GET OUT: Highs and Lows

By on October 20, 2015

The ebb and flow of personal growth in the mountains.

Lewis Smirl eyes the Northeast Ridge on Mt. Moran (top left); Smirl puts together the pieces of a 1950 plane crash on Mt. Moran (right), and the author walks the line between anxiety and excitement. (Photo: Ryan Burke)

Lewis Smirl eyes the Northeast Ridge on Mt. Moran (top left); Smirl puts together the pieces of a 1950 plane crash on Mt. Moran (right), and the author walks the line between anxiety and excitement. (Photo: Ryan Burke)

Jackson, WY – As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we parked the sailboat on the rocky shores of Jackson Lake and started the ascent to the Northeast Ridge of Mount Moran. Wading through the thick forest at night, we were quickly humbled by our surroundings, feeling like uninvited guests who might be punished for our intrusion. Anxiety filled our veins as we set out into the unknown, imagining, rather unproductively, what large creatures might lay beyond the beam of our headlamps. We had found the dangerous edge where risk and reward meet, like a fork in the road we would either become a grizzly bear’s appetizer or make it through the gauntlet of wilderness unharmed. Convincing ourselves that uncertainty of success is what makes an adventure worth the trip, we continued, undeterred. Engrained into our minds was the mantra that the risk is worth the reward.

Eventually high on the steep ridgeline we stumbled upon a slanting slab of granite that would suffice as our bed for the night. When we awoke the following morning our eyes were treated to an expansive view of the rising sun. Suddenly, we were filled with the same bodily sensations that had terrified us the night before, our heartbeats quickened and our vision became more clear. However, with the world fully exposed and no imaginary threats lurking in the shadows, we chose to label these emotions within us as excitement instead of anxiety.  Our perceptions shifted as we realized that both anticipation and angst feel the same way in our bodies, but our mind’s interpretation of those sensory inputs determine if the experience is labeled as enjoyment or fear. Like riding a roller coaster, time in the outdoors is a state of heightened arousal that bounces between exhilaration and unease.

Scrambling over quality granite stone at 11,000 feet we stumbled upon the remnants of an old airplane engine from a 1950 plane crash. The carnage of the wreckage hopefully indicated a quick death for its inhabitants — 20 missionaries headed for South America. Boarding the plane, the passengers must have known they were risking their lives, but their doubts were surely silenced by the purity of their motives. When they made the fateful decision to leave their homes they were facing the same dilemma all mountaineers do when approaching an obstacle: “do I continue on or go back to where it was safe?” This is an internal battle that everyone suffers with on a daily basis, as we struggle to walk a tightrope between opportunity and danger.

As the fog settled in around us and we approached the summit ridge, the temperature began to drop and the consequences became more severe. An old adage reports that growth begins at the end of your comfort zone, but the thousand-foot drop to our right also convinced us that the edge of our ability is also where death occurs. One precarious move stood between us and the summit, as we decided whether it was worth possible injury to touch the highest point on a pile of rocks. In the mountains, the fleeting pleasure of success seems to taunt us on irrationally, while the potential pain of failure magnifies our disgrace and mocks us from the future. Rarely do we play it forward and think about the consequences if things do not go as planned  — we block out the possibility that instead of ending up as a grandfather we could end up as a statistic. We forget that the line between “that was awesome” and “that was stupid” is razor thin and to progress forward sometimes it is necessary to step back.

As we descended to the safety of our sailboat, we pondered the question, how could we enjoy the reward without the risk? Impossible, we concluded, as doubt is always a prerequisite for any true achievement. Sometimes the risk is the reward. The willingness to step to the edge with open eyes is what makes personal evolution possible. Only when you face your internal demons can you learn to trust your intuition and silence your impulsivity. Moments of doubt on the mountain help us practice pausing to gain clarity without becoming held prisoner by the paralysis of fear. The outdoors isn’t the only outlet for growth, but for me it is the most reliable testing ground to see when and where I will fight or flee, freeze or flow. PJH

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