Learning is Risk Taking
As the start of my winter break, I had the opportunity to climb Windham high peak, a mountain in the Catskills. I took a bus from NYC to the northern terminus of the Escarpment trail at the base of the mountain. When I entered the woods I immediately realized a significant mistake. I knew it would be cold, icy, windy, and harsh in the forest. But for some reason, I had assumed that there would not be much snow yet. I did not bring my snow shoes, insulated boots, or gaiters, all critical gear for traversing snowy terrain. I had anticipated some possible snow drifts at the top of the mountains but figured it would be fairly clear at the bottom. Instead, I was looking at over a foot of snow at the start, which would become 2–3 feet at times. I was smart enough to bring micro-spikes which provided traction on the hard-packed trail I was climbing.
It was an incredible hike all the way to the top. The crystallization of the snow on the trees at the summit was otherworldly. I love hiking in the winter because of the cold air blowing through the trees, the stillness of the forest, and the careful layering calculations required to maintain body temperature. If you over-layer, you sweat and compromise your warmth. If you lack sufficient layers you can feel your core temperature slowly dropping or possibly plummeting. A simple adjustment such as zipping up my microfleece Balaclava can make all the difference.
At one point a red tufted bird swooped in and landed on the tree next to me, grasping bark in its claws. I stood there for a few minutes appreciating this moment of solitude and togetherness of two solitary warm-blooded animals in the forest. After taking in the view at the summit and continuing along the Escarpment trail the beautifully packed trail came to an abrupt end. From this point forward, I would be breaking trail. With snow shoes, this would have been a manageable though exhausting effort. As I was wearing microspikes the job was double hard, and after a few hours of progress, I realized that my feet were not adequately protected from the cold snow and I could no longer feel my toes.
It was almost dark, and I decided to make camp for the night. My toes were quite cold, but with some dry socks and a warm sleeping bag, they seemed to recover. I stayed warm in my winter shelter. The next day I had quite a bit more breaking trail. After four hours of hiking, my toes were once again numb even when I tried to wiggle them. I had a feeling something was not quite right. I decided to turn off the Escarpment trail into town. Unfortunately, I had quite a length of trail to get out, and none of it was broken in. By the time I got to the road, my feet were clearly a bit damaged. As my shoes thawed out I experienced unusual sensations with each step. After half a mile, I stopped on a railing and investigated my feet. My pinky toes were a bluish color, irritated, and quite numb. I clearly had the early stages of frostbite. I worked to dry out my socks and shoes and let my feet warm up. I knew it was time to cut the trip short, and I hoped I had not done that much damage.
As it turns out, over a week later, my toes still don’t feel quite right. I have regained quite a bit of sensation, and I expect to fully recover, though you never can tell. Luckily, I can still do long runs without any apparent issues. There is definitely some evidence of frostbite on my toes, exhibited by two oval black patches.
When I first arrived home, I told my wife the story of my cleverness to come home early, preventing a more traumatic outcome. Looking back on my trip, I am wondering if another story could be told about the man who should have turned around at the top of the first mountain and avoided frostbite entirely.
As I ponder these two versions of the tale, I don’t regret the trip that I took. I went ahead because that is what felt right in the moment. My instincts have been pretty good so far in my life, and I think I should keep relying on them. I knew that there was some risk involved, as there always is in the outdoors. I think I seek out risk because that is what makes the trip interesting. Avoiding all risk is certainly not the right answer for me.
I was listening to a podcast the other day about the human brain. It talked about how neuroplasticity decreases with age. But the speaker noted that while some of this has to do with changes in our brain cells over time, some of it may be due to lifestyle choices. Young children engage in cognitive altering challenges all the time. The experiences children engage in when learning are powerful events that present real emotional and sometimes physical risks. You might think that children engage in this risk-taking because they have so much to learn and might not be clever enough to avoid these risks. That might be true. I also think children possess a certain fearlessness around taking on challenges and new experiences. Many older people avoid such experiences.
Taking risks in the forest is one of the ways that I engage myself in cognitive challenge. I wanted to share this story because physical challenges often provide a powerful analogy for the range of risk-taking that happens in any learning experience. There is always risk-taking involved in learning. And the risks are real risks. In my case I sacrificed the feeling in my pinky toes which I have yet to get fully back. But I gained a powerful experience that I will cherish forever, and I learned new things about myself. Overall I came out ahead. In fact, my loss of feeling has helped me gain a new appreciation for the capabilities of my body and how it engages in healing. The more I think about it, I would make the same choice again.