“Is the view worth it?”
I stopped and looked at the man who had questioned me: an old Duke sweatshirt, khaki shorts, a regular backpack. His wife was similarly attired. I looked back at the mountain I had just summited and then at the man again.
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. “It’s pretty beautiful.”
The man laughed and his wife sighed. “I sure do envy you coming back down.”
I smiled again and wished them luck; they went up, slowly, and I went down. I don’t think it was the response he was looking for, but I didn’t know what else to say. “The view” is not why I climb mountains.
Yesterday I did my first Colorado 14er, Mount Bierstadt, and I did it alone. I got up at 4:00 a.m. — despite always wishing I could sleep just a little longer — and I drove up into the mountains. I got to the trailhead, gathered my things, and started my hike at 6:00 a.m., just as dawn was lighting up the mountains. I crossed a beautiful valley and stopped for about 20 minutes to commune with/photograph two moose that were munching and drinking in the cool, misty morning.
After crossing a small creek the trail started to go up, slow and easy at first. I didn’t see anyone else for almost an hour, when three trail runners came running back down the mountain. I saw a few more people hiking back down after that – I’m guessing they had made it to the summit in time to see the sunrise, which must have been amazing. I took my time, often turning around to see how far I’d come.
For some time the mountain had been hidden behind the rise I was climbing. Then, suddenly, I turned a corner in the trail and there it was. Mountains have a way of messing with your head. The summit seems both closer and further than you think it should be. At one moment you feel you’re almost there. Then you get another view and you don’t know if you can make it that far.
You can’t let the mountain get into your head, though. You look at it because it’s beautiful and because you want to see where you’re going. But if you spend too much time looking, you’ll never make it. So I took a picture and I kept going.
Soon the trail became very rocky, and much of the time I was walking through small mountain streams that wound their way through the rocks of the trail. I wasn’t walking at this point, so much as picking my way over rocks and trying to find any bit of dry, flat trail I could.
By that point I was starting to notice the altitude: I was breathing faster and heavier than I would have been in Denver and my heart was pounding. My philosophy is to not take breaks, but I stopped walking for about five seconds every few minutes to catch my breath. My mind wanted to think about the altitude; it wanted to wonder if I was breathing too fast or if I was going to get dizzy. It wanted to question my ability to make it all the way. But I knew I couldn’t let myself do that. Just keep walking, I told myself.
The trail was heading up to a ridge that would then lead up to the summit. As I got closer to the ridge, the trail got steeper and even more rocky. Instead of hopping from rock to rock, I was often climbing over boulders. Cairns showed the way every now and then, but in between it was hard to know which way to go. At each cairn I stopped and looked ahead to find the next one, hoping I wouldn’t take a wrong path and end up stuck amongst boulders with no good way to go forward.
Finally, I made it to the ridge. The ground evened out a bit and I found a new burst of energy. I was almost there! All that was left was the peak itself – a giant pile of boulders with no clear trail. I looked up and tried to pick out a path, but I knew it would be a matter of finding my way as I went. Brief images of falling or getting stuck flashed through my mind, but I pushed them aside. I was steady and strong and I knew I would be fine.
I started scrambling up and soon met a man coming back down. “I guess I’m going the right way,” I joked. He laughed. “Or I’m going the wrong way, too!” I moved aside to let him find his way down and he wished me luck as he passed. Soon another man came up behind me on his way up. I let him pass and tried to follow the path he picked out. I saw him make it to the top and pushed on. A minute later, I was there. The summit!
I stood there for a few minutes taking it all in. Was the view worth it? It was pretty spectacular. But as much as I enjoyed the view, what I really enjoyed was the accomplishment. I climbed that mountain because I wanted to push myself. I wanted to test my limits, both physically and mentally. I know that, in mountain climbing at least, that dichotomy is an illusion. You can never overcome the physical challenges if you don’t have the mental strength to keep going. When you stand on top of that mountain, you know that you are capable of getting through any pain, any trials, any struggles. You know that you can follow any dream if you can just take control of your mind and make it do what you want, instead of letting it control you.
When I climb a mountain I see most clearly the sense that there is me and then there is “I”. My body, my thoughts, my emotions, my worries, anxieties, fears, hopes, memories: none of those are “I”. I am something else entirely and I am in control. It doesn’t always feel that way, but standing on the summit, it absolutely does. And that’s worth it.