The Mountain Will Teach Her

A while back I decided to climb my first big mountain. I love hiking and backpacking and have stood atop my fair share of small peaks. But the same experience that sent me on my minimalism journey also inspired me to decide to take on the mountains — and I set the goal to reach 7 summits in 7 years.

The first mountain I chose to tackle was Mt. Adams, Washington. At 12,280 feet of elevation, Mt. Adams is the second highest mountain in Washington State. However, it isn’t a technical climb, so I thought it would be a good place to start. I had the support of my husband, his Aunt Carole, and her friend LeAnn for this journey.

While many people choose to take 2 days to undertake this mountain, we decided to pound it out in one. I don’t remember why; but that’s what we did. We got up early — 4 a.m. — and were hiking by 5. We decided to go light and fast, taking only the essentials with us in day packs.

I won’t go into all of the details of the journey because this post isn’t really about that. But I will share with you that this climb was very demanding physically, and we encountered everything that you would expect: snow and ice, large boulder fields, a seemingly endless push to what should be the top but never is, plus an early morning lightning and hail storm. At the most demanding parts, I would count my steps and give myself a long breath in between each set. I started at 50 steps, then 20, then 10, then 5, and when I was most tired and the mountain was the most punishing, I would count to 3.

But we did it. We summited and it was exhilarating and I felt immense satisfaction. And then we glissaded down the mountain, descending in a matter of minutes what had taken us hours and hours to climb up. After the snow we began to scramble down the rocks. And it was about here that I met the woman that inspired this post.

It was late afternoon and we were going down the mountain, while a group of people were coming up. They appeared to be a group of friends in their mid-twenties who had decided to have an adventure together. As we began to pass the group we said the normal hellos. We were descending down a rocky trail that required the navigation of large boulders. Just as I encountered one of the women who was climbing up, she lost her balance and almost fell over onto some sharp rocks, catching herself at the last minute. A fall from these rocks wouldn’t have been deadly, but it could have been painful and resulted in bruises, cuts, or even a sprained ankle or broken bone.

“Oh wow, are you okay?” I asked.

She smiled and I noticed that she was perspiring heavily, but trying to put on a brave face. “Yes, I’m fine. Can you tell me how much further?”

So. When we stopped to briefly converse, there was a lot to process visually about this young woman and the situation she had created for herself on this mountain. The reason that she lost her balance was that she was carrying her large sleeping bag via a strap that was slung around her shoulders like a purse, but as she moved it had slipped forward around her neck and become a very heavy necklace that swayed back and forth like a pendulum. Additionally, her backpack was packed to the gills, and she had used every possible pocket and strap on the exterior. There were snack bars in the pockets, a bed roll and tent strapped to the bottom, all manner of gadgets and gizmos, and at the top she had brought a full size bed pillow which protruded from the top of her pack like a giant marshmallow. She was probably packing more than 60 pounds. To complete the look, she was carrying her water in one of those plastic water bottles with a blue snap lid . . . that she had tucked into her cleavage.

I honestly don’t know what was actually IN the backpack. From what I could see, all of the things that I normally put IN my pack — food, water, bedding, flashlight — were all on the outside, like appendages or afterthoughts. Whatever items were elevated above food and water and other essentials to have been packed best and first has remained an elusive mystery that I have brooded over these many months.

I breathed all of this in over a span of about 2 wide-eyed seconds and it was time to respond to her question: “Can you tell me how much further?”

Truthfully? Miles. Hours. They were entering a new realm where distance was measured not by how far you have come, but by how high you have climbed. They had hiked a couple of miles already, but it was the gentle, easy part. The trail had barely begun to rise, and from here, it was going to be work. With that pack — it was going to be torture.

“You’ve got a ways yet,” I smiled back, trying to be nonchalant and not let my eyes give away too much of what I was really thinking. But even this very watered-down version of reality produced a very dejected expression. I could tell that what had started out as a fun jaunt with her buddies a few hours before was quickly turning into something else entirely.

“Okay. Thank you,” she said as she stared hollowly ahead.

“Have a great climb!” I said with a lot of pep, but not a lot of faith, as I continued on my way down the trail.

As soon as we were far enough away that she couldn’t hear us, of course I started gossiping about her (because I am not always my best self). Did you guys see . . . ? I couldn’t believe . . . What about . . . ? How in the world . . . ? The more I thought about and talked about the situation, the more distressed I became. This girl had created a dangerous situation for herself. Overpacking to go on a road trip or an airplane is one thing, but overpacking a pack and trying to climb a serious mountain is something else entirely. And since I’m a fixer, I thought about maybe turning around and running back up the trail to give her some unsolicited, big-sisterly advice.

The person who ended up listening quietly to my eruption of opinions about all of this was LeAnn.

Before I continue, I have to share a bit about LeAnn. This woman was born to climb mountains. And she has climbed dozens and dozens of them, including Everest Basecamp and Mt. Kilimanjaro. She loves hiking, and she has these long wonderful legs that are just made for it. If she hadn’t been saddled with me, Carole, and Matt, she probably could have motored up Mt. Adams in half the time without a break. Also, she is hilarious. And sage. So she listened to me, and when I asked if we should do something, she simply turned to me and said, “The mountain will teach her.”

The wisdom of these words left me a little breathless.

It’s true, I have learned it myself again and again. The mountain is a ruthless sensei. How many backpacking trips had I been on where switchback after switchback I had found myself taking a mental inventory of every item in my pack, and cursing myself for carrying superfluous items. Did I really need that extra shirt? Deodorant? Tiny pack of cards? Curse that blasted pencil and mini-journal! Journeying in the mountains has a way of bringing life’s essential elements into sharp focus, usually by causing you to experience physical suffering intertwined with exhilaration and beauty.

Yes, the mountain would teach her, just as my mountains had taught me. In my own way, in my own time, and at my own pace.

I have realized in the months since this experience that the lessons the mountains have taught me over the years regarding what to carry with me on my adventures have application in everyday life. Even if we aren’t physically carrying our possessions, we are carrying them mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. Every item in our homes, every email in our inbox, and every commitment on our calendar is ours to manage, and it has claim on a part of our energy.

It is possible to carry the non-essentials when the path in front of us is flat and smooth — especially if we can find a metaphorical suitcase with wheels! But life’s terrain rises and falls. Sometimes it is rocky and steep, sometimes muddy or wet, and sometimes icy and treacherous. We don’t always get to choose the elevation gain or complexity of our path. There are times when there is no escaping the need to put our lives on our back and start to climb, one step at a time.

When these times come . . . and they will come . . . it is then that we will feel the wisdom of preparing for just enough, or the crushing burden of too much.

Too much debt. Too many papers. Too much clutter. Too many clothes. Too much house. Too many emails. Too much waste. Too many obligations. Too much energy spent on toxic people.

But just like any hiker in the wilderness, we choose how we pack our packs. If your life is so overrun that you need to pack your drinking water in your cleavage (figuratively speaking), then it may be time to pause and re-evaluate. If you are on this path, carrying this load and it’s not fun anymore, may I offer you some unsolicited, big-sisterly advice?

Set it down. Take it out. Let it go. Leave it behind. Throw it away. Lighten your load. Share the burden. Make room for the essentials.

You’ve got this.