Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mikey, Me, and Mountains

There was a time, in my senior year of High School, that I considered going to Clown College. This is an actual college run by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey in Palmetto, Florida. It was not my idea, but rather that of my childhood friend Mike Unverzagt. "I've got 'em right here," he announced, waving the applications in the air as he jogged down the hall past the lockers. "Got what," I asked. He thrust a copy into my hands then stood back with that huge energetic smile I had known since the fourth grade. 

All around us classmates had chosen great universities in new and interesting places. They seemed to know where their lives were going.  Mike and I were going nowhere. Our grades were fine, but the money was not there. I had been considering a local community college. Mike thought he might go to Bible School. Neither one of us were excited by these prospects. 

"OK," I said, and stuffed the application into my book bag. It was a funny moment, something we did to entertain ourselves. The notion that we could set a life's course with such casual aplomb was our answer to the rank and file execution of peers who had known for years they would go to UCLA because their parents had gone there. Though we never talked seriously about Clown College, it was nice to have the notion out there, a plan B that spoke more to who we were than what we might become. 

Many years later I started performing Improv Theatre, groomed by Improv great Ryan Stiles (Who's Line Is It Anyway? The Drew Carey Show. Two and a Half Men).

 Mike went on to become a Pastor with the Assemblies Of God church. 

It would be disrespectful to suggest that in the end we had both become Clowns. Mikey's work is serious and important. He has founded several churches, had an immense impact on people's lives. But he does so with a level of humor and creativity that is in short supply in the halls of organized religion. He is God's clown. 

I am leaving on a short road trip tomorrow, looping down to see my son, Chase, in Eugene, OR. On the way back I will stay with Mike and his family in Vancouver, WA.  I am looking forward to hearing him preach on Saturday night. Mike called the other night to ask if I would help deliver his message. He has been speaking on the topic of "Moving Mountains", but now wants to advance that dialogue to "When you can't move a mountain, conquer it." Mike asked me to think of some examples I could share from my mountain climbing where I had literally done just that; conquered a mountain. I have been struggling with this ever since, largely because I do not believe anyone conquers a mountain. Mountains allow us to climb them.  To think anything else would be to approach them with arrogance in one's heart, and I have seen how harshly the mountains deal with arrogance.  Yet I do see a remedy in the figurative sense of Mike's request. This is what I plan to say;

The mountains I have conquered have always been in my head. They are the heaped up mounds of Doubt, Pain, Fear and Fatigue.  Together they reach skyward, dwarfing Everest and every lesser hill on earth.  It is only separately that they may be conquered. This is the first step. Separate each and know them for what they are. 

Doubt: At one point on Denali I remember thinking "If I'm struggling this much on the approach, how will I ever make it up the headwall?!"   But I was not yet at the headwall. My problem was the approach. There would be plenty of time to struggle on the headwall when I came to it. So I put that doubt in a box and filed it away. Instead I focused on the approach. If that was too much, I focused on reaching a rock I could see further up the trail. If that was too much, I gave myself a goal of ten more steps. I found that Doubt could be conquered this way through a combination of deferral and parsing. 

Pain: I encountered cold like I had never known in Antarctica. It was often 30 to 40 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit).  My toes had been numb for days, when they started to ache deeply. They were freezing.  
The first thing I do with pain is listen to the message it is sending, and do whatever can be done to address it. In this instance I broke out some chemical hand warmers and climbed inside my down sleeping bag. The warmer my body became, the more feeling returned to my toes. I held the hand warmers against them and thought about a recent hike in the Sonoran desert.  It is tempting to give up when we feel pain. Our tools of self-preservation lobby convincingly to do so. Yet few worthwhile accomplishments occur without some measure of pain. So once I have done all I can do, I accept the pain and bring it along like a cranky companion. 

Fear: There was a cluster of ropes that spanned the 1,000 foot drop below. I would have to hang from those ropes by my harness and pull hand-over-hand to the other side if I were to complete the last few steps to the 16,000 foot summit of Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea.  I am afraid of heights. Luckily I am not afraid of ropes.  So it goes with fear. We have a choice about where to place our focus.  If I concentrated on the ropes and pulling myself across I might just as well be five feet off the ground instead of a thousand. 

Fatigue: Vince Lombardi famously said "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." This much is true and fatigue has surely been a part of each of my climbs. Rest is the obvious antidote; sleep, sitting down for a short break, even just a pause to take a sip of water. But still there are times this is not enough. In such cases I ask myself this question; "Is this the day? Is this the day the dream dies?" Then I listen for the answer.  Unless the answer is "Yes", I get up and start moving. 


  1. Beautifully written. I agree completely with your views. The mountains to "conquer" are all within us, not outside.

  2. Great writing! Great illustrations that I can pull real life lessons from and apply!