“Alone we can do so little; together we can do
so much.” ~ Helen Keller
This little gem of wisdom was vividly illustrated a few months ago as I tackled one of my bucket list goals - to climb a local mountain peak. For the past twenty years I have lived in the shadow of the majesty of Mt. Olympus in the Salt Lake Valley. The sun rises over Mt. Olympus each morning and the soft glow of the sunset gives it a surreal glow in the late afternoon. I marvel at the bright green foliage, the brilliant leaves of fall or the contrast of a fresh winter snow against the granite rocky peaks with each passing season. Yet, in spite of looking at it in complete awe almost every day of my life, I have never taken the opportunity to hike to the top.
Over the years I have heard many accounts of hikers who have taken on the Mount Olympus challenge and it was no surprise to me that it would be a challenging hike. Since I am in my fifties, my window for this endeavor is narrowing and I decided 2013 was going to be the year. I guess you could say that not many among my peers have Mt. Olympus on their bucket list. However, I run with a wonderful group of women with young, adventurous and determined spirits. When I mentioned my desire, I had a few takers. We all had the desire but figured we had let that opportunity pass. While mentioning our plans to family and friends, we had a variety of responses from: “go for it,” “you know that is really steep,’ “are you going all the way to the top?” “be sure to take your phone” and probably our biggest motivator was “you are too old.”
Our group comprised of four--each being grandmothers and all in our fifties and sixties. It was a beautiful summer morning and we watched the sun rise and light the valley floor as we made our way up the west face. We were full of anticipation and excitement. I guess we all started with an expectation or our own personal agenda. Mine was to go as far as I felt comfortable and safe. I didn’t need to die climbing this thing or even do something dangerous that I was not equipped or trained to do.
The hike is about four miles up to the peak of 9,026 feet. There is a well defined trail ascending 4,100 vertical feet over 3.75 miles to a saddle. The last stretch requires boulder scrambling to get to the peak. There are several rescues each year on this trail and it has been reported that while the trail is well defined going up, it is easy to get lost coming down. The hike is not technical and many people do it every day. However, occasionally I see an obituary where a hiker has fallen climbing on Mt. Olympus. With all that said, and not knowing exactly what to expect, I had what I thought were realistic expectations. I am a reasonable person and not inclined to do anything crazy. If I even got to the saddle where I could look into the next valley I would be satisfied, I told myself.
People were not kidding when they said it was steep. It was steep and long and hot. However, we run marathons so we are strong and have trained ourselves to work through fatigue. As we got close to the saddle, we met a family coming down. They had children who were about 10 and 12 years old. The mother told us that the boulder scrambling at the top is their favorite part. There was a spark of consideration of going all the way that entered my mind at that moment. A mother would not put her young children in a dangerous situation, would she? Instead of telling myself I would go to the saddle and be satisfied, my new mantra was I will keep going as far as I feel like it is safe and then be satisfied.
Along the way a group of hikers from Texas scurried past us. As we got to the saddle and relished in our accomplishment, I noticed the young Texans scaling up the side of the mountain peak. There was absolutely no way I was going to do that. The saddle is where I would stay. Everyone else could do what they wanted but I was perfectly content to wait in the shade of the pines and take in the view of two different valleys. One of the women said, “I didn’t come all this way to not go to the top.” She had a point.
By going further, I was still staying within my new mantra. I could see the trail for a distance and it still looked very reasonable. After a short distance we approached a part of the trail where the trail was less defined because it became very rocky. At that moment a man came up from behind and pointed the way we should go. He reassured us that it was not difficult. It was, however, tricky climbing the rocks because to was necessary to assess each foothold to propel you up. However, it still felt okay to me. If we fell, we would only fall the height of one big rock – not a big deal. No one would plummet to their death. One of our friends got very nervous and thought she was not going to be able to go on. This kind man encouraged her up each and every step. He showed her where to put her feet and where to pull with her hands. He told her she could do it and talked her through it until she made it.
At this point I turned around to watch my friend and my fear of heights gave me a huge reminder of its hold on me. It is not a debilitating fear, but I have it none the less and it can turn me into jelly in an instant. From this moment on fear took over. Even though I could see going to the top was certainly within my reach, I was terrified to go back down this one particular spot. It looked like a sheer cliff from where I was standing. My stomach churned and I felt a little nauseous. I was no longer enjoying the experience.
We scrambled over giant granite boulders as we made our way to the top. It is difficult to describe feeling like you are on top of the world. Standing on a cluster of rocks looking down in every direction is a pretty awesome feeling. I had done it! I had climbed to the top; quivering with fear about getting back down, but I had done it nonetheless. Or so I thought. The nice man we were with said, “you can’t stop now. You need to go to that other peak because it is about fifty feet higher and you should sign your name in the mailbox that is there.” I was actually considering not going because I was so overcome with fear that all I wanted to do was get down.
“Good is the enemy of Great” ~ Jim Collins
The thought that kept ringing in my head was that we had not come all this way not to go to the top. I was certainly not going to go down without signing that register. Sign the register and get back down! Unfortunately, that is all I could think about. There was a marvelous experience to be had from that vantage point on the top of the world. It was peaceful, it was grand, there were the most beautiful butterflies flying all around that peak. Who even knew that butterflies could fly that high? The air was cool, the valley clear. I had just accomplished something far beyond what I had imagined. My name and the name of my friends are forever written in the log at the top. Yet, my experience was shrouded in fear; the fear of descending past one tiny spot that did not look dangerous going up but looking back became horrifying.
As we approached the dreaded spot I had worried about the entire time I was standing on the peak, I decided to approach it like a crab and scramble down it. I was down in about one minute with the greatest of ease. Are you kidding me? I just wasted one of the great adventures of my life worrying about that? I tried desperately to remember how elated I would have felt and how peaceful it could have been if only my mind and stomach were not overwhelmed with pure terror.
Those extra fifty feet were the difference between good and great. How close I came to being satisfied with good when great was just a few more steps, and for me a few more anxious moments to get to the "top" of the top. How often do we stop just short of great? I would venture to say that quite often the difference between good and great is not vast even though we often feel like we can’t take one more step. Sometimes, it can be one more try or ten more minutes, a few more attempts or just hanging in there a little bit longer. In this case “great” felt significantly better than “good.” There are no words to even describe the difference or the sense of pride I feel and will forever feel by that last small push.
It is quite clear I will need to do this hike one more time. My wish is to experience the summit free of the jitters; with the confidence and peace that such an endeavor deserves. While we descended the mountain, we processed the experience as a group and realized that each contributed something important to accomplishing this goal. It took one to vocalize the desire, others to commit and join as none of us would have done this alone. We were encouraged to go beyond perceived limits by a cute young family. Likewise, the group may have been tempted to stop at the saddle without the adventurous spirit of one. We all may not have made it without the encouragement of a stranger at a critical moment and our path may not have been clear without his direction and prior experience. I certainly would not have gone on the extra fifty feet to sign the register without his insistence.
It clearly takes a village, a group or a congregation for us to go beyond where we can take ourselves. Each of us has strengths to offer and share with others at times that are critically necessary. Likewise, in our own humanity we can benefit from the encouragement, talents and strengths of others. We take turns being the giver and the receiver as we forge ahead in this experience we call mortality. There is a power that cannot be denied in surrounding ourselves with people that elevate us and encourage us to step outside ourselves to improve.
“Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.” ~ Phillips Brooks. I would go so far as to say that often the powers to help us equal our tasks come from the help, example and encouragement of others. This is the great miracle of life--synergy develops as we assist and support one another along the way.
I am reminded of a truth through this experience that is written so beautifully by Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." I don't remember exactly what was said or done to inspire us on a hot summer's day in July, but I will never forget the empowerment I felt through friends and complete strangers who helped me not only accomplish a goal, but exceed it ten-fold. Now, as I look out my window and drive to and from my home in the shadow of Mt. Olympus and marvel at its beauty each and every day, I become breathless for one tiny moment knowing that my name is in the mailbox at the top. Mt. Olympus, I will never forget you.