Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Mountains
Editor-in-Chief Dennis Lewon reflects on an alpine education.
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When George Mallory was preparing for his third attempt on Mt. Everest in 1923, a reporter asked him why he wanted to climb the mountain. “Because it’s there,” he famously answered. I thought about Mallory’s response as we worked on this special issue celebrating mountains. I appreciate how few words he needed to end the debate about motivation: We are drawn to peaks, and we don’t need to justify it.
But after decades of my own adventures on mountains big and small, I also appreciate what Mallory’s economical reply left out: You learn a lot when climbing peaks. With apologies to my kindergarten teacher, I believe I’ve learned my most important lessons above treeline.
In the mountains, as in life, there’s a fine line between ambitious and foolhardy. If you have no technical alpine experience, Denali should not be your next big objective. But mountain travel inevitably teaches us that we’re capable of more than we think. A partner and I once struck off on a 10-day traverse in the Indian Himalaya that was a stretch for our abilities in terms of elevation, ice, and routefinding. Then a storm rolled in, reducing visibility to nil. And then we ran out of food. We almost turned back twice, but I learned to trust my judgment and we ultimately completed the traverse. Afterward, I thought about the moments when I felt I was in a little over my head, and realized that’s exactly the point.
Aim high, yes, but don’t get too attached to lofty goals. With work and family obligations, it’s all too easy to head outdoors with limited time and excessive expectations. But nature makes its own rules. One of my best trips in the mountains was a failed attempt on the Grand Teton, when a storm coated the rock with ice and forced my party to turn around before we’d even roped up. We have to adapt to the world around us, not the other way around. One of my kids (14 at the time) joined me on that trip, and I was glad to see he learned that summiting is only one goal, and not the most important one.
OK, this is one you should have learned in kindergarten. But it’s easy to be friendly when you’re sharing crayons. Real character comes out in the mountains. On a recent trip to Mt. Shasta, my team encountered constant 40-mph winds that coated us in frost. During the 12-hour summit push, we shared water, helped each other with balky crampons, and joked about the conditions. (“The ground blizzard is making it hard to see, but at least it’s freezing our water bottles.”) You’ll never forget the friendships forged in difficult conditions.
On that same Shasta trip, gusts that reached 50 mph made it hard to walk. The wind forced most climbers to turn back, but my team of five kept at it, making slow but steady progress. We reached a point just below the summit block (the wind made it too precarious to stand on top), and we couldn’t see more than about 50 yards in any direction. But it was one of the most satisfying climbs I’ve attempted. On days like that, you learn to embrace the old adage about taking things one step at a time.
In recent years, ropes courses and other outdoor-centric exercises have trickled down to corporate team-building events. They’re great for teamwork, but fall short of what you’ll learn in the mountains. Exhibit A: On the final approach to the summit of the Mönch, in Switzerland, the route crosses a snow-caked, knife-edge ridge that’s barely wide enough for two boots and drops away thousands of feet on either side. When my rope team reached the traverse, our leader turned and said, “You know what to do if someone falls, right? Jump off the other side.” You don’t build trust like that on a zip line.
Yes, respect mountains and be smart about it. But don’t forget why you’re there in the first place. Reaching a summit is fun. I’ve made it a habit to remind myself of that on Mt. Sanitas, my local peak in Boulder. For the last two years, on December 23, I’ve climbed Sanitas with a pack full of beer and cookies to give away to whoever shows up. I plan to do it again this year, and if anyone asks me why I decided to throw an impromptu celebration on my neighborhood peak, I’ll say, “Because it’s there.”