While Ken and I were in Colorado over the past few weeks, we had the opportunity to climb three of Colorado’s famous 14ers, the mountains that are over 14,000 feet high. This is something we always try to do, but it took me a long time to get to a physical and mental place of being able to summit. On our descent from Red Cloud and Sunshine Peaks last Thursday, I had a lot of time to think about all the lessons I’ve learned from climbing 14ers. I’ve come to understand that climbing a mountain is a beautiful metaphor for the climb we experience in life.
What I found so perfect about this metaphor and these lessons is that there are fourteen very distinct and important things I’ve learned from these treks up and back down the 14ers. They are vitally important in climbing geographical mountains and in climbing the ultimate mountain of life.
Teach Your Children While They’re Young
Our children were young when we first began attempting climbing 14ers. Rebecca was thirteen, Katie was ten, and Morgan was eight. Only Ken made it to the summit, but the girls benefitted from the hike we took and the height we achieved. They learned that not everything in life is easy, and that sometimes the things we most want to accomplish take hard work and a long time. They learned to plan for unforeseen circumstances (weather on these mountains can change on a dime without warning). They also learned to respect nature, stay on the trail, and look for wildlife.
Most importantly, that first climb taught them that it’s okay to not take home the prize on your first attempt. It’s okay to stop and reassess. You’re not a failure if you give it your best shot, and even if you can’t finish the climb the first time, you are well prepared to try again the next time. In fact, knowing what you’re facing and being able to prepare for it will ensure success the next time around. These lessons are important ones that my children will take with them throughout all their climbs and journeys through life.
“Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
Get an Early Start
We headed out each morning of a climb right at sunrise. It’s hard to gauge how long it will take to climb to the top of the mountain. Each person is different; the time of year, weather, and even what kind of vehicle you take to the trailhead can affect your climbing time. Since Colorado afternoons are very prone to storms, the earlier you climb and get back down, the better.
Isn’t that the way it is with so many things in life? What trials befall us if we procrastinate? We must get our work done so we have time to play or rest or do something else we want to enjoy. The sooner you get the hard stuff out of the way, the better it is in the long run. There is nothing that compares to the view from the top after climbing 14ers, but if you’ve waited too long, and the clouds begin to roll in, that beautiful view is diminished. If you make it before the storms, but you can see them approaching in the distance, then your time at the top is limited.
Give yourself time to enjoy life, to take a breath and bask in the afterglow of what you’ve achieved.
Take What you Can Carry, and Dress Light
Climbing a 14er makes for a long day and hard task. You don’t want to carry with you more than you need or can handle. We pack very carefully, taking only one backpack that can be passed around if someone grows weary. We take a small container of sunscreen, extra socks, lots of water, and snacks for the day. I always have my inhaler, migraine medicine, and chapstick in my pockets.
We’re careful with what we wear. Often it’s a long-sleeved, lightweight shirt and a good sweatshirt with comfortable pants (we gals prefer leggings) and good, hiking socks. A hat is always a must as are sturdy shoes made for hiking in the Rockies. Many people carry a walking stick, but I find that the grip tires my hand, and I regret taking it.
We always laugh when we look back at the photos of Ken carrying our backpack. It’s a purple American Girl backpack that Rebecca got when she joined the American Girl Club when she was about six-years-old. It’s the perfect size to take when climbing 14ers. Other dads comment on it, and Ken’s friends tease him about it, but anything bigger becomes a burden to carry.
The more we carry in life, whatever burdens they may be, the harder it is to reach the summit. We don’t need lots of clothes or heavy things that weigh us down (I’m always telling Ken he doesn’t need his heavy binoculars) or things that trip us up. We only need those things that will sustain us for a few hours. The lighter our bag, the faster our step. The fewer burdens we carry, the more joyous our journey.
“Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Food for the Journey
We discovered early on that the food we take when climbing 14ers is important. We need carbs, natural sugars, and proteins to keep our spirits up and our muscles working. Trail mix and granola bars are essential to keep us moving, and a lunch with peanut butter sandwiches and cheese with crackers helps our muscles repair themselves once we reach the top. When someone begins to tire or gets cranky, Ken says, “Time for a snack break.” After a few minutes off our feet and a few bites of granola or fresh fruit, we’re ready to continue.
How essential it is that we have the right food for our journey. This can be food that we eat or food that we take into our hearts and minds. As a Catholic, I know that the most important food for the journey is the Eucharist. At my highest moments as well my lowest, I know that I can find strength, comfort, and the ability to keep going within that small piece of unleavened bread.
Years ago, Ken and Rebecca reached the top of Sunshine Peak just as a group of college kids and their chaplain were beginning to celebrate Mass. They still talk about it and recall it as one of the highlights of their lives. I can’t imagine how they felt receiving Communion, the food that satisfies body and soul, at the top of a 14er. It certainly gave them a new perspective on what food is important for the journey.
“What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life” (CCC 1392).
Take Breaks as Needed
Having the right snacks when climbing 14ers is only part of the importance of taking breaks. The higher you climb, the harder it is to deal with the altitude. You can become light-headed, and your legs begin to tremble after a while. You need to stop and take a few minutes to lower your heart rate and catch your breath.
Often in life, we require a timeout, a period of rest, a day of relaxation. We need to renew our bodies and souls before continuing on our journeys. We can’t climb the mountains of life without proper rest.
Sometimes, after a break, it’s hard to get started back up again. Our legs can protest, and our minds yearn for more respite, but once we begin to move, we feel the benefits of that short rest. Taking a timeout from life, just as taking a timeout from the climb, can make all the difference the ability to move onward and upward.
“He said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'” (Mark 6:31).
Enjoy the Sights Along the Way
Have you ever known anyone who goes through life never stopping to look around?
We see those people all the time when climbing 14ers. They rush past, always with their eyes on the path to the top, never slowing down to appreciate what’s right beside them.
I love stopping and taking pictures or even just admiring the little things we pass along the way–a patch of wildflowers, a valley between mountains, or a crystal blue, snowmelt lake.
Sights like these are precious gifts, signs from above that we need to stop and admire the beauty of this world. “They speak of the splendor of your majestic glory, tell of your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 145:5).
We can’t rush through life never looking around, never appreciating the wonders of this world, never seeing the majesty of creation.
The ultimate goal may be to get to the summit, but what good is that if we miss all the beauty life has to offer along the way?
Make Lasting Memories
While enjoying the sights and looking forward to the summit, I always find it important to create and cherish the memories along the way. I love to snap pictures to document the climb, and I love to recall the conversations we have as we go along. What’s the point of the climb if we do’t take with us the joy of the journey?
Laughing, joking, playing, and enjoying the climb are part of the journey. Stopping for a minute to take it all in, enjoy the surroundings and celebrate how far we’ve come is essential to the success of the trip.
Never become so focussed on the journey itself that you forget to take memories home with you. Add to your memories as you would add stones to the cairns that mark the way. Collect them, pile them up, and look back on them when you need to find your way home.
Stay the Course
Very often when climbing 14ers, or when hiking anywhere in nature, there are signs saying, “Keep to the trail.” These are warnings to climbers and hikers to stay on the path and not veer off course. I mentioned last week a time when Ken and Rebecca lost their way descending from a mountain. For years, I’ve wondered how they could let that happen. How could they be so careless? How could Ken allow our daughter to be in such grave danger?
After climbing Red Cloud, I now understand how easily that can happen. The path is not always clear. The trail is not always marked. It can be easy to take just a few steps in the wrong direction and find yourself going the wrong way.
Navigating the rocks and large stones at the base of the summit is difficult even if you are going along the correct path, and distinguishing the trail among a pile of rocks is nearly impossible. One minute, you’er going along just fine, meandering through the stones; the next, you’re sliding on scree and loose gravel, praying that you don’t get hurt and that you’re able to slow down and come to a stop. You find yourself desperately searching for a foothold and trying to surmise the trail.
These can be the scariest moments of the climb or the descent. Even when you can see the path clearly up ahead, it can be difficult to find your way there. The only thing you can do is keep your eye on the path and make your way down as carefully as you can.
When life leads you off course, when you can’t find the right path, or when you see the trail but don’t know how to get there, know that you are not alone. Others have been there before, and hopefully you have others with you who can help guide you back to safety. When you’re all off course, work together to get back on track. And it never hurts to pray (I said an entire Rosary while maneuvering my way down those slippery rocks). Whatever you do, know that there is a Guide leading you on your way. Look to Him, and your course will be revealed.
“In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
Expect Obstacles Along the Way
I never imagined that a well-currated trail would include so many obstacles–stones and rocks, fallen trees, even snow that blocked our way or made moving forward difficult. We had to find our way around or over many things along the route.
When we meet obstacles or difficult circumstances, the only thing we can do is find a way to get by. Much like when we lose the trail or go off course, we have to have faith that we can find our way around things that block the path. We can’t worry about time lost or what occurred to make this happen to us; we just need to plow forward however we’re able.
There’s always a way around, a way to clear the path, a way to step over the hurdle “And it will be said, ‘Build up, build up, prepare the way, Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people'” (Isaiah 57:14).
In fact, learning to overcome obstacles is a great skill, not just when climbing 14ers, but in navigating life. To face hardship or have to deal with a stumbling block can often lead us to a higher plain, a deeper understanding of ourselves, and a greater sense of accomplishment.
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4)
Don’t Go It Alone
We often see people climbing 14ers by themselves, and I always wonder, what if something happens to them? What if they fall? What if they lose their way? Is somebody waiting for them to return by a certain time?
Life is not meant to be a solo performance. We are not meant to travel on this journey alone.
Often, the best part about having someone with you on the journey is the encouragement companions can give to each other. When we reached the last phase of our climb up Sunshine Peak, I was ready to give up. Yes, I could see the summit. Yes, I’d come so far. But my knee was hurting, my legs were shaking, and the thought of not just going up but coming down all those rocks was too much to bear. Morgan and Josh had just made it to the top, and Ken was patiently waiting for me to get past my meltdown. He said, “It’s your call. I’m here to help you with whatever you decide.” There was no pressure and no judgment, and I knew he understood my fear and pain while also knowing how much I wanted to finish this. I took a deep breath and followed him up the rocky mountain face.
Where would we be without the help, support, and understanding of others? We need someone to encourage us, someone to be there for us, to cheer us on when we are feeling discouraged and help us get up when we fall.
“If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
Choose the Right Traveling Partner
As important as it is to have someone with you on your journey, it’s just as important to choose the right person.
My girls always love to take friends with us to Colorado. They enjoy hiking and 4-wheeling and visiting the local towns together. And of course, they love experiencing the thrill of climbing 14ers together. That exhilaration is even better when shared with a friend.
However, they’ve learned that the chosen traveling companion has to be the right person, or the climb is made harder rather than easier.
We once had someone go with us who complained the entire time, growing angrier with each step, and finally screaming, “I hate you” at everyone in the group over and over. It was not a fun day for anyone, and the victory of the summit was diminished by the hurt and anger the girls felt.
Another companion we took saw the climb as a competition, a game of sorts, and tried to climb as fast as possible, never stopping or slowing down and never taking a moment to enjoy the view. Once they were the first ones to the top, they had to be the first ones to the bottom. There was no fun in the climb and no rest for the weary. There wasn’t even a moment to spare to marvel at the view or revel in the accomplishment.
After years of schedule conflicts, Rebecca’s best friend, Bailey, was able to join us a few years ago. Bailey is deathly afraid of heights, but she was determined to go as high as she could, and we all cheered her on. When she finally got to the point where she was truly petrified to keep going, Ken took her a little lower and stayed with her while the rest of us continued to climb. Without complaint, and without ill feelings, Bailey encouraged us to go, wising us luck, and telling us to enjoy the climb.
This year, Morgan took her best friend of the past five years, and they summited together. When she was feeling tired and achy, Josh motivated her, giving her time to rest but pushing her just as much as she needed. This was Josh’s first time tackling a 14er, and when he reached the top he stopped, looked around, and said, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.” Watching how they worked together to reach the top, those were my sentiments exactly.
And Katie? Perhaps the wisest of all, she has twice taken her best friend, and they summited successfully both times. They encouraged each other, matched each other’s pace, and cheered when they reached the top.
As for me, I’ll stick with Ken as my traveling partner. On the mountain, just as in life, he’s my biggest cheerleader and encourager. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Take It Slow
I’m always amazed by those people who rush the climb, the ones who don’t take in the sights along the way, those who don’t stop to rest, and those who don’t appreciate the view from the top. I can’t help but wonder if that’s how they go through life–always in a hurry, never smelling the roses or letting themselves just be still and take it all in.
Granted, I’m a very slow climber. I tell the girls that I get it if they don’t want to stick with me because between my migraines and my bad knee, I’m extra slow and extra careful. But there’s more to it than that. I want to enjoy the climb. I want to savor each view, take in every sight, and fully experience all that the day has to offer.
I feel the same way about life. Why be in a hurry all the time? Why go somewhere only to rush out again?
Several weeks ago, I wrote about life being the longest thing you’ll ever do. There’s no need to rush through it. We’re meant to enjoy it! Whether we are climbing mountains, going to work, playing with our kids, or sitting on the beach, we are meant to enjoy this life we’ve been given. Life is a gift, a precious gift. It’s not something we should rush through without ever slowing down and just living in the moment.
Stop. Take a breath. Life sin’t a race. It’s a gift. Sometimes you need to enjoy the ride from the slow lane
“I recognized that there is nothing better than to rejoice and to do well during life. Moreover, that all can eat and drink and enjoy the good of all their toil—this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).
Rejoice at the Summit, but Know it’s not the End
The part I dread the most about climbing 14ers is the descent. We spend so much time and effort getting to the top, and then we have to go back down. At these times, I have to remind myself that it’s all part of the journey and part of the reward. We can’t enjoy the top and celebrate our accomplishment without taking the next step.
I guess the lesson here is that, the summit is not the only goal. One we reach our destination, the journey doesn’t end.
Our ultimate goal is to reach the summit and never leave, but still, this is not the end. It is the beginning. It is on the day that we reach the ultimate summit that our lives truly begin.
“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42).
Feast at the Banquet
Finally, the climb is over. The descent is complete. The time for rejoicing is at hand.
When the journey is over, we know that we have accomplished something remarkable, something that the vast majority of people in the world will never do. We have climbed to the top of a 14er and have reached the summit, the goal, the prize at the end of the race. It is time to celebrate.
Every time we tackle a 14er, we celebrate. We go out to eat. We drink lots and lots of water, but we also raise a glass of wine or a beer and toast our accomplishment. We have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
At the end of the day, and the end of our lives, a feast awaits, a banquet of grand proportions. The food and wine will never run out, and the joy will be unending. That is the day we all have to look forward to. After the early start, the many breaks, the beautiful views and lasting memories, the friends made and the summit obtained, we will do the most human thing of all–we will eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of our labors. We will dine with the Creator of the mountains, the Guide along the journey, the Provider of all that is beautiful and good. We will celebrate for all eternity.
“Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).
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Amy Schisler is an award-winning author of both children’s books and sweet, faith-filled romance novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture Me, Whispering Vines, and Island of Miracles are all recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top inspirational fiction books of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016. The Good Wine, the sequel to Whispering Vines was released in June of 2021. Island of Miracles has outsold all of Amy’s other books worldwide and ranked as high as 600 on Amazon. Her follow up, Island of Promise is a reader favorite. Amy’s children’s chapter book is The Greatest Gift, and her most recent suspense novel is Summer’s Squall.
Amy’s second book in the Chincoteague Island Trilogy, Island of Promise, was awarded First Prize by the Oklahoma Romance Writer’s Association as the best Inspirational Romance of 2018 and was awarded a Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2019 for Inspirational Fiction. It is the 2019 winner for Best Inspirational Fiction in the RWA Golden Quill Contest, Best Romance in the American Book Awards, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award of Fiction. Amy’s 2019 work, The Devil’s Fortune, a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Awards and winner of an Illumination Award, is based, in part, on Amy’s family history. The third book in Amy’s Chincoteague Island Trilogy, Island of Hope, was released in August of 2019. Amy’s book, Desert Fire, Mountain Rain begins her new Buffalo Springs series. Book two, Under the Summer Moon, was released in December of 2021.
Amy’s new book, Seeking Tranquility, was released on June 15, 2022. Buy your copy now!
Amy’s books: Crabbing With Granddad (2013), A Place to Call Home (2014), Picture Me (2015), Whispering Vines (2016), Island of Miracles (2017), Stations of the Cross Meditations for Moms (2017), The Greatest Gift (2017), Summer’s Squall (2017), Island of Promise (2018), The Devil’s Fortune (2019), Island of Hope (2019), A Devotional Alphabet (2019), Desert Fire, Mountain Rain(2020), The Good Wine (2021), Under the Summer Moon (2021), Seeking Tranquility (2022).