As someone who is accustomed to the flat prairies of Eastern Montana and relatively new to mountain living, I was surprised to find in wilderness hiking and mountain climbing, a passion that has eclipsed any of my previous past-time pursuits. Consequently, I have started to anticipate and plan my upcoming alpine adventures once the sun comes out and the snow begins to recede. While I have enjoyed a few epic sojourns on snow shoes, this dreary winter has started to lay claim on my once buoyant, sun-fed, summit-high spirits.
Although I have been feeling trapped by the erratic ice and slop of this cloud enshrouded valley, I have actually been doing a lot of mountain climbing lately. No, I haven’t been lucky enough to escape the winter snows of Montana for warmer climes and dry trails, and unlike the fervid mountain goat that I am during the other three seasons, I haven’t quite become a snow bunny on the slopes. Rather, I have been clambering up metaphorical mountainsides, those looming peaks and cliffs of life.
Turns out, despite my prairie legs, climbing mountains really wasn’t such a foreign concept to me after all. I have been climbing mountains all my life but it wasn’t until I began climbing the genuine deals that I realized just how important the proper tools for climbing mountains are.
I find that in the wilds, the only boundary lines I face are the physical ones. I conquer the physical boundaries I encounter on my weekend escapades to the mountains far more adeptly than the invisible ones that dwell within me. I remember the first time I visited Glacier a little over 3 years ago. I was timid in my steps. I stayed firmly planted n the middle of the Avalanche Lake Trail, I shuddered at the height of the Hidden Lake Overlook, and I clung to the walls of the Highline Trail, afraid to look down for fear that my less than graceful tendency to trip would send me plummeting to my certain death.
Fast forward 2.5 years and many a mountain climbed. A lot has changed in my life. I went from living a rather sheltered life in a place I had known for more than 24 years with lots of friends and family providing a safety net of support to one of the unknown where I found myself more often than not completely on my own as I navigated a new job, a new town, and very new lifestyle. I will admit to suffering serious bouts of doubt in my decision to completely uproot my life. I had attained a place of security and confidence in life after years of work overcoming a serious illness, several job changes, and being the caregiver to both parents during 2 serious health crises. I was finally in a very happy place before I embarked on the unknown and I struggled to come to terms with my new reality that I purposely chose. Rather than reaching a mountain summit with grand views, I found myself lost in a fog of uncertainty.
But I have also spent a lot of time in the mountains in these last 2.5 years, taking on
evermore challenging routes and reaching new heights with new friends and a new sense of confidence. When I find myself in the mountains, the fog and the doubt I suffered and the limitations that came with them seem less so. With each challenge on and off the trail faced, the rock walls of fear and doubt that once held me back from making difficult decisions to working through grief to believing in myself, crumble.
With each physical boundary that I once flinched at crossing conquered, the invisible boundaries that confine my life and seemed insurmountable, dissipate in their strength and formidability.
Now, along with the dust of more than 50 hikes and the summit of 5 peaks collected on my Oboz and Salomon boots, I have also grown more sure-footed and more courageous in my mountainous exploits. I run to the edge of precipices to get a better view, scamper to the top of Angel Wing, and slink along goat trails that cling to cliff edges. I have claimed victory with my Carol Burnett style Tarzan call on the top of MT Siyeh, MT Henckel, Crow Feet, Triple Divide and Razor’s Edge. Each one a mountain with unexpected challenges and rewards.
More often than not, these off the beaten path excursions become adventures in psychotherapy. The depth and breadth of analysis that takes place singularly and in conversation with equally escape-oriented souls is unmatched by the same we pay experts to guide us through. The clarity of mind I have as I settle in for the drive home after a day on a mountain nearly matches that of the brilliant clear blue sky that I found at the top. And with that clarity of mind I am starting to understand how three very important pieces of climbing equipment can make molehills out of mountains, or at least get me to the top and down in one piece – that is if I use them.
My first piece and one of the most important pieces of mountain climbing equipment is a good pair of boots. I have worn through the soles of my first pair and moved on to a sturdier more rugged pair of Salomons. Hiking boots are your foundation, without them, you risk slipping on wet rock, bruised and blistered feet, twisted ankles, and if you are like me, tripping and falling at the most inopportune times. My first pair of hiking boots left me wanting…. Their soles became very slippery if they got wet, and while slipper like in comfort, they did not provide the support I needed for meandering 20+ miles in a day.
Just like we need a good pair of hiking boots to keep us on solid ground and sure of foot when climbing mountains, we need a strong personal foundation to keep us upright when we encounter the challenges we face in life. A strong personal foundation can be formed through the practice of our religious faith; the moral and ethical values we were brought up with; and the lessons we learn from mentors and friends throughout our life. Our personal foundation consists of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness. Having a strong personal foundation helps us to be self-directed and self-reflective in our goals. A strong personal foundation helps us maintain excellence and integrity in our work. When we encounter the unknown, a strong personal foundation keeps us focused. When we have a strong personal foundation we are aware of our strengths and can acknowledge areas where growth is necessary. A strong personal foundation helps us to be courageous in our curiosity for what we might become. Simply put, our personal foundation is the basis of our identity. Without a strong sense of who we are and what we desire for our lives, the challenges we face will be difficult to overcome as we do not know where we are going or how we define success.
My hiking boots have seen me through some challenging routes and very long days on the trail. I am confident in their treads to keep me from slipping and their support keeps me pushing forward to the end. Knowing who I am at my core has helped me make difficult moral judgement calls as well life altering decisions with confidence rather than doubt.
The next piece of equipment that accompanies me on all my hikes are my trekking poles. I used to eschew them as inconvenient hindrances to the free movement of my arms; an unnecessary weight and a crutch for the clumsy. That was until I started climbing 10K foot peaks and descending scree slopes that grabbed and tore at my ankles and shins. Trekking poles give us much needed balance when navigating across rocks in a running stream. They take the load off our knees on steep descents and they give us stability when scrambling through boulder fields. In essence, they are our friends- not an inconvenient weight on the journey.
I have always been a bit of a free spirit – choosing to make my way in life on my own. Certainly I have friends, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I realized what true friendship is about and how important it is to have that connection with someone. It is important to have one or two good friends in your life- trekking poles if you will – who can share your load, give balance to your perspective on things and provide support when the going gets rough. A good friend sees through our tough skins, excuses, doubts, and tells us like it is. They support us even when we don’t think we need support. They provide humor when needed and a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on when the trials of life get dark or endless. Trekking poles make those steep summit climbs and descents a bit less painful, and friends make the celebrations when we conquer the mountains of life all the more sweet.
The last piece of equipment that is crucial to your survival on the mountain is your backpack. I have met many a hiker on a trail with just a water bottle clipped to their belt and maybe a fanny pack. I am amazed, not at their scarce need for sustenance and supplies but by their sheer stupidity. Inside my backpack are the tools critical for survival – first aid, food, water, bear spray, extra clothing, Matches, MAPS, and of course my camera! Suffice it to say my back pack contains everything I would need to survive if I couldn’t make it back to my car as planned. The necessities of life. Over time I have learned which items I will always take with me, which items simply add extra weight to my burden, and which items my fellow hikers swear by and I will one day too.
The back pack you carry with you as you climb the mountains of life contains all the life lessons you have learned along the way, your experiences – both good and bad, and the wisdom you have acquired from your family and friends. Some refer to this carry all as “baggage” in a negative sense. I look at this “baggage” as a collection of tools I have gathered throughout life, experiences in the past that have prepared me for the challenges I am facing now – just as these challenges are preparing me for the next life adventure. When I look at this sometimes heavy baggage from that perspective, I will gladly carry it upon my back and take comfort in knowing that in it I have the tools necessary to climb and conquer the mountains of life.
A firm foundation will see you through the longest of journeys; friends you can trust to support you will give you the balance needed when everything else in your life seems off-kilter; and a backpack filled with the life you have lived upon your shoulders – these are the tools I turn to for climbing the mountains of life. So far, they have not let me down. The summits I have reached with them have provided life changing perspectives worthy of celebration.
So go on, take stock of your equipment and go climb those mountains. If this once timid flat-lander can do it, so can you.