I went from city boy to mountain man in a single decision. The simple process of it all still stuns me.
In January 2016, I committed to climbing my first big mountain, Pisco Nevado of the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes Mountains, Peru. The process of committing, training and experiencing the mountain radically altered my physical and psychological modes of being. What I learned came out simple - mountains made me - and this is how they did it.
It is in our nature to be attracted to goals, or large challenges in some shape or form. They are how we plot our personal growth. What I found is that such a physically looming goal (in this case, the mountain) has an enchanting aspect. I use enchanting here to specifically reference the fact that mountains bring out something dormant inside, something that has the potential to become but has not yet been activated. The enchanting mountain is a reminder of internal potential, that excites and activates such that one has the opportunity to grow.
It started during a short conversation with FC Team Mountaineer Dan Nash of Satori Expeditions & Adventures at this past Winter’s OR. While talking about general fitness and personal developments, I confided in him I was searching for a new goal - something to amp me up and help in the development of focus. Without missing a beat, he told me I was ready to get into big mountains, and that Mt. Pisco was the perfect place to start. I knew during that short, but impassioned, conversation I was committed. That night I shared a shot of whiskey with my brother Brian - who also found himself enchanted - and from then on, it was decided. We were heading to the mountains.
From Enchantment to Inspiration
An enchanting conversation led me to commit to a big mountain and it left me in a state that stirred my soul. Once in this excited state, it’s was time for inspiration to take the wheel. As enchantment unfolded into inspiration, a very interesting process occurred. Life was absorbed into the goal itself.
The word inspire comes from the Latin “in spire” or to “breathe in.” Quite literally, as the goals shifted from a magical, but impersonal “one day I would like to” to an actual “ok, we’re going to do this” relationship, life began to change. At first it happened in small shifts, but before I knew it, I was living an entirely different life. Life’s energy stream seemed to flow in a new direction, toward the mountain. Whatever supported the goal was activated and amplified. Whatever undermined the goal was quickly eliminated, sometimes with remarkable ease and speed.
As I breathed life into my mountain project, my habits changed. First, I formed a new community of friends that supported my goal. Their personalities created a living social web of support that guided and grounded my development towards the mountain.
Motivated by the fear that the mountain might eat me if I didn’t get to a proper state of cardio fitness, I ran 4-5 times a week, mostly on trails. Before, I would see an uphill section and dread, “this is going to be a bitch,” but after, I saw each uphill as an opportunity to train. Instead of looking to avoid big hills, they served as inspiration. In this and many other cases, the prospect of the mountain inverted my perspective of the world around me.
As my life centered more around general fitness, my sleeping and eating habits improved to accommodate the physical change. With these additional physical habits in motion, I started to gain new patterns of perspective. I stopped drinking for longs stints and let go of consumables that acted against healthy development toward the mountain. I live in a college town and have had a happy history with the night life. This was a quick change of pace, but surprisingly didn’t feel like any effort at all. Inspired by the potential experience and inspired by my surroundings, my focus was elsewhere, staring straight at the mountain, day in and day out.
The state of inspiration reached a surreal state in May, when Brian and I drove through the night to Colorado to tackle our first 14er with a few friends. We would have never done this before we committed to Mt. Pisco. But at that point, we had to do it. We were overflowing with inspiration.
And we did it. In a short 72 hour stint, we drove from Arkansas to Colorado, climbed Gray’s Peak, and were back by Sunday night for work the next day. Even though we were exhausted, sun and wind burnt, and slightly disoriented from all the altitude change, we smiled from start to finish. It was during this trip that I understood - mountains were making me into a new kind of person, well before I stepped foot on the actual project.
The shift between inspiration and experience was the most distinct. I could feel, with Christmas Eve-like anticipation, the experience coming.
It’s one month away.
This time next week we’ll be on the mountain.
I can’t believe we are leaving in less than 48 hours.
Did I remember to pack. . .
And then it happened, I was “there” inside the moment I had been training toward for months. The contrast from the oxygenated Ozarks Mountains to the streets of Peruvian mountain towns was distinct and came with a jolt of excitement - similar to the first day of school. I felt I was about to tap into a wealth of wisdom, the special kind available only through experience. I sensed that I should have a pen and notepad out so that I didn’t miss anything. Everyone around me, the others in the expedition, seemed to agree, as all were regularly writing away in their journals. It was clear that important moments were happening for each individual.
Writing down my experiences and reflections was a good practice to aid memory, but it is only as useful as icing is to the cake. I took lots of notes and filled plenty of journal pages throughout my summit of Mt. Pisco, but they often feel empty when compared to the actual experience of the mountain. They are fragmented, of limited perspective, and were generated during varying levels of personal energy.
But the experience itself, the days at basecamp (our home for the majority of the days on the mountain), the aegean glacier lakes, the group tent meals and conversations, the acclimation process, and eventual summit push, were different from my journal entries. Unfragmented, my memory of the mountain reads like a single story that is now a part of me. Existence on a mountain is intense, it is experienced in a searing fashion, and the memories of it are burned into the brain.
The experience of the mountain was, at times, transcendent and removed from my sense of self. Eventually, the self simply melted away, especially during summit push. I was taking in so much physical and mental stimulation that my brain didn’t have time for self-reflective “what do I think about this?” moments. In less intense times, there is normally room to think, “this feels good” or “this feels bad” followed by some form of judgemental “I love it!” or “I hate it!” But when I lost myself, and by this I mean I surrendered to the massive and abundant energy of the mountain and allowed it to guide my flow of cognition, all forms self-reflection fell apart.
Before the climb, I asked a friend in my group why he ultimately signed up for Mt. Pisco and he evenly responded, “ego death.” He had come to the right place.
As I pushed closer and closer to achieving my goal, another transition of modes, between that of experience and impression occurred. These two modes overlapped in similar oscillating patterns such as that between enchantment and inspiration. I didn’t really know when I was having a pure, transient experience and when I was having an impression that would eventually get embedded into long term memory. Sometimes I could feel it as it is happening, but typically you can’t see impressions for what they are until long after the mountain is finished.
I’m not sure when exactly our goal to climb Mt. Pisco was complete. From a novice perspective, it was when we stood on top of the mountain. From a professional perspective, it was likely when we got down the mountain, alive and well. From a personal perspective, though, it wasn’t until I got back to the United States, safe at home. Having come down from the sugar high that is travel, I felt like the project was completed in full.
Up until that point, my mind was still ablaze having been excited by enchantment, combusted by inspiration, and set on fire (in the passionate sense) by experience. As it burned, my mind gained new impressions. For example, my pain and discomfort tolerance spectrum had been considerably expanded, but it wasn’t until I was back home, experiencing minor, mundane discomforts, that I understood the magnitude of this.
The impressions the mountain made are branded into my brain. They caused paradigm shifts on how I understand my physical ability and stamina, the role that inspiration and distraction play on train of thought, and what community support means. These are just a few topics, but the impressions as a whole are manifold and of an unlimited flavor. The more I look for them, the more there are. And interestingly enough, the impressions become more and more valuable the further away from them I get. When they follow this trend of appreciation, I know I have experienced something to savor and share with others.
Once I was off the mountain, safe at home, and finished with the accumulation of experiences for this particular mountain, the final mode - consolidation - began to occur. I started to make sense of how my new perspective fit, or didn’t fit, with the pre-mountain version of myself. This mode was of the most surprising, subtle intensity. Peak and troughs of excitement, relaxation, sadness, and epiphany came in waves and continue to arrive at my mental doorstep to this day. The mountain changed me for the long term, and its mechanism of change appears to be waves of novel insight that radiate out from the experience. I am not sure where their lesson will take me, but I am certain that the total experience of such a physically and mentally powerful goal gave me new insight into how the big mountains of life are climbed.
If I could offer only one bit of insight from my experience, it would be this - reach out and grab anything that enchants you. If you are fortunate enough to be overcome with passion - follow it. Untold wonders filled with inspiration, experience, and impression await on the other side of an enchanted of pursuit. It turned me from one that “wishes-to-be” to one who “is”. Mountains made me. Find your mountain and get to moving towards it.
Go on now and touch the sky.