Mountain: The Tie That Binds and Stretches Us

–submitted by Colleen Chestnut

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk staring idly at my computer between tasks.  Whenever my computer is inactive for a few minutes, the screen saver begins cycling through a series of about 200 photos.  Most are of my adventures: travelling, ocean kayaking, hiking and mountaineering.  The vast majority are of mountaineering excursions, either with my hiking club or with one or two close friends.  Although, I enjoy the solitude of my own thoughts and find pleasure in doing many activities alone, I prefer the company of others when I venture into the mountains.

An acquaintance of mine once suggested that, to be a “real” mountaineer, one must often go alone to the mountains.  He feels that solo hiking is the purest, most aesthetic form of mountaineering and that self-reliance and independence in the outback are the hallmarks of an accomplished mountaineer.  Not surprisingly, he shuns hiking groups and considers those who participate in them to be somehow weaker and less competent. In his opinion, to fully embrace this pure form of mountaineering, one must also avoid sharing one’s adventures over social media, lest the “holiness” of the experience be somehow tainted or bastardized. For him, sharing the experience too widely risks transforming it into a venture of vanity. One might be tempted to trade personal growth for the image of being tough and gnarly!

Although this philosophy has merit and I respect the level of discipline required to maintain it, I don’t ascribe to this way of thinking. When I look at the photos of my adventures, I remember vivid details of every hike and climb. I remember the struggles, frustrations, exultations and victories I shared with those who were there.  I remember the jaw-dropping vistas that a small handful of us got to see.

I remember the sights that were too big and too unreal to fully capture on camera.  I remember the quality of the light, the texture of the snow, the curve of the landscape and the sting of the wind.  I remember the intense burning in my legs and lungs as I pushed at the edges of my physical limits. I remember the trepidation and relief when a sketchy section was overcome (and then checking my companions’ eyes for traces of the same emotions). I remember the camaraderie and conversations; the things we laughed about and the exact curse words each of us used to convey sentiments too raw for propriety. I know everyone who experienced that day with me remembers it in their own way, and it creates a secret bond that only we share.

The trip reports and photos we post afterwards are mainly for those of us who went.  Almost like retelling a battle story that only the soldiers who were there fully understand. Yes, others looking at the photos or reading the stories find inspiration in our feats and are awed by the beauty of the places we visit. I know many who read of our adventures are physically unable to go to these places. I find satisfaction in knowing that the reports and photos give them a glimpse into a world they might otherwise never see.  I like that I have others to share this secret world with.  For me, it makes the experience so much more rich and rewarding.

A mountaineering friend, Jaime, once wrote, “Sometimes the mountains fill me with such joy and sometimes they scare the crap out of me”.   She went on to eloquently share how the mountains have taught her important lessons and helped her to grow.  She talked about how our perceptions (in the mountains and in life) are often a matter of perspective.  We are constantly being changed and stretched by our experiences in the mountains

I agree with these sentiments. During my treks in the mountains, particularly with friends, I find that my perceptions and perspectives are constantly challenged. I may find myself paralyzed with fear on a steep slope, only to look ahead and see a couple of friends laughing and joking nonchalantly with each other, obviously unconcerned about the terrain. I immediately remind myself to breathe deeply and put one foot in front of the other until the feeling of dread passes.  At other times, I may be trudging along, carelessly lost in thought and suddenly realize someone in front of me has grown cautious and tentative.  I automatically check myself and become more alert, testing every foothold.

The mountains constantly challenge me and cause me to grow.  They force me to examine myself: my fears, motives, attitudes and values. My mountaineering friends, likewise, expand my perceptions and push me beyond previously established limits. Yes, sometimes I feel tough and gnarly after our adventures.  Sometimes I feel small, humbled and glad to still be alive.  Mostly, I feel privileged to have this close-knit band of brothers and sisters to sweat, toil and grow beside each week; and I feel thankful for the amazing playground we get as a backdrop for that.

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