We’re all climbing mountains, but the real ones offer a valuable lesson

Lookout over Peyto Lake, Banff National Park. Ben Southgate, Udit Shrivastava, Peter Nouhan (Left-to-Right).

My life is always in transition. My close friends would probably describe me as restless; always seeking to discover new things about the world and rarely satisfied with any single accomplishment. My mother has consistently reminded me to spend more time enjoying the journey, so that I might have a more rewarding life as I work towards my destination, wherever that might be. I have taken this wisdom to heart, internalizing it as a personal mantra, but I still find it difficult to slow down and smell the proverbial roses.

Sometimes creating a temporary roadblock is the best way for me to catch a breath and reflect on where I’ve been and where I want to go. My hiking trip to Banff National Park was my latest attempt to expose myself to new ideas, sensations, and experiences outside of the norm. Staring up at Banff’s majestic mountains changed my perspective in a big way. Human politics seemed so inconsequential in comparison to the timelessness of these geological relics.

Climbing up one of these mountains inspired my friend Udit to write the following poem, which I insisted upon including here.

Here I stand on Ha Ling Peak; he rises high as if him and Sky are kissing.
Snow shades and clouds curl ; at the ankle valley emerges from the snow of yesteryear.
Shadow of his grandeur falls on the pines; I peek over the edge then my soul whispers.
I feel shaken up and realize my existence even though I was born eons ago.
Hold the time not let it slip; more moments to come but can’t let this one go.
I am all in this moment this moment is all in me; Here I stand on Ha Ling Peak.

For me, a hiking trip isn’t just a way to escape everyday life, it’s a way to strengthen comradery between friends. It’s not easy spending countless hours trudging through snow, climbing rocks, and balancing on icy trails when you have to keep up with the most athletic member of your group, keep an eye out for slower members who could fall behind, and also try to enjoy each moment before it passes by you forever. There are tense instances when friends disagree on the appropriate hiking pace, whether or not it’s safe to circumvent an obstacle, or even to leave someone behind temporarily. But surmounting these challenges is what fosters trust, respect, and friendship.

Perhaps the best example that embodies all three of these dilemmas was our day hike to Bow Falls. The hike began with great difficultly since we had come unprepared for the snowy trails — the Canadian parks website understated the amount of snow we would encounter. Without snow shoes, we couldn’t take two steps without falling through as much as three feet of snow below us. To bypass some of the worst of our obstructed path, we decided to take advantage of a frozen river that passed through the valley. Udit, Ben, and I kept 10 meters of distance between each other in the event that if someone fell through the ice, we wouldn’t all fall in. In hindsight, none of us were carrying rope so it would have been extremely difficult to attempt a rescue had someone actually fallen through. In spite of this, we convinced ourselves that the ice was thick enough to support our weight and pushed on without standing in any one spot for too long.

Even though we survived our river-crossing, the snow had melted its way into our boots and soaked our feet quite thoroughly. It became useless trying to clear the fresh snow from my boots, and so I trudged along ignoring my cold, wet feet. At this point we had also lost our original trail, but we were fortunate enough to have ski tracks that we believed would lead us to our desired destination.

Perhaps you are wondering why we didn’t turn back and save ourselves from any additional suffering. By this point, however, we were victims of the sunk-cost fallacy; we weren’t turning back now, not after devoting so much time and energy to this endeavor.

Udit, crossing a frozen river.

Soon we heard falling water that we assumed was originating from Bow Falls, but before we could reach them another challenging obstacle blocked our way. This time, the pathway that had been cut into the hillside leading up to the falls was completely inaccessible — buried by an avalanche of snow. This didn’t deter me in the slightest. I didn’t come all this way to give up without trying. I told Ben and Udit that I was confident in my ability to scale the icy hillside. Ben agreed to join me, but Udit having no gloves to protect his hands, decided it was best to wait for us in the ravine below.

It took us no less than 30 minutes to scale the icy rocks. Ben led the way, digging footholds into the snow and utilizing tree branches to pull himself upward. Since the trail was buried, we had to guess our way forward until we cleared the slope and found ourselves at the top of a small canyon. Ben and I took a few moments to investigate the area and realized we hadn’t quite reached our destination yet.

Peter, standing at the edge of a small canyon leading up to Bow Falls.

Recognizing that Udit would begin to worry if we didn’t return to him soon, we decided to climb up a bit further. After all this effort, we needed to walk away satisfied that we had tried our best to find what we came so far to see. Scoping out the hills around us provided us some indication of the appropriate direction to climb. A yellow sign that marked the path ahead was just visible above the deep snow.

Eventually, we were greeted by a frozen valley that appeared to stretch for miles in every direction. From our position, atop a rocky hill, we could see the edge of Bow glacier and the frozen falls that had yet to thaw. It’s hard to describe how breathtaking the scene was, and it was almost disconcerting how absolutely quiet it was — the valley still asleep in a deep winter slumber. Ben and I sat down to enjoy a snack and observe the landscape.

Unfortunately, not ten minutes later, a snow storm began to roll over the mountain tops at the opposite end of the valley, much like mist rolling out of a canister of liquid nitrogen. It was time to pack up and leave before the storm engulfed us. We found Udit waiting patiently in the ravine. He had begun calling out our names every few minutes and was beginning to worry that we weren’t coming back.

The frosty landscape that leads to Bow Falls. Sill frozen., the falls can be seen center left clinging to the rock face.

However dangerous this experience, it was exciting moments like this that made the hiking trip a true adventure — deciding to take a risk while the stakes were high, and the rewards even greater. During the last evening of our trip, I asked Udit why the mountains inspired people to climb them, even if it meant risking their lives. “It’s human nature to want to look down at the world,” he said. “When we climb a mountain, we feel as if we have conquered the world.”

I have to admit that when I climbed that icy hill leading up to Bow Falls, I didn’t feel so small anymore. I felt as if I could accomplish anything. Returning home, I was ready to tackle the world with renewed vigor and excitement.

Making your way through life is a lot like climbing mountains. Most of us start at the bottom and have to work our way up before we can begin to enjoy the view. It’s easy to get stuck along the way, encountering obstacles that slow us down, but if we can learn to develop comradery with others, we can surmount those challenges and experience beautiful moments that will make our troubles worth it.

The harsh reality is, however, that we can’t stay at the top of that mountain forever. Life is a series of special moments with longer periods of ascent and descent in between. We shouldn’t take the journey for granted, and we would be naive to think that those special moments will last forever. Instead of dwelling on the destination, we should learn to appreciate the journey itself — it’s twists and turns, the obstacles that block our path, and the risks that we take along the way. These roadblocks in the journey and how we learn to navigate them are what inevitably define the people we become.