Monday Musings...The Climb

Well, you might be thinking that I am a Miley Cyrus fan from the title of this blog post. She and many other artists have sung about life’s challenges and the power to overcome them. We’ve even heard people say with confidence that with enough strength, they can move mountains. This all sounds wonderfully optimistic, but I’d like to know if any of these people have ever actually climbed a mountain, let alone tried to move one? I think that in order to claim this clout, they should try the climb, literally.

For the novice nature lover, mountain climbing sounds romantic. You envision donning your favourite sneakers, sporting a knapsack, sunscreen, sun glasses, and yes, remembering to bring a water bottle. You figure it involves a lovely stroll at the base of the mountain, on a well- trod smooth pathway which gently leads you up the mountain at a minimal angle, while birds sweetly sing from the nearby branches. You consider yourself a hiker, not because of the height of the climb, but rather the time it takes to traverse the hill, as that path takes you zig zagging through the foliage up to the summit. There may be a few challenges, but you have no doubt that you can reach the peak. Why? Because these songs tell you that you can make it! In fact, you may remember the Boy Scout classic, “The Happy Wanderer”, which had you singing “Val-da-ri! Val-di-ra!” in rounds. (I probably just evoked a positive memory of a family camping trip and now the song will be stuck in your head – please accept my apologies).

Let me tell you, that is NOT mountain climbing. Remember the chorus in The Happy Wanderer that playfully chants "Val-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha"? Well, that’s what the birds were taunting me with as I recently scaled my last mountain in New Zealand. Let me give you the context – I travelled to Mt. Cook National Park, which boasts the country’s tallest summits. The particular ridge I was going to climb began with a 2000 step ascent. Many of you are thinking – not a problem – I easily do that in a day on my Fit Bit. Well, and I don’t mean to be insulting, but walking back and forth to the photocopier, your workspace, and maybe scaling 3 flights of stairs, even if it is multiple times in a day, doesn’t really prepare you for this particular climb. The mountain ‘steps’ are uneven, narrow, of varying heights which, when you are 4’11”, really puts pressure on your knees. After 200 steps I was done! There was no way I could do 10 times that!! So there I was, by myself, thinking this was val- da –wrong! I was seriously questioning my logic and ability. Do I quit, or do I come up with a strategy to keep going? Tell me Miley Cyrus because this is the REAL climb!

Why we don’t quit in life when the task or the trial in front of us seems impossible, is a curious question. I mean 1800 more steps to go… What am I trying to prove? Well, I think for most of us, we don’t quit because we are afraid of what other people will think. We fear disappointing them and often that particular fear outweighs our common sense that maybe it really is too much for us to do. So we convince ourselves that we MUST keep going so people will approve of us. But there has to be another reason, a better more powerful motivator, to keep us going.

As I stood there huffing and puffing, a young, fit German guy (who I believe was humming "The Happy Wanderer") said “You know, your body will give out before your mind. Keep going!” And I thought “Ah ha! He is right! My half a century old body is already giving out (as he obviously noticed) BUT, if I strengthen my mind, maybe I can do this!” So there it was – the real reason we should keep going has nothing to do with fear of disappointing others. At the end of the day, when those people are not around, I have to do this test on my own. I need to see if I can build my own mental tool box of strategies to keep going as far as I can to my personal limit. This is an individual climb. I have to be able to use my mind to overpower the pain and shortness of breath in my physical frame. We are never going to move the mountain, people; we need to will ourselves to move our body up that mountain. And that’s exactly what I did!

My greatest challenge at the 200 step mark was my breathing, so somehow I had to use my mind to regulate it. This is something I actually train my students to do, so you would have thought I would be a pro – apparently not. I needed to effectively practice what I teach and invoke those techniques and sure enough, they worked! Then, once I got control of my breathing, I set myself a reasonable pace: I’ll walk up 50 steps, pause, regulate my breathing, start again…and before I knew it, I was at 1000. I was half way there!

But then the track got more difficult, I was ascending through the clouds, past the tree line with the ridge ever in my view, and yet so very far away. There was nowhere to pull off to the side and have a break, I had to keep going. There was no one to hold my hand or help me take my steps, I was on my own. These are such important facts to think about in life. Sometimes there are no breaks, pain is perpetual and misery multiples, and there may not be anyone to help us. We can’t listen to the lyrics that promise things will get better or that people will always be there for us, as James Taylor sings - "Just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running". James, I called and you didn’t come. No, the mountain climber is alone in his own head, in his own body. And so, I kept counting and breathing, counting and breathing, and I could feel my legs suddenly become stronger. The oxygen flow I was controlling strengthened my muscles and I made it to the top of the 2000 steps! Those mental tools pulled me through!

But…the climb wasn’t over! Ten minutes into the next ascent, I thought I was going to die. There were no ‘steps’, only glacier deposited rocks that turned into significantly large quarry-sized boulders. There was no defined path - only one way up - which was to scale and climb with hands and feet STRAIGHT UP to the summit of 1800 m! One false step and I’d slide down the mountain. One wrong twist of an ankle in a rock crevice and my foot would snap. The mental focus was unbelievable. I wasn’t even thinking about my muscles! Fear of disappointing others is a powerful motivator; fear of death is stronger still! And this is where the real motivator, grit, comes in. I needed to consider each placement of my hands and feet, regulate my breathing, keep focused on the terrain around me (not below or above me) and move cm by cm. As long as I could see that I was making progress, I knew I was on my way to achieving my goal. Slowly but surely, I made it to the peak! This was by far, the most difficult physical and mental challenge I have ever done in my life. The young German man would have been proud! Val-da-re-joice!

If we want to have strong mental health, we need to realize that it is a personal journey. The terrain of our life will undoubtedly bring challenges that seem larger than we can handle. When we make choices based on the fear of disappointing others, we are motivated for the wrong reason. We need instead to focus on developing our own personal solutions and using our reservoir of strategies for strength, so that whether we have support from others or not, we will be able to handle what comes our way. The essential tool is perseverence for the climb. We will never be able to move the mountain, but we can move ourselves to conquer it!

As I stood at the summit, I had an amazing 360 degree view of the mountain range. I would never have gotten that perspective if I had stayed on the ground. The climb was worth it because it taught me that even when things seem hopeless, we are a lot stronger than we think we are capable of being. Our tendency is to bail too soon when things get tough, and when we do, we miss out on an incredible view of just how far we have come! It was a great feeling to rest and breathe at the top but…it was only temporary. How was I going to get down the mountain? Stay tuned :)

And so this week’s song has to be: “The Happy Wanderer”. Enjoy!! Val-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha

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