“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” —Edmund Hillary
I did not go on my first hike until my mid-30s. I could blame it on the fact that I grew up on the Great Plains of South Dakota and North Dakota. But mostly, to be honest, I just wasn’t interested. Having never gone, I didn’t see the value and always declined when asked.
I went on my first hike a few years back while living in Vermont. At the urging of my wife, and with my two young kids, we walked a beautiful forest trail on a cool August morning. I carried a small backpack with water and snacks. When we reached the top, we ate lunch together overlooking a perfectly still pond and a scenic Vermont landscape.
And I fell in love with climbing mountains.
A few weeks ago, my 11-year old son, my 61-year old dad, and I hiked Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. Last weekend, I hiked down the Grand Canyon with my son along the South Kaibab Trail. And later this week, my wife and daughter will join us to walk Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains. (There are definitely some benefits of living in Phoenix during the winter).
Now, just to be clear, by no stretch of the imagination would I classify myself as an expert hiker. Most of our hikes last 2 hours. And I have no plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or walk the Appalachian Trail. But waking early on a Saturday morning to walk 3-5 miles along a forest trail with lunch in your backpack is a journey I’d recommend for anyone.
It is a healthy physical exercise that creates wonderful memories. It provides opportunity to slow down and disconnect. And given the chance, hiking teaches us important truths about life.
Life Lessons Learned Climbing Mountains:
Many have gone before. Every time I hike, I find myself grateful for those who have gone before and have smoothed a trail for me. And I am reminded, in life, we all stand on the hard work of those who have walked before us.
Many will come after. I am not the last to walk this trail, climb this mountain, or witness these views. While I am thankful for the work of those who have gone before, I also sense an important obligation to those who will come after—to leave the trail, the mountain, and the earth in better condition than I found it.
Not all paths have been traveled. Just for fun, I try to build a rock sculpture somewhere during each hike. I look for unusual places where the balancing rocks will remain undisturbed but still noticed by observant hikers in the future. To accomplish that, I always pick a spot just off the beaten path. Each time, I am reminded there are always new paths to be found in life and new discovers to be made.
Sometimes quiet is the best noise. I love the stillness and calm of an empty trail. It reminds me how much I love hearing no noise at all.
You can travel farther and accomplish more than you think. Uphill trails only leave two choices: reach the top or turn around. Reaching the top only requires the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When life gets tough, I try to remember all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.
Healthy fuel is important. Hiking spurs intentionality in the food and drink I choose to consume. I eat a healthy breakfast. I bring water, thoughtful snacks, and a light lunch if necessary. I choose healthy fuel so my body will function properly during the hike. Plus, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about eating artificial foods while being present in the natural world.
Pack light. The weight of physical possessions is clearly felt when they are piled on your back. Wise travelers carry only what is needed for the journey. May it be true of me while packing—and in living.
Choose your steps carefully. While hiking, each step is clearly chosen. I focus intently where my next foot is going to land—sometimes even calculating 2-3 steps in advance. This intentionality helps me avoid unnecessary harm. And I hope the decisions I make with my life’s direction will be made with the same precision and care.
Age is only a number. I’ve seen hikers under the age of 7 and I’ve seen hikers over the age of 70. I am learning more and more that age only represents the number of years you have been alive. It does not serve as a litmus test for opportunity. Those who decide early in life to care for their bodies and not allow age to limit their potential will not be handicapped by it.
If you can climb a mountain, you can do anything. While not technically true, the mantra still goes through my head constantly during a hike. Reaching the top of a mountain (any mountain) is an impressive physical, mental, and emotional accomplishment. And it is motivating. It reminds me I can accomplish important things with my life if I dream big and put in the work.
Go climb a mountain. You’ll love it.