Get lost or change

October 02 2012

When was the last time you scared yourself?

Last week I found myself scrambling up rocks, free climbing what I thought was the summit of Longs Peak. After several hours of hiking, circumnavigating ice patches, carefully placing my feet, holding onto rock slabs, and searching for trail markers, I came to the edge of a very, very steep cliff. Heights don’t usually bother me, but this was something else. Visions of misplaced steps filled my mind, and wind whipped my matted hair.

Across this dramatic divide, there was another peak. Clusters of camera flashes sparkled in clear view. Surely, these people were having a much better time than I was. They were on the actual summit. Me? I had no idea.

I began my epic trek at 4AM to get where those people were. I clearly missed the right path. On the way up, I was comforted by headlamps that flickered in front and behind me. I hadn’t seen another climber in hours. I was pissed. And scared.

I spent a few moments trying to collect myself, talking myself into rational thoughts, eventually reaching the conclusion I needed to make my way back down.

Regression is dangerous.

Footing slipped away beneath my feet, and I was reminded of the whizzing sound a small boulder made on my way up. I was paralyzed.

I didn’t do what I had set out to do, and I didn’t want to quit. This is sometimes referred to as “summit fever.” I tried to snap out of it and focus on the down-climb, picking out some semblance of a trail that would transport me safely to the bottom. My partner pointed out the piles of rockslides that surrounded us. I was ferociously sour, and irrational thoughts began to swoon in my mind.

Why the hell did I get myself into this mess? Who does this? I’ve turned into a city slicker and have lost all sense of self. I swore I’d never climb another mountain again, much less go on any hike over three hours. Tears of anger and frustration and god-knows-what-else leaked from my eyes.

When we test our limits, we have to work harder to maintain perspective.

In the moments we’re tired, scared, overworked, and anxious, a record we have no intention of playing can fill the empty spaces of our minds. It tries to convince us of the poor choices we’ve made and the even worse choices we’ll make soon enough. It lulls us into talking ourselves off the ledge of risk and stay on the safest ground possible — the trail everyone else walks on, the stories everyone else shares, the familiar. We forget to widen our gaze and consider the big picture. As a result, our world shrinks, and with it, the possibility of seeing what lies beyond fear’s foggy lens.

“You made it up. You can make it down,” I chanted over and over in my mind. My steps were gingerly, but I moved in the direction of home. When I reached ground that was relatively stable, I finally saw signs of other life. Footprints carved the dirt, and a group of fellow adventurous appearance in the distance.

“Which route did you do?” asked one member of the stock-photo worthy cohort. I suddenly felt self-conscious as I explained, “Tried to reach the summit, but found myself at the top of a pretty big cliff looking over at it, instead.”

The group widened their beautiful eyes. “That’s a much harder climb than the Keyhole Route, and you probably didn’t see another soul. The view must be incredible!”

Narrow focus causes us to miss opportunity.

“Yeah, I didn’t see anyone,” I muttered. I was too focused on my failed attempt to appreciate the view. “That’s so wicked!” chirped the outdoor model. “You did a way harder route.”

I forced a smile and grunted out a few words of gratitude before continuing on. Whether it was the altitude or the early morning hour, I evidently took the wrong turn.  As I continued walking on a now manageable trail, I mulled over their words. Harder. More scenic. Less traffic. Less traveled. Adventurous.

My spirits slowly lifted. It wasn’t until the next day (after I nursed my crushed ego with good Italian food and set my knees to ice), I realized I had a pretty good story.

Great tales are often unplanned. 

What had gone very, very wrong was now a story of risk and adventure. I had something I could share with (and laugh at) with friends. And with it, I was reminded of two valuable lessons:

1. Getting lost is where excitement happens. 

The moment things go wrong is the moment you learn where your edges are, and you are gifted with the opportunity to push past them.  When you veer off-course, you discover surprises and sights you most likely would have missed if you went “the right way.” That, and you’ll come out with a better story to tell.

2. Your perspective determines the outcome.

It’s easy to forget the power of perspective. We have the ability to choose how we consider situations. If we label an experience as negative in our minds, we miss the opportunity to find the lessons to be learned. A simple shift in perspective can separate the meaningful from the mundane.

Get lost or change your perspective. You might be surprised at how very little effort is required for the rewards you’ll take away.