“The good of going into the mountains is that life is reconsidered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
When I was growing up, my mom used to say, “Oh teenagers, they think they’re invincible. Someday you’ll understand that you’re not.” She meant this in the “Please don’t drive too fast and take chances” sort of way. Rarely did I drive fast or take chances—my identity in high school was wrapped up in being the “good kid.” I thought this was just something that moms like to say so I just smiled and kindly ignored her.
As I entered my 20’s, she would occasionally ask me, “Do you still think you’re invincible?” I’d sigh and shake my head because I didn’t think I was invincible. Death was a long way from my mind but I knew that it was possible that I could die. However, doing risky things was still not part of my lifestyle. Sure, I’d found a boyfriend who took me on motorcycle rides which was something I swore I’d never do (although my now-husband would counter that they’re less risky than I thought). I also realized cars weren’t quite as safe as I’d always thought when I was in a car accident (that was entirely my fault) where I was extremely lucky to have not been seriously injured or killed. I understood that my life could easily be extinguished but it was something I only thought about when she asked.
When we climbed Mt. Washington in 2009 perhaps we weren’t as prepared as we should have been and found ourselves sort of “rappelling” off the summit with only a rope and no harnesses. Our entire party made it down safely but, looking back, that was probably the first time I experienced the “I’ve got this but if I mess up, I’ll die” feeling. Eating ice cream at Dairy Queen following the hike I was happy and content. The risk had been worth the reward and lessons had been learned.
Embracing risk has become part of how I approach adventures. The heightened sense of awareness is part of what feels so amazing about being in the outdoors. Finishing hikes that push my endurance and fears leave me feeling singularly exhilarated and alive. My conception of what a “long” hike constitutes has changed as as has willingness to tackle serious elevation gain. (One of the reasons I love peakbagging is that I can’t ever call it “good enough” until I’m on the summit; there’s no mental wimping out with a goal to push myself towards.)
Scrambling around a summit in Arizona, I found myself pondering my mother’s question once again, “Do you still think you’re invincible?” Just recently she’d asked the question again—I think her point was that I’m 28 and should have accepted my mortality and settled down by now and instead there I was crouched above a cliff wondering if I could in fact make it down this way.
On that cliff, I paused in my thoughts to take a deep breath and evaluate whether the next move I was going to make was wise or worth making—it wasn’t. Instead, I headed back around the peak to find a different route down.
Back at the relative safety of the summit, I realized that the whole point of living the adventurous life was that I liked remembering that I’m not invincible. Traveling, hiking, climbing, exploring, and experimenting reminded me that my life is short and its up to me to make it one worth living.
To be clear, it’s not that I like to do horribly risky things. I like to be in control yet know how cautious I need to be. My favorite moments are those scrambling moves that aren’t hard, they’re just exposed and a little heady. They’re the moments that remind you that life is precious and short. They’re also the moments that remind you that really should be getting outside more often and that you’ll remember your adventure a whole lot more than your freshly cut grass, clean house, or whatever it is you thought you should be doing.
There are times when my own mortality is almost palpable. Sometimes it’s the last few feet to a summit that are really exposed and sort of scary. Other times, it’s simply when I’m walking down a pathless canyon or mountain ridge with my feet safely on the ground. I feel so small and so finite in comparison to the rocks and the sky. Being surrounded by things that will last so much longer than me and are so much more sturdy, my tiny place in the world becomes that much more clear: I’m just a speck on this big world and that is an absolutely amazing thing.
To my mother: no, I don’t think I’m invincible. I know it can seem like I must think that what with adventures on the mountains, in the deserts, the canyons, and in the back-of-beyond that I must think I am. Instead, I peruse maps and trip reports and am humbled and a bit saddened the number of places I’ll likely never venture no matter how hard I adventure. I stand on summits and scan the peaks around me making mental lists of how many more I want to climb. I’m not invincible or immortal: that’s the whole point.