Recently, I was honoured to be featured in Trail Magazine's 'Mountains for the Mind.' Below is my attempt to explain how mountains and the great outdoors have shaped my life.
Mountains are often referred to as formidable foes. Fearsome things to be battled and defeated. Brutal, unforgiving massifs that leave a trail of casualties in their wake. You’ll hear countless tales of mountains taking lives, but few of them enriching, inspiring and, in many cases, actually saving lives.
I have a different perspective, something easily found at a summit. I don’t see mountains as a thing to be feared. Respected, yes. But feared, no. Mountains are indifferent to the wars people wage against them. They were here long before we brought our beef and will be here long after we work through the self-doubt that made us feel the need to challenge them in the first place.
In the stage of life, mountains are just a foil – a character that contrasts with the protagonist to better highlight or differentiate certain qualities of the main character. An ancient reflective surface that really just underlines what is already there, inside of us, whether we want to see it or not. The good, the bad, the ugly. A wise elder who simply tells us the harsh but necessary truth.
Mountains are a place of transformation. Some might think that those of us mad enough to seek out their company are running away from something, when in reality we’re actually just confronting ourselves.
Whatever I’ve been grappling with in life, the hills have always been there to give me the exact advice I needed, at the precise time I needed it. So here are just a few of the pointers I’ve got from the hills on managing this strange thing we call life…
An active body is a quiet mind
There’s stillness to be found in movement. A quiet mind is more receptive to clarity and inspiration than one tethered to a screen. Our minds and bodies need movement and silence to regenerate. When walking across these ancient giants, it’s easy to see how small our perceived problems really are in the grand scheme of things which, in turn, allows us to focus on the bigger picture: we are alive, life is beautiful, we are beautiful and the natural world is exactly as it should be.
Disconnected IS connected
No signal, no problem. Not only does being cut off from the ‘connected’ world help us find inner peace and tranquillity, it also reminds us of an intimidating but important fact. We are responsible for ourselves, nobody else. Are you prepared for this journey? Do you have everything you need? Are you physically up to the task at hand? Are you skilled and knowledgeable enough to avoid some of the more common problems you might face on this trek? If not, how can you be better prepared in future?
A fork in the trail? Choices shape our reality
We are ALWAYS making choices. We can choose whether to set off in poor visibility and harsh winds, or wait out the storm and attempt a summit on a bluebird day. We can choose to plan a route with a series of river crossings or take the grassy bypass. Sometimes, a fork in the road can present us with two equally daunting paths – but we still have to pick one and accept whatever it throws our way. Sometimes we make little choices that have big consequences without realising it. Either way, the cold hard reality is, while we cannot always choose our circumstances, we can certainly control how we react to them and what we do with the trials that face us (all of us). Which can be upsetting for some to hear… but also empowering if you really listen.
Be a better listener
‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth. You should be listening twice as much as you speak.’ I once heard, which I think is quite telling. Time in the mountains is the perfect opportunity to just take it all in. Let the sounds of nature percolate and enhance your ability to understand. Listen to the water, the wildlife, the wind in the trees, the bees at work …and your kids (if you take them out like I do). You’ll miss their relentless questions and incessant chatter when they’re all grown up. Quality mountain days are ideal for giving them the space to think aloud. All. Day. Long.
It’s your mind that holds you back
I can’t remember the exact number of times I’ve had the ‘shut up legs, you’re fine’ conversation with myself, but I’m sure it’s at least in the double, if not triple, figures by now. If doing the South Glen Shiel Ridge with a raging hangover taught me anything, it’s that regardless of what our brains are telling us, our bodies are capable of going long after we think we can’t.
Running water, a toilet, a warm bed, a healthy and able body… we take a lot for granted. Spending time in the mountains teaches us very quickly how good we really have it here in the first world. There’s nothing quite like a warm bath and cosy bed after a week out in the elements. And how very special it is to have a healthy body that can transport me to all these awe-inspiring places.
Minimalism and living with intent
Memories… not things. You’ll never see a hearse with a trailer hitch. When you have to carry everything on your back, you quickly realise how little you really need. You ask yourself, ‘do I really need this?’ a lot more when you know you’ve got to carry all that baggage around with you.
One foot in front of the other
Wherever you’re going… just keep going, one step at a time. It’s not a race, it’s a journey and if you allow yourself to embrace that, it’s pretty enjoyable. The earth is round, you’ll get wherever you’re headed eventually – but it’s also helpful to have a rough idea of the destination.
Take a breath
Moving forward is important, but so is embracing exactly where you are. Climbing mountains isn’t about summiting, it’s about the entire experience of the trek. The hardest part of a hike is the comedown after the peak. When I’m struggling, I find it helps to remember that there is splendour to be found in exactly where I am, not just my next endpoint. So, sit back and take stock of your surroundings every so often. Maybe even glance over your shoulder and appreciate just how far you’ve come.
This is why when people ask me why I climb mountains, I just turn around and ask them why they don’t.