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The trail as a metaphor is a wonderful concept. Each person must walk his or her own path through life, and is ultimately responsible for the direction that path may take. Life, like any trail, is a matter of ups and downs. When one is going up, and the way is steep and tiring, the idea that there will ever be an easier time of it is only a belief. It is not real. What is real is the feel of aching muscles and burning lungs as you head up the trail. Yet when you reach the top and your breath returns to normal, the pain is soon forgotten and the misery of the climb has been left behind. Where I have been seems immaterial. Where I am going is what engages me. The top is like the goals we set in life that, when achieved, sometimes seem unimportant. It is the process, the steps, the getting there, the human effort that is important. Inspired by Hugh Swift
Hugh Swifts paints a wonderful metaphor for the way we proceed through life in search of our dreams and goals. I have humped up and down many mountains over the years. Always it starts the same. I see a mountain peak. It is a peak I have not climbed before, and I suddenly get the urge to climb to the top. I tell myself the view from the top must be fantastic. And so I gather up my resources – rucksack, map and compass – and start up the trail with only a vague idea of where I’m going.
When I think about it, this is exactly the way I tackle the big goals in my life. I get an idea, buy a few books, or attend a course, and then I start off in pursuit of my goal with only a vague idea of how I’m actually going to achieve it. So what can the mountain trail teach us about our goals?
The trail teaches us that we must have a plan even if it’s a loosely devised plan. Looking at a map of Snowdon there are many marked paths to top of the mountain. Paths that others have trodden and left sign posts and guides to aid us on journey. However upon closer inspection there are literally an infinite number of paths to the top. Some are harder then others. And some seem all but impossible. Which path should I choose? Should I take the one that many have done before and thus have left an easy trail to follow? Or should I take a little known more secluded trail? Robert Frost reflected upon coming to a fork in the road that he took the path less travelled and that made all the difference.
If we think of the mountain top as our goal, we look upon it from the start and think to ourselves that we will never be able to get to the top. The climb is too difficult. We don’t have adequate training to attempt such a feat. But then slowly, gradually we start to engage with the mountain. The trail starts off gentle at first and then the incline to increase. Our legs and our lungs burn and our bodies cry out stop. Turn back. You can’t possible make it to the top. We think we will never see the end. Some turn back and give up. Others seek a less strenuous path.
Another lesson is the map seldom looks like the territory. Jean Baudrillard tells us that the map is not the territory. We can sit and plan for days and weeks which route we will take to get to the top of the mountain. We note our grid references and mark our waypoints confident that we have a rock solid plan and should reach the top with few distractions.
The moment our feet touch the ground then the territory itself changes. And we exclaim that’s not how it looks on the map. We must make some adjustments based on what we see before us in the real. We must trust our own instincts our own judgements.
The mountain trail can teach us a lot about ourselves and our lives. The ancients believed that there was something called the mountain spirit – a spirit of purity and isolation. Even though the Tao was everywhere, spiritual wisdom was too easily lost in the cares and consideration of the plains. In the isolation of the mountains, with the voices of the throng stilled, the whispers of the Tao could finally be heard. This was what the ancients called the mountain spirit… and it’s what we call Ascent.
I was lucky enough to be at a lecture the other day being given by Joe Simpson. For those of you who don’t know Joe, he is famous for his attempt to climb the Peruvian mountain Siula Grande with his climbing partner Simon Yates in 1985. They succeeded where many had failed but an unfortunate accident on the way down led to Joe breaking his leg. Simon attempted to get him back down the mountain but during a bad storm and poor visibility he lowered Joe over a ledge on a rope, the rope got caught and after 1.5 hours of holding the rope Simon knew he had to cut it to survive. Joe fell but somehow managed to survive the fall and the rest of the story, as detailed in the book and film “Touching the Void”, is about Joe’s struggle to drag himself down the mountain. Against all the odds both climbers lived to tell the tale.
I’d already seen the film a number of times, and we’re all big fans of the story here at Marton House so I was particularly pleased to discover I was going to hear Joe give a motivational speech. I wasn’t disappointed either. Joe spoke for over an hour and recounted the tale with little emotion, a difficult thing considering what he went through and it was a truly enlightening experience.
This post isn’t about what a great motivational speaker Joe is, though I’d highly recommend seeing him if you can, this post is about one tiny little thing he said about his experience.
As motivational speakers we quite often use a mountain as a metaphor, in fact one of our friends Clay Lowe uses it in situ as he takes his students up the side of Mount Snowdon. However is reaching the top all it’s cracked up to be?
When Joe and Simon reached the top of Siula Grande they had a brief moment of elation, they reveled in the views and then they suddenly realised there was nowhere else to go – apart from down. This was the only point during his presentation he looked slightly emotional and he claimed this realisation was a crushing blow for both of them. On the way back down hardly a word was uttered until the fateful accident happened.
Is it lonely at the top? Does part of us die when we get there? How can we eliminate these feelings?
Always having a goal is part of the answer, something that is difficult in mountaineering as every journey has a beginning and an end. When we went up the mountain with Clay we didn’t make it to the top, a crushing blow for us but did the experience bring us closer and make us stronger as a team because of the failure?