The Mountains, one step at a time

I just turned 50, which is the same age my mother was when my father died. I also had a total hip replacement in December of 2013. These events, coupled with my own near-death experience as a child, have taught me that life is fleeting, and it’s important to spend time doing the things that matter to you when you can.

Since my son and I have always loved backpacking, I proposed a journey: We would spend 11 days hiking in the high mountains surrounding Mont Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland. The circuit, if we could complete it, would take 108 miles of walking and more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and we would carry all of our necessities save breakfasts and dinners.

We knew it would be a stretch. I had hiked since my total hip replacement surgery in 2013, with a pack and without, and up and down some peaks, but I live in Florida, where there are no mountains and no altitude changes. But there are long trails and stadiums and even a sinkhole with stairs descending 120 feet into the ground, so I packed my pack, donned my hiking boots and poles and trained as best I could.

The first day on the trail, the mountains looked daunting. The rocky path led straight up the hillside, zigging and zagging across the bare slope. A misstep would result in a fall that wouldn’t stop until you hit the valley 3,000 feet below. Above us, in the distance, you could occasionally see small specks moving — hikers that seemed miles above us in another world. In a word, it looked hard.

I looked up. I looked down. I looked at my boots.  Just figure out where to put your feet, I told myself. That’s how you climb a mountain; one step at a time.

And so we began. Sweat trickled down our necks. Our breath came out in short spurts. We paused occasionally to navigate a tricky set of stones or boulders. We paused again to drink water and catch our breath, only to have it taken away again by the view. One step after another up the steep mountainside, and eventually a glacier that had been far above us now appeared level to our eyes. More focused attention on the steps, then suddenly the top of the pass appeared ahead, and the trail below us fell away at a dizzying pace.

At the top of the pass, we could see for miles in every direction. Green valleys stretched out for miles far below. Small, puffy clouds appeared in the air above the valleys and beneath our feet. It felt as if we were on the rooftop of the world. Then we began our descent into the next valley, on our way to climb the next mountain.

We repeated this dance on almost every day of the trip, and although as time passed I became physically stronger and the hiking became easier, there was still that element of disciplining the mind, turning “I can’t go that far” into “I can take a step in that direction.”

The mountains teach me lessons every time I visit them.  They tell me to pay attention to what is before you. They remind me that it takes many steps to climb a mountain, but the most important one is the next one you take. They show me that even though life is short, if I put in the work, I can sometimes reap the benefits of peak experiences.

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