

Dark purple peaks swam in between wisps of shimmering mist. A silent and ancient dance of purple shadows and golden light, like we’d stumbled upon something quiet and majestic, like watching two weathered samurai repeating an ancient sword dance in sacred silence.

We continued another 1,000 feet of climbing to the top of Panther, walking through the colors of the morning shifting gradually from pale pink to golden, reflecting off the fresh snow highlighting the bright green of pine needles sticking out from under their snowy blankets. The snow got deeper around us and soon we found ourselves atop Panther Mountain. On top of Panther at 3,700 feet the snow blanketed pine trees stand in a semicircle just below your feet. Past the thousand foot cliff beneath our feet, row after row of bare trees rise and fall along a rolling sea of snow covered hills. Hovering in place above, wispy clouds guard the silence.

Vertical photo of mountains with evergreen trees covered in snow in foreground and wisps of clouds in middle

Winter mountains radiate silence and quiet. Frozen waterfalls and trees blanketed in snow. Like the world hit pause. The pastel blue sky remains perpetually lit with a light band of pale orange almost like a never-ending sunset, a break in time. Those moments of endless, rolling, snow-covered mountains resting in silence provided just enough quiet for my own restless mind.

Horizontal view of snow-covered mountains

Originally published: February 21, 2023
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