Joe Campbell teaches us that the ancient mythological tales the world over depict heroines and heroes being ‘initiated’ by a series of trials that ultimately lead to them finding their greatest potential. These ordeals were culturally accepted and understood as critical to the process of development. They are not just fables as the word “Myth” has come to mean, they were the soft-wear that informed us about how to live an expansive human life.
In many circles today, embracing the humble steps of initiation seems conspicuously absent from our language, culture and ways of living. The speed at which we live, and the ever-present distractions don’t support a slow methodical process of learning over time. Failure and struggle are often construed as weakness. And it would appear that our hope is to be imbued with knowledge and wisdom without having to welcome the adversity and pain that initiation requires. We want to be the guru, without first mastering ourselves.
Difficulty or pain is not the issue. Most of us have lives infused with challenge and suffering. Friends and family get sick, or worse die tragically. We suffer loss of possessions. Our health and well- being can fail from time to time. Few escape trials in life, but most of us complain, feel like a victim, or worst of all ignore the event entirely. I am guilty. I have felt sorry for myself, wondered why life has to be so difficult, and stepped into unconsciousness about the challenge I am supposed to welcome. I questioned my karma and even sometimes the idea of a compassionate Creator. As Deepak reminds us, “One rarely asks ‘why me?’ questions when something great happens.”
Throughout my career in mountain adventure I have encountered a whole range events. Life’s joys, annoyances and even catastrophe have traveled across my retinas, through my mind and in time, into my heart. The February rainstorm that lasts a week to the untimely death of friends. All of it came as a naïve shock, chiefly because I made my way to adventure as an potential escape from pain. Looking back now, I was entirely out to lunch and the joke was on me.
I eventually, after all other options were exhausted, I bowed down to the great mystical powers of life and decided to learn. But I didn’t acquiesce easily, there were no other options left for me before I would dig deep into my humility and step into the process of initiation. I learned to make meaning out of all of it. Direct lessons that were specifically for me. Ken Wylie's initiation. It was hard, real hard but it changed my life. In fact, it transformed everything into beautiful lessons.
We watch heroes in our movies. Read about them in our books. And see them in the news. Heroism is the capacity to transform the terrible into something beautiful. We all have that capacity and it starts with our own life events, moment to moment, and throughout our lives. In school we have a lesson and then there is a test. In life we have a test and it is up to us to find the lesson. Seeing the adversity of lived events through a lens of learning, or an opportunity for growth is the stuff of Heroes.
I am not saying I am a hero. I am still an initiate, and I aim to be my whole life.
One of the beauties of life is that we are free to operate on all levels. Certainly Christmas shows us this every year. We have the freedom to make Christmas about the consumption of food alcohol and the stuff we give and receive to and from each other. Of course consumption can be fun. Enough fun to last a lifetime, in some cases. But if it is the only thing that happens, some of us might start to question what we are doing. As a child I was wrapped, as much as the gifts under the tree, in measuring my self-worth based on the presents I received or gave. I still feel hints of this, but I am beginning to see that who I am is not at all linked to what I get or give. It is much deeper.
Beneath the gifts, expectations and consumerism there is a deeper message for us. That message is also everywhere around us at Christmas. I am not qualified to say what that is, chiefly because I know it to be an individual journey for each of us to discover. It might be love, brotherhood, peace, sharing, or faith in Christ. The thing about discovery is that it seems to require a mysterious element, first. We are free to make that a part of Christmas, or not. For those that do, the heart grows every bit as much as the Grinch's and our former boundaries are shattered. But unlike the Grinch, it grows a bit each year instead of all at once.
Adventure can be the same. As an ice and rock climber I was a slave to performance, consumption of adventure events and achievement for many years. And there is more. Much much more. There are those out there who are ready for the journey to discover the depth that adventure offers. It is a profoundly individual path that has lessons for us alone. Certainly depth and potential spiritual development is a subject that goes hand and hand with the idea of adventure. The Last Jedi , the latest Star Wars movie, deals with the inner adventure in spades, and since it is based on research of the human journey by Joseph Campbell there is validity to the message. And the heroine gets to choose. At every turn, Rey chooses how deep she goes into her adventure. And the adventure, is about her intrinsic experience as much as the extrinsic one. Rey is asked to face terrifying demons inside and out as she steps into the challenge and in so doing, invites us. As viewers of Star Wars, we get to choose how much we get from the movie. We can consume the experience and think nothing more about it, or ask ourselves if we are living our lives as fully as Rey, both internally and externally.
A rich life is up to us. Do we have the courage to feel? Do we have the courage to face our greatest challenges? Are we brave enough to be the person we were put on this earth to be? Do we have the courage to step into the truth about our lives? Are we willing to navigate adversity or uncertainty and come out changed? Are we willing to embrace the mystical journey to add value to our lives and the lives of those around us?
The invitation is always there. It is the journey of a lifetime. . .not something done in a week at Outward Bound, but a practice. Will we watch others, or jump in with both feet and come to know our potential on a life long journey of self discovery?
It was Christmas in Calgary in 1972. Christmas in our household was usually anticlimactic. Lots of hype and hard work with little delivery. Harsh but true. My mother was brilliant in preparing ice cream bucket loads of treats and goodies for us to eat. This was perhaps her language of love, though I did not understand it at the time. She was too busy trying to be the perfect mom to be the perfect mom. For me. Months beforehand she would be busy making cookies, fruitcake, perogies, cabbage rolls, and meatballs, all for the greatest feast of the year. Christmas Eve dinner. This dinner was a Ukrainian 12 course affair; the one dinner of the year where we did not try to get food off of each other’s plates. At that point there was seven of us kids. Enough said. Eat or be eaten.
With all of the food and celebration there was still something missing - a shortage of one commodity. Time. Skilled time for each other. That is why Christmas was anticlimactic. Amongst all of the food, beverages, and celebration we typically did not make real and important connections with each other that were based in acceptance, interest and the desire to understand. The epidemic of anonymity existed in our family of nine. All of us wanting attention but unskilled at giving the kind of focused attention that leads to understanding. Parents just as needy and lost as the children. So forgivable. In a crowded house everyone was lonely. However, the seeds of change happened for Daryl, Shauna and myself on Christmas 1972.
It was an enterprising move for my brother Daryl to offer an activity as a gift. Time together in nature. It was intrepid because, it was a change to the normal pattern in our household of sitting around the house watching T.V., killing time. Thoreau writes, “When we kill time we wound eternity” Daryl brightened my eternity that Christmas. He was 17 and in high school. He was turned on by the bold Canadian Rockies, he had been on a school trip cross country skiing with Mr. Hergott, one of his teachers at Bishop Carroll High School. Daryl decided to spread this new found awakening to the joys of cross-country skiing to two of his siblings.
I am not sure of the reason, but Daryl chose the youngest two for this gift. He could have easily made arrangements with Debbie or Pat, Floyd or Peggy, but for some unknown reason he chose Shauna and I. The youngest. Easier to lead the young perhaps.
I awoke Christmas morning, like most children, early. There was a pair of wooden cross-country skis leaning against the wall next to the Christmas tree. Unwrapped. They were much too large so I completely ignored them. I suspected that they were for Daryl. They were used. Perfect. With so many people in our household the space under the tree was heaped with gifts. Piles of miscommunications that rarely addressed a precise want or important need. Inanimate lifeless messages, intended to convey love, but more often conveyed a lack of understanding . . .almost without exception for me. Feigning appreciation for these items deepened the rift. Does our human penchant for tools rob us of the real connection to all things? Is it possible to use stuff to convey love?
The skis however were promising. They represented an activity. They had a note on them. “To Shauna and Kenny love Daryl” Written in Daryl’s nearly illegible handwriting. This was baffling. How were Shauna and I to use these large skis? And there was only one pair. Daryl explained that they were his skis and they were there to represent the day out we would have together and that he would rent us skis in order for us to go. I nearly short-circuited. The best part was that we actually went. Now this was my first real Christmas gift.
Walking into the Norseman cross-country ski shop to rent skis is a foggy memory for me. Except for the smell of pine tar, and the feel of purple kick wax. The pine tar smells like both the words in its name simultaneously. A vegemite kind of smell-love it or hate it. I also liked how the wax created strings between my finger and the wax stick? when I touched it. I still play with ski wax. We sized the skis to the vertically extended wrist, poles to the armpit and boots with thick wool socks on. Daryl paid the rental fee for skis, boots and poles, which was a few dollars each set and went clattering out the door. This was the first of what was to become a lifetime of trip logistics for me. Now that I am a mountain guide I understand that these were not mere tools. They were a vehicle to my soul.
The drive out west to the mountains is as clear and crisp in my memory as the day was. It was the first trip in my working memory of going west. West into the bold Canadian Rockies. We were in Daryl’s first car. A Rambler sedan. It was cold. Really cold, and the car strained through the thick -20˚ air. At Scott Lake hill we were all lurching forward in our seats in an effort to help the car make it up the hill. We passed Morley and as we were walled by the mountains on either side of the road the anticipation of the day enveloped me. The tall and striking summits on either side of the car carried strength yet at the same time were inviting. Daryl knew some of the names of the peaks, which I found impressive. Their names hinted to a history which gave them character.
What I remember most about the drive was the park gate. For a boy of seven, with a natural draw to the outdoors, this was the equivalent to the gates of heaven. The log architecture of the booths at the gates fit with the landscape and reached out to me. They still do today. When we crossed the threshold I remembered feeling like I had come home for the first time in my short life. It was then that I realized that life could be magic. Really magic. It was that moment I learned, though I could not articulate it in words at the time, that natural places have great power.
We were going to Johnston Canyon. The Inkpots. I did not know what an inkpot was. Daryl reminded me of the ink well holes in our desks at school. I had seen the holes but had never seen an inkpot. I asked,
Daryl said, “because they are deep pools of water and because they are deep they are dark blue or black”
We arrived at the parking lot with the car tires squeaking on the cold snow as we slowed down. Decreasing in pitch. Having been growing up in AlBUUURRRta Shauna and I needed no instruction from Daryl on how to dress and keep warm. Daryl did however explain about the equipment and waxing.
“The wax allows the snow crystal to penetrate which gives us grip for going up hill. The harder the snow the harder the wax” “ We have to get the wax hardness right for the snow temperature. Too hard a wax and we get no grip. Too soft and the wax will pick up too much snow.” “ I should have a thermometer but I don’t” “It is better to start out with a “colder” softer harder wax and then move to something softer if need be” “ You can’t put a hard wax over a soft wax” “ We use different colored wax for different conditions. Warm colors for warm conditions”
“ So how do we slide?”
“With speed, the friction warms the snow enough so the wax no longer grips”
“You rub it on like this. And then you use the cork to smooth it down in one direction. Tip to tail”
We each applied the green wax in the rubbing motion Daryl had demonstrated .
This was brand new experience. I was first required to observe nature and then take an action that enabled me to work in concert with it. Waxing is an art because it takes time to sense all of the conditions that nature is presenting, and it demands that we throw in a little bit of our intuition because there may be elements of information gathering that we are unable to quantify. So there is no real answer or repeatable formula.
Shauna and I put our skis on and Daryl showed us how to test the grip of the wax by pushing off a weighted ski and seeing if the other would glide. They seemed to both grip and glide, so we started up the Johnston Canyon trail. In those days the trail was above the canyon. Glimpses and overlooks into the canyon allowed some privacy for itself and the critters that live there. Today the trail is right in the canyon, with sections of platform bolted to the wall it now lacks the same, mystery, privacy, and intimacy. Paradise paved.
Daryl showed us how to slap our skis against the snow lightly then hold our foot still in order to get the wax to grip as we went uphill. This was my second coming home of the day. Human power. Moving uphill is as natural a communication with the mountain and ourselves as one can get. Secrets about the mountain, and ourselves, are only released with personal effort. Such is life. What secrets have we been robbed of releasing by mechanization or the failure to take the requisite time? The natural movement of cross-country skiing was “just like walking”. But so much more.
The rhythm of movement was a little awkward though. Today, although I am not a great skier but have skied for a long time, I joke that my mother gave birth to me by ski-section. She had to be cut to get the skis out. But that is not true. I had to learn how to use skis after I was born. Just like everyone else. And it took a long time. My mistake on this trip was to stare at my skis. They were called Gresshoppa Finse. I remember the name because I looked at them all day.
Mine were brown and they had a snowflake like pattern on the tip. Shauna’s were blue. I would watch as each ski overtook the other in a rolling rhythm of momentum. Uphill. I was trying to put a little hop in my step like Daryl did in order to get some glide but it did not really work for me. I am sure I looked like a dancing bear because I had an incomplete weight shift. Also, because I was looking down at my skis, my balance was poor. That is what the poles were for I thought. Daryl encouraged us to look ahead on the trail and we would have better balance. I found this difficult. Eventually, after enough striding, I would stop and look around and allow myself to be enveloped by the place.
It was the invitation of the place that kept us fueled. The magic of the soft blue light cast on the trees, with long winter shadows, that were dressed in snow. The trail with two sinuous tracks impressed in the snow and countless ski pole holes, winding through the trees, taking the natural line that fits the terrain. The promise of sights ahead. The notion of adventure. The hope of discovery. The stillness that invited self knowledge. Yielding, allowing the place to consume us.
We kept warm, for the most part. Shauna’s toes and mine got a little cold from time to time, numb in fact, and it was cold enough that we also had to be mindful of our nose and ears. At one point we stopped, took off a boot and warmed our toes. The cold does bite and warrants respect, but we learned quickly that movement was the best way to stay warm and cozy. If cold, move faster, if warm, move slower. People around the globe know and adhere to this principle.
Our path eventually brought us to several waterfalls. Winter waterfalls; water taking much much longer to join the creek below than in the summer. They were frozen. Anyone who has visited a mountain waterfall in summer knows that they are things of beauty. Winter waterfalls, or waterfall ice, are an order of magnitude greater in beauty to summer ones, in my opinion. Ice refracts the blue/green spectrum, which gives them more colour than in summer. As we drank in the view of these water cathedrals, Daryl said another thing that was to change my life.
‘People climb these”
The wonder of that statement captured my imagination.
“How?” I asked
“With ice picks, ropes and screws”
I stood there trying to imagine what ice climbing must be like. I knew I would like to try it. Someday.
The immediacy of -20˚C pushed us onward and eventually to the Inkpots. There were white spots in a meadow, I thought. Big deal. We came all this way for this? This was my first lesson in discovery. You can’t plan to discover. It just has to happen unexpectedly. We found a spot in the meadow for lunch. We took our skis off and immediately sank in the snow up to our waists. Rockies snow pack. The cold inland air takes all of the snow’s strength so it can’t support the weight of a person. I learned right then how desperate winter travel would be without skis in the mountains. I was building respect. Cold + distance from the car+ no skis = Bad news. Discovery. Daryl taught us to keep out of the snow by stomping a hole for our feet and to sit on our skis so we did not sink into the snow. When we had made our spots we brushed the snow off of ourselves in order to keep ourselves dry. We did not take long to eat lunch because the cold crept into our bodies. We put our skis back on and began our glide back to the car. But there was much more to it than that.
I can still hear Shauna’s giggles today in my mind’s ear as she and I made our way down the slopes of the Johnston Canyon trail. Daryl was ahead and I have little memory of him being there at all. I am sure he was near but perhaps he was ahead just enough to hear our laughter but stay out of our way. Out of harm’s way. Rockies ski trails are really summer trails with snow on them. They are not designed for skiing. But that is what makes them fun. Narrow, fast, trees lining the edges, long steep sections with 90˚ curves at the bottom, bumps, roots, icy corners. The heli skiing companies today make a big deal about teaching their guests tree skiing by telling them to look for the open spaces and head for them. If Shauna and I had not employed this concept in the first 30 seconds on our own accord, I am certain we would have been maimed that day. The take-home message for me was. . . speed-is-good. I have lived it ever since. Whistling past the lodgepole pines was exhilarating to say the least. Our only breaking mechanism was to fall. We did not know how to snow plough. Or stop. The floppy Nordic equipment made it all the more challenging. So we fell, flopped, peeled out, and tumbled our way down the mountain, narrowly missing the trees as we crashed, occasionally getting tangled in the Labrador tea bushes. Our red faces still gleamed with delight as we picked ourselves up from fall after fall. Once in a while we had a thrilling ride that ended victoriously on our feet, which made it all worth it. Through it all we discovered another element to the landscape. Gravity. It seemed as though we were just becoming weary when the welcome sight of the parking-lot came into view. The mountain had shown us all a great time. And I was hooked.
I don’t remember the trip home all that much. I do remember the frustration of trying to find words that captured the day when explaining it to others. Impossible. Adventure on the landscape is like subscribing to a secret language that can only be decoded through direct experience.
What was I hooked on? The priceless part of the day was making friends. I had made several good friends that day. I grew in admiration and closeness with Daryl because of his ability to be with us and also let us do our thing. He also mentored his connection to wild places, not by his words but by his reverent gaze at his surroundings. I grew in closeness with Shauna because of her ability to handle the struggles of the day with good humor and delight. I became good friends with a portion of Banff National Park and the Rockies which is a friendship that still exists to this day. I became a better friend with myself because I began to know what kinds of experiences fuel my spirit.
This was the first lesson in boldness that the Rockies had to offer me in my life. Their bold nature had inspired Daryl to embrace all of the risks of taking his two young siblings out for a day in Banff in -20˚C temperatures. Lots could have gone wrong. We could have been frozen, hurt, killed or worse yet, we might have hated him for it. None of those things happened. We loved him for it. We loved him for the time he took. We loved him for being connected to us. We loved him for introducing us to skiing, the mountains, Banff Park, and each other. We loved him for providing a shared experience. We loved him for making us feel special through his undivided attention. We loved him for creating common ground. To this day I believe that the three of us have connection that is rooted in this day together.
Daryl was also inspired to be socially courageous. He broke the pattern of inactivity. He broke the pattern of valuing only work. He broke the pattern of the purchased expression of love. He expressed it directly with the gift of time . . .and adventure on the landscape.
This lesson has helped me understand Christmas and what people need. We do not need more stuff. We need to be bold. Bold enough to take the time to make memories with family. Bold enough to be challenged so that we are presented a window to our character. Bold enough to take physical risks. Bold enough to tell people not only that we love them but why. Bold enough to embrace each other. Bold enough to embrace the landscape and the challenges it may present. Bold enough to truly live. All of this made possible by simply exploring a Rockies ski trail.
"The state of being whole and undivided."
Last week I was instructing one of my rock climbing courses to a group of students on Quadra Island just east of Campbell River BC. The rain kept us undercover for the better part of a couple of days. When the students were done with learning technical systems we changed gears and challenged them with the classic "Spiders web" problem. The task is to pass your entire group through the web without anyone touching and alerting the "spider" of your presence. The web in this case was a matrix of cords tied together to simulate a human sized web. With all of the safety rules in place, like. . ."no diving through the web," my co instructor, Graeme White presented a final challenge to the students when he said, "Your job is to self police yourselves and monitor your own performance around touching the web." The students enthusiastically accepted the task.
It was a difficult web and the students began to feel like the task was impossible to get everyone to the other side. At one point, with two thirds of the crew through the web, one of them touched and had to be sent back to the starting side to be passed through again. The challenge was that only one person saw the web being touched. Every other member of the group of 8 thought it was a clean pass. I could see the individual, who had called the team out, begin to squirm but he held fast to his truth. Then one of the participants said, "He is lying" in a desperate effort to have the group succeed. "But why would he lie about something like that? I queried.
I remember being a young climber and lying about a greater success on a climb than I had actually achieved. Wanting so badly to be a person who was perceived as being a success I fabricated a story. I carried that lie for years at great personal cost. What is it about getting through by any means possible that is so alluring? Why is our integrity so easily scrapped for false achievement?
Recently I was at the Volkswagon repair shop and I said to the mechanic something about the recent challenges the company was going through as "cheating". He said, "I don't see it that way." I asked, "How do you see it?" He replied, "We send students to university where the culture is to do what is necessary to get the best grade possible. Then we put them to work where they need to solve problems and they do what is necessary to solve the challenge at hand. We have taught the members of our society to win and it is not seen as cheating." I nodded thinking that it is a cultural construct rather than ill will. But it is still dishonest if it is not something we can be transparent about.
The problem is that when we cash in our integrity for false achievement we exchange something profound. Self love. It is impossible to love ourselves if we are not honest because we are not in line with our best self. We all look in the mirror every morning and if we have been impeccably honest, we like who we see reflected back at us.
The dictionary's first definition of integrity is about being honest and having strong moral principles. The second definition is the state of being whole and undivided. I think one leads to the other. If we are honest, we become whole. Being whole is the best success in such a fragmented world.
A Practice In Worthiness
My first journey up the vertical granite world of El Capitan was in the spring of 1988. Hanging from my climbing harness at the belay anchor low down on "The Nose" route I looked up at the face above and a visceral feeling of unworthiness infused my being. Without words spoken the sheer size of the rock face communicated, "What the hell are the likes of YOU doing here?"
With the sun beating on my bare shoulders I panned my eyes across the expansive wall and back again noticing the swallows dive and turn as my partner John worked his way up the first of the "Stove legs" pitches. A man from a party below arrived at the same postage stamp sized belay stance I inhabited and said, "What are you doing?"
I replied, "What do you mean?"
He said, "I can see you are belaying your leader, but what are you doing?"
I said, "Nothing."
To my surprise he replied, "If you are not improving your situation in tiny ways every moment, you'll never make it." After he said that, I realized that there were endless small tasks that needed my attention. Restacking the rope, cleaning up the now unused elements of the anchor and having a snack to maintain my energy. My impromptu mentor pointed out there was always something to be done if I had a goal. Waiting to see if things turn out is not a great way to have them turn out.
John and I made it up the Nose route on El Capitan that trip. I arrived at the top gifted with my own humble sense of worthiness. Not granted from the monolithic place or the experience, but from the thousands of small and large efforts that expanded my capacity. The wisdom stuck with me. I dig deep ice climbing where cold can win and direct action must be taken to create heat to stay warm. Building a house in Revelstoke, were countless little tasks required my action. Today, as I type each letter on my keyboard to form words that morph concepts into a story that also communicates meaning. The cure for unworthiness is focused action and in noticing the power that fuels my call to action.
What project, if I engage in wholeheartedly, would I be able to accomplish?
What tasks do I need to do moment to moment?
How am I unconsciously feeding into my own unworthiness by hanging out?
Do I heed the advice of others or do I chronically fail because I am stubborn?
If I fail at something, who is to blame?
I have often experienced my best climbing when there was an invitation. Many years ago Brian Spear, Keith Haberl and myself drove into the Waiparous to climb a route called Concorde. As Keith's Black Nissan truck brought us into view of the route it was clear that the climb was not going to happen. It was streaming wet so we deemed it unclimbable. The route faces north so it was also not likely to dry off by the time we got to the base.
Without skipping a beat we turned our attention to the Prow, which is east facing and was dry but as yet the entire face was unclimbed. All we had to go by was an inviting line up the centre of the face, which we quickly cast the binoculars upon. After dumping out the Rubbermaid bin from the back of the truck and assessing its contents, we realized that we had enough gear to climb the route. There was a solid selection of pitons and enough self-drive bolts for anchors. We climbed seven new pitches that day, onsight and ironically through three rainstorms. Climbing over wet rock, and into thunder and lightning, all the while feeling invited. We profoundly eclipsed the reason for not climbing Concorde. But Concorde was not inviting us. We named our new route "The Ardent Heart" because we were following our hearts into a process of creativity.
With a firm invitation that underpins, challenges that happen along the way feel supported from a foundational place. Adversity is fun when the right energy underpins and solving problems is easier with a sense of belonging. There is less fear because I know I am supposed to be there. This is intuition and the mountains have been trying to teach me how to use it. I can and have rationalized myself into undesirable situations, and have been invited into the grandest adventures. Inside I have a fantastic system for knowing the difference between the two. All I have to do is ask is this question, "Am I being invited right now?"
In what ways have I "Shoulded" my way into an epic? I should be able to climb this! I should do this because there concrete no reason not too! What was the result?
How do I rationalize my way into making choices that don't serve me?
Has waiting for an invitation to do something worked better?
My aim in the mountains is to cover terrain as elegantly as possible." Sharon Wood
I am a student of walking. My life path has been physically and metaphorically off trail through the mountains and walking in them has taught me a great deal.
Striding on a concrete sidewalk is easy for all of the obvious reasons and some not so obvious. It is solid, balanced, stable and mostly without grave consequence. All of these things are seemingly desirable. I can trust in these elements so much that some of the in-obvious reasons for the ease walking on concrete come to light. I don't have to think, focus, or be conscious of much in order to travel the route. I can look way down the street in expectation of a future event without stumbling.
On my mountain path things are loose, uneven, unstable and often have grave consequence. Walking here requires a whole lot from me the walker. So much so that I still find myself a student of this practice that I learned in principle over 50 years ago. What is it that I am practicing?
Each stride has a choice to be made. Walking up a mountain requires that I am deliberate with each step. I carefully choose exactly where I place my foot. If I don't select my placement my foot will likely land on something undesirable like a wobbly stone of a slippery root. I also position my foot with intention. How I step in the spot is critical. The spot may be flat so I can relax and save energy, or it may be sloped and wet so I need to grip the earth with my boot edge. I make myself solid.
Striding from my center. In order to carefully select my foot placement I have to step from a place of balance. I centre my weight over my placed foot so that the new foot or step is not committed to unconsciously. I can stop at any point and stay in balance. My walking is not a slave to momentum, but discernment is the rule. In the core of my body is a place of stillness that is quiet and relaxed. I balance myself.
Remaining present. If I look too far down the trail I stumble because I am no longer present with what is happening. Eyes cast on the summit or a future goal take my attention away from balance and discernment. I create stability.
I was built for traveling where there is no path. Walking here helps me be solid, balanced, and stable in a chaotic world fraught with ramifications. Like all things walking is a practice. If I assume I am a master, I stumble. The greatest thing that walking here teaches me is humility, that all things in life are best when they come from within, and that walking is life.
"Shame Can't Survive Empathy" Brene Brown
Shame. A painful feeling of humiliation. Hot. Searing. Isolating. Shame hits like a wave when we become conscious of our failing act. It surrounds and engulfs us leaving the idea that irreparable damage to our lives has occurred.
I know shame professionally. Missing simple processes and being corrected by colleagues. Or making monumental errors and reacting by hiding, crawling through the back window and running down the alley of indignity. Unwilling and unable to find words in the maelstrom of humiliation, grief and mortification. A prisoner trying to escape the reality of the situation. A fugitive for years, skulking through life, scrambling from one form of cover to the next.
I know shame in my relationships. Two marriages, divorced twice and those are the ones on record. Seeking comfort from another before learning to self soothe. Being called hedonistic and knowing it is true, but also understanding that it so, so much bigger. The isolation that comes from the daggers of judgement by self and others. The fear of celebrating a new relationship. A fugitive, skulking through life scrambling from one form of cover to the next.
There is a cure for shame. Stepping into it. Putting it in the heart of acceptance to change it. Loving myself and letting people have their yard sticks if they like. Loving myself for being in the game, exposed to life and making the most of events by grappling for threads of learning and turning it all into experience. Knowing what things are really like on the battlefield of work and relationships and seeing that in the end I have chosen not to run from the battle inside myself. Becoming conscious and improving who I am despite profound and utter failure or perhaps because of it. Knowing that I have done my very best to live and then bravely face my humanity.
I subscribe to Julie North's idea that we choose our challenges in this life before we live them like they are a course to be learned from. "Mid life poverty 101. Self loathing 405. Shame 201." I know that one of the experiences I chose was to know and overcome shame through compassion for myself. Master shame or become a slave to it is my mantra. Master shame by bringing events in to be loved.
Recently a story crossed my path. A seemingly harsh narrative about a teacher who held his young Monk's head under water while asking, "so, is focusing on your breath boring now?" There are two lessons here, one about breathing being a gift that we take for granted, and the other about forgiveness of the teacher. In life and our relationships, the journey is often to transcend judgment and embrace the lesson no matter how it comes. Sometimes we lose the lesson in the apparent violence of a person or situation. In this case the Monk risks losing the lesson about breathing in the act of the teacher. In my life I risked losing the gift of learning about breath from the seemingly harsh snowy mountain environment that I was buried in. Here are my memories of being under the snow from "Buried" (2014):
"Light from above filters down through my snowy grotto, forming countless shades of blue and turquoise as it refracts through the varying thicknesses of lumpy snow. There may be a series of connecting air pockets leading to the surface but I cannot be certain. Thin areas in my clothing begin to produce cold, damp places at my lower back and my knees, neck and right wrist, but there is nothing I do can fix the problem. I feel strangely calm and relaxed, as if it all were familiar. But my pulse and breathing suddenly race when my mind registers the words: “I’m BURIED.”
I grapple for self-control. My mind flashes to my clients; all of them are in this snowy catastrophe. I am their guide, helpless to assist them. A wave of grief overcomes me while I cycle mental images of the snow hitting them, their legs flailing as they remain attached to their skis. With these pictures rolling in my mind, my heart thumps. I breathe heavily and feel the air become lifeless. My lungs scream for oxygen. I gasp but can’t satiate them. Panic looms closer. I have to surrender. I place my head on my left arm, feel the deep weariness in my body, embrace it and let myself pass out."
Surrender. For many years I blamed my teacher. The man I was working with. I was angry at the mountain for dealing such a harsh lesson. I hated myself and felt guilty for my choice for being there. I forgot about the beautiful awareness about breath by focusing on the delivery.
There is a helpful notion that as a being floating through the universe, I choose the lessons I will try to learn here on Earth before even being born. Like a contestant on a game show that chooses the level of difficulty. This idea is helpful both for the student monk and myself. We are responsible for all of it. The young monk chooses to be a student and embrace all of the lessons that come their way. I chose to traverse into a life of being in the mountains, and all of the lessons that they present. I can't love what happened to my clients because I played a role in their demise. I can love how the experience has shaped me, to become the person I have always dreamed of being. That is the best I can do.
Today, whenever I focus on my breath I am taken to my snowy grotto, a seemingly horrific situation that holds such gifts in the awareness of my sacred breath.
Some would say, that I should let go, forget about the past. I now know this in the core of my being, it is too beautiful a lesson to let it go.
We inhabitants of this planet are in the midst of re-imagining our lives and how we lead them. Every single industry that existed in the middle of the last century has or is being asked to re-conceive itself and grow into this new millennium. Changes in technology have sparked great shifts in music, entertainment, communications, and now the energy and the automobile sectors are under massive overhauls through this movement. With the movement has come innovation, collaboration, human growth and greater sustainability. Great leaders are emerging to show us the way. People like Elon Musk who are not only innovating the auto industry, but sharing their technical breakthroughs so that the goal of filling the roads with electric cars is realized. It is not only about making money, it is about, becoming our best selves. These leaders have identified that we need to share the spoils so we can achieve larger goals for humanity. Certainly this was the statement when Musk released his electric car innovations for the world to use. It is as if "beating the other guy" is out of fashion and that is one of the most beautiful things to happen in over a century because what is being communicated is the notion that we are in it together. Happiness through human (as opposed to industrial) growth is emerging and many of us are choosing to be on the boat.
A recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the USA positioned Outdoor Recreation ahead of pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles, and fossil fuels. Annual consumer spending for this sector is posted at 887 Billion. Outdoor recreation is huge in the USA and, by cultural sibling-hood, we can assume for Canada. At long last there is an identifiable new work force, wool collar workers or people who work outdoors. And we wool clad set can be taken seriously because it is about money, right? As we step into this new knowledge of the power of the outdoor sector's contribution to the economic engine it is important that we take a good look at ourselves to understand who we are and where we are going. We are now under the spotting scope and can no longer hide in the back woods. How do we fit into this new global "Us" paradigm?
Some of the assumptions we wool collar set make about ourselves is that we connect people to nature, are stewards of wild places and that things we do are sustainable. These mantras are not entirely true. The most obvious target is our sacred cow, the helicopter ski industry. The fuel consumption alone for a bell 212 helicopter is, on average, 425 litres per hour. For a six hour day, an operation burns 2,550 litres of fuel simply for the enjoyment of three or four groups of 11 guests. One of the larger operations has 12 lodges. They burn 30,600 litres of fossil per ski day. How can we possibly defend this in a world where climate change is bearing down on all of us? Like many industries the defense is money. Lots of families put bread on the table through this work. But this is what industries around the globe are facing, the need to change. The Polly Anna view of heli skiing is that we are connecting people to nature so the fuel consumption has purpose. But are we? The report to me from many guides is that their guests don't even look at the view or care about where they are. For many, it is about how much vertical terrain is consumed, ever deepening the reach of gross consumption into wild places in order to prop up our underdeveloped selves. I am as guilty as anyone and perhaps that is why I see it, because I have lived it.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company leads the way in activism, sustainability and fair trade. Their mission statement starts with:
" Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature."
Outdoor organizations all need to be more like Patagonia. Their used clothing initiative shows that they see beyond the next sale and are doing what is best for all of us.
But what about outdoor experiences? Bill Plotkin's Animas Valley Institute helps people connect to nature and themselves. Their programs are outdoors but are not adventure sport based. They help their participants develop "ecocentrically" that Plotkin knows leads to psychological maturity, true adulthood and elderhood. Their aim is; "a model that ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation." If any organization in the outdoors is connecting others to themselves and nature it is Animas Valley Institute, chiefly because they take the requisite time to slow down enough to facilitate a bond. Unlike the high speed "stone skipping" approach of much of the outdoor industry, where the aim is to go as fast as possible so that nothing deep is experienced.
Like the colleague of mine Butch Greer, I would maintain that the world does not need more rock climbers, mountaineers, skiers, and paddle sport enthusiasts. I perceive that our participation in them may in fact have little value for humanity. Except for one thing. If we reflect on these powerful events we have, we have greater potential to develop as humans, moving humanity forward to a place where we are our best selves. Many may scoff thinking that achievement should be pursued at all cost. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Reflection aids in the development of our minds and our capabilities. Alex Honnold this week showed that climbing is much more than a physical pursuit with his free solo ascent of El Capitan. Clearly there was a spiritual transcendence for him. I call his ascent as being a climbing equivalent to "walking on water."
Very few guiding companies offer powerful human development process work coupled with real adventure. The once towering Outward Bound is a mere echo of what it was on the human development landscape. Though their programs are good, the organization is on the fringe of the outdoor community where it was once the hub of everything outdoors in the 1970's. The best in the industry were employed at Outward Bound and this is not the case any longer. Today the organization employs primarily entry-level practitioners and so experiences are softer than in the past. The reasons for this are varied and can be debated. But human powered, educational, adventure experiences could develop into the highest reaches of our outdoor community, given the right support and leadership.
Human values need to develop beyond the notion of the self to include the greater community. The mountains and wild places in general are a powerful mentor for this purpose. Our journeys on this one wild earth are meant to have a lasting impact for the greater good. The call to action is for highly skilled people and organizations to unleash the human development potential from this incredible crucible of learning. What if we walked our talk? What if we faced our fears? What if we actually connected to nature? What if we listened to what nature is asking us to do every time we see a reflection in a lake, to be still, and to listen to the innate wisdom of life? The future of adventure, if it is going to survive at all is to see our journeys as sacred.
One of my students once asked me, "Ken why do we have to do this reflection shit?" My answer was, "So we are more than our gear. You see, the gear goes on the journey, up the mountain, down the mountain, sees everything we see and does everything we do, and the only thing that can happen to the gear is that it wears out, gets old and is thrown away. Through reflection we invite the opportunity to grow and develop. We are much more than the objects we use. " In maturing into our full potential we bring best self to the world and the challenges we face. This is my call to action.
As a practitioner I am well on my way with Mountains for Growth. My larger commitment is the development of a private college that nurtures outdoor practitioners to turn the tide in their careers by helping them foster regenerative adventure education. This project needs a band like minded passionate supporters.
Sylvia Wylie drove most of her kids crazy. Some of us were convinced that she was a terrible person so that later in her life we mostly abandoned her. I had many conversations with her about her loneliness. She felt cheated because she put her life into raising us and we, with the exception of Shauna and Daryl left her in solitude much of the time.
We know now that humans are hard wired for negativity. It is an evolutionary protection mechanism designed to keep us safe from danger. Negative experiences remain in our memory longer than the positive so we can keep ourselves safe but we tend to shape how we see the world based on the bad stuff. But the truth is, the negative bias can be profoundly unfair in the realm of social relationships.
In 2010 I participated in a three month Yoga development course. The main practice was hidden language Hatha Yoga, where we went into a pose with a perception or question in order to gain insight through the wisdom of the body. At the start of the third month our group visited the headstand. The teacher asked us to write down something we believe to be true. I wrote, "My childhood was awful." Then, when inverted my perceptions were turned on their head. My memory flooded with all of the wonderful things my mother (and Father) did for me. Top of the memory youtube was the fact that she had towels warming in the oven to wrap my feet in after a cold walk home from school. I was reduced to weeping uncontrollably on the hardwood floor.
If true love is about serving without receiving back Sylvia Wylie lived that. Her only fault was that she had a tough time letting go of what she wanted for our lives. For most of us that was a fate worse than death so we mostly scattered to the wind to live our lives the way we saw fit.
When I connect to the positive I see that she worked often till 4 am sewing dresses for women in the community to help make ends meet. She was a brilliant cook who could produce beautiful meals on a fierce budget. She was a task master and we all benefited because most of us know how to keep a home "Spic and Span". She was an organic gardener, a naturalist, a lifelong learner, and was there to support when we got ourselves into trouble (and most of us did). She was a rock during crisis. Sure she was a pain in the ass wanting me to be something I was not, but in the end I saw that this trait in her kept me ardently on my own path. We all need someone to challenge our ways of being to underscore that what we are doing is actually really right for us. She helped me articulate how I needed to live my life which helped me understand myself in ways I never would have otherwise.
Today I see that she was perfect and I love her more deeply each day. I feel her presence and understand that she made an indelible impact on my life. She believed in me and I always felt that. We were kindred adventurers and the sad part was that in some ways she lived through me and not so much on her own accord when it came to outdoor adventure. All of that was given up for all seven of us. Yes we kicked each other in the ass from time to time, but those exchanges guided our spirits to a higher place. Today I know that the relationship my mother and I built was one of the greatest successes in my life. She was beautiful in all ways.
I love you mom and know that you are in a great place. I feel such gratitude for you and what you sacrificed for all of us.
We know it when we feel it. When someone takes the time to see us. Our souls connect and for that moment we feel part of something magic and bigger than we ever thought possible. Ironically, the person who takes the time to "see us" feels it too. It is as if having the courage to take the time to listen, be present and see, rewards the giver.
A few years ago, while walking to a movie in Victoria BC, I walked past a homeless man for the last time without doing something. It aches when I see people on the street. It is wrong that these human beings have to live without a roof and community around them. We all respond when loved.
It seemed crazy, but I thought I would give what I do. I am a mountain guide so the natural extension for me was to invite these people climbing and hiking. My notion seemed crazy because it appeared so far from what they really needed. But I was wrong.
I approached the local shelter in Victoria (Victoria Cool Aid Society), and after a bit of paperwork was paired with a case worker for a hike with three appreciative souls.
Something happened on our hike that changed everything for me. Chatting with one of the women while walking through the forest, I learned that she had a degree in literature and grew up in a middle class family in Ontario. My assumptions were shattered. On that hike I learned how close all of us are to the street. We all make good and bad choices and how deeply the consequences play out is entirely up to luck. What I also learned was that, although climbing and hiking seemed extraneous, they are not. Most humans need the opportunity to connect with nature, it feeds our soul. We also all need to know someone out there is willing to hold the rope while we make a few difficult moves.
The gifts of these experiences have been huge for me. These lovely people have challenges, yes. But what makes them different from others I encounter is that they are no longer pretending to be someone they are not. There is a level of authenticity that I think we can all learn from and it is steeped in powerful humility.
We are all responsible for our own journey it is true. And there are no rescues in life. However, life teaches us about pairs of opposites. Dark-light, hot-cold etc. So it is also true that we need support after we fall. The internal fight is ours but the externals don't need to be. This is a message carried by none other than J.K. Rowling, who in her integrity, has not forgotten to give credit to a system that supported her when she was down. Naturally, this fuels the question. . .how many geniuses have we failed?
My challenge to the rest of my community is this; "Give What You Do." If you are a Dentist, give what you do. If you are a Hair Stylist, give what you do. If you are a Doctor, give what you do. If you are a Counselor, give what you do. Trust me your hearts will be paid in full, and our community will prosper.
One thing we love to do is find a place to skip stones. There are two needed elements, a relatively calm body of water and stones that are thin and flat with rounded edges. The ultimate goal is to get the stone as far across the lake with as many skips as possible. Cheers resound when our stone reaches the far side of the lake without sinking in. We count the skips. It is a past time that fills space with activity, and it is totally fun and worth while, but there is also more. Often, how we spend our time is a metaphor for our lives.
We skip along the surface of things. Unlike the stone, which slows down with each contact with the water, we humans maintain our speed, coming in contact with people, situations and events just long enough to bounce off of them and carry on. We cross to the far shore of our lives and look back with regret, because we never really let anything sink in. The places we visit make it on our tick list but we have little to say about how the landscape touched our soul. We have huge numbers of social media friends , and otherwise, but who among them can name our hopes, dreams and greatest fears? Perhaps not even ourselves. I spent twenty five years speeding from one adventure to the next thinking I was courageous and wise, until life showed me that I was not.
There is a cost to slowing down for the stone and ourselves. The stone sinks to the bottom of the lake to reside there until some grand force of nature moves or eradicates it. We sink into ourselves, to be surrounded by all of the things we have skipped over because they were too painful to be with. Perhaps it is a lost love, a painful relationship with a parent, or a friend who died too young. These things seemingly hurt too much to be with so we pick up our speed to avoid sitting with them. Yet our speed is the source of our loneliness. Much like we can't love anyone if we don't love ourselves, we can't truly know anyone if we don't know ourselves or hold a space to resolve or heal. So we fail to connect to our humanity and the humanity of those around us, which results in a deep sense of lack that will not go away. A friend of mine once said to me when I was taking a careless action, "Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone." How can we develop as human beings if we don't know ourselves?
Bill Plotkin, a psychologist who helps his clients discover their soul's journey, writes about how human kind are stuck in our development. The potential is for us to move through Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Elderhood, but he maintains that we remain stationary at Adolescence. Given the state of the world and the kinds values that seem prevalent at all ages, he is right. Historical wisdom from all walks of life, prescribe stopping in nature as a requirement for our emotional, and spiritual development, which connect us to our humanity which allows us to grow. But growth takes courage.
Human beings value courage. The next courageous step for us, is to come to know the depth of ourselves. In doing this we may solve so many of the things we grapple with. Ironically the answer, is to do nothing.
By Ken Wylie
This week Canada is marking the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge during World War 1. On our screens are images of the now green but still crater-marked fields and hills where the fighting took place. We see the monument that pays homage to the courage and valour of Canadian soldiers during that battle, and hear the numbers of those who died in a fight for the freedom we now enjoy. Their names are embossed and accounted for. While these thoughts are valid and true there is something that is not being fully numbered in our collective memories of these events.
I was six years old when my kindergarten teacher organized a concert for our young voices to sing at Colonel Belcher Veterans Hospital in Calgary. The event pushed me hard. We were ushered into the hospital and organized on a makeshift stage to look out over a seeming sea of wheelchairs. There were men with no legs, no arms, and seemingly no hope, until we began to sing. Our young voices filled the room with life which penetrated the souls of the men who were, for those short moments, in bliss.
Then something happened that will forever remind me of another cost of war. An elderly man began shaking and screaming as if he was in peril. With an attendant on each side of him to steady his body, he was helped from the room. At the time I did not know what was happening to him. It was far beyond my experience, but I knew intuitively it was a window to something terrible. My mother explained afterward that she thought it was "Shell Shock" (a term that was used at the time to describe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that he had fought in World War 1. His mind took him back the horror of the battlefield. Our concert was in 1971, fifty-four years after the war.
If you asked me which fate I would choose, to die on the battlefield, or to live the life of this man I witnessed at our concert my answer would be simple. How many collective years of suffering have soldiers and their families paid in the quality of their lives after whichever war they fought? How many souls suffer the fate of living, everyday, in indescribable horror, which sometimes end in suicide? To me, this brings into question our notion of the ultimate sacrifice. To live with the horror of flashbacks for fifty years, stuck in the battle where you see your friends perish, and feel in constant mortal danger is a living hell. Numbers and statistics fail to calculate the true cost of that. Yet where are the names of these soldiers carved in stone?
We live in a bento box society. Everything is ordered and segregated so that we are protected from experiencing each other’s reality. There was great wisdom for my teacher in organizing the concert. Education is about exposure to the uncomfortable. That concert taught me about the price soldiers' and their families pay. I learned about the cost of surviving, which points to war's awry accounting.
War is used to settle our differences. We have to find another way. War is used to bolster economies. We have to find another way. War is often touted as building character. We have to find another way. War is said to bring nations together. We have to find another way. A century ago, William James asked for "war's moral equivalent." The screams of traumatized soldiers are not only a cry from a long ago battle, they are a cry for peace.
Wells are both dark gloomy places and sources of that which is life sustaining. When I think of wells, my mind's eye projects a moving picture of the well on our family's hobby farm back in the 70s. I would lie on the moist clover next to the wooden frame and peer down into the depths, feeling the cool humid air rise up to meet my face. Wooden cribbing shored up the sides to support the dirt walls. My eye linked the mossy board rows one by one until they met with the inky black water far below. The depths called to me in some way, but I never had the courage to descend the ladder that was nailed to the side, in part because I was told never to go down there.
At age twelve my father allowed me to do chores that needed truck support to be accomplished. Driving our '65 GMC, I hauled stones, fence posts, or bales and I loved it because it made me feel grown up, more like a man. One day while bringing a load of manure to the garden, I trimmed the corner too close to the well and a wheel fell in, breaking through the boards that covered the hole. When I felt the drop as the steering wheel lurched to the right, and my heart sank. I walked around the yellow rust-dotted vehicle to view the wheel hanging in the air above the blackness, truck frame supported by the ground around the hole. The problem seemed insurmountable. I walked with dread over to the barn where Dad was doing a repair and said to him sheepishly, "Dad, the back right wheel of the GMC is in the well." Without looking up from what he was doing he said, "You got it in there, you get it out." Shocked that he wouldn't help, I walked back to the truck crestfallen, but the knowledge that I had to fix the situation myself allowed me to look at the problem anew.
With care, I performed what felt like a miracle. By lifting the truck up with the bumper jack and putting sturdy planks under the back wheel I was able to drive the rig out of the hole. I remember feeling pride and a sense of accomplishment. This experience was one of the greatest gifts my father bestowed on me, and shows his depth of wisdom. To this day, when I feel something is impossible, I remember being twelve and solving this challenge with creativity and ingenuity. By descending into the depths of the problem, I drew out a solution. The well had a very important lesson for me.
There are other wells. One runs through the core of my being. Like most deep holes, this one has historically been dark, gloomy, and terrifying. There has been a crying sound coming from the depths, and it has felt lonely and cold. For most of my life, I have tried to block it out. I put a pump house on the well to insulate and hopefully muffle the mournful sound, and yet it was still in my awareness, like an overdue appointment. I asked the women in my life to do something about the crying but they couldn't hear it. I wanted them, as the nurturing ones, to make the situation better. I wanted them to descend into my well and nurture the sobbing child that resided there. But since they couldn't hear it, it was not real for them; the plaintive lonely boy was known only to me. Like my father many years ago, they have all said, "You need to fix this one on your own." As a male, I only had the skills I needed to fix mechanical problems. Boys don't learn how to nurture.
So, I descended into my well. It took all of the skills around managing fear and pain that I have spent a lifetime accruing in other arenas. I also had to ignore the inadvertent lesson I had been taught about wells as a child: the directive not to go down them. I went deep inside, descending further than I ever thought possible. I took light to illuminate my way, which made the journey less impending. On a damp, dreak ledge far from any ambient light, I found a small boy huddled alone and sobbing. I picked him up. He was cold and shivering from having been left down there so long. I fed him, changed his clothes and held him in my arms, comforting him until he felt safe enough to fall peacefully asleep. As a toddler, he fell into this dark place of loneliness since everyone in his life, while struggling to survive themselves, was unable to care for him. Ever since, he had been there wishing someone would hear him. It was I who ignored him, feeling unskilled and too scared to help. The problem seemed insurmountable, but all I had to do was trust that by descending into the depths, I would draw out solution. Simply nurturing the small boy part of myself healed the hole and the experience now sustains me.
In the past, I avoided the deep sense of loneliness in my core by muffling it. I busied myself with "manly" things like climbing and mountaineering to try to project the perception that I was strong and capable. In so doing, I denied the sadness at my core. I had been inhumane to a part of myself. I was convinced that I did not know how to attend to this most vulnerable part of me. I told myself I did not have the skill. As a climber I had often ascended into the unknown, trusting that what I needed would arrive. Amazingly, holds, gear placements, and skills I had no idea I possessed emerged. All scary situations require trust. All adventures teach me this, even the adventure deep into my emptiness.
Human beings need to be strong and capable. We also need to know how to nurture, especially the parts of ourselves that are the most vulnerable. Taking the time to hear ourselves is the first step, answering the call is the next, and the courage to be fully human is the third.
Our journey is ours alone. Others can be connected to us like the climbers are with the rope, but we have to make the moves ourselves. There is no top roping.
Watch any mountain master and you will see a seeming contradiction. They move slowly with everything they do, yet they seem to get up and down the mountain quickly and efficiently.
Many years ago, my friend Joe and I, as 20-something year old males, found ourselves on the slopes of Denali climbing up from 14,000 feet to high camp at 17,000 feet. We rushed, setting a pace that we might use on an approach to an ice climb in our home range, the Canadian Rockies. In our hurry we found that we had to stop often to catch our breath in the rarified air. Each time we stopped a group of older European climbers slowly and smoothly glided past us. At the end of the day they reached camp first, and had a cup of tea to offer up when we arrived. This is an old story from all of our childhoods about two animals.
“Slow is smooth” ultimately comes into its own in highly technical, multi-day rock climbing. Rope systems can easily get into a cluster when one goes too fast. Moving slowly but steadily with the systems allows one to clearly see the next step needed, and the systems can be built to accommodate. Simply unflaking a rope one coil at a time may seem slow but it is efficient. Often, those climbers new to rope handling will impatiently drop the coils on the ground which always ends in a mess that takes a long time to sort out. Rope handling masters manipulate one loop at a time with an ease that is artful and ultimately efficient.
Recently, I drove up to Bow Summit in the Canadian Rockies the night before a scheduled ski traverse of the Wapta Icefield. I stood outside of my car and listened to the mountains. There were no obvious signs of avalanches but there was a whole host of new snow. The mountains were not inviting me on this trip. I rescheduled, which was hard—really hard. That week, the Rockies went through an historic avalanche cycle. I don't have special powers of prediction, but I am learning to simply stop and listen. We all have this tool at our fingertips. It is simply about slowing down and sinking into the real situation to hear what it has to say. When we do, we have access to a wisdom that is there waiting to inform.
The value in learning these lessons is intrinsic to climbing and mountaineering. However, their application has incredible power and value in business or day-to-day life. We both see and hear more when we go slowly. Any leader worth their salt steps outside of the buzz of the hive to sense what is needed. Steve Jobs used to go for long walks up at The Dish at Stanford University. The time and space was always informative for him.
Great leaders go slowly so they can see what is coming; then they take decisive action.
Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist and author of The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. In its pages he describes how Polynesians (who have rekindled their art of navigation since 1974) navigate the vast Pacific Ocean using only their senses. They are called the Wayfinders. Davis writes about how they navigate by winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, birds, fishes, and the pictures they have in their mind of the islands they seek. He calls it a meditation that takes in all of the available information through a process of observation and listening. They have the capacity to sense islands .“...by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint."
Earlier this winter I had the fortune of working with Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia where I was contracted to deliver the Adventure Department's ski touring program. I was partnered with Keith Libech to instruct nine students over the course of a week. In observing Keith's approach with the students I came to know him as a winter Wayfinder. Most Mountain Guides have great abilities in observing mountain conditions. Traveling in avalanche terrain requires accurate spatial navigation, but more importantly, we pilot our decisions about where we can safely ski based on our observations of the snow. We can ski steeper slopes if the snowpack is stable, but need to reduce the pitch of the terrain and our exposure to inclines if the snow is unstable.
With 20 years under his belt as a lead guide at Crescent Spur Heliskiing, Keith has a particular gift with the practice of snowpack observation. Like the Polynesian master Wayfinders who pay attention to details about the ocean, stars, and clouds, Keith misses little of what the snow is telling him.
Like all good conversationalists, Keith asks questions: “How does the snow cover the landscape; are there thin spots where the snow is weaker? Are there layers in the snowpack that I need to be concerned about? What is the snow like under my skis; are there signs of instability? How much snow has fallen in the last day? Has the wind been moving the new snow to lee slopes, forming slabs? What is the temperature right now? Is there recent avalanche activity that I can see?”
Noticing elements about the snowpack takes concentration, active seeking, and diligence. In fact, Keith commented one day during the week "There are times while working in the mountains when I am cold, tired, and hungry and I push all of those thoughts aside so I can focus on what is happening with the snow conditions." This is the essence of meditation.
But there is more. Measurable elements are only one part of the picture. It is what lies beyond the senses that also counts. Like the Wayfinders who keep an image of the island they seek in their mind, winter Wayfinders must use their sixth sense. The intuitive ability that humans have developed over several millennia can also help us to keep out of harm's way. Keith values how his observations inform his intuition, and he encouraged our students to listen to their gut as a tool for knowing when to reign in their exposure to risk. Intuition is underpinned by the practice of noticing all the things we can see, so we can trust the things we cannot.
Like the Polynesian Wayfinders, Keith is passing his skill on to young, seemingly less focused minds, and they are learning that great leaders primarily listen, pay attention, and humbly make decisions based on what is observed, which helps in navigating risk.
There are times when we may think that ancient traditions and wisdom are all but gone. I believe that we have a new generation of Wayfinders born out of the same will to explore.
In 2007, I wrote a year end message about how I have always found it difficult dealing with homeless or impoverished people asking for cash. I talked about walking right by a young girl sitting on a Vancouver sidewalk in pouring rain at +3 degrees and then feeling totally humbled when someone else jumped out of her vehicle, stopping traffic on West Broadway, giving her money, a scarf and a kiss on the head. Embarrassed, I, too, gave her what money I had and promised myself that I would face these situations with greater courage and aplomb.
Ten years later, I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve taken much ground here. I still give some money, but more from guilt than from an open heart. And I still feel awkward about it – not really sure why.
So it was with this as deep background, that I went into Calgary a few weeks ago to get some groceries. Hopping out of my truck in the Superstore parking lot, I spotted a young man sitting against a pillar near the store. Head down, rough clothes, rough look, requisite cardboard sign, a ball cap on the ground with a few coins in it, and my same old reaction of just wanting him not to be there. Went in, got the goods, came out, dropped the stuff off in the truck, came back over and put a few loonies in the cap. He looked up at me and nodded. My mind was telling me to walk away quickly, but my gut was telling me something else.
Now, I have to tell you that my wife Debbie has the most keenly honed intuition I’ve ever encountered in a human being. She’s saved us in more life situations than I can recall, and I’ve learned to trust her insight. But I haven’t yet learned to trust my own, and this time it was telling me to try something different. I asked him if I could get him something to eat from the store. He looked up again and said, “Thank you very much, but I’ve already eaten”. OK, I can handle rejection from a homeless guy. Can’t I?
So, with difficulty, I tried something different. I sat down beside him. I half expected him to get pissed off at me and run me off his turf, but he just glanced at me and put his head back down. The next several minutes were so freaky I couldn’t even tell Debbie about it until a few days ago. We sat there as people walked by looking at the two us with disdain, pity, disgust, dismissiveness, you name it. I pulled my hat down lower as someone I recognized went into the store, too worried about suffering even more shame than I already felt.
The world looks very different from down there. Below knee level we might as well have been insect pests. My first realization was that my ass was rapidly getting cold. The second was that it doesn’t take long for hope to sublimate into despair as people walk on by, judging, assessing but rarely doing anything to help. It was so awful I couldn’t stay there very long. I got up, rubbed some circulation back into my butt, dug into my wallet, knelt down and put twenty bucks into his hat. We looked at each other, nodded silently, twin sons of different mothers, each having made decisions and faced fortunes that could have easily seen us in reverse roles.
Elizabeth Renzetti, the pull-no-punches writer for the Globe and Mail, called 2016 a kitty litter box. Too many people died violently and too many people suffered needlessly and, in general, it seems that tolerance for one another as human beings is perilously low. That may or may not be true, but I for one now know that it’s possible to forestall despair, even briefly, with a moment of kindness.
I feel so very proud to have been able to serve you all for the past eleven years and to continue to move forward with you in creating an association that punches way above its weight in this world.
Let’s have an amazing 2017, OK?
The Pathless Path
Joseph Campbell, the brilliant researcher of the human journey through mythology uncovered an important story about a life's path, which he shares as part of a knights’ tale:
“They (knights) thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure.”
This is true. Any time you read, or listen to any doer of great deeds you can find this piece of the puzzle. They had to walk in untrodden places which required that they mustered up their courage.
As an adventurer myself, I know this to be true, yet I struggle with my courage. I feel that I have lived through enough lessons and lately, the struggle has been a deep one as I forge a new path with my work. I am trying to bring Adventure Education to a new place in Canada, a place that has high adventure and deep meaningful human development working in concert. Few are doing this kind of work. Most often, adventure and human development are in separate camps and they do not need to be.
While forging ahead, I find myself immersed in fear a great deal, which results in me taking work that pays the bills rather than work that feeds my soul and is good for the world (GFTW). When scared, I ask myself how do I know that my tentative steps are the ones meant for me? Recently, I received a message from the universe that has helped me know that I am doing the right things with my work.
In 2014, I published Buried. It is a powerful reflection on some aspects of my life. In it, I modeled the process of turning life events into experience or wisdom. To depict this process I portrayed two jars, an events jar filled with marbles, where each glass ball represented something that happened, and an experience or wisdom jar that could only have marbles placed in it if an important lesson was gleaned from an event. This is the process of reflection, which comes with time alone in silence, listening to one's own wisdom.
I have come to know that I kept repeating mistakes in my life because I have failed to listen to what is being taught through my life events. Sequoyah Trueblood, a wise elder from the Choctaw nation once said "In school we have a lesson and then have a test. In life, we have a test and it is up to us to understand the lesson". Throughout Buried, I found marbles that had been cast off by me as I rushed from one event to the next in my life. Marbles in my event jar dwindled while my experience or wisdom jar remained empty. Remedially, I reflected on events throughout my life and gathered back wisdom, finding marbles on my reflective journey, often rediscovering them in places on the landscape where I had had profound adventures, that were left unprocessed.
Recently I was working with a group of young men and women from the Haskane School of Business, instructing a leadership course that uses backpacking through the mountains as a dojo or classroom for students to learn key leadership lessons through experience and reflection. On the morning of the last day we facilitated reflective time next to the Picklejar Lakes. (the jar)
After solo was over, Logan, a student from another group, whom I did not know very well at all, came straight up to me randomly and said, "When was the last time you saw one of these?" handing me the marble pictured above. “Is this for me I asked?” and he responded, "Yes." I smiled and said, "You have no idea how important this is."
Most discoveries happen when people are lost. Examples of this can be found in art, literature, science, and throughout all exploration. However, there are signposts that come into view, if we are paying attention. This was one of them.
I am scared right now. I am 51 and have embarked on building an institute for Adventure Education because I believe I can offer something that is needed. Facilitated reflection, along with high-end adventures. In my heart of hearts I know my work with students in the mountains is needed; I see it in their eyes. I am entering into the forest where it is dark, scary and (in building the school) where no one else has traveled. But there are still signposts to see, like the marble that was delivered to me by Logan. So I will keep going, even though the bank balance is nearing zero again, and I am not sure what next steps to take. Do I need help? You bet!