Not every mountain-top experience is what you expect it to be. Sometimes it’s far more amazing than you could have ever imagined. Sometimes it’s underwhelming, or even miserable. And sometimes its just… different.
This past weekend I climbed Mt. St. Helens, the second most “dangerous” volcano in the US–at least, according to National Geographic.
In Mt. St. Helens’ case, the danger has mostly passed. The volcano erupted 30 years ago, blowing off the top 1300 feet of the mountain. It’s still considered “active”, but these days, eruptions are mostly gas and ash.
For the group I was climbing with, the struggles we faced had nothing to do with molten rock, and everything to do with the weather. What started out as a beautiful blue-sky day quickly turned to face-freezing winds and a thorough soaking from rain. Most disappointingly, though, the clouds that rolled in reduced visibility to a dozen yards or so, at the top. The amazing view that we were looking forward to, into the caldera and the collapsed North side of the mountain, ended up being a view of pure white, instead.
I loved it, anyway.
Sometimes we don’t get the thing that we were expecting to get. We all know that.
In this case, instead of an amazing view, the climb provided a strong reminder of some very important lessons. Sure, these are things that most of us already know. There’s a difference between knowing something in your head, though, and experiencing first-hand the depth of the message.
In no particular order:
5 important life lessons I learned (or re-learned) while climbing Mt. St. Helens:
Sometimes you just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how small the step.
The trail up the south side of St. Helens is steep, and there are no switchbacks once you’re above the tree line. It’s just straight up, over rocks, snow, and scree. In many places, you can choose which of those materials to climb. They all have their pros and cons.
In the end, no matter which path you choose, there comes a point when all you can focus on is that tiny next step forward. And then the next. With the wind and the freezing rain and the steep angle of ascent, it’s one foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, and at times with great effort.
Climbing St. Helens was an excellent practice of “grit,” and on my way up that mountain, I was reminded just how important that grit can be… and how hard!
No matter how steep or difficult it looks from a distance, it will feel different when you get there.
When we first passed the tree line and started up Monitor Ridge, the trail ahead looked so steep that it seemed impossible that it could be climbed without just sliding back down the snow. But as we continued, and as we found ourselves on those very same sections that seemed so steep, it ended up feeling not quite as crazy as we thought it would.
On the other hand, by the time we were closing in on the summit, it was all I could do to keep moving forward. The pitch hadn’t changed much, but the trail conditions and my own energy level certainly had!
The takeaway? Evaluating upcoming efforts is often more complicated than it seems, with variables that you may not be able to account for until you are in the moment. It’s a great reason to practice mindfulness. Be aware of your situation, and don’t set strong expectations for the future!
Be prepared to be uncomfortable.
Be prepared for soreness, and even some pain. But, know when it’s part of growth, versus when it’s part of damage. Today, my muscles are sore. That’s a good thing; they’re getting stronger. My knees though… Lesson learned: Don’t forget the trekking poles next time!
At the end of the day, when the sun came out and we gathered around a campfire to dry out and warm up, I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude. For the sun after the clouds, for the fire to warm me up, for the people I was with, and even for the mountain, and stories and strength it gave me for the future.
A little discomfort. or even a lot, often means you’re growing. You’re on the right track, and it’s an opportunity to practice gratitude.
Pain, though, can be a sign that it’s time to make a change. Learn the difference!
The right people can make all the difference.
Having the right traveling companions on your journey–whether that be a road trip, a trek up a mountain, or the through life in general–is a critical part success. Humans are social creatures. Yes, even us introverts. The people around you become your support network, and provide opportunities for you to be supportive, as well.
On the mountain this weekend, I climbed most of the way with four other people that I hadn’t met until the night before. We had some great conversation in the beginning, and on the way down. Toward the summit, even though there were many, many times when chatting wasn’t a realistic option, just being a part of that group provided motivation and feeling of support. We all pushed ourselves and each other to persevere and climb hard!
Sometimes the goal doesn’t end up being what you expected.
Make the most of whatever it is. You can’t change some things, like the weather, but you can absolutely change yourself, your point of view.
You can’t change the fact that much of current human behavior has a negative impact on the environment. But you can absolutely change your behaviors, and your point of view about what you need to have and experience in life. Changing the world starts with changing yourself. And changing yourself starts with understanding yourself.
4 questions for clarity and self-understanding
I had great time on the mountain, and a fantastic reminder of the things that are important to me. Through the experience and the conversations I had with fellow climbers, I found a stronger sense of clarity about my priorities.
Any growth in self-understanding is an opportunity for growth in personal success as well as an increased positive impact on the world… and you don’t have to climb a mountain to get there!
Try asking yourself these questions periodically. Answering them once probably won’t be a life-changing experience for you. Keeping them in mind as you go about your daily activities, though, builds a clarity and momentum that can become powerful forces for improvement in your life, your community, and your world.
1. Where am I headed? What am I doing to get there?
2. What am I giving to the world? My community? My self? And what am I taking?
3. Who is my support network? Whose support networks am I in?
4. How will I know if it’s time stop and try something else?
Sustainability and success are spiral processes. Change starts small, and cycles ever outward and bigger. Making a positive change takes effort. It means guiding that cycle in a positive direction. Want to get started? Start today with these questions, with the four core practices, or by defining your core values.
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