Climbing the Austrian Alps

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“No—No! Wrong place!” a European man shouted from his Hyundai window, pointing up the steep incline. We knew we hadn’t seen any other bikers for miles, but we were determined and ignored his admonition. The 35 pounds of equipment strapped to the backs of our bikes made the 19% grade of the third and final Austrian Alp on our trip feel more like 91%. Tacking left and right may not have been the safest way to summit this 20-kilometer behemoth, but—because weight, steepness, and gravity all conspired to lift our front wheels right off the ground—it was the only viable option.

My quads and calves burned with every hard-fought rotation of the gears. I was used to pain. I knew what it felt like to run so hard that I would literally collapse more often than not after crossing the finish line in cross-country races. In the midst of an adrenaline rush, I cared little about having Vocal Chord Dysfunction (VCD), which precluded 40% of the oxygen I breathed from getting to where it needed to go. Agonizing as those races were, this was worse.

Sweat ran down my face and momentarily blinded me as my hands cramped up from squeezing the handlebars so tightly. I knew what it felt like to cramp up, too, from stage fright, as I did before my first Tri-M Music Honor Society solo, “If I loved You,” and again before my Martin Luther King Memorial Project solicitation speech to a crowded conference room at the Simsbury Lion’s Club. Agonizing as those were, this was worse.

I stole a glance up the switchback as the sun gleamed devilishly down on us. From the back of our pod someone yelled, “Sing, Heller, sing!” Incongruous and surreal, these were the last words I expected to hear at this particular moment. But suddenly the request made sense when I recalled sharing with the group that I sing and compose to relieve stress—from the daily pressures of homework and practice schedules to the intermittent pressures of musical and meetings—and that I promised to sing for them at some point. Even though I was already struggling to oxygenate my muscles, let alone my vocal chords, I just knew I had to comply, as I laughed inwardly at the absurdity of the situation. I took as deep a breath as I could and, buttressed by the collective energy coming from the pack, launched into “Run through the Rain,” a song I had recently composed and whose words seemed oddly right for the occasion.

Atop the Austrian Alps was not the only place I’ve experienced this kind of collective energy. As a composer and arranger for Women’s A Capella, I rely on every vocal part to contribute to an overall sound that is magically greater than the sum of its parts. As athletes, my Cross Country and Track teammates and I cheer each other on during races, pushing us to our best times. It’s the collective energy that animates each individual and each individual that contributes to a greater whole.

Big inhale, and then I let it rip: “Run through the rain…” Big inhale. “Sprint from the storm.” Big inhale. “Find the way back home.” As my words flew up the seemingly endless mountain, I understood that energy from groups has always been essential to my joy and peace of mind.

A kid with VCD whose favorite things to do are to run and bike and sing? Impossible! That’s about as likely as launching into song during the final stretch up the Austrian Alps. And yet, the power of people gathered together to achieve a common goal conjures magic that made both possible.

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