Conquering Mountains: It’s not really about the mountain

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves…” –Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Hillary’s quote has been a guiding principle for me ever since I heard it in the summer of 2010 during a program in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts. Hillary himself is credited with being part of the first crew to ever summit Mount Everest so one would think he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to mountains. To me this is the best answer to the most popular question I receive when telling my tales of backpacking: “So, why is that fun again?” Often I come back from a trip or a long run, walking gingerly on my blistered feet and swaying a little due to the pounding in my head, and my mom says “Philip, why do you do this to yourself?!” For a long time I couldn’t really answer her or anyone else who asked. But Sir Edmund has come to my rescue on multiple occasions since I heard his wise words. In the end, we seek to conquer ourselves and doing so is an amazing feeling. I think anyone can boil their life goals down to two things:

  1. Finding strength within themself.
  2. Sharing that strength with others.

Salesmen are constantly perfecting their methods of pitching products and they have to gather the strength to speak confidently to investors or buyers (Step 1). After they have perfected their craft, many hire interns to learn from them, present at seminars, teach at business schools, or simply train their successors (Step 2). Musicians spend countless hours in the practice room perfecting their technique and interpretation and playing for teachers and colleagues in order to receive critiques and advice (gaining strength). They must then perform in front of an audience or teach their skills to students (sharing that strength). Scientists spend their time forming hypotheses and executing tests in order that they might be able to write up their research or present it at a conference (an act which requires the acquisition and sharing of more than a fair amount of strength). You can apply the formula to any profession. All men must conquer themselves to achieve their dreams and I purport that climbing mountains is one of the best vehicles for self-conquering.

So there we were, Old Faithful (OF) and I, setting out once again for another backpacking trip. We had gotten up at 6am that morning, driven to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to park the car (after getting lost due to faulty GPS coordinates), stopped for lunch, and gotten picked up by a friendly AT shuttle driver to be taken to the trailhead half-way through the Shenandoah Mountain Range. By the time we were on the trail it was well into the 3:00 hour with 6.5 miles ahead of us (not to mention 6 day’s food on our backs). By the time we got to the shelter which was our goal for the day, we were very hungry and our legs hadn’t quite settled into rhythm with our trekking poles yet. But our excitement for being back in the wilderness (or as close to it as you can get in the Shenandoahs with Skyline drive in almost constant view) was overpowering our day-1 fatigue.

That is, until the trail decided to throw me a few curveballs. We were ready for bed and I was ready to hang my bear bag when I realized that my new food sack had no loops on it whatsoever. When I was packing I thought that I was a genius for finding the lightest stuff sack ever but had casually overlooked the fact that a food bag needs to be able to hang in a tree (or on a pole if it’s a nice shelter site). I was able to attach some rope to it using a lark’s-head knot and fashion a loop but it did make it somewhat inconvenient for the rest of the trip.

Secondly, late that first night, I awoke to a scratching sound coming from outside my tent in the general direction of my pack. Surely it was just the wind. But then it sounded louder and louder. Maybe OF was rifling through my pack for toilet paper (we have all been there in the middle of the night!) But then why would she not be using a flashlight? Then the realization hit me: I had hung my food bag on a bear-pole but had forgotten about the collection of snacks that was in the front pouch of my pack. Clearly something was intent on having a mid-night meal of my summer sausage. So here was a decision to be made: either I sacrifice my pack to the bear that was apparently eating it, or jump out of the tent and try to scare it away. The pros and cons on each side should be obvious: either way my trip was ruined. So I got my flashlight, gathered my nerve, and sprung out of my vestibule with my chest beating harder than it ever had before and I see…nothing. Oh good, maybe it was the wind and I was just paranoid and half asleep. But then I saw the pack cover encasing my pack move as though something was inside it. My fear was immediately replaced by anger: this was merely some rodent that was stealing my food. So I kicked and shook the pack until a small, black-and-white head poked out from around the side of the pack cover. At which point anger was once again fear and I screamed like a small child and practically jumped over my tent to hide from the critter. Give me a bear, snake, lion, tiger, that’s all fine but a skunk will ruin your trip. I had heard many a tale of hikers, days of hiking away from the nearest shower, getting sprayed by angry skunks and having to deal with their own smell. They would lose sleep due to the noxious fumes, be avoided on trails, and have to sleep downwind of shelters in locations that weren’t very friendly for tents. Luckily this skunk did not seem intent on spraying me and, after much effort on my part, I was able to throw a rock and hit it and it went away.

That was the first two complications with my first 24 hours on the trail. To top those off, the next morning, while regaling some other hikers with the tale of my close encounter with the skunk, I tightened one of the straps on my pack and the stitching on the buckle popped right off. GREAT! (I probably used some more choice words than that) Now I’m going to have to deal with a lopsided pack for the next 87 miles. I had even considered trading in this pack before the trip because it was getting a little tattered. That’s what I get for being sentimental about my hiking gear (we had been through so much together, that pack and I!) Luckily I had some more rope and was able to MacGyver it back together temporarily. It even ended up holding out for the rest of the trip.

So I had learned a few lessons already despite being (if I may say so) a relatively experienced outdoorsman: bear bags aren’t just for bears, a knowledge of knots is one of the most useful skills, and you don’t just have mountains to conquer in the wilderness.

I was once telling my mom the story of Rodrigo’s Concierto Pastorale for flute and orchestra. The monstrously hard piece was commissioned in order to re-launch the career of famed flutist James Galway after his extended hiatus due to an automobile accident. James Galway is considered by some to be one of the most talented flutists in the world and when he first saw the flute part to this concerto, he proclaimed it unplayable. At the insistence of his agent, he locked himself in a practice room for several months, premiered the work, and then said he would never play it again. He has, of course, played it since then but the physical and emotional toll it took on him was evident. “It has been said that there is no perfect performance of this piece,” I said to my mom. “I want to play it!” “WHY?!” was her immediate response. Again, I had no good reason. The only thing I could think of was a moment in the G.K. Chesterton novel The Man Who Was Thursday. In the book, the main antagonist is a man named Sunday who is a behemoth of a man despite being as agile as he is resourceful. The main character, Thursday, proclaims that he wants to take Sunday down and his fellow spy/anarchist asks him why on earth he would want to do that. Thursday responds that he wants to conquer Sunday precisely because he is unconquerable. He wants to face off with the beast solely because he is afraid of him. In my favorite line from the book, Thursday says “No man should leave in this world anything of which he is afraid”.

And this quote was heavy on my mind as OF and I approached an area of the trail called “The Rollercoaster”. We were now in our last 2 days and we had exited the slow gradations of the Shenandoah Nature Walk (as I lovingly call it due to its famously easy terrain) and were back in true Appalachian Trail mode. We were wondering whether we would know if this infamous Rollercoaster had begun when we stumbled across a sign:

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This was the part of this trip that would require the most conquering (mountains and self). I, for one, adopted a Zen approach to the steep uphill climbs that were so numerous in this “ride”. My mantra became “the trail will stop going uphill precisely when it does and not before or after”. Nothing I could do would make the hill any smaller so I made peace with the trail in it natural manifestation. OF, on the other hand, derives energy from anger and so, through the clouds of my meditative state, I could hear her cursing the trail the whole way up. To each his own I suppose. Each of us enjoyed the views (if there were any) from the tops of the climbs equally and felt equally rewarded at the end of the day.

This “Rollercoaster” business continued into what would be our final day. The coaster ended about 6 miles into day 6 and it was basically all downhill from there. There were several options for approaching Harper’s Ferry (our end point):

  1. the nearest shelter was close to 10 miles away from the town
  2. there was a small campsite 5 miles away from town
  3. or we could just hike all the way in one day and stay in a hostel for a night.

If we chose the latter, we would be hiking over 23 miles. We knew already that option 1 was out because we did not want to hike 10 miles, catch a shuttle, and then have to drive 5 hours back home (we had to be back on day 7) so we were looking at either of the last 2 options. But, as I suspected, after about 3 miles of hiking, we were already speculating at how well our feet and legs were holding up and talking as if our goal that day was civilization. One of my favorite speeches from new student orientation at UNC was an older student who told us “Several times during your college career, you will have a huge paper or test the next day but your friends will invite you to hang out. Just once, ignore your classes and go hang out with your friends”. There come times in our lives when we have to say “Oh screw it” and just do something crazy. There is actual psychological research into the “oh screw it” phenomenon that says that any time spent outside of your comfort zone makes your comfort zone bigger. This makes it a very important process in self growth. The “oh screw it” moment came for OF and I when we reached the “option 2” campsite on that fateful day of hiking. When we arrived there, we found a group of people occupying every tent site and most of the fire circle with tents already. We looked at each other for about 2 seconds, excitement in both our eyes, and then said “Well I guess we’re doing 23 miles today!”

The difference between 18 and 23 miles is incredibly significant. 5 miles at the beginning of the day is one thing, 5 miles after hiking 18 is quite another. The result for me, later that day, was 3 emotions in sequence: the most pissed off I’ve ever been, the happiest I’ve ever been, and then close to the most triumphant I’ve ever been. After arriving in Harper’s Ferry, we realized we did not know where the hostel was which we had heard about. Luckily we knew where we could find some information posted so we walked about half a mile (an eternity after 23 miles) to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters. Armed with an address, we then walked an additional half mile to the hostel. The only person there was not paying attention to us and staring at a computer screen. Since we were both a little hazy from dehydration, we just stood there hoping someone would approach us. Eventually it turned out this bonehead on his computer was the person in charge. OF and I stood in the doorway, packs still on, trekking poles in hand, feet numb, while this young gentleman said “oh, uhhhh, let me find the book”. He pulled out “the book” and rifled through it for quite a while, searched his pockets for a pen, decided he didn’t have a pen, searched in a drawer, searched in another drawer, eventually produced a writing utensil, and then looked up at us. Then, after what seemed like forever (have I mentioned we had just hiked almost 24 miles?) he asked us “do you have a reservation?” We did not and he informed us “oh, uhhhh, we’re completely booked for the night.” I then asked him, calmly, if he knew of another place to stay he said “oh, uhhhhhhhhh, there’s a hotel about a mile from here”. Well at this point he was about to receive my trekking pole directly to his esophagus. Luckily for his throat and my police record, I restrained myself and left quietly only to collapse on the sidewalk 4 feet out the door. We decided we should just get to the car and figure out where to stay from there because walking was absolutely out of the question. Luckily, the driver who had shuttled us on day 1 was only 5 minutes away! To this day he remains one of my favorite people of all time: he didn’t even charge us for the ride to our car.

But that wasn’t the happiest moment. We were finally in the car and (after much searching) had located a hotel that wasn’t booked and was only 10 minutes away (never try to book a hotel on the 4th of July, even in the middle of nowhere). The next priority was food. OF’s mom had called her and, when we said we were looking for food, she asked “didn’t you pack a bunch of food for the trip?” OF and I just laughed. Anyone who has been hiking knows that after our ordeal, dehydrated pasta and canned tuna was NOT an option. Our salvation came moments later. I was in the right-hand turn lane around the time OF hung up with her mom when I happened to look over and spot something on the left side of the road. “FIVE GUYS!” I yelled and immediately whipped the car across four lanes of traffic to get in the left turn lane. That was the happiest I had ever been. We hadn’t eaten in almost 10 hours of hard hiking which made this burger experience truly a religious one. OF, leaning over her burger, couldn’t do anything but stare at it. She didn’t even answer when I asked if she was alright. She just looked up at me, speechless, and nodded her head. Side-note: despite my level of hunger and exhaustion, the “small” fries from Five Guys was still too many to eat; I will never know what the point of the “large” size is at that restaurant but no one was complaining that night.

And as our religious experience continued to the hotel where we were very comfortable on our beds, I couldn’t help but reflect on our trip. We had hiked further in 1 day than we had ever hiked before and we had actually sort of enjoyed it which, for an historically un-athletic kid like me, was never possible in my wildest dreams. I had always laughed at people claiming to have hiked 20 miles in a single day; we had just done 24! We had been able to surpass our own expectations and that experience is one that everyone should have in their lives.

We had been in a daze when we crossed the Shenandoah River right before Harper’s Ferry but I had luckily snapped a few pictures: it was truly gorgeous and a perfect end to our adventure. Trips like this remind me that there are still places in the world, despite our hectic lives, that can take away our worries and even our pains. The Appalachian Trail truly pushes people to conquer themselves in whichever way each individual needs. You may need to accept that the path you walk is not always easy but is always worth it. You may need to discover that you are capable of far greater things than you ever imagined. You may need to come to grips with the fact that you can’t control every aspect of a situation no matter how hard you try. I know I have encountered all of these things and more through hiking and those experiences constantly make me a better person.

Every hiking trip, like every day of our lives, brings something new and unexpected. New and unexpected is good, but there are a few universal things that always happen: there will always be uphill climbs, there will always be an incredible view from the tops of those climbs, and we will always conquer ourselves when we put our minds to it and push our limits.

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More about Philip Snyder here

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