When aiming at the peak of anything, most everyone I know, myself included, focus much on the path, on getting ready for the assault of the mountain, whilst ignoring all the pitfalls that will surely get on our way.
At first, oh yes! All those problems and traps to be reckoned with… but the summit itself seems to be the only thing in our mind. Oh, if only we could get there! And once we do, the challenges that surface upon reaching the top are more often than not connected to our relying too much on our initial strengths. Who is to blame?
As I see it, much of our culture, education, career coaching, you name it, is basically set on one thing: getting to the top. And what is needed to get there might be the contrary of what is needed once one actually reaches the top and gets established there, whatever it’s that anyone considers her or his peak.
I find the challenges facing those that are already there to be the toughest. It’s then and there, where all weaknesses –all those things we all had to set aside, what we consciously and unconsciously ignored – flare up.
In fact, many of the useful things that got you there in the first place, might not be of much help any longer.
In addition, a new and inexperienced circumstance is imposed on everyone that gets to the peak. It’s called visibility, not precisely a symmetrical two-way thing.
This is why making the journey with others, the right ones might make the difference. And the help needed to get there is not always of the same type that is needed to stay there.
Participating in seminars and having down-to-earth conversations with coaches and consultants I have been told, on no few occasions, that those that need those Management “improvement” courses the most, are the ones that don’t care much about them, find excuses in order not to attend, and even scoff at the seminar content and at those who try to make it a worthwhile experience. I know this from firsthand observation and experience working closely with trainers. This is why making the journey with others, the right ones might make the difference. And the help needed to get there is not always of the same type that is needed to stay there. If those around you fit in both of these scenarios, then you might consider it a double blessing.
In mountaineering, it’s the same. It takes resolution to climb mountains and that normally implies focusing on our staying power; foreboding is, for evident reasons, set aside. Who accompanies you to the top and back is, often, critical.
This takes me to a true story:
A Norseman, Olaf Trygve, had seen that mountain before. The weather looked fine. He was in control and felt quite confident. Accompanying him on his way up was a 12-year-old boy. Back then, however, it wasn’t like nowadays, when one can comfortably reach the top from Juvashytta, a cabin, and with a proper guide to safely cross the glacier. There were then none of the safety equipment and resources that we take for granted if things go wrong today. But these thoughts never crossed his mind in 1932. Why should they? Although the boy did look exhausted after the long journey, his experience provided him with all that was needed to make sure that the boy would reach the summit and head safely back home and to his mom. His mentor was in great shape, physically and mentally, a man who loved skiing and mountains since as far as back as he could remember.
It was time to enjoy the view from the summit. So, there he stood, pointing to all the mountains and valleys that stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond. He remembered his first time on that same mountain and he could, therefore, feel proud that he could show the boy what he had experienced at a similar age. It was an exhilarating experience, one that the boy would never forget. And wasn’t he right?
After half an hour so later he noticed something wasn’t as it should be. He had to sit and sort of recline himself somewhere. Not easy at the top of a cold mountain. He didn’t want the boy to notice it. So, he kind of smiled, inviting his young companion to do exactly the same. So, there they sat. Side by side. But the pains were getting worse by the minute. Rapidly, the boy started to notice that something wasn’t right. The look of anguish on Olaf Trygve’s face became far too evident.
The 48-year-old man tried to utter some words, nothing that made much sense to the boy. The pain had him crouched, lying sideways on the old patch of snow on top of all those cold rocks. The boy was in doubt. What could he do? Not many minutes passed before semi-unconsciousness, or something quite like it became evident. That settled it. The boy had to get some help. It would take him some hours to get down – all on his own. He looked down towards the route they used in order to get there, but there was no one in site. Only mountains and snow.
Without much thinking, he tried to place the backpack so as to make Olaf Trygve more comfortable. It didn’t seem to help. He protected his head and shoulders. There was not much else he could do. It became a nightmarish journey down the slippery glacier-covered slopes and the down the mountain along the only way he thought he remembered. One thing was certain, it meant going downhill, perhaps retracing their steps.
Five hours later, against all advice, the boy started on his way back to the top together with a group of men. Darkness became another serious threat. The way up was quicker than expected. The boy kept pace with the men. The summit was just as he left it. There was still some blue in the horizon but dimming. The clouds seemed lower. Nothing much had changed. But it took only one brief glimpse to learn the whole truth: his father, Olaf Tryve, was dead.
For this reason, I never got to know my grandfather. He died on top of Norway’s (and Northern Europe’s) highest mountain: Galdhøpiggen. My father never went back. Not to that mountain. And I haven’t either. Not yet.
But as much as my grandfather thought he could rely on his strengths what he could have not dreamt of was that my father learned much from that tough and heart-breaking experience. My father’s adventurous life around the globe in search of his personal summit had probably much to do with it. I am sure he never forgot that his father had died with him in Norway’s highest mountain. Yet, it never quite settled with him – the idea that there wasn’t much he could have done to help his father, who had died of an acute appendicitis attack.
The last time I was on a mountain with my father it was only months after a brain surgeon removed a large benign tumour from his head. I was 20 years old and I thought about his experience that day, especially because of the operation. I don’t know whether he thought about it then, but it sure felt good when we glided down nicely, on our skis, back to safer ground. It’s then that I also remembered how it was that he escaped from the Gestapo and Nazi soldiers. Skiing had always been part of him, even after his brain surgery.