Though I am a total city slicker now, I wasn’t always one. I grew up in Southeastern Idaho, in a rural community surrounded by high-country desert and wilderness, ringed by mountains. I spent a fair amount of time outdoors, camping with my family or with the Boy Scouts, and I gained a love of the outdoors and remote country at an early age.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, my family went to a family reunion in the Sawtooth Mountains north of Sun Valley. This is a rugged and largely undiscovered country with millions of acres of wilderness and back-country. It’s not quite as stunning perhaps as the Tetons, but it is far less crowded.
I remember very little about the reunion itself (I’m sure I met distant cousins and ignored remote aunts and uncles) but I remember exploring a mountain brook and making my way back into the forest. My exploration began with some cousins, but they tired quickly, and I soon found myself alone. Though it probably wasn’t the safest thing in the world, I loved walking alone through the forest feeling the silence and stark beauty of nature.
Eventually, I came to one of the small foothills that runs up to the higher peaks of the Sawtooths. I looked up the hill and felt an urge to see what was at the top. I spent about an hour scrambling up the side, cutting back and forth through the sagebrush and thorns until I finally reached the summit. Though there were many peaks three or four times as high behind the small mount, I felt a sense of accomplishment for having reached my own little peak and sat for several minutes, huffing and puffing from the exertion and admiring the valley spreading out below.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that day created a life-long love of solo hiking and mountain climbing. When I was 17, I drove to the base of Independence Mountain, near my home, and hiked to the top of Cache Peak. At just over 10,000 feet, it is the highest peak in the area and offers a view for hundreds of miles into Southern Idaho, Utah and Nevada. I’ve climbed mountains in Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona as well.
I’m not a technical climber. I’m not interested in scaling rock faces, or rappelling down cliffs. Everest holds no appeal. Whenever I’m near mountains, however, I feel an almost irresistible urge to hike to the top of the nearest peak, big or small.
Last month, I attended another family reunion in the Sawtooth Mountains, this time with all of my parent’s children (there are nine of us, eight made it to the reunion), their spouses and grandchildren. Once again I felt the urge to climb. On the first morning of the reunion, I woke up just before dawn, strapped on hiking boots and headed into the mountains. I followed a trail back up from the cabins where we were staying until I reached the foot of a small mountain. I looked around and could see higher peaks nearby, but this one was closer and didn’t look too steep. I surveyed what I thought would be the best route to the top and started up the face of the mountain.
Very quickly the terrain become rough, with underbrush and loose shale and I began to feel the exertion. Having just come up from Arizona, the elevation was also a factor. I slowly picked my way up the side of the mountain, pausing frequently to rest and hydrate.
It’s been a while since I climbed a mountain with no clear trail marked, and I had to remember some of my old tricks for conquering the journey. Cutting switchbacks helped on the steepest parts of the mountain face. Most important though, was breaking the climb into a long series of short climbs.
Instead of setting a goal to reach the top and charging up the mountain, I would set easier, short-term destinations. I would choose a stump or rock several hundred feet up the mountain and then rest when I arrived and find another target. Sometimes I would only make 30-40 feet up the mountain before being forced to rest again. At that pace it seemed like it might take forever to reach the peak, but steadily I rose up the side.
I also find it motivating to stop from time to time to look back and gauge the progress I’ve already made. While I was progressing up the mountain a step at a time, it was amazing to look back and see how quickly those steps were adding up to real progress.
As I measured this progress, I began to realize that the mountain I had chosen was actually higher than I thought. From the base, it looked like a fairly easy climb, but as I hiked I began to realize that I was rising higher than some of the surrounding peaks. After the hike, I discovered that the peak I had climbed was over 10,000 feet, far higher than I would have imagined from the base.
I was also fooled by a number of false peaks along the way. I would see what I thought to be the summit, only to discover another rise ahead of me. Then, at one point, the climb became much steeper and my pace slowed significantly. At the top of this rise, however, I arose through the pine trees and discovered the summit atop a pile of broken granite.
If you’ve climbed mountains, you know the feeling of exhilaration and awe that comes at the peak. I also felt a real sense of reverence for the amazing beauty that opened up from the peak. I could see the entire Salmon River Valley below, as well as the other stunning peaks that surround it. I stood for several minutes admiring the vista, snapped a few photos and then set out for the descent.
Though far less exerting than the climb, the descent can be more treacherous. I paced myself and carefully made my way down. While the peak is dramatic and awe-inspiring, I also feel a real exhilaration standing back at the foot of the mountain. I look back up at the peak and say to myself “I conquered you!”
The sense of accomplishment is palpable, and it’s that feeling that keeps me coming back to climb.
The comparison of mountain climbing to life and business has been drawn many times before and has become a bit of a cliché, but I can’t help but feeling that my love of mountain climbing has taught me some very important lessons about goals and hard work.
As I’ve built my business, I’ve always tried to set challenging goals. I feel like each business undertaking is a kind of mountain I have to climb. Just like climbing the mountain, I’ve learned how important it is to break the climb into small, manageable segments (see my recent post “Eating the Elephant”). Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of persistence – when I spot a peak, whether a mountain or business goal, I’m never satisfied until I get to the top. That said – I don’t feel like it has to be the highest peak in the range, or that my business has to be a Google or General Electric – my goals are my own, and I don’t have to compare them to anyone else’s to be satisfied.
I’ve also learned, however, that just like mountain climbing, the goal often appears much easier and more attainable than it turns out to be. I frequently underestimate the amount of effort and time that will be required for a project. Even knowing this is the case, and trying to compensate for it, I still often find myself surprised at how much more difficult the task was than I expected. I’ve decided that’s okay. I try to allow some personal leeway and cushion for when this happens, but I’ve also learned that sometimes I have to work late into the night or over weekends or family vacations (I get up early, before the family rolls out of bed) to get the job done.
Mountain climbing has become a metaphor for my life – one that keeps me striving and ever climbing to reach that next peak.
What are your personal metaphors?
Do you draw inspiration for your approach to life or your art business through other activities or undertakings? Share your metaphors and experiences below in the comments.