To climb a mountain, a large mountain in a remote area you have to take it seriously. The mountains are unforgiving, the weather unpredictable, the terrain full of surprises and how you will respond to it all, uncertain.
Still, once committed, the vision is clarified, and the details worked through. For me, a kind of momentum would take over, driving the months of preparation. Training, even when I had done similar objectives many times before, was always grueling. Months of absurd cardio with heavy loads on my back, often looking like an idiot on the gym Stairmaster. Doing laps on local rock routes to simulate the heights that would come. And then there’s the anticipation. Uncertainty was always certain. Failure, bad weather, injury, and any number of unpredictable wrenches could be thrown up, knocking everything off course. Yet, we continue.
All combined, it was a sizeable investment of time, money, sweat, effort, anticipation, planning and training. Most of the time these types of climbs went well, occasionally they did not.
It was the summer of 2006 and launch time came. Heavy packs shouldered, we were tackling a newer route on the backside of Mount Assiniboine, the highest peak in the Southern Continental Ranges of the Canadian Rockies at 3,618 m (11,870 ft), nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”.
Right out of the gate we got lost. Not unheard of, a few hours off track, we found the right approach and adjusted our course. Frustrations fell away as we deepened into the wilderness and the alpine lakes came up to greet us. As they like to say, we were in God’s country now. Majestic mountains at our shoulders and valleys under our feet. Pure snow melt lakes and endless expanses of nothing man-made but the trails under our feet, which would soon give way to virgin terrain up loose talus fields to access the glaciers above.
The steep, loose talus kept our senses high. Wrapping our slings around outcroppings to secure our rope, to give some pretense of safety in case of larger slides. Committing to terrain that was questionable, steeper, and loose in the wrong places. Which eventually would give way to more solid rock, leading to the high glaciers and then a huge wide-open bowl of broken, jagged rocks. Rocks too small and too large for solid footing. The shadow of the great mountain was beginning to loom over us, only a shear wall of rock, hundreds of feet high between us.
The only problem was that shear wall of rock wasn’t supposed to be there. A wall of rock that would have required gear we didn’t bring and probably skills we didn’t have, if it was climbable at all.
And then things started to become clear. That high, hanging valley, way up, back and to our left, that one that was inaccessible from where we now were, that was our route. Some momentary decision point unnoticed earlier in the climb, led us here instead of there. The reality of it sunk in.
We had given ourselves 3 days and it would have taken all of it if things went well. They did not. Looking around this rocky basin we found ourselves in, so close and immeasurably far away from our objective, we would have to find a way to get some sleep before dragging ourselves off the mountain the next day.
My mattress was a coiled rope on a bed of football sized rocks, sleeping bag wrapped around me like a moth not wanting to come out of its cocoon. The stars were magnificent of course and the story of it all would be interesting, at some point. Still, sleep was silly to expect. The truth of our failure hadn’t worked it’s way through my body/mind/spirit yet. That would take a bit of work, tomorrow.
We packed up our silly little camp and started working our way out and down. Through the rocky basin, down the glaciers, surfing down the sliding talus, caring less about the possibility of missteps.
On the hike and climb down, the weight of our failure consumed me. I started wrestling with what had happened. Plain and simple, we had failed. We failed to climb the mountain we worked so hard for.
Many normal things went through my mind over the next few hours. Blame comes easily – my climbing partner, myself, mistakes we made, errors in judgment, whatever. I would also escape the pain of the feeling of failure by rationalizing what I had learned and other mental gymnastics to take the sting out of the reality of situation.
I took on an odd attitude towards this common, inner onslaught though. For every thought or feeling that would arise, I would answer back with the simple truth: we failed.
The dance of thought and feeling continued and every time, I would answer with the same, raw, unaltered reality: we failed.
Now, I have to be careful here in the telling of this, because there are many who would only see my process as self-attack or self-criticism, but in the real honesty of it, there was none.
When I spoke the truth to myself there was no criticism, no malice, just plain honesty: we failed. There was only the raw unexaggerated and undiminished certainty.
Everything my mind would say, from lessons learned to blame to reason -all were to take me away from the pain of the simple truth of it.
Something about the pull of the plain truth felt like the only way out. Every other thought or feeling, whether its intent was to rationalize, soothe, excuse or blame – all felt somehow more painful than the simple raw reality: we failed.
I recognized that every thought and feeling was a tiny little escape from the TRUE suffering – that we simply failed.
Not exaggerating or diminishing, not rationalizing away or trying to beat myself up or make it better. A practice in simply being with what is. We failed.
This wasn’t an inward attack. It was naked and honest.
Why was I doing this? Not sure exactly, but it seemed like the purest way to be with what was. The straightest line through the suffering was through the heart of it. You could say this was a culmination of my own spiritual work at the time.
I continued this instinctive practice through the descent and as I came down to the valley floor something unexpected and quite miraculous happened. Depending on your belief system, this next part may sound any number of different ways.
Regardless, the present moment shifted into something else, something new and extraordinary. It was like the veil of the ordinary world lifted and I was suddenly present to the glorious singing presence of the Divine all around me. It was like God came in to where God always was. I describe it as the singing-ness of heaven, but not sure that “singing-ness” is a real word.
Literally, the veil fell away and I was in the presence of holy singing, not coming from somewhere, but everywhere. It was revelation and everything was made of it, including myself and my “so called failure”.
It was glorious and sometimes makes me cry just to think about. I could call it any number of things and they would all be true depending on your frame of reference. Perhaps words like bliss, Nirvana, Paradise, The Abiding Presence, the singing of Heaven or Elysium could work. Perhaps, in some ways, but the names don’t matter much. It is all the same, something universal and true, an all-abiding presence of divinity that is always all around and simultaneously we are always part of. A complete intimacy with what is always present in the living moment.
Yet, we don’t typically experience it that way.
When I think about it, like in this writing, it feels closer, like the veil gets thinner again.
This wonderful, liberating experience, all through the gateway of failure. Who would have thought?!
So why do I share this, I ask myself? On one level it feels disingenuous not to share. It can feel a little shameful or embarrassing, yes, but still the impulse to share, to let it pass through, is stronger than not. Maybe someone else out there can also be reminded of it in the reading of this.
For me, I think the miraculous part is not the event itself, but that my experience of failure and my commitment to be with the truth of it, was not only the gateway but a glorious piece itself of all that is Wholly, that can never be separated out.
My hope in sharing is that it can help in some small way. Maybe reduce a little bit of suffering or difficulty in someone’s world. Maybe help inspire a little moment of courage to help someone walk right up to, and through their suffering, trusting that it won’t annihilate them, and that it may in fact be a part of something much bigger and holy, wanting to unfold in their life.
Learn more about working with the difficulties of emotions HERE.
Thanks for joining me on this journey for a few minutes. I hope it was nourishing in some way. As always, I’d love to hear any comments or thoughts that come up.
Blessings to us all, always.