How Mountaineering Shaped my Life
First off, I’d like to thank you for hosting me, and for inviting me back. It’s sort of the ultimate compliment. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I started traveling the backcountry when I was a teenager. My first love was a mountain climber, and he shared his love of the outdoors with me. The bug bit deep and after we parted, because first loves almost never go the distance, I found another mountaineer and we made a life together.
I’m an unlikely climber. For one thing, I’m short. If you take a look at most climbers, they’re tall and rangy. Having that extra reach helps—a lot. It’s good for stepping around obstacles and for navigating rock-strewn slopes. But size cuts both ways. Sometimes I’ve been able to wriggle through a tight spot that would have defeated a larger person.
While I can’t point to a specific mountain, each of them (and I’ve climbed close to two hundred) holds a special spot in my heart. Climbing has taught me patience and perseverance. It’s also taught me to manage my fear and to live in the moment. All good life lessons. All the years I was a psychotherapist, I’d tell my clients not to expend too much energy on the might-have-beens in their pasts, and also not to worry about things too far in the future. There’s a middle ground where we can maximize the bang for the buck if we concentrate our efforts.
Boy is that true about climbing. It makes absolutely no sense to get much beyond the next set of moves on a mountain. Either they work for you, or they don’t. If they don’t, you go down. If they do, you keep moving up. There are a couple of caveats, though. If the weather turns, turn around, and if you don’t start early, don’t start at all.
Last summer a physician didn’t get rolling climbing Norman Clyde Peak out of the Big Pine Creek trailhead area until midafternoon. They left the trailhead mid-morning, but by the time they made it to the lake they planned to camp at it was past two. Though he should have known better, he headed for the peak traveling alone. (Another no-no.) He made the summit around 8:30 p.m. I know because that’s when he signed the summit register. It was getting dark and instead of doing the smart thing, which would have been staying on the peak’s broad, flat summit plateau, this fellow headed down. There are some steep, gnarly parts on that mountain. Not something you want to down-climb when you can’t see. Depth perception depends on vision. Anyway, he fell to his death, and extricating his body for his next of kin put other lives in danger. Mistakes in the mountains are cumulative. You can sometimes get away with one, but rarely with two, and he made two: late start and not staying put on the summit pyramid until morning.
There’s an old saying that the mountain gods protect children and fools. Except they don’t. Nature is chillingly random. People die in the world’s high places all the time. Not because they lacked skill, but because their reasoning ability took a hike. Beyond patience, perseverance, and continuously assessing my physical capacity vis a vis the mountain I’m on, climbing has also taught me respect and humility. There’s no shame in retreat. It’s how I got to be an old climber.
One last anecdote, and I’ll close this off. A couple weeks ago, hubby and I were on a backpacking trip. We’d planned a loop, except the pass we planned to exit over was choked by a 45 degree snow slope and the snow was hard and icy. We didn’t have crampons or a rope or ice axes, and the tricky snow extended about 150 feet down and across a very steep mountainside. He and I both understood fully that if one of us fell on the slick ice, we’d be dead. I told him we were retracing our steps, even if it meant an extra fourteen miles and 5000 feet of climbing, which it did. He tried to talk me into the snow route, but I refused. It took us an extra day to exit the backcountry, but at least we exited on foot and not in a box.
That’s a good lead-in to the last thing mountaineering has taught me, which is not to overestimate my abilities. Could I have managed the snow slope? Probably. If I had to lay odds, I’d have given them maybe 80%, but it wasn’t good enough.How about the rest of you? Do you engage in things where you face danger and have to be self-reliant? What’s your fish-or-cut bait criteria?
Ann Gimpel is a national bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients, now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 30 books to date, with several more planned for 2016 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren and wolf hybrids round out her family.
Find Ann and her books