Things I Learned Sliding Off a Mountain

The nice thing about being dumb is that you always have lots to learn.   On a recent trip to Colorado, I was dumb but lucky, and I learned some things that will be useful in my life, and maybe yours, too.

I was squeezing in a hike on a business trip to Boulder. I’m a wanna-be adventurer, a guy who loves the outdoors but lives in cities.  I generally overestimate my competence in the high country, where my enthusiasm trumps my skills and common sense.  I’m three months into my Backpacker subscription, so how hard could it be to walk up a hill?

It was icy. It’s always icy this time of year out there.  The freeze-thaw cycle and trail traffic guarantee it.  Everyone in Colorado knows this, but I’m from Illinois, where ice only becomes a problem at the top of the landfill.  With the right gear and good judgment, I should have been fine, but I had the wrong gear and bad judgment, so it got interesting.  I made it up the trail alright, but ate it several times on the way down.  On one especially steep section, I lost focus, hit some ice and slid out of control off the edge of the trail.  There, a divinely placed lodgepole pine saved me from a drop that would have changed my plans for the day.  If I wasn’t a full-on tree hugger before that, I became one then.

I learned one obvious lesson about hiking that day: don’t be an ill-prepared bonehead in an untamed place.  The mountain had some less obvious things to teach me about my life and work, too.  As my body slowly metabolized adrenaline and humble pie, some counterintuitive insights became clear:

Beware the middle of the road.   The iciest part of the trail is the middle, where everyone tromps.  Usually the middle of the road is where we go for safety and comfort, but it can be the most perilous place of all.  It’s safe until it’s not.  The less trafficked spots were safer on that hike, as they’ve been throughout my life. Thinking back, the most exhilarating and secure times of my life have always been when I’ve tested the edges and walked where others hadn’t.

Don’t be afraid if you lose the trail.  In hiking and in life, we all lose the trail from time to time.  In the physical world, we have GPS to rescue us, and that’s great. But in the world between our ears, have we lost the ability to be lost?  Are we too controlling and too fearful of the roadblocks and wrong turns of life?  Worse, do we pass up chances to explore new things because we’re terrified of losing our way?  It’s hard to truly find yourself if you’ve never allowed yourself to be lost, in your personal or professional life.  But there’s nothing more life affirming than finding the trail again after a heart pounding, bloodhound bellowing search in the dark.  Side note: among her many charms, Mother Nature has great comedic timing.  As I earnestly pondered these deep thoughts and the metaphysical aspects of “lost and found,” I slipped and fell on my butt.  Amazing grace.

Stick the dismount.  What happens when you get to the top, or the end…of anything?  When do we get off the mountain and what’s the best way down?  We tend to focus on the climbs of our lives, but we rarely give the same consideration to our descents, dismounts, and exits.  As I learned during my ice follies, the downhill run can be trickier than the ascent if we’re not prepared for it.  Our culture conditions us to think that being on top means being in command, but sometimes that’s where we’re most vulnerable. Sooner or later, we all come down from the mountain.  Watch your step, prepare for your inevitable descents, finish what you start, and you’ll get to climb again.

I’m grateful for my little walk up the hill and even more grateful that I got down ok.  But more than that, I’m grateful for this life and the things I always learn in the wild.  There are 7.4 billion people on this rock and all of us, in our own ways, are climbing and descending, losing and finding ourselves, playing it safe or testing the edges on our way up the next peak.

It’s what we do and what we have always done.  But next time I’m doing it in my ICEtrekkers.


tom yorton