How to Climb a Mountain
In mid-May, a 33-year-old Canadian woman – Shriya Shah-Klorfine – died on the side of Mount Everest. She had reached the summit two days earlier, but succumbed – along with three other climbers – to ‘exhaustion and altitude sickness’ during the descent. Since the first expedition up Everest in 1922, a total of 210 people have died there. I am sure people have perished in attempts to climb other mountains as well, but thousands more reach their snowy peaks and live to tell the tale (and/or go on to scale others). So – why do they do it? Apparently Shriya Shah-Klorfine had flown over Mount Everest in a helicopter when she was nine years old, and had dreamed of climbing it ever since. It’s certainly not something I’d ever consider doing, but to each his (or her) own, I suppose.
People undertake activities like climbing mountains, jumping out of airplanes, running with the bulls, surfing the big waves, and other highly rigorous and/or dangerous pursuits for any number of reasons – some are adrenaline junkies or thrill seekers, some like the idea of living ‘on the edge’ and taunting death, some are simply looking for ‘the next big risk’. Personally, I don’t mind a wickedly twisty-turney roller coaster, but that’s about as dare-devilish as I’m willing to get!
I recall watching an interview not too long ago during which a young woman (in her mid-twenties) discussed how she had scaled several ‘mid-sized’ mountains; she had a dozen or so more peaks she planned on conquering before her 50th birthday (Everest wasn’t one of them; she said she wanted a reasonable chance of success, and she knew her own limits). The interviewer asked the obvious question: ‘Why climb a mountain?’ and the answer was the usual ‘quick quip’ most people expect: ‘Because it’s there’. But the young woman went on to explain some of the joys – and challenges – of reaching a mountain peak. I’ve paraphrased some of what she said below:
- The mountain always looks easier to climb than it is. For one thing, it looks shorter from the bottom than it does from the top. But if you know that going in, you can accept that it’s probably going to be harder than you thought, and you won’t lose faith that you’ll make it all the way to the top.
- The trees and the shrubbery look lush and quite pretty from a distance, but can be dense and thick and sometimes nearly impenetrable. Paths become overgrown; occasionally you can’t find the trail markings – if there are even marked trails to follow. You have to learn to trust your instincts as much as your map and compass.
- Mountains don’t have smooth sides – there are rocks and ridges and valleys and creeks and rivers that you have to get through or over or around. Every mile presents new challenges and you have to be up to accepting them and overcoming them.
- One thing people don’t think about is that once you’re on the mountain, you can’t see the top – so you really don’t have a clear idea of where you’re going. It’s easy to get disoriented or lost if you aren’t paying attention. You have to stay sharp, and focused, if you want to succeed.
- The higher you climb, the more difficult the going gets, but the better the view becomes. You absolutely have to stop once in a while to take it in and appreciate how far you’ve travelled.
- You have to be determined to make it to the top. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish – and once you start, you can’t give up. You’re going to slip and stumble and fall and get tired and cold and want to just turn around and go home a dozen times a day. But if you do, then you’ll never get to the summit. And that’s what you came for – that’s the goal – so you have to just suck it up and get on with it – or you’ll never experience the exhilaration you get from achieving what you set out to do.
I’ll never be a mountaineer, but everything that young woman said about mountain climbing can be seen as a metaphor for any major task you undertake in life (and not just sports-related ones, either). You just have to apply the same mindset. So whether it’s that 5k you want to walk (or run), that storage locker you need to clear out, that room you want to redecorate, that fancy French recipe you’ve been dying to attempt, that exercise program you’ve been avoiding, that wardrobe makeover, that new job or hobby or relationship you’ve been contemplating, remember:
- It’s probably going to look easier than it actually is, but that doesn’t mean its not achievable.
- You’ll likely face any number of obstacles, and you might occasionally lose your way, but if you trust yourself and keep moving forward, you’ll stay on track.
- You’ll probably encounter numerous set-backs and ‘rocky patches’ and detours along the way; work around them or get past them and keep going.
- You have to keep the end in mind; stay focused and don’t become discouraged or get distracted from achieving what you set out to accomplish.
- The closer you get to your goal, the more difficult it might seem to reach it; stop every once in a while and ‘take in the view’ – recognize what you’ve accomplished at each step along the way, then continue ‘ onward and upwards’.
- Don’t give up – no matter how many problems you face or how many times you want to give up and ‘go home’, envision what it is that you set out to do – and go out and do it. Then revel in the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you reach the summit (and remember: no matter how large or small it may seem, any goal you set for yourself is worth achieving).
I may not know WHY anyone would want to climb a mountain, but I do know HOW they do it – one step at a time. So get out there and find your own personal ‘mountain’ and start climbing it, one step at a time. You don’t even have to wait until you’re on … the other side of 55.