Why I climb mountains
Thrown to the elements, away from the convenience of technology, comfort of home and safety of civilization - there’s something about being vulnerable that makes one come alive.
This past weekend saw me stepping out of my comfort zone and coming alive in ways I haven’t had in a long time.
Though the mountains majestic and nature breathtaking, the mountains humbled me so. At elevation above 12,000 feet, my head was throbbing, my eyes narrowed to conserve energy, I swayed from left to right with every step as a I put one unsteady foot in front of the other. I struggled to breathe and had to force myself to count my breathing with every step so that I wasn’t gasping for precious air.
With every slow step, I made it up the mountain. Several (ok I’ll be honest - many) others made it past me, looking every bit effortless, like this was a walk in the park. I chided myself for how unfit I was, and made a note to train harder. This is no time for ego or competition.
So why do I climb mountains? What is the satisfaction if it isn’t a fun and easy thing to do?
I asked Steve, my climbing partner in this adventure what is it about mountains that compels him so, such that he’s climbed:
all fifteen (15) 14ers in California (14ers are mountains above 14,000 feet),
four (4) 14ers in Colorado,
130 of 287 notable peaks in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, and
Mt Whitney eight (8) times. Mt Whitney is the tallest peak in the United States outside of Alaska.
He said it boils down to two things: 1) For the personal challenge (it’s tough hiking vertically, for over 20 miles, all in a day!) and 2) for the community aspect (you hike with friends). I agree. And I’ll add two more. Here’s my take (for simplicity sake, I’ve listed all 4 reasons to begin with the letter C):
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Sir Edmund Hillary is a New Zealand mountaineer, who, together with Nepalese sherpa mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay, became the first men to ascend the summit of Mt Everest in May 1953.
Mountain hiking challenges your personal limits. It’s one thing to hike at sea level or several thousand feet. It’s another thing to hike at over 10,000 feet where the air is thin and altitude sickness sets in.
My average pace hiking at sea level is 3 miles per hour. At elevation, it drops to 2 miles per hour. When the elevation gets higher and the grade gets steeper, I’m reduced to a painfully slow 1 mile per hour. The higher you go, the more uncomfortable it gets. The air becomes thinner and your head throbs harder from lack of oxygen.
While climbing White Mountain, my legs felt unreasonably stiff. I felt like I was dragging a tree trunk. With every step, I swayed left and right like a drunkard. My eyelids felt heavy and droopy. I tried to conserve whatever little ounce of energy I had. I looked up only when I needed to, else I fixed my eyes on the ground, and focused all my energy on putting one foot in front of the other.
Admittedly, I’m not fast. There are lots of good runner/hikers out there who could comfortably cover 3-4 miles per hour at steep elevation and high altitude. I wish I’m one, but I’m not. Not yet, at least. ;)
Note: You’d notice that the words “elevation” and “altitude” are used frequently. What’s the difference between them, you ask? Here’s what:
Altitude: vertical distance between an object and the local surface of the Earth.
Elevation: vertical distance between the local surface of the Earth and global sea level.
The thing about climbing tall mountains is that most of the time, these mountains are not located in your backyard. At least not in California, unless you live in Central Valley. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area like I do, the Sierra Nevada mountains (where 90% of the 14ers are located), are a good 7 hours drive away. What this means is, you’re almost never gonna do that 7-hour drive all by yourself, spend 7 hours climbing a mountain, and driving another 7 hours home. Of course there are those who enjoy such solitude, but for the most part, most people would appreciate company. After all, didn’t they say that misery loves company? Climbing mountains could be rather miserable, so it’s always nice to do so with one or several friends.
So yes, you’d wanna grab a friend to do these adventures with. And along the way, as you drive and hike, you get to know your friend (or friends, if you go with more than one) pretty well - what are their goals and objectives in fitness and in life? What makes them tick? Why do they push themselves? Also, along the trail, you make even more new friends - other hikers whom you strike a conversation with, and if you’re hiking the same pace, you’d wanna summit and descend together. As you chat, you learn new things. I certainly did, as I chatted with Steve who’s an engineer and a marketing expert. I also made a new friend - she’s a data scientist in a startup in San Francisco.
3. (Silence the) Chaos
Anytime you step out into nature for time and distances beyond the usual urban commute, you are pitting yourself against the natural order of civilization. You’re off cell signal. You’re off internet connection. You’re off the grid.
This is the time to silence the chaos in your life. With silence comes clarity. I think about what’s important in life. I think about my contribution to society. I think about the metaphors and parallels that nature present to life. I have all the time in the world to think about existentialism.
This is also the time you could be ever so present in the moment. I feel my mortality more acutely: every short of breath, every struggle, every wince, every hurt. I listen more - because I don’t have my cell phone, Gmail, Facebook and Instagram to distract me from the people I’m hiking with. I appreciate nature - she is beautiful beyond description - no words, images or video could do her justice - she has to be personally experienced to be fully appreciated. And this is by far, my favorite part about being in the mountains - no distractions; more presence.
Climbing a mountain requires quite a bit of preparation. You’d have to map your driving route to and fro the mountain. You’d have to plan your hiking/climbing route - with this also comes the question - how much water do I need to bring? Are there water stops along the trail? How many hours do I anticipate the hike to take? How much food do I need to bring? What food should I pack such that I would actually eat them on the trail? You have no idea how much of a learning curve this is. There has been occasions where I’d pack a certain variety of food and I got so tired of eating them after several hours on the trail that I refuse to eat any more, no matter how hungry I was. And that’s not a good situation to be in, because you need energy to make it up and down the mountain. I learnt my lesson from those occasions. These days when I pack food, I’d pack a wide variety - sweet and salty, soft and hard, snacks and “real” food (by “real” I mean somewhat real, which to me, could mean a peanut butter sandwich - because a peanut butter sandwich is more “real” compared to a Clif bar). I also realized that I absolutely adore (no, that’s an understatement - I need) fruits - I gotta have fruits wherever I go, be it fresh or dried, so I’ll carry both on the trail.
There’s another form of commitment needed - commitment to your hiking partner. You guys decide to do this together. Any decision that could affect the success or failure of the expedition has to be talked through. Last weekend, Steve and I succeeded in climbing my first 14er ever - White Mountain (15 miles, 14,252 feet). The next day, we planned to climb Mt Langley (23 miles, 14,026 feet). In hindsight, that was an ambitious goal, especially for me, a novice mountain climber (definitely not for Steve) - to climb two 14ers back-to-back. I was tired after climbing White Mountain on Saturday.
Next morning, we woke up at 3.30am to climb Mt Langley. My legs did not cooperate. They were so knackered, blood stopped flowing to my brain and that clouded my judgment and mental capacity to go on. By mile 9, my brain was shut down. I couldn’t fathom climbing anymore. At mile 9, we were at elevation 12,214 feet. The summit was a mere 2.5 miles and 1,812 feet away. I was so checked out I told Steve I couldn’t do it. Even if I did push forward, I’d be going so slowly it would make an ultra miserable hike for us both. Steve respected my decision and assured me it was no problem at all, that the mountain will always be there and we could always make another attempt for it. I’m thankful for his understanding. We turned around and headed down the mountain back to our car. We completed 18 miles that day at Mt Langley - hiking the full trail to the summit and back would have been 23 miles.
Why is commitment important? I believe that every progress in life lies on a central trait - commitment. You don’t have to be super smart, talented, well-resourced or well-connected to achieve any goal in life. You do however, have to be committed to your goal. Commitment means consistently reaching for and working towards your goal. If you do that, you will accomplish anything your heart desires. Practicing commitment on the mountain teaches me to practice commitment in other areas in my life.
Alright, side note, these are the electronics I brought with me on the hike:
Cell phone - it’s huge, almost tablet-like. It’s a Nexus 6P. Some people have asked what do I take my pictures with - well, there you have it - I do so on a Nexus 6P.
Voice recorder - to record notes, thoughts, etc.
GoPro - for wide angle photos or when my cell phone runs out of juice
I used only the first two devices. I didn’t use my GoPro because I switched my phone to airplane mode and that saved me considerable battery. At the end of 7-8 hours, I had 50% battery left.
Now for GoTenna - this has been rather disappointing. When it first arrived by mail (I had ordered it online via REI), I downloaded the GoTenna app onto my phone, pulled out the antenna of GoTenna and paired it with my phone - it worked alright. However, when we were out on the trail, in the mountain, I tried pairing GoTenna with my phone and it wouldn’t pair. Steve could, on his iPhone 7s. So, strike one, I couldn’t get it to pair on my phone. Strike two came when Steve voiced his lack of confidence in the product - he was doubtful we would be able to communicate with each other should we be separated on the trail, what with the mountains and bends between us. Besides, I’m too much of a minimalist to want to carry more electronics than necessary with me, so I decided to return GoTenna.
Finally, I leave you with a quote by John Muir, father of wilderness discovery and nature park conservation (he fought for the conservation of Yosemite National Park and many others in California):
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Thank you John Muir, I did that, and I’m loving it so I’m doing it again and again. More 14ers to bag! ;)