There are certain moments in one’s life in which a person finds him or herself faced with a seemingly impossible challenge. At these times, we are left with the decision to either calmly walk away or to stare into the fire and embrace the difficulty that lies ahead. In my opinion, the prospect of climbing a mountain is one of these times. Standing at the base of a mountain I am unfamiliar with, I am simultaneously filled with both anticipation and dread. These feelings are in response to the recognition of the challenge that I am being faced with, as well as the thought that the view I will be granted at the peak will make every step of the journey well worth the effort. However, as I stand at the base contemplating the adventure of which I am about to embark, I must remember to never underestimate the mountains.
The Rocky Mountains were here eons before me. These mountains are home to a vast and intricate ecosystem, carved out through the ages by glaciers and wind, rain and rivers. Nearly 180 million years old, these mountains broke through the surface of the earth before the dawn of civilization during the Mesozoic Age. They were home to the most minuscule insects and the largest carnivores. They breathed life into the conifers and wildflowers, as well as the natives who drank from their sacred springs. These mountains stood tall and erect as Lewis and Clark paddled through their shadows in 1803, gazing upon the grand peaks and questioning their secrets. These men did not underestimate the mountains, and neither will I.
As I begin my ascent, I am wary of every step that I take, aware that the rocks I plant my feet on can tumble out from beneath me at the slightest touch. Upon entering the hidden meadows and deep valleys, I will not underestimate the fierceness of the mountain. While it may present itself as a calm mosaic, the low roll of thunder and sharp crack of lightning can appear at any moment. Those calm, refreshing breezes that make the aspens quake can turn to icy sheets of rain, leaving me cold and vulnerable. And while these turns of events may seem harsh and unforgiving, I must not underestimate the mountain. For as the cold winds subside and the rain fades into the horizon, I will listen for the sound of the first songbird, thanking the mountain for the gift of shelter.
Climbing higher still, I must remind myself to not underestimate the beauty of the mountains. Slowly gaining elevation, I pass through harsh terrain, up long hills of stone and burnt, fallen lodgepole pine. Despite the blackened landscape, the mountain shows amazing signs of life as silver lupine and sticky cinquefoil scatter the meadows with their bright colors. I follow paths lined with beargrass, whose luminescent white bulbs guide me along the trail. As I continue on my path, I suddenly find myself mesmerized by the sparkling beauty of a pristine alpine lake. The clear blue water and pebbled shores invite me into the cool depths, giving me sweet relief from the long journey.
Continuing higher and farther into the depths of the mountain, I may feel my energy begin to fade. I walk along difficult trails, all leading to the same place. And while the long day and full weight of my pack cause me to doubt my endurance, I must not doubt the path of the mountain. Because as I finally crest its peak and gaze out upon distant ridges, I will reflect on the long, hard trail that was unbelievably rewarding. And I will be thankful that I did not underestimate the mountain because it is, after all, a lovely and terrible wilderness, and I had the opportunity to experience every aspect of it. The experience of climbing a mountain is as difficult as it is rewarding. The path to the peak can be likened to the journey through life; it is quite often difficult and there are times you will want to turn away and return to the comforts of life, but in the end it is well worth the experience. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, it is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit. In the end, the ability to persevere and never underestimate the experience is the key to fully appreciate this crazy thing we call life.