As the sun set, the horizon softened by the departing colors of another day, I’m balanced on the summit of the 9,416-foot-tall Mount Stuart.
In the distance Mount Rainier pushes its way through the cloud cover. To the north the peaks and valleys of the Leavenworth, Washington, area spread out, their beauty nearly incompressible, much less describable.
It’s 6:30 p.m. and my climbing partner and I have been hiking and climbing nearly nonstop since 2 a.m. We’ve reached the top of Washington’s second-tallest nonvolcanic mountain. A rather anticlimactic descriptor for a dramatic mountain. We climbed the North Ridge. It’s a long and sharp protrusion of rock that takes you from the northern reach of the mountain to the summit, all the while traveling along technical terrain.
There, in the waning light, we have a brief moment of relaxation. We’ve summited. The sun is warm on our faces. The views incredible. But we’re only halfway done and now we must descend.
In six hours’ time, I will turn 30 years old.
My first clear memory of exercise is from when I was 10 or 11. I was a pudgy kid (what American kid isn’t, though?) and at some point, I decided I wanted to be thinner and stronger. So, I jumped on my trampoline for what felt like an hour straight. Jumping on the trampoline, up until then, had always been a fun, enjoyable activity. But not when done for exercise. I hated it.
This is the general relationship I had with exercise for years. I wanted the product of exercise. Whether it was larger muscles or a leaner body or a higher vertical jump. But the process. Oh, God, I loathed the process.
For years, my general relationship to exercise didn’t change much from that inaugural hour on the trampoline.
And then, something started to shift when I became an adult. As the days began to bleed together and the novelty of existence bled into the monotony of survival, the process of exercise started to appeal. It became a counterbalance to my largely sedentary life. A way, I imagined, of rebelling against the coercive, occasionally deadening, pull of day-to-day existence.
That understanding and appreciation of exercise (and more broadly, physical exertion) has only solidified as I’ve started climbing more. Climbing is highly dependent on enjoying the process. Why? Because, the objective (summiting the mountain, or completing the route) is entirely fleeting and mostly unattached to any external rewards. When I summited Mount Stuart, after 16 hours of effort, I spent at most 20 minutes enjoying that achievement. And then it was on to the descent.
Climbing is not the only activity with this sort of benefit. Hunting, for instance, is similar in the sense that the appeal is much larger than the stated goal. Anyone who does not enjoy the process of hunting won’t last long in an activity known for regular failure.
By midnight, after 20 hours of near continuous movement – I sit down alongside the trail and fall asleep. The wind has taken a breather, leaving a calm night. Clouds pour across the near-full moon.
I sleep for 10 minutes and then the wind picks up again and I keep moving and I’ve turned 30 years old.
My knees hurt and my back aches from carrying a heavy pack. I don’t want to continue. I question the entire endeavor. This can’t be worth it. The fatigue. The stress of objective danger. I wonder how this excess of exertion is impacting my internal organs.
But I do continue and I make it back to camp and eventually home. And then, I remember why it’s worth it. I feel sated and accomplished. I feel balanced. In a day-to-day existence that is spent in front of screens and sitting in chairs, a 23 1/2-hour adventure in the mountains is an appropriate and necessary antidote.
The way I find this balance will change over time. But I hope to always have an activity (whether it’s climbing, hunting, hiking or something else) that immerses me completely in physical movement and communion with the outdoors. An activity that brings balance to my life.