I was in the audience during a presentation at the Green Mountain College Adventure Education Colloquium last week, when the presenter, Jojo, asked everyone if they could remember a formative outdoor experience they’d had growing up. I tried to think of my first time in the mountains, my first time on skis, my first time doing something wilderness-y, but I could only think of this one thing.
My first real, not-hand-me-down bike was a black and gold Huffy Thunder 50 BMX bike, which I rode everywhere. My family lived at the top of this huge hill, that in retrospect I realize was probably only huge to an 8-year-old riding a one-speed bike, usually with a tennis racket or baseball glove in one hand. I would ride up that goddamn thing in the summertime, legs burning with exertion. I hated it. I’m pretty sure I got off my Thunder 50 and walked it up the last two blocks dozens of times.
Whenever I rode up that hill with my mom, she would convince me that instead of getting off our bikes and walking, we should just make it to the second-to-last intersection and ride around in circles until our (my) legs felt like they could make it to the top. So that’s what we did.
I don’t think she was trying to teach me a life lesson, beyond not being a weenie. Just ride to the top of the hill. Because you probably can if you try a little harder.
This past Monday, I got on the East Ridge of Mount Bancroft in the Indian Peaks near Denver. It’s a low-5th-class rock and snow ridge ending at 13,250 feet—not K2—but something you should be in shape for, not try to do after a winter of mostly sitting on your ass sending e-mails.
Halfway up, the clouds started building, and so did the low pulse of what I knew was going to be an altitude sickness headache. We climbed across snow aretes, loose rock, wet rock, and got intermittently peppered with graupel. In the quiet notch after the single rappel on the route, I could hear my heart beating in my ears. It became a 3,000-vertical-foot reminder that mountains are pretty, but climbing them is hard. Really hard, sometimes.
There are plenty of reasons to quit in the mountains: bad conditions, bad weather, slow parties ahead of you, avalanche danger, getting sick, getting injured. Not trying hard enough isn’t usually one of them. But most of the time on the way up, there are at least a hundred times when you think about how much more relaxing it would be to be somewhere else: lying on a couch watching golf, drinking a beer at a sidewalk table in the sun, even sitting on the shore of that alpine lake you passed an hour ago, thinking about life. But, you keep going up instead, even if you need to stop for a minute and rest.
My mom’s not much of a mountaineer, but I think she was on to something back then, making me ride my bike around in circles so I could get to the top of the hill instead of giving up.