Higher Ed­u­ca­tion

Ev­ery­thing I need to know I learned in the moun­tains.

Backpacker - - Editor’s Note -

WHEN GE­ORGE MAL­LORY was pre­par­ing for his third at­tempt on Mt. Ever­est in 1923, a re­porter asked him why he wanted to climb the moun­tain. “Be­cause it’s there,” he fa­mously an­swered. I thought about Mal­lory’s re­sponse as we worked on this spe­cial is­sue cel­e­brat­ing moun­tains. I ap­pre­ci­ate how few words he needed to end the de­bate about mo­ti­va­tion: We are drawn to peaks, and we don’t need to jus­tify it.

But af­ter decades of my own ad­ven­tures on moun­tains big and small, I also ap­pre­ci­ate what Mal­lory’s eco­nom­i­cal re­ply left out: You learn a lot when climb­ing peaks. With apolo­gies to my kin­der­garten teacher, I be­lieve I’ve learned my most im­por­tant lessons above tree­line.


In the moun­tains, as in life, there’s a fine line be­tween am­bi­tious and fool­hardy. If you have no tech­ni­cal alpine ex­pe­ri­ence, De­nali should not be your next big ob­jec­tive. But moun­tain travel in­evitably teaches us that we’re ca­pa­ble of more than we think. A part­ner and I once struck off on a 10-day tra­verse in the In­dian Hi­malaya that was a stretch for our abil­i­ties in terms of el­e­va­tion, ice, and routefind­ing. Then a storm rolled in, re­duc­ing vis­i­bil­ity to nil. And then we ran out of food. We al­most turned back twice, but I learned to trust my judg­ment and we ul­ti­mately com­pleted the tra­verse. After­ward, I thought about the mo­ments when I felt I was in a lit­tle over my head, and re­al­ized that’s ex­actly the point.


Aim high, yes, but don’t get too at­tached to lofty goals. With work and fam­ily obli­ga­tions, it’s all too easy to head out­doors with lim­ited time and ex­ces­sive ex­pec­ta­tions. But na­ture makes its own rules. One of my best trips in the moun­tains was a failed at­tempt on the Grand Te­ton (page 72), when a storm coated the rock with ice and forced my party to turn around be­fore we’d even roped up. We have to adapt to the world around us, not the other way around. One of my kids (14 at the time) joined me on that trip, and I was glad to see he learned that sum­mit­ing is only one goal, and not the most im­por­tant one.


OK, this is one you should have learned in kin­der­garten. But it’s easy to be friendly when you’re shar­ing crayons. Real char­ac­ter comes out in the moun­tains. On a re­cent trip to Mt. Shasta, my team en­coun­tered con­stant 40-mph winds that coated us in frost. Dur­ing the 12-hour sum­mit push, we shared wa­ter, helped each other with balky cram­pons, and joked about the con­di­tions. (“The ground bl­iz­zard is mak­ing it hard to see, but at least it’s freezing our wa­ter bot­tles.”) You’ll never for­get the friend­ships forged in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions.


On that same Shasta trip, gusts that reached 50 mph made it hard to walk. The wind forced most climbers to turn back, but my team of five kept at it, mak­ing slow but steady progress. We reached a point just be­low the sum­mit block (the wind made it too pre­car­i­ous to stand on top), and we couldn’t see more than about 50 yards in any di­rec­tion. But it was one of the most sat­is­fy­ing climbs I’ve at­tempted. On days like that, you learn to em­brace the old adage about tak­ing things one step at a time.


In re­cent years, ropes cour­ses and other out­door-cen­tric ex­er­cises have trick­led down to cor­po­rate team-build­ing events. They’re great for team­work, but fall short of what you’ll learn in the moun­tains. Ex­hibit A: On the fi­nal ap­proach to the sum­mit of the Mönch, in Switzer­land, the route crosses a snow-caked, knife-edge ridge that’s barely wide enough for two boots and drops away thou­sands of feet on ei­ther side. When my rope team reached the tra­verse, our leader turned and said, “You know what to do if some­one falls, right? Jump off the other side.” You don’t build trust like that on a zip line.


Yes, re­spect moun­tains and be smart about it. But don’t for­get why you’re there in the first place. Reach­ing a sum­mit is fun. I’ve made it a habit to re­mind my­self of that on Mt. San­i­tas, my lo­cal peak in Boul­der. For the last two years, on De­cem­ber 23, I’ve climbed San­i­tas with a pack full of beer and cook­ies to give away to who­ever shows up. I plan to do it again this year, and if any­one asks me why I de­cided to throw an im­promptu cel­e­bra­tion on my neigh­bor­hood peak, I’ll say, “Be­cause it’s there.”

Life lessons on the Grand Te­ton

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