Letter to a young mountaineer V: Wise words from an old man

NOW I WILL tell you the story of a young hiker who met an old man in the mountains. Learn from old man’s words! And learn from how the young hiker responded to the encounter. Realize from the story the power of a single encounter to change and inspire your life:

***

ONCE, THERE WAS a boy who was climbing a mountain. He was part of a group who had traveled far to hike in the North, where many mountains lie together, connected by rolling slopes covered with pine trees and mossy forests. Many of them saved up for several months in order to join the hike. They trained hard by running, swimming, and climbing the mountains near their hometown.

Being young and eager, the boy was tireless, and in his first hikes he was always walking ahead of everyone, wanting to be the first to reach the peak. But as he kept hiking, he grew to appreciate being behind everyone else. Being the last man meant he had more time to look around, and to retrace the steps that helped him more aware of the trails. Oftentimes he would end up helping the others who were already too tired, and that too, he saw as a learning experience.

While were hiking, they encountered an old man along the trail, walking slowly in the same direction. He had long, flowing grey hair, and a big backpack, like the ones he used to see in the faded pictures in the old outdoor shops.

“Good morning sir,” the mountaineers greeted him.

“Good morning sirs,” the old man responded in kind.

The boy, who was the last to encounter the man, observed him carefully. He saw a tattoo on his legs that could only have been made by that famous tattoo artist who lived in the mountains. He saw a necklace whose strap bore the pattern of a unique cloth made by the dreamweavers from the south. He saw legs like tree trunks: built for long walks deep into the wilderness.

He knew from the beginning that this man had a vast wealth of experience, but was too humble to betray signs of it.

He decided to walk with the old man.

“Go ahead, you might get left behind by your companions,” the old man warned.

“It’s okay. The trails are easy to follow. And I’m sure they’ll put up trail signs when I need them,” the boy said, rather eagerly, adding: “Besides, it’s not everyday that I meet an experienced mountaineer like you!”

They kept walking. The old man was initially reluctant to talk, but the eagerness of the boy made him open up to him, and he began talking about his life. The mountains, he said, were a source of living for his family who grew up in the hinterlands. And then it became a source of refuge for him, for he was once a rebel and he hid in the forests, spending nights without food or water, or at the mercy of the elements.

He had seen the mighty eagles’ nests in mountains – they with their mighty birdcalls; he had seen them fly above the mossy forests of the south – until the chainsaws arrived and silenced them forever. He had seen tribes perform rituals that have vanished, because the tribes too, like the eagles, have dispersed; their rituals disappearing forever.

And he also spoke nostalgically of the mountains of the past. “The roads of today were the trails of yesterday,” he said, recalling the mountains that used to take much longer to climb.

“The mountains mean different things for different people – and it can also mean different things for the same person in different stages of his life,” said the old man, concluding his short narrative.

Presently they heard the shrill cry of cicadas, foreshadowing the coming of dusk.

“Sooner or later, we will have to part ways. But because you showed amity to an old man, I will reward you. I do not have gold or silver, but having climbed mountains all over our land, ask me anything you want to know about mountains.”

The boy replied: “Share with me what you’ve learned from the mountains. Give me rules to follow, lessons to live by.”

***

THE OLD MAN paused for a while.

“I have climbed all the mountains and you could have asked about the secret paths I have trodden; the mountains with the most beautiful forests; or those with the most challenging trails. But what you ask will allow you to climb all of them.”

The old man gazed at the mountain ahead of them. They could see the boy’s companions climbing steadily and slowly, their colourful backpacks standing out in the green of pines.

“The first lesson is this: The mountain will always be there but the people you climb with will not always be around. Treasure them. Plant good memories in the hearts of people you meet on the mountain, and open your own heart to them; allow them to plant memories in yours. These memories will keep you warm even during the coldest and darkest nights.

“Secondly, never underestimate the mountain. It has been said many times, but we still need to be reminded. Sometimes, our own experience can be our enemy if it makes us proud or overconfident. The strongest hiker cannot withstand the force of a raging river. We can fight many battles, but we can never win against hunger, thirst, cold, wind, and flood. Be prepared not just for sunshine, but for a storm. Be prepared not just for yourself, but for others. Be prepared to say no, to back out, to accept defeat. There will be times when you will come close to your dream, only to have to turn back. Accept it with dignity, and learn from it. Success will be sweeter the next time around.

“Thirdly, open up your senses to the here and the now of the mountain. When I was young, I felt happy whenever people would talk about the explorations I have done, the mountains I have climbed. Today, with the world more connected than ever, it is easy to share a beautiful photo of you and get praises from others. But in our rush to share our experiences, we sometimes forget the experience itself, relegating to cameras what should be foremost for our eyes. Engage your senses; feel the life of the mountain! Many people have been surrounded by butterflies and serenaded by birds without noticing it. Countless shooting stars have passed without anyone making a wish, but surely they are visible to those who open their eyes to the beauty of the world.”

The old man paused as they entered a dense forest. He seemed to look at the trees with familiarity, and called them using the names known only to the tribes. He recognized the birds by their songs, mimicking their calls with his voice. Even with their camouflage, he spotted insects and reptiles. The boy was amazed at how much of the forest he had hitherto failed to see.

The old man spoke again: “The fourth lesson goes back to your pledge to love the environment. The mountain cannot speak, and oftentimes, it suffers in silence. But a mountaineer ought to know how to feel its pain. When the time comes that you have to be its voice, you have to be willing and ready.

“Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you have to root your love for the mountains deep within you. You will hear people say that hiking is a matter of strength, of speed, of time and money. But ultimately, it is passion that will keep you going. Never let go of the sense of wonder and the spirit of adventure that keeps you dreaming and keeps you walking. Remember, the heart of mountaineering is mountaineering with the heart.”

***

THERE WAS SILENCE, as the boy tried to absorb the meaning of what the old man had just said. They emerged from the forest into a grassy slope and he could once again see his companions up ahead, like tiny ants in the vastness of the mountain. The sun had began to set, casting a different light on the mountains.

A wave of emotions swept through him, and he was lost in his thoughts.

And then he realIzed that he was hiking alone.

He looked around, his eyes retracing the trail he had been following. There was no trace of the old man. Perhaps he had taken another trail. Or did he stay in the forest? The boy wondered if he had been derelict in not detecting the old man’s disappearance. He wanted to ask him about many things, he wanted to hear him tell tales of various mountains, of how the mountains looked like in the past.

Then again, perhaps the old man deliberately left without a trace to teach him a final lesson: that of the evanescence of moments, the fleetingness of the encounters we have with the people we meet along the trail.

At least, he thought, I should have thanked him and bidden him goodbye.

But the boy realized that true to his wise words, the old man had already planted something in his heart. And as he chased after his companions, he knew that he would keep it there as he keeps climbing.

Suddenly the mountain seemed larger, its summit more beckoning than ever before, and the trails seemed to extend beyond the distant blue peaks in the red horizon.

Gideon Lasco
Baguio City
December 13, 2014

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4 Comments on "Letter to a young mountaineer V: Wise words from an old man"


Guest
3 years 3 months ago

I'm no mountaineer but this pierced me through the heart. This is a good reminder especially to our generation. The third lesson can be applied not only in the mountains but when visiting other places as well. Sometimes, it's disappointing that for some people, it's more about the selfies they take about immersing themselves in the moment. This is a great article Sir Gideon! Will definitely share this.

Guest
3 years 3 months ago

We need to be reminded.. More great travels to you Gideon..

Guest
3 years 8 months ago

This is indeed very beautiful. It would be difficult not to feel anything while reading this post.

Padayon.

Guest
3 years 9 months ago

great story sir! very inspiring indeed!