Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What The Mountains Say

Panoramic progression up Pike's Peak
These last two summers have seen a new activity added to my list of hobbies: that of hiking Colorado's various 14'ers (that is, mountains that rise higher than 14,000 feet in elevation). Now, while I don't pretend to be Mr. Mountain Man or Mr. Outdoors by any stretch of the imagination, I have greatly enjoyed getting to hike some of the high points of the Rockies. In 2013, I began with my first, Mt. Yale, and have continued on with Pike's Peak and Humboldt Peak this year. I have certainly enjoyed the experiences overall while managing to retain a certain antagonism toward a few aspects of the hikes themselves: basically, there's usually an ongoing conversation in my head during my ascent as to whether or not I want to quit before I reach the summit, whether or not this will definitely be the last time I do something like this, or just how stupid and/or terrible and/or out of shape I feel gasping for breath on a path 12,000 feet above sea level (as Buhl once said, "Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.")

There is, however, a certain spiritual quickening to the experience of climbing mountains as well as a few striking metaphors I've noticed with regards to living a full life and chasing after one's dreams. I'd like to share a few of these with you today. Ansel Adams said, "No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being." I think I've found this to be true. I can't help but see certain undeniable aspects of life reflected in the experience of climbing a high peak, and I would encourage everybody out there to do it at least once. There really is nothing like it.

With that said, here are a few thoughts that have formulated during the many hours it took to climb some of these Colorado 14'ers and in the rumination afterward. Hopefully, the metaphorical points will be easy to spot. If not, well, then I apologize for being a terrible writer.
You will feel better once you start moving. Arising in a tent after a long night of being kept awake by howling wind is no one's definition of enjoyable. For me, my joints were suffused with stiffness, my head ached, and my allergies had caused a level of gridlock in my sinuses that would impress a New York City rush hour. But once we actually embarked up the mountain, my grouchiness wore off, the sinuses loosened up, and I began to feel pretty good. There is something about movement - the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of movement - that simply makes us feel better. We were made to move. We respond to movement. Forward motion and growth is part of our purpose. So, don't focus on the discomfort of feeling stuck - focus instead on the joy of one single, tiny, baby step forward. After all, every single one of those steps is one closer to your goal.

It's important to rest. Having said that, it is vitally important to take breaks every once in awhile. Nobody flies up these mountains, and even the most veteran climbers understand the need for rest & recovery, even if just for a short time. Don't neglect your very real need to stop & breathe every once in awhile. You will never make it up the mountain if they only thing you ever do is insist on moving. Movement is important. It is made possible by rest. Never be afraid to take time off from your pursuits - even if it's to do nothing at all. Replacing one kind of movement with another kind of movement is still movement. We need to be comfortable with downtime and off days. The grind will be there tomorrow, I assure you.

Staring down the barrel of Humboldt Peak.
Stay nourished. Along with rest with is the necessity for proper nourishment. Climbing or hiking a mountain requires a pretty sizable reserve of energy that needs to be replenished regularly. In the literal sense, it comes in the form of hydrating and eating - keeping the water and calorie intake up. For our metaphorical purposes, let's say that it's important to stay inspired & excited and to retain a feeling of privilege both that you are alive and get to do whatever it is that you get to do. So, whatever inspires you, whatever motivates you, whatever keeps the fire burning: feast on those things. Regularly. Make them priorities. If you don't, you'll never make the summit.

There is no way to get the views without the climb. There are no shortcuts. If you want the grand panoramas, the breathtaking views, and the victory of the summit, you have to climb. You have to put in the work in order to get the payoff. If the discomfort and the effort seem like too much and you'd rather not try, then you have no legitimate right to complain about not getting to share in the experiences of those who decided to take a shot. Playing it safe and taking it easy are very real options. You can choose those roads if you'd like. But, down the road, you'll have no one to blame but yourself if looking back on all of the could-have-been's leaves you feeling let down & disappointed.

It always takes longer than you think. For some reason, in my experience, people out on the mountains seem to have a terrible sense of time. Specifically, the sense of how long the trek (or the rest of it, depending on where you happen to be) will actually take. It doesn't seem to matter if you're just starting out at the trail head or less than a mile from the summit: everyone seems to have overly optimistic concepts of how much longer you have to go before you reach your goal. Perhaps this comes from a desire to encourage ("You're almost there!") and boost people's spirits, but it always results in frustration once you realize you've gone the expected amount of time and still haven't reached the destination. Look: approximate estimations of how long things will take are fine, but they should always be taken with a grain of salt. No one knows for sure how long the journey will take because no two people are the same - not in their capabilities, not in their circumstances, not in their limitations or requirements. What's required of you is what's required of you, and what it looks like when all is said and done will be different from what it looks like for anyone else. For some, the hike may be arduous and take longer than other people would ever be willing to commit. For others, the hike might seem simple, straightforward, and uncomplicated. God tells nobody any story but their own: the goal should not be to compare your journey with other people's, but to complete it.

Team Burns at the summit of Humboldt Peak.

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