(I originally wrote this post in 2013, but never published it.)
People say a whole bunch of things about climbing a mountain. Things like “The best view comes after the hardest climb.” The three rules of mountaineering say: “It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.” And one of my favorites: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Sir Edmund Hillary)” But I don’t know if any of them would suggest packing spicy fried chicken into your pack before you leave.
I don’t know if you know me personally, but I’m not a small guy. I’m not massive, but I’ve got one of those frames that don’t work well with BMI charts. I’m pretty sure that the weight of just my bones alone would put me in the obese category.
On top of that, I have asthma, which makes long periods of physical exertion fairly challenging. But, I decided early on that I was going to do it, that I would make it to the top and back. So, I trained that way.
For months I carried a backpack with 30-40 pounds of weights in it up and down hills near our home and in the Columbia River Gorge. My brother (who had climbed before) said he didn’t think I’d need to carry that much, but I wanted to be over-prepared. Not because I wanted to win, but because I didn’t want to be one of the people you see on the news getting flown off the mountain in a helicopter.
I bought some gear like poles and hiking boots, and figured I could carry enough water in the back pack for the hike.
The night before, I couldn’t sleep. Like often happens on Saturday nights before church on Sunday. I got out of bed early, to be at the meeting point on time. Of course, everyone else was late. We signed in and read all the warnings, drove to the drop off site and it was time to start.
As we started the hike, we were met by other climbers who were already on their way back down. This definitely gave off the wrong impression. “I mean, if they’re already on their way down, this might not be too bad after all.”
The first couple of miles weren’t so bad, just a typical northwest hike. Awesome trees and beautiful views for miles. I even remember having some short sentenced conversations during this part of the journey. But, that didn’t last.
I wasn’t prepared, at all, for what came next. I’d read about it in forums, but I didn’t train for how difficult it would be to get through the boulder fields. The boulders, some of which were as big as me, were something you had to climb. And being “not small” that meant, I had to hoist my weight up and over hundreds of boulders for what felt like a couple of days.
Finally, we got through the boulder fields and into what is referred to as the “pumy”. This is the blanked of pumice that covers the top 1,000 feet or so of the mountain. It’s like walking on marbles. You take a step up and slide back about 70% of the step you just took.
But, I wasn’t going to quit, so I just kept going. Well, I finally made it to the top, to join the rest of the family, many of whom were ready to start heading back. They were the “in-shape” part of our group. The kind that do this kind of thing for fun. One even volunteered to be a part of a rescue team to get people like me off the mountain.
When I got to the top, people were eating lunch. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but my aunt shared some of her Safeway spicy fried chicken with me. If you want to know a great meal to eat on the top of a mountain, it’s not spicy fried chicken.
I’d run out of water on the way up. I was able to bum a few sips from others, but I was super dehydrated. And we still had to get down. Which is just as hard as going up. Especially the boulder fields. They don’t necessarily get easier because you’re going down.
I was blessed to have some family members hang back with me, and keep me company, though most of the family were long ago. I even had one cousin who finished, made it to the parking lot, then came back to make sure I was okay. He walked with me the rest of the way back, because “we can’t leave anyone on the mountain.” I’ll never forget that.
Eventually, I finished. I was the absolute last one. Others had already eaten and left. Some were still eating. Everyone was ready to be home.
I lost 10 pounds on that day. So, if you’ve got a boxing match coming up and you want to get into a lower weight class, I know one way to do that.
I learned some things on that climb, that have stuck with me years later.
1.) I live in a world where I have climbed a mountain. It sounds ridiculous, but not everyone can say that. Often times while driving around town or on the way home, I’ll look at Mt. St. Helens and think, “I’ve stood on the top of that mountain.” Not everyone can say that. Yes, the view was amazing.
2.) Preparation is important, but people are importanter. I know it’s not a word. But, it’s true. I definitely wanted to quit, but having people going through the same struggle as me, some with other challenges I didn’t have, it helped quite a bit. Plus, had it not been for the generosity and fun nature of my aunt, I wouldn’t have had any spicy chicken.
3.) I succeeded because I had decided in advance not to quit. I say this all the time, but many things in life that we wrestle with are things we shouldn’t wrestle with. We waste lots of mental energy trying to determine if we are going to do something, when we should have just done it. The same is true for so many things in life. Like church. Don’t wait until Sunday morning to determine if you’re going to church. Decide right now that you are going to be at church every Sunday for the rest of your life. You can always make exceptions, but when the exception is the rule, there is nothing stopping you from staying home. “It’s not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.”
4.) Quitting wasn’t an option. Sure, I could have quit and they would have called a rescue team to get me. They have a one wheeled gurney to get you down the mountain. But, when one of the guys who might be getting you was also on the hike with you, it makes that a little harder to play that card. You got yourself into this mess, you’re getting yourself out.
5.) Life happens in the valley. When we got to the top, there was no life there. There are no trees, no grass, no water, no shelter. The conditions through the winter are harsh and unfavorable for survival. Climbing a mountain is something you do one one day for the experience of having done it. But you don’t life on the mountain.
Throughout most of human history, humans have made their dwellings in the lush and fertile climate of the valley. The mountains play a purpose in the system. They collect snow, which melts during the summer to provide water for the valley.
We should not be confused into thinking that mountaintop experiences are what life should be made of. Nor should we constantly compare life in the valley to the one-time experience of climbing a mountain. Experiences are good, but they are just that, experiences. Sure, we have many experiences in life, many good and some bad. And it’s often the experiences that serve as trail markers on the journey. But, so much of our lives are lived in the ordinary, day-to-day life of the valley.
I’ll never forget that day and the struggle I had. I’ll never forget the help from family. I’ll never forget eating spicy Safeway chicken on the summit.
But, life happens in the valley.
It’s when we come back down to the valley after having climbed the mountain that we gain the benefit from having climbed a mountain. It adds some much needed perspective to life in the valley. It shows us just how good it is where the peaceful waters flow. Yes, climbing a mountain has had an impact on my life, but no where near the amount of impact life in valley has and will have.
The soreness of that day is long gone, and much of the mental anguish of the experience has now been transformed into positive memories, much like what happens to parents who have had one kid and somehow decided to have 3 more. Someday, I’ll go back up there again. I’ll struggle and exert myself until I get up and back. And I’m certain I’ll be the caboose of whatever train it is on that day. But, what I know is that the blessings of the fertile valley of life we all live in, the ones we take for granted, these are what life is.
And, no matter what happens to me, thanks to my aunt, I’ll always be able to say that I ate Spicy friend chicken from Safeway on the top of Mt St Helens.