What You Carry Up A Mountain Goes Beyond What You Have In Your Pack, What You Bring Back Is Even More Important
The moon glows over a camp as it’s slowly lit up by headlamps and the fervor of summit-day excitement. It’s 3 a.m., and packs are being thrown over shoulders.
This morning, my mom and I are making a summit bid on the Grand Teton. This would be my first and Mom’s second summit, if successful, and the plan was to take the Upper Exum Ridge from the Lower Saddle. She and I enlisted the expertise and leadership of Exum Mountain Guides to summit Wyoming’s second highest peak. My employer, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Exum Mountain Guides have a powerful, shared history in NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt and Exum Guides founder Glen Exum, so I was looking forward to completing that circle for myself.
The first two days of a four-day Teton expedition with Exum Mountain Guides are strictly training. Exum and Petzoldt both believed that climbers should be engaged in an adventure, not hauled up a peak by experts. Together, they applied the philosophy that guides should instruct and inspire to guiding in the Tetons. The two eventually parted ways, and the businesses they founded hold true to these principles decades later.
Over the two days we spent reviewing knots, climbing techniques, and belaying, I was increasingly impressed not only at my mom’s strength and attitude, but also at my dad’s willingness to tag along with her a few years prior. Not the biggest fan of heights I’ve ever known, Dad has some horrific memories of being caught in a rockslide at the age of 16. Nonetheless, he summitted, standing at 13,770 feet next to my mother. What you carry up a mountain goes beyond what you have in your pack.
I admit, I had a few moments in which I doubted my ability. I didn’t just wonder how it would go or if we’d have to turn back for any reason; I knew I couldn’t manage this climb. Not because I hadn’t been trained, not because I had never climbed or even climbed more technical routes, not because I hadn’t spent my entire life making outdoor adventures. Because of the unknown. Because in the frontcountry we are surrounded with reasons to doubt ourselves. Because I read the news, and people die trying to summit the Grand.
But when we reached the parking lot after summiting and hiking out to the trailhead, the opposite sensation was coursing through me: self confidence. The faith I rediscovered in myself as we gained foot after foot of elevation, as we took in the sunrise from the Exum Ridge, as we discussed the relative value of a beer at the summit, that is part of what is so wonderful about adventure. It’s self-discovery of the best sort; you find your limits are not nearly so low as we tend to believe at the end of eight hours at a desk. You learn your desires are not nearly so elusive or luxurious as you imagine when you bump your elbow on the refrigerator in your tiny kitchen for the 8 millionth time. You find inspiration in your parents not for all those things they accomplished before and while raising you, but for those things they keeps doing—for the very real possibility of eating your mom’s dust despite her having 32 years on you.
What you carry on your back may very well save your life. What you carry with you may very well save your soul. How that changes on an adventure is why we do it.
–Casey Dean (NOLS writer).