by Gideon Lasco
The stories that you tell me convey not only the beauty of the peaks you have climbed, but the fascination of discovery; the thrill of adventure. And even though I have been there before, and perhaps have gone a little beyond, I feel a certain degree of jealousy, for what you are experiencing is the joy of seeing and feeling the outdoors for the first time: it is a rare and exquisite feeling that happens only once, and afterwards fades away.
One by one, you tell me about mountains that you’ve climbed.
And you ask me, what’s next? You tell me that you want to climb the highest mountains, the most difficult peaks, the longest trails. You tell me about the mountains of your dreams, and when you speak of them, I can feel your passion.
Then, you tell me that the mountains are your playground. In them, your spirit can freely roam, and in them, you feel boundless.
And when it is my turn to respond, what can I say? Will I refute that indeed, the mountains are the largest playground in the world, and there, we can be like children again, free from life’s troubles?
I pause to think for I myself wish to indulge that thought, for to be a child again is the dream of every adult; even as to be an adult and to see and experience the world is the dream of children. So I will just tell you this: that the mountains are also your classroom, just as it has been mine. Learn life lessons from your climbs. Learn from the people you climb with. Learn about courage and perseverance; teamwork and camaraderie; faith and hope. And never forget these lessons, for they are trail signs that will take you to the summits of your life.
You are strong and swift in the trails; make the most of your vigor while you are young. But more than strength or speed, what defines a mountaineer is none of his physical attributes, but his spiritual ones. In hiking, passion is power, and above all else, this virtue will be the one that will take you higher and further. Draw your strength, then, from this passion, which is also love: love for the mountains and nature that is the basis of environmentalism; love for inner peace, which is introspection that leads to wisdom; and love for your fellow mountaineers, that is, friendship.
Some mountaineers love to show how much they love nature, but you should not fall into the temptation of self-righteousness. Instead, be a man of action, and show yourself to be more than words. Affirm the good, rather than scorn the bad. And in showing your respect to nature, do not forget to show respect to your fellow men. As you go higher, there is but a natural tendency to look down on those behind you. But I will tell you that it is unbecoming to do so; to laugh at novices is to laugh at yourself, for you were once a novice. Moreover, we are all novices relative to those above us, and thus, by judging others, we invite judgment upon ourselves.
Humility is a grand virtue, and to learn it, there is no better teacher than the mountain itself. It is ancient, vast, and mighty, just as our days are numbered, our physical bodies small, and our strength finite. Yet the most humbling circumstance in hiking is not merely how we compare to the mountain, but how, we, in our naked selves, are truly and fully dependent on the forces of nature: no man since Moses has stopped a river in its brute force, nor a typhoon in the orchestral fury of its winds. Our itineraries, too, however well-crafted, are conditional, for, as Robert Burns famously put it:
The best laid schemes of mice and men /
Often go awry.
Yet to be humble does not mean to feel limited and weak, for in the numbering of our days comes the appreciation of each day; we may be tiny compared to the mountain but we have the gift of motion – this is the very essence of hiking in particular and traveling in general: our feet are the very instrument that can can enable us to read the book that St. Augustine spoke of, when he said: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only the first page.”
Finally, in our weakness as individuals, we learn the virtue of teamwork; of perseverance, and indeed, of faith in God.
Do not just accept tradition, for it can be like cataracts that dim the vision of the elders. Nevertheless, you have to accept that some things endure because they are beautiful. Once upon a time, there were people who love the solitude of the mountains, and inspired by them, they wrote poems. Today, when we write in our blogs and our websites, we draw from the same inspiration of poetry and prose in generations past.
Ultimately, you will have to answer the question “Why do I climb?”. Is it because of the pictures? Do you feel affirmed by what people say whenever they “like” your photos on Facebook, or make a comment about how well you look, how cool, how beautiful, how adventurous? Do you feel a narcissistic joy whenever you see yourself perched in some of the most wonderful places on earth? We take pictures for many reasons, but whatever else they are for, they affirm us. But even this form of affirmation, like any other pleasure in life, is not sustainable, and when the pictures have piled up, in the end, you will have to look for something else.
Is it then because of the thrill of hiking as a sport? If so, you will make an effort towards the highest peak, and when it has been reached, there is always a higher one, if not literally then figuratively: Even Leo Oracion, the first in our country to reach Mt. Everest, the highest in the world, speaks to me of challenges ahead, such as K2, said to be the most difficult. Seven is not enough. There is always a higher peak, a more challenging way to climb. But with our physical and temporal limits, we can only reach a certain distance; a certain height. What then?
Related to this is the view of hiking as competition – a race – and this can be a potent motivation to pursue mountaineering. Oftentimes, I see hikers greeting each other this way: “What mountains have you climbed?” Although in this question lies the friendly goal of finding common ground, and shared experiences with one another, there is also the imperative of competition embedded in this question, a sizing up, which is understandable but if this is our frame of mind, we must always bear in mind that while we may not lose to others, we will eventually lose to time.
Is it, then, because of the company? Having good friends to climb with is good, and young as you are, it is possible that with your friends, your experience of hiking will be mixed with other forms of pleasure, such as the intoxication of hard drinks, of women, or even of drugs. On the other hand, it is also possible that your experience of hiking will be colored by the concomitant experience of meeting friends and mentors that you will treasure for the rest of your life, or with romance – perhaps a beautiful sunrise at the summit with your beloved. These things, good or bad, are simply unforgettable.
However, your love for hiking will be put to the test when your friends, one by one, lose interest in the peaks, or take different trails, and you are left alone. Will you still go without them? Will you still pitch a tent in a campsite that is without the voices that have become as natural to you as the cacophony of birds? These separations, inevitable in the trails as they are in life, can be very painful or at the least, sorrowful. But if you have the heart of a mountaineer, you will still follow the trails wherever they may take you, even if they would take you away from the crowd. And if in the trail of your life you find yourself feeling the same way, then take heart. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the roads less traveled are usually the ones that make a difference – for you and for others.
There are other tests to confront as well, as when beauty and strength fades, when competition overwhelms, or when the worries of life arrive. In other words, each reason to climb has its own demon, just as we have our own ones. They may yet join hands.
You will point out, if you know me well enough, that all of the reasons I have mentioned dwell within me, and thus, I too, am doomed.
But my answer will be forceful: Of course! There is nothing wrong in having all of them as my reasons to pursue hiking. But here’s the rub: my love for hiking is not anchored in any of them, but in all of them. Perhaps I have arrived at the secret of love here: To love something (or someone), you have to find many reasons for loving, for these reasons are like roots that run deep: intertwined, they will make you weather whatever storm comes your way. A narra tree cannot be uprooted, even if ten men join hands.
In this world, we have limited time and limited money: do not lose heart if you have neither, or if you lack one of them. Put the same passion and dedication you have for the peaks into your education and work, and soon, you will have the resources to pursue both; striking a balance between your career and your climbs will prove as challenging as traversing a narrow trail, but the summits that await ahead are beautiful and beckoning.
Some trails, however, are too narrow. I have to make a final warning here, against recklessness. Being reckless and being adventurous are two different things, even if they resemble each other. If you try to break a fundamental principle or law, your life or limb, not the law, will end up broken. People have died in the mountains, for instance, because they went against the common sense that typhoons and trails are a deadly combination. Others failed to heed the warning not go alone, or to wait for the river to subside; their deaf ears have remained deaf forever. But whenever I invoke these sorry tales, it is not to instill fear in you, but temperance. A dose of courage, you must have, but it must be distilled with prudence – they go hand in hand, like a sword and a shield. If you are equipped with these, then you are ready to face the challenges.
Dream on, for who knows, perhaps it is power of dreams that guides the clouds, and opens up the skies. I believe that no summit is too high or too difficult for someone who sets his heart to it, and I believe in you. It will make me happy to see you, and the younger generation, go beyond where we have gone. A French saying goes: “The success of a mountaineer does not rest on his ability to reach the summit, but on his ability to bring people with him.” Aim for the summits of your dreams, do it with all your heart, and in doing so, be an inspiration to others.
If I have imparted to you things that you find useful, then take them with you, trail food for the soul, trail signs for the life ahead and the summits above. Let my best wishes climb with you until you reach the top, and I hope you find that up there, the view is splendid.
February 16, 2012
Personal essays by Gideon Lasco
I: A letter to a young mountaineer
II: Why do accidents happen?
III: Of doing and loving
IV: A difficult situation
V: Wise words from an old man
VI: The Philippines that I love
VII: The calling
VIII: The girl who climbs mountains
IX: A mountaineer’s legacy
X: What beginners can teach us
XI: The friends inside your backpack
XII: Unfollowing one’s self in social media