Nature has always been a source of security and comfort for me. Trekking into the beautiful unknown has always made me feel connected to myself and the world around me, filling me with pure and genuine happiness. Backpacking, in my experience, allows you to see the best of the world and of the people you're with.

When I signed up for an "Alpine Challenge" trip - a month of difficult backpacking across Switzerland - I was seeking an escape from the trials of high school and the chaos in my own brain. I knew that venturing into the mountains would make me happier, but I couldn't have predicted the degree to which the trip changed my perspective.

Some Background

Molly Gallagher

To explain how the trip changed me, I have to begin before it started. I had just finished my junior year of high school, and the trials of the previous three years had left me needing some time away from home.

Molly Gallagher

During sophomore year, the stress of high school escalated to a full-blown anxiety disorder that, paired with the accompanying depression, manifested itself into an eating disorder that consumed my life. I dropped 25 pounds, exercised obsessively, retreated from the activities I loved, and isolated myself from my friends as the disorder took over my personality.

In the fall of junior year, I sought help from my parents and entered recovery. Throughout the rest of the year, I gained back the weight and developed ways to cope with depression and anxiety. By the spring, I was physically and mentally a lot stronger, but still struggling to accept myself at a healthy size.

The Trip

kettle, water, beer, grass, coffee
Molly Gallagher

Physically, this was the most intense backpacking trip I have ever done. Over the course of four weeks, we hiked 220 miles and went up/down more than 69,000 feet of elevation with only one day off. We carried all of our gear and food on our backs, and our packs likely clocked in at 25-30% of each person's body weight. 

However, the trip's biggest challenge was the mental component. All 14 of us were physically capable of completing each day's hike, but it took a lot more effort to keep ourselves motivated to do so. Many people, including myself, had mental breakdowns because they were unsure that they could continue. 

beer, marshmallow, ice
Molly Gallagher

To fuel each day's mileage, we ate a ton of food. We shopped for groceries every 2-3 days, buying 3 cans of Pringles for each day, bags upon bags of muesli, trail mix, and candy for snacks in addition to 3 full meals a day and dessert. The only limit to what we could eat was what we were willing to carry - and we were willing to carry a lot. 

Since we were in Switzerland, the land of cheese and chocolate, we consumed ungodly quantities of both as well as French pastries and life-alteringly delicious European gummies (why is candy so much better there?) 

None of us had phones with us, which allowed us to fully experience the magic of backpacking: living in the moment, appreciating our surroundings, and building lifelong friendships. 

How I Changed

coffee, beer, water, tea, grass
Molly Gallagher

This trip pushed me to my physical and mental limits, challenging what I believed about myself, food, and how I interact with others. 

For the first time in years, I allowed myself to eat without restraint. I ate intuitively – eating what I thought would make me happiest, whether it be an apple or a brownie. Sometimes I took one too many servings of pasta and made myself sick, and sometimes I got anxious about what I was eating, but I was able to return to a rational mindset faster than ever before. 

huevos rancheros, cheese, fried egg, hash, bacon, egg
Molly Gallagher

I understood that, in order to not just complete the hikes but actually enjoy them, I needed to fuel my body with protein and yes, carbs too. Most of the time, my only meal or snack options were fear foods like bread, pasta, tortillas, pastries, or candy; foods I refused to eat a year ago. On the trip, I ate all of these things with neither stress nor regret - a major accomplishment. 

Even though I was well aware of the quantity of food I was eating, I still allowed myself to love my body and feel pride in what it accomplished each day. I took over 1,200 pictures, many of them selfies and pictures of my legs, because I wanted to document my confidence on trail, the strength of my muscles, and the beautiful places both had taken me.

tea, beer
Molly Gallagher

Others in my group also dealt with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, so many hours of conversation on trail were dedicated to describing our experiences and talking through our current issues. These discussions empowered me to overcome my own obstacles with the support of my friends, and then turn around to return the favor. 

Our group prioritized selflessness and supporting each other. If you happened to have extra space in your pack, you didn't celebrate carrying a lighter load, but offered to take weight from someone who was struggling to fit their gear. Even if you were having a tough day, you put aside your pain to help the rest of the group make it to the top of the pass.

coffee, water
Molly Gallagher

This group mentality helped me put my struggles in perspective and changed the way I interact with others. I hope that I brought the selflessness I practiced on trail home with me, because I want to continue putting others' needs before my own and being the most supportive friend I possibly can be. 

If everyone took the same consideration for others that our group did while hiking, I believe that a lot of conflict could be resolved before it started and that people would be happier overall. Not everyone can take a month to escape the world in the backcountry, but everyone can take time to consider others' conditions before complaining or passing judgement.

wine, beer, water
Molly Gallagher

I am so grateful to have had such a transformative experience overseas, and I owe it to my incredible group and leaders. Each of them helped me feel more comfortable, and even confident, in my own skin than I have in years and taught me how to be a supportive, loyal friend. I hope that I was able to be as wonderful to them as they were to me.