I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, a town that’s *so* outdoorsy, it’s perfectly normal to show up to your Friday date night in a Patagonia hoodie and hiking boots.
Everyone in Boulder — or so it can seem — is an athlete. And not just an athlete, but an ultra-athlete. Boulderites fill their (seemingly abundant) free time with rock climbing, trail-running, backcountry skiing, mountain biking — often all in the same day. If you think I’m exaggerating, this is a town which has a trailrunning/free-solo club which meets BEFORE WORK.
Here’s a quick story about one of those seemingly superhuman Boulderites, and a lesson in perspective that you can hopefully apply to your own life.
I found myself ice climbing, a lot, this past winter. My heart was badly broken, and if ever there was a time I was going to dedicate myself to the dangerous pursuit of climbing frozen waterfalls, it was going to be when I felt I had nothing left to lose.
The ice climbing community is small, even in Boulder. This makes sense, considering ice climbing is about as fun as biting a live wire, and twice as dangerous.
Looks cool in the photos, though.
The first day of ice season, I found myself in a Subaru heading for the ice near Breckenridge, a popular ski town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It was early season: November or December.
We were four: my and the friend who had introduced me to ice climbing, and a couple she knew from previous ice climbing seasons.
The couple had been down in Peru recently, climbing 6,000-meter peaks in the Cordillera Blanca. I’m always down to hear a good climbing and/or travel story, so I plied the pair for information.
They’d chartered a couple donkeys to bring their gear into the valleys, set up camp and knocked off peak after peak with names they repeated, casually, like I should recognize them. “But those aren’t really hard mountains,” the husband said. ”It’s not that big of a deal.”
He mentioned some other acquaintances in the climbing crew. Those guys, he said, had been to Pakistan recently, making attempts on the 8,000-meter peaks of Gasherbrum I and II. That, he seemed to say, was worthwhile.
We arrived at our ice climb.
The husband took the sharp end, and led me up a 3-pitch “Scottish gully” style climb. It was stout ice, with a vertical curtain at the end. When I got to the top, he complained: “I had no business leading that.”
We rappelled down, rejoined our other two friends on easier top-rope terrain. The day was bitingly cold though, and we didn’t linger for too long.
On the drive home, the husband kept complaining: “I can’t believe I’m so weak; struggling with that route — it’s so easy!”
I was impressed with his performance, and told him so— but he didn’t care. The only opinion he cared about was his own.
As a person who’s spent much time in the mountains, let me make it easy for you: any type of ice climbing is impressive. Climbing a 6,000-meter mountain is just as impressive. Those are things very few people do.
Almost anyone who isn’t existing inside the extreme-sports crucible of the Colorado climbing community would call leading ice climbs and standing on top of big mountains in South America exceptional acts.
But my new friend couldn’t see that.
His perspective was skewed.
Becoming a mountain climber is a lifelong pursuit. A true alpinist needs to know how to camp, how to backpack, rock climb, ice climb, snow climb, assess avalanche danger, cross glaciers, use rope systems for safe ascents and descents, manage high-stress emotional moments, relate with your team members under challenging conditions… the list goes on.
My new friends had been preparing to climb in the big mountain ranges for a lifetime. And they did it. They did it multiple times, actually. They’d been to Chamonix. They’d done lots of cool climbs. Their resumes would put them in the top 10% of alpinists alive today.
But because their community was so small, and filled with so many stronger, more intense people, it became easy to denigrate their own skill, ability and accomplishment.
“Oh, those are easy mountains.”
“How does this apply to me?”
Unless you’re one of my Boulder friends, you’re probably not out risking your life in the mountains every week. And you don’t need to be reminded that mountain climbing is intense — you already thought that, reading this piece and looking at the pictures.
Good. Your perspective is on, at least w/r/t mountain climbing.
But I’m guessing your perspective isn’t so unbiased in the areas you care more about. Maybe that’s your career, or your relationship, or your finances, or your guitar skills — it could be anything. Mountaineering is the most arbitrary activity in the world, but people in Boulder happen to care about it quite a lot. What do you care about a lot?
Now ask yourself, in that arena:
Are you being fair with yourself?
Chances are, you probably aren’t.
As human beings, we have a tendency to always be striving forward, to push ourselves. This is a good impulse. But we need to be mindful that just because there is terrain yet unknown in front of us, that doesn’t mean there is nothing behind us.
In mountaineering, the push for constant self improvement leads to bigger objectives, ever-harder routes, and often, for the boldest climbers, an early death.
All My Heroes Are Dead
The climbing world suffered another loss today, with the news of three high-profile alpinists lost in an avalanche in…
Luckily, ‘regular life’ is not always so dramatic.
If you dedicate yourself to your career, failing to make VP might feel like falling off a cliff, but you will have significantly more time to regain a proper perspective than an alpinist being swept away by an avalanche.
If you take the time to look back and really appreciate where you are, with perspective, you might just realize: you’ve come a lot further than you thought.
You aren’t giving yourself enough credit because your perspective is skewed
Just like our climber — you cannot realize your achievements because you are too close to the situation. Maybe you’re like him: surrounded by peers you feel are superior. Maybe your drive to hit that next step is all-consuming. Maybe you’ve always had low self-esteem and don’t think much of yourself.
These are all common. These can all be vanquished with mindfulness.
So I beg you, if you take anything away from these far-off tales of mountains and ice: don’t be like my friend. Keep your perspective, and know how to give yourself credit for the things you’ve done.
Because, chances are, you’ve done something just as cool as climbing a 6,000-meter mountain. You just don’t know it yet.