Yesterday I completed the Tenmile Traverse. I’ve been eyeing this line in my backyard of Summit County, CO for several years. It looked like my favorite kind of adventure—hours above treeline, navigating off trail along a ridge. I knew I wanted to do it in fall after the monsoon season but before the snow. Two years ago, I never got around to it. Last year, I broke my toe in early September and knew it wouldn’t happen. This year, I’ve been determined to make it happen.
Determined… but also intimidated. I’d heard tidbits in passing about this route and knew it had some technical sections. As I researched it, reading trip reports and looking at photos, my intimidation increased. I read things like “mandatory 4th-class down climb” and “you-fall-you-die.” But I also knew of plenty of people who’ve done it and kept it at hard class 3. Most importantly, I knew I could do it. Even though I constantly considered backing out the day before, I also knew that if I didn’t go now, I’d likely wait around another year until fall came again. So, with trepidation, I went.
Today I talked to my sister for two hours. We discussed the cloud of challenges occupying our thoughts anytime we have a moment to let our minds wander. We’re not in the middle of any major crises, but we’re both dealing with a stew of lower-level yet still confounding life issues, difficulties of family, job and personal nature. We talked about how these unanswered questions, these unsolved problems, crowd our minds and affect our emotions daily for this season of our lives.
After we hung up, I thought about why I do things like the Tenmile Traverse. I realized that yesterday, I wasn’t preoccupied with the topics I discussed with my sister today. Yesterday, though I gave passing thought to the myriad life concerns, I mostly thought about more pressing, primal concerns. On a third-class ridge, thousands of feet above the rest of Summit County, the question of whether or not the rock I pulled on would come loose was the only thing I pondered. My mind had no room to consider the future of a loved one’s marriage or where I’ll work next month when it was focused on making exposed, high-consequence moves on the ridge.
Even once the technical terrain was behind me for the day, my mind still only had room for questions pertaining to the adventure. How much water can I drink now, given my limited supply and how far I still have to go? Why do I have such a headache, and what can I do about it? Should I stick to the terribly loose ridge here or detour from the official route to a safer line? Is it time to reapply sunscreen? Eat something?
And even when I wasn’t consciously or subconsciously considering one of these questions, my brain focused only on the present. I surveyed the terrain from my spectacular vantage point, identifying peaks I’d already explored. When I picked up the pace to a run, I focused on my next steps on the uneven, rocky tundra. And thankfully, for much of the time I simply enjoyed being exactly where I was doing exactly what I was doing. I thought about the entire experience and nothing at all at the same time, my brain fixed in the moment. I appreciated the sensations of the experience—the breeze and sun on my face, the high heart rate and labored breath—and didn’t try to solve any life problems.
What a contrast in yesterday and today. For me, a mountain adventure offers the chance to take a mental break. It’s a chance to stop thinking about life’s problems because solving the problems of the adventure occupies all available mind space. What a relief it is to troubleshoot such a simple problem, like whether or not this rock will come loose, instead of a complicated question like my future.
So it seems that at least in part, I venture into the mountains to escape. What a gift it is to face the primal challenges of climbing a mountain. And what a bigger gift it is that these challenges require all my thought and leave no room for contemplating the cares of daily life. As I push my body to hike up the final 1000 vertical feet of the day, the obstacles to accomplishing my goal are straightforward. And perhaps more notably, success is easy to measure. In daily life, obstacles are nebulous and success is harder to define. And nine hours of effort and problem solving won’t resolve anything.
On a long adventure, my head stays in the present because if it doesn’t, consequences are sometimes life-and-death. What a relaxing change of pace compared to my daily thought pattern.