Mountain summits– like any mountain-top experience– bring clarity and perspective. We see things more clearly –set in time and in place.
I recently made my annual September trip to Colorado to climb 14ers (fourteen thousand foot mountains). The air was drier and clearer as I arrived in this timeless place called the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness (CPW): Mt. Yale; Mt. Princeton; Mt. Harvard; Mt. Columbia.
Flying out to Colorado Springs and flying back home, the flights were filled with people. Most were not doing what I go to Colorado to do. Going, with the curiosity of a writer, I wanted to know their stories. Returning, with greater clarity, I really wanted them to know my story. I am motivated to teach, to guide, to share my life experiences. What has life taught me so far? Why do I climb mountains? Do I find God on the mountain tops? What is really important? Am I important to God? Does my life really matter?
I climbed alone this year– none of my climbing companions could join me this time. On Wednesday, September 10th, I left the North Cottonwood Trailhead (9880 ft.) at 6:15 a.m. to climb my third peak of the week: Mt. Harvard (14,420 ft.). The thirteen mile roundtrip into the CPW would take me through sub-alpine and alpine zones for nine and half hours of solo hiking and climbing. I returned to base camp at 3:45 p.m. after a great summit experience and no human contact in the 166,000 acres of the CPW.
In our overcrowded urban environments, we are seldom alone for very long. My perspective? You don’t have to take a week-long trip to Colorado for a little solitude. God wants “alone time” with you. It matters.
Infinity and Eternity are not the same thing. Infinity is a numerical term meaning indefinitely large or endless. Eternity is not time without end. Eternity is the end of time.
Climbing to the summit of a Colorado 14er just a few weeks ago, I had an experience of eternity that I have had before in the mountains. As we gazed 360 degrees at mountains in all directions, time seemed suspended. You’ve no doubt had a similar experience in your life. We say it was like “time stood still” or “time was suspended” or “I was not conscious of time.” Sometimes hours seem like minutes… usually when are doing what we were created to do. Sometimes minutes seem like hours…
In the mountain silence, time markers do seem less relevant. Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard, writes:
“Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in itself all life, all sound.” Eternity contains within it all time.
Here, we measure time. We measure seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries. Eternity is not measurable. Eternal life does not just go on and on and on… Eternity is the end of time because it is outside of time. We say eternity means everlasting. I think it really means Godlife. “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
In mountain climbing one often-overlooked feature is very significant: the saddle. The saddle or “col” is the gap between two mountain peaks. It is the connecting pass or saddle-shaped ridge in between mountain peaks. It is significant because, while it is usually not the climber’s destination, the saddle leads to the summit.
The climb to the saddle is often steep and rugged….sometimes reached by a series of switchbacks; sometimes reached by bouldering or climbing beyond where the trail disappears. The saddle is an important marker and often provides a brief rest before the summit push.
My son Shawn and I have just returned from climbing nine Colorado 14ers in five days. We reached many “saddles” last week. There were saddles between peaks where the peak in either direction looked like the tallest. On the saddle, you have a choice of direction. You must choose which direction to go. Directly over the saddle there is often a steep exposed ridge. They wind usually blows a little stronger through the gap. You cannot stay on the saddle.
In life and work, we inevitably climb to our own “saddles.” We reach a higher level where we must decide which way to go. We cannot stay where we are. Choosing one direction will lead us up the summit ridge while the other direction will lead to a false summit. The saddle is a place of deliberate decision.
What’s In A Name?
Name is everything. Well, almost everything. Name is identity. Name is character. Name is reputation. A name is a word or words expressing a quality considered characteristic or descriptive of a person or a thing. Everest. One word that says “the world’s highest mountain.” The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Words that express the adventure of the African continent.
A name can often show approval or disapproval. My surname is Nisbett. The old Scottish records indicate that the name means “none better.” That is an expression of confidence in the family name! Nisbett may also mean “nose biter.” I don’t remember ever biting anyone’s nose myself unless it was my brother Rick’s nose when we were very young boys in a fierce battle! My given name is Thomas. It means “twin” or “truth-seeker.”
I really like these names from the wild places I’ve traveled: “The Gates of the Valley” (Yosemite), The “Hogsback” on Mt. Hood, “Gooseneck Glacier” in Wyoming, “Gunsight Pass” in Utah, “Disappointment Cleaver” on Mt. Rainier. I remember my solo climb through the “Red Banks” and up snow-covered “Misery Hill” through “Avalanche Gulch” to the summit of “Mount Shasta.” Great names preserve great memories.
Preserve your good name.
Do not remove the ancient landmarks which your fathers set.
In the mountains, landmarks and stone cairns keep you from getting lost. Sometimes they do even more…they save you from death.
Descending from the summit of Granite Peak in the Beartooth Mountain Range of Montana in September 2007, we reached the rock shelter at Tempest Mountain about 3:00 in the afternoon. Strong winds blow incessantly there and snow storms can occur during any month of the year. Thunderstorms around Granite Peak are legendary. Returning to the Phantom Creek Trail (PCT) over five or six miles on Froze-to-Death Plateau, we encountered nightfall and darkness. Past climbers had marked the route with a series of cairns. Reaching the PCT, we hiked three miles down endless switchbacks to collapse exhausted at a campsite above Mystic Lake after 9:00pm.
The markers are there for a reason. What are the spiritual markers that keep us from getting lost on our life journey? Listen to the wise. Treasure wisdom in your heart. Trust in God. Be accountable.
Do not remove the markers that your ancestors set.
We all search for identity. We want to know at our core who we are. Today I received insight about myself. You readers of this blog already know that I love mountains and have subtitled the blog Tom’s Mountain Life Lessons. I am not a seasoned mountaineer. I am a climber who is still learning to climb.
Climbing started at an early age for me. I remember climbing three flights of stairs in the church parsonage as a toddler. Before the age of 9, I was climbing all the trees on Scott Street and building tree-houses. I wanted to get up higher. My parents built a new house out on the edge of town when I was ten and soon I was climbing on the roof to see Rita Blanca Lake to the south. We installed one of those triangular ladder television towers with an antenna attached to the house. I climbed those 30 to 40 feet to the top to ascend above the world. I could see 300 foot tall signal towers to the east. I just loved to climb.
After Lou Ann and I married, her dad Gene had me climbing tall water towers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Gene was an electrical contractor with municipal contracts and we changed light bulbs and electrodes at the top of those towers.
The great mountains of the world began to beckon. Backpacking and trekking advanced to scaling the east face of Mt. Whitney and snow routes up Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. We did a little climbing on the Barranco Wall and the Lava Tower on our first Kilimanjaro trek. I am still learning to climb…
I did not become a professional economist but I did climb through the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs in economics. Whew!
I did not become a career teacher but I did climb through the ranks from instructor to assistant to associate to full professor. Whew!
I did not become a college administrator but I did climb through the levels of department chair, business school dean, and university vice-president.
I have the heart of a climber…
Three months have passed since my last blog. I have not spent much time in the mountains this season. I’ve had to cancel two trips. I did climb in the Sierras in July but did not make Mt. Darwin in the Evolution Basin nor Mt. Brewer above King’s Canyon as planned. My heart is at home in wild places.
In Galen Rowell: A Retrospective, which was published posthumously by his friends, Galen writes:
“For many people in the world, the landscape before us would be foreboding. For us, it had been a gradual ascent from the unknown into the familiar. Beyond the last villages we no longer saw strange human alterings of the scene, but rather the workings of nature common to all the world’s alpine areas: glaciers, rivers,…clouds, granite, blue sky, raindrops, wildlife, and friends who shared our passions. We were home again.”