I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains, climbing and skiing and revelling in the views from mountain tops. My daughters’ father is an avid mountaineer. The best weekend for him was to spend it laden down with climbing ropes and axes, scrambling up scree slopes and carefully choosing your path up the side of a mountain to reach some far off summit you can’t see from the bottom, but know is there high above you, waiting for your ascent.
Climbers take their time. They are thoughtful, precise and prepared.
Before they ever head out, they have researched the route, mapped their ascent and at the same time, are prepared for the unexpected.
Anything can happen when climbing a mountain, no matter which direction you’re going. Up or down.
Once, while climbing Cathedral Mountain, we got lost in the woods leading to the beginning of the ascent route. We had to bushwhack through dense forest and being that I was at least a foot shorter than my two climbing companions, I did more rolling over deadfall than stepping. I did not look very dignified nor graceful.
Just below where the climb began I got bit in the calf by a spider. My leg swelled up to three times its size and there was no way I could proceed. I didn’t have a book (any excess weight is not welcome on a climb) so I spent the day sunning and resting on a huge boulder while the two men continued the climb.
It was an unexpected lesson in mindfulness. My mind wanted me to believe the approach of a grizzly bear was imminent. That I was in mortal danger sitting on that rock.
I spent the first couple of hours alone trying to swivel my head in every direction, until eventually I grew tired of being constantly on-guard against some unseen adversary. I had to get present. To become one with my environment. By the time my climbing companions returned, even though my leg was red hot and swollen, I felt grounded. Refreshed. Calm. I’d had a beautiful time being present with the world around me.
When climbing, no matter which way you’re going, looking back is not a good idea. Looking back means you’ve taken your focus off where you’re at. What’s happening in the here and now. When climbing, you must stay present to every step you take, because every step is important to your well-being. And to your climbing partner’s well-being too.
And while each step is filled with anticipation of reaching the summit drawing you ever higher, you can’t let your mind stray to the view at the top. You must keep it on where you’re at, what you’re doing right now.
I never tired of the view from the top but I never particularly liked the climb. It scared me to be exposed. To be dependent upon a rope, another human being, a foothold on the side of a mountain-face that was supposed to hold, but dare I trust it?
I wasn’t all that keen on the descent either.
Coming down has its perils. You are tired, there is the natural let-down of having reached your goal, of having breathed the rarified air at the top and swooned at the sight of a feast of mountains spread out as far as the eye can see.
There’s not much time to linger on a mountain top. The sun is arcing towards the earth in the distance, storm clouds are building on the far horizon, ice falls, rock falls and other natural hazards litter the slopes below. Your body is fatiguing and now, having devoured the view, you must set your sights on the descent. The valley below is calling. The ‘real world’ awaits.
No matter whether climbing up, or down, or simply walking on the path to your ascent, looking back can be dangerous.
Like life, to reach your goal you must have confidence that each step will lead you to the next and the next. Knowing where you’re going keeps you stepping safely. It keeps you aware of pitfalls on your path, of hazards on your route of opportunities and possibilities for new and better paths to your destination.
Looking back will only keep you from seeing what lays on the path ahead.
Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.
With gratitude to Lou at Zen Flash for the title and inspiration for this post.