Journeys to the edge are often uphill slogs.
Some are successful.
We had started this one before dawn. We had climbed for hours. The sweat poured down our faces even as the air thinned. It was like hiking up a beach that someone – perhaps as a joke – had pitched at a forty degree angle. Our feet sinking into the ash and scree. Two steps up. One back.
But by noon, we sat along the edge, side by side, our feet dangling into the abyss with a thousand airy feet below us. My boy and I – what a gift.
The sun was warm, the air cool. There was just the wisp of a wind. Fairly balmy for the 8,300 feet of altitude.
Evidence of the destruction was everywhere, even though the explosion had been more than two decades years earlier. Nearly half the crater rim had blown away, the trees torn from the earth, scratched and charred by fire. But in and amongst the devastation, there were signs of new life and new growth. St. Helens was as spectacular as ever.
Giddy, we turned our backs on the summit and plunged down through the scree at breakneck speed. The loose ash that had been the bane of our existence was now our friend. The reward for a hard-fought slog.
Years later I thought of this experience as I struggled to break trail below the Lion’s Head on Mt. Washington. The unconsolidated snow had blown and drifted. Shoulder deep in places, it would not yield to brute force. The sweat soaked into our down and froze on our faces. One step forward. Three back.
After hours of slogging and struggle, we turned around battered and beaten but no less satisfied with the experience and the effort we had applied. Tumbling down through the powder, we laughed at our foolish efforts. It had not been a successful slog. Yet it so many ways, it had still been worth it.
And for the most part, there’s truth to that, I think: slogs successful or not are worth it. So much of what we do in the mountains – and elsewhere – is a slog. It’s how we view it that really matters.
In Greek mythology, there is the story of Sisyphus, king of Corinth. The gods condemned Sisyphus to Hades and to eternal punishment. Endlessly he had to roll an enormous heavy boulder up a hill – and when it reached the top, it would roll down again. Over and over again, he struggled to bring the boulder to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again. For all eternity.
Aren’t there lot of days when we feel like Sisyphus? We push our boulders. Fall fast asleep. And when we wake up, there’s that damn boulder sitting right outside the front door. Again.
I’m waist deep in it right now. Being surrounded by folks who are pushing boulders uphill is the grist of what I do. But the energy is exhausting. Pushing my own boulder – office responsibilities, household stuff and the unending drama of raising teenagers – is depleting. My own tendency when it looks like the boulder is about to flatten me is to bolt for the door, plan the escape, plot the next mountain.
But our lives are lived in these places of struggle.
Climbing up through the ash, wading through the deep snow, pushing the boulder. This is what we do. It is our lives.
John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
We don’t need to like our particular slog. Many times we don’t. But when we try to escape the slog – layering it with judgment and resentment – we miss huge portions of our lives.
The trick is to be present to our slog moment by moment.
Charlotte Joko Beck in her book Nothing Special says, “Hell lies not in pushing the rock, but in thinking about it, in creating ideas of hope or disappointment, in wondering whether we will finally get the rock to stay on top.” “The weight of the boulder, the burden, is the thought that our life is a struggle, that it should be other than it is,” she says.
Wow. That’s a challenge.
And the point of the myth? Sisyphus was never really caught in Hades. He was always free. His boulder was just his boulder.
Our slog is just our slog.
And unless we are willing to slog up, we don’t get to enjoy the glissade back down.
How is your slog going?
The image is from the Caucasus Mountains. Exhausted after a long summit push, I found myself plunging down through the soft snow as another team trudged upward.
Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.