Can Mountains Mend a Broken Heart?

My relationship with the mountains has always been changing, just like my relationships with people. One thing that I love about mountain climbing is that it is inherently meaningless – much like art, a void where each person can create meaning in their own way. We each bring a unique set of emotions and perspectives into these places that inevitably affect what the mountains mean to us. Over the years, mountain climbing has meant many things to me – self improvement, exploration, friendships – but in the past few months, they have taken on a new meaning: a metaphor for recovery.

Thunderbolt Col
What do the mountains mean to me now?

I used to only focus on the summit. Getting to the top of something was a way to feel accomplished. But any experienced alpinist will tell you that you don’t conquer the mountain; rather, it allows passage and works with you. Sometimes the conditions come together perfectly and everything works out. But failing to reach the summit does not mean you are a worse climber, it just means you are a wiser climber. So many things are out of your control, but a great alpinist makes every preparation possible to control what is in their domain. The rest is up to the mountains. It’s like the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr

There are so many random, awful things that happen in life and not all happen for a reason. But it is so much more difficult to let go in life than to turn back from a summit bid when avalanche conditions are sketch or a rainstorms threaten a rock route. Turning back is humbling. Failure makes us wiser, but sometimes we also feel weaker. The key is taking a break, collecting yourself, and coming back even stronger. When I took a bloody fall on the NW Corner of NEWS, it was not just about climbing. It was about taking life’s punches, looking at the situation, putting the demons in my past, and fighting on. That’s what that climb meant to me.

Taking on the challenge of NEWS.

Alpinists, especially Pacific Northwest alpinists, have to deal with fickle weather. Will it be raining or snowing at pass elevations? Will the marine push burn off in time for us to climb that rock route? When conditions seem questionable, it can be tempting to throw in the towel and not even get out there. How could it be better than that perfect bluebird day a few months ago? But the climber who only goes out in perfect conditions is missing out on so many great, surprising experiences. You will never know if you never try. Some of my most memorable moments in the mountains – finding powder atop a sea of clouds on Lichtenberg when supposedly a warm winter rainstorm had destroyed the snowpack, climbing new ice routes on a 50 degree day when other ice climbers were hanging up their tools for the winter – came as a result of being willing to take a chance. Lately, it has often felt like nothing will give me the same happiness and satisfaction I felt in my life previously. But I have to tell myself that beautiful, surprising moments can still be had even during stormy skies. And all the gnar makes that colorful sunset so much more meaningful. Most importantly, the mountains have taught me that life holds an infinite number of happy moments for those willing to put themselves out there, suffer, and take a few risks.

Sunset Meadows
The beautiful sunset after the deluge.

More and more, I have found myself attracted to the journey in the mountains. I seek trips that are less about a single objective and more about creating a unique experience in the mountains. That is why I am attracted to multi sport adventures, long traverses and high routes, and trying for first ascents. I think I have begun to realize that the destination is nothing more than a symbol of the journey, a place to look back at the effort and relationships that got you to that point. The Sierra High Route was an exemplary trip, where the experiences we had together and the beautiful moments every day far surpassed the end destination and high point, Mt. Whitney. I will never forget the challenges we faced and strength we gave each other. There was so much suffering, but life is also suffering, and beauty comes when you accept the entirety of our existences, let the colors blend together, and celebrate the amalgamation of life. During a journey like that, it is almost inevitable that the destination is lackluster or anti-climatic. Sometimes it is not everything you dreamed, but you cannot let that cause you to overlook how so many wonderful things surprised you on the way. So I guess I need to look at life as a continuous journey, where one is ending and another is beginning. Part of me just wants to have my old life back, to be back on the summit again, the destination I always wanted. But I know that the journey of building new relationships and a new future, although challenging, will be rewarding in the end.

Wonderful stream in the North Fork Napeequa.
The magical Napeequa and the colors of my life.

So can the mountains mend a broken heart? Definitely not. But they can at least help us discover the path to recovery. Sometimes a long day out in the mountains feels like a lifetime: the highs, the lows, the bonds, the exhaustion, the undeniable beauty in everything and everyone. And after all the effort expended, we return back to the same place we started but a completely different person. We go out there to learn about ourselves and we never come back the same. This is why, now more than ever, I need to surround myself with close friends, to keep exploring, to penetrate deeper into the mountains, to feel wild and free. I now bring more emotions than ever in these experiences, as I discovered on our 22 hour epic on the Ice Cliff Glacier. My life has forever changed, and so has my relationship with the mountains. This is what they mean to me now. There is no going back.

To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.

The only way is up.

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