The movie “The Bucket List” popularized the practice of creating a list of activities or goals to experience or accomplish in one’s life, before you “kick the bucket.”
Examples of items included in bucket lists are visiting every major league baseball park, playing at world renowned golf courses such as Augusta National, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, and qualifying for and running in the Boston Marathon. Every person has her or his own interests and priorities. Some bucket list items can be really Big Goals, such as publishing a novel, opening a restaurant, completing an Iron Man competition or climbing a mountain. Big Goals require a lot of hard work and preparation, as well as some good luck.
For more than 20 years climbing Mount Rainier has been on my bucket list, and this summer I finally checked it off. Mount Rainier is not the tallest mountain in the United States, but it is massive and the most heavily glaciated mountain in the contiguous 48 states. My first encounters with the mountain were during the period 1987-1989, when I was a National Institutes of Health-supported post-doctoral fellow in biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
For those two years I was in awe of “The Mountain,” as they refer to Mount Rainier in that part of the country. She’s an amazing site from Seattle, even more beautiful up close, and a mountain to be admired, respected and feared. At least 89 people have died on Mount Rainier summit climbs, with at least five of those occurring during my time at the UW (pronounced “U-dub”). Leaving Seattle for a faculty position at the University of Michigan in summer 1989 I promised myself I would one day return to climb to the 14,410-foot summit of The Mountain. Life got busy after that, and thoughts of climbing Mount Rainier settled into the back of my mind until a couple of years ago. It hit me that I am not getting any younger and that I should get serious about the more physically demanding challenges on my bucket list or remove them from the list. Quitting is generally not my nature, so this past winter I set about preparing to climb The Mountain.
What I did not anticipate when I decided to take on climbing Mount Rainier is that I would spend much of my training time contemplating life lessons. At the age of 54 I am no longer so brash to take on a 9,000-foot climb based merely on being “in shape.” My mindset was to go well beyond my normal workout routine, and to train specifically for spending five or six hours per day, for two days, climbing at altitude. Breathing is significantly more labored when exerting oneself at altitude, so physical conditioning is critically important. That meant spending countless hours climbing up and down stairs, for anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes per stair workout. Because Georgia is not the land of high mountains, it also meant doing grueling, fast-paced four-to-six-hour hikes carrying a pack loaded with weights. The stair workouts and hikes got to be long and tedious, and when listening to music lost its charm, life lessons occupied my mind.
The mind, and sometimes the body, must be prepared for success in advance of tackling a Big Goal. Preparation specific to the challenge is more effective than general preparation, hence my focus on climbing stairs and rocky hills to get ready for Mount Rainier. As I toiled through my more intense workouts it occurred to me more than once I likely could climb Mount Rainier with a lesser amount of physical preparation. I now know that was the case, but my goal was to arrive at the start of my climb with little or no doubt in my mind that I was ready. There rarely is a penalty for being over-prepared, but the penalty of failure is a stiff price to pay for being underprepared.
In mountain climbing, as with life in general, success often is the result of strong teamwork. Some Big Goals can be accomplished alone, but my experience is that the support of teammates and mentors is extremely valuable even in those situations that may at first look like a solo journey. When climbing on snow and ice, movement is in rope teams for safety reasons, and the team’s safety and the likelihood of success depend on the entire team being strong and prepared. Experienced mentors or guides also greatly increase the chance of success. For example, it has been claimed that only about 44 percent of independent climbing teams manage to summit Mount Rainier, whereas roughly 60 percent of those who climb with professional guides, such as those with Rainier Mountaineering, achieve the summit. Whether starting a business, writing a novel or climbing a mountain, a strong team and an experienced mentor or mentors can provide you with the skills, strength and experience needed to safely and effectively travel the often challenging path to success.
There typically is more than one route to the top of a mountain, and that is equally true for pursuing Big Goals. The usual path for first-time climbs of Mount Rainier is the Disappointment Cleaver route, but there are dozens of routes to the summit. Changes in route conditions and features of the mountain can dictate abandoning a particular route for another that is more accessible or safer. Likewise, getting fixated on one specific path to accomplishing a Big Goal can put achieving that goal in doubt, if not making it entirely impossible. Just as snow, ice and route conditions on mountains change, financial conditions, the political environment, personal responsibilities and other life factors fluctuate. Being knowledgeable about possibilities and flexible to course changes or corrections can be the difference between success and failure.
My greatest concern during the preparation for climbing Mount Rainier was that there were factors beyond my control that could make success impossible that time around. When it comes to climbing a mountain one must accept that the weather dictates whether or not a summit attempt is even possible. I was blessed with outstanding weather for my summit climb, but little more than a week earlier storms in the Pacific Northwest made conditions on the mountain too dangerous for summit attempts. The possibility of being weathered out after spending months training was something I eventually grew to accept because there is no benefit to wasting time and energy fretting about factors beyond your control. You have to focus your time and energy on preparing for success and accept you may have to start over and come back another day if conditions dictate abandoning an attempt.
Checking a Big Goal off the bucket list begs the question: “What next?” The experience of preparing for and climbing Mount Rainier was highly rewarding, perhaps more so than it would have been had I made the climb earlier in my life. The passage of time and the accumulation of experience tend to make the adventure richer and more meaningful. Now I can sit back, relax and savor success and the fond memories of the journey, or I can charge headlong toward a new, more challenging goal. I expect my temperament will dictate my path forward, but right now it is too soon to know what that path will be. What I do know is that Big Goals are worth pursuing, and that proper preparation greatly increases the likelihood of success.