Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lessons Learned from Mountain Climbing

in low camp of Vinson Massif, Antartica
(sun shot filtered using sunglasses)
 Re-post from old blog

(written March2005)


A hundred sunsets, countless mountains, a score of countries and cultures… a number of desperate moments, trying times, triumphs and joys… My never-ending pursuit of what’s out there, allowed me to experience and witness these things.

Exploring the abodes of the gods not only gave me a sense of undefined fulfillment, it has taught me lessons, things I didn’t learn or were not able to grasp in school, things I learned the hard way.

This life’s learning enhances our character, and it makes us discover the person in us. Discovering oneself is not something we can easily do in the office, or just at home – it’s when we subject our life in the realm of harsh conditions, to test and bring out the best in us. It’s when we risk a humdrum easy life, to places and things that could actually harm us, but in the end will bring out the hidden strength that we have.

But not all of us climb mountains, we follow different paths. But the lessons from climbing mountains are some of the basic life’s principles that we can all use and benefit from. It will be a shame if those little things simply fade away, it may be the only legacy that we, mountain climbers, can share and offer. So, here are some of them…

Lessons Learned

• Never give up!

Your known limit is NOT your real limit, you can definitely do some more. Limits are mental barriers, self-created boundaries. Learn how to break it, fight it, resist the urge to quit when the going gets tough. This goes beyond the can-do attitude, this is ‘sustained can-do’, that extra minute, that extra hour, or extra day of trying. It is iron will, and perseverance. It’s inner strength, more than just mental conditioning.

In my summit bid for Uhuru Peak of Kilimanjaro 19400ft (Africa), mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) stubbornly prevents me from reaching the top properly. From the take-off camp (Barafu 15,090ft), my resting heartbeat is +50% of normal (for failing to acclimatize in-time). A simple task such as folding the sleeping bag will bring that up significantly and walking up a few meters will spring that up to my near-maximum where I would stop and throw-up. It could have been an ‘easy quit’, an easier life. But strong will gave me patience, patience gave me endurance, and endurance brought me to the top. I was able to stretch that patience to 9 hours. It has its prize to claim – the summit glory!

• The power of Focus!

Stay focused on the objective, and keep momentum. Act on what you can control, brush all doubts aside. Doubt and Focus are two opposing forces. If you doubt, you will lose focus. Erase doubts so you can focus 100%. Don’t worry and anticipate failing, “you will fail when you will fail”. For now, focus!

Fear, worry, or stress contributes to creating doubt or self-doubt. Learn to control or override fear, learn not to worry, and control stress. It’s all mental process. Sometimes, a momentary ‘bahala na’ (come what may) attitude helps. (Exactly what I did on my first parachute jump!)

I remember the first time that I rode a mountain bike in a technical downhill section in Wawa/Groto (Montalban), it was a perfect example of “all doubt and no focus”. Since I was then a first-timer (note: my friends were testing my mortality), I didn’t have the right level of confidence to handle the single-track rutted downhill trail. So during the downhill rides, all rough sections gave me the stressful thought of End-Os, 360 rolls, half-pipe mid-air jumps which I all did (with loud ‘thuds’ as I hit dirt) since I was imagining bad things - those were doubts in play! I learned one important lesson then, those dudes were not my friends. :P

In high-altitude mountains, conditions are normally miserable -- cold, windy, stormy and generally harsh. When you get too itchy, you quit. Learn how to ‘weather the storm’. Focus on the objective, keep the momentum.

In my trek up to K2 base camp, our strongest team mate (147-mile Sahara marathoner) decided to abort his attempt after a little more than 1 hour of soft snow hike due to ‘cloudy-with-no-view’ condition. Said he wanted a clear picture of the mountain. 3 of us marched on, hit by a blizzard, but fulfilled enough for reaching the objective. He regretted later not being with us. My friends asked why we continued even with white-out (but relatively safe) weather, told them that there’s a lot more in life, than just seeing things. We have an objective to fulfill, an objective to experience and not just a view to see.

• Health and Fitness

No short cuts, this is non-negotiable. If you want to enjoy life to the fullest, keep fit. You don’t have to be super athlete, you don’t have to win races, just keep fit. Health is the most important asset that you need to invest your time and money on. Not stock market, or the new villa that you’re building – nurture your most important asset instead… yourself.

This goes beyond physical health, you have to learn to live a lifestyle with less stress, balanced, and with relative contentment. You become paranoid and too OC about many things, your socio-emotional aspect is affected. And later on your health will suffer (thinning or balding hair, stomach acidity, migraine, etc..) You try to avoid sports because it’s ‘nakakapagod’ you run the risk of gaining useless weight. You avoid mingling and live a solitary life, you risk being depressed which affects your mental and physical health. Live a balanced life, and invest time and money for your health.

• We are stronger when with a team.

Draw strength from your team. This may not seem evident, but it’s a simple (1+1 >2) principle.

The summit day when climbing at high-altitudes would seem to be a very personal activity, you focus on your breathing, on your step, on your peak goal. Seeing people around you actually makes you go some more, even if they’re not actually pushing or pulling you.

I’ve done more than 50 solo hikes, and I still entertain doubt from time to time. Sometimes I would feel weird and would turn back. With a team, the patience doesn’t seem to run out and the fear disappears, you just go on and on.

In an adventure race in Puerto Galera, my team got lost in the jungle for 32 hours (out of 3days,2nites) – we only hit 2 control points. We just went on and on, decoding the trail marks, cursing each other, battling rain and limatiks, navi-guessing, and we only slept for less than 5 hours in total. That was some punishment that a lone racer may not have been able to endure. Team helps boost morale, it helps you do more, it stretches your personal limit.

An example of application: If you can’t break your personal record, try to bring in a stronger buddy. For example, if you are trying to make a 15km mark in your running record, and can’t seem to break and go past 12km – bring in a strong runner as personal buddy or trainer. In a shorter period of time, just running with the person will help you complete your objective.

• Small joys in life.

Here’s what I think (barrowing from Pareto’s law), 20% of what we do, gives us 80% of our fulfillment in life. There are these magic and momentary experiences in life, something that will have greater recall and significance compared to the majority of things that you keep busy yourself with.

In my Aconcagua (Argentina) trip, most of our time in the mountain was just simply miserable. It was an effort to eat and sleep, it was always windy outside the tent, there were wind and snowstorms, and the altitude was always trying to weaken us. But few moments of joy were there as our reward – a rare glimpse of a million-star-filled night sky (with no moon) was one I clearly remember. And the spectacular summit view, I only spent 25minutes (out of 3weeks of climb expedition) in the summit, but the memory of being on top of that mountain was something that will last a lifetime.

Similarly in our lives, a majority of what supports us contributes a little to this magic list. Our support structure includes our work life, family life, network of friends, and even routine sports or hobbies. There is, however the little 20% which I call “life’s little extras”, which give us significance and fulfillment in life. The first time you kiss your girlfriend, or the first kilig hug could be the little extra, or the romance and feeling of love. A stable relationship (having a partner) is part of your support system, and not little extra. Some folks ask me why I don’t teach scuba diving (since I was already a Dive master and a step closer to earning extra money), I told them that if you make a career out of ‘the little extra’, it becomes part of your support system, and hence, less fulfillment may be derived. From hobby -to work.
What’s your life’s little extra?

• Give something back!

Balance taking and receiving, if you like something help preserve it, or promote its growth. Help other experience the joy and fulfillment. The world is not there for conquering, it’s there for us to experience it, then to share the experience to others. Conserve and preserve this treasure.

Traveling and hiking places around the world made me witness the gloomy aspect of our mountains and the people who all live around it. Deforestation, poor and struggling communities, erosions and landslides and all sorts of destruction – a few grim reminders that these fragile treasures need some attention and help.

An example of simple help for us is that, on every climb expedition in Nepal we always try to hire locals as guides, porters or cooks. It helps their community to prosper, it helps them maintain a descent good-earning jobs. Old-school ‘macho’ climbers who don’t utilize porter service may be ‘strong’ in their own sense, but weak in terms of helping the local community. Hillary (first Everest summiteer, with Tenzing Norgay) built schools and training facilities for Sherpas – his way of giving something back.

Another example, in scuba diving, we encourage new divers to at least have an effort not to harm marine life when they dive. “Interaction without destruction” so the motto goes. A better example of giving something back is when divers go active in educating people about shark conservation for example (to balance marine life system), of course they abstain from consuming shark’s fin soup. =) Have you?

Bikers, in their love of the sport - help raise air pollution awareness by cycling around cities (ex. Tour of the Fireflies). It’s not easy to bike with toxic gas and suspended particles all around you. Some would actually switch from car to bike.

In our own little world, we don’t need to be a tree-hugger to help. If we enjoy life, we give a little something back. Donations to charity is the simplest, or simple lifestyle change for the environment (ex. switching from SUV to city car, pre-cycling, buying organics, using LED bulbs at home, and so many other things.).


The joys of mountain climbing may be shared by stories and pictures. But the lessons learned may get lost somewhere while these great stories are told. Writing about them may help us impart some of it, and if that doesn’t work -- we’ll take you up there so the mountain can teach you instead. =)

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