Alps Report #1
As dreamy as a Whistler watercolor in the golden glow of fall, the town of Zermatt is hypnotic. In winter it's a fancy ski resort. In summer, mountaineers from as far away as Japan head towards its elusive peaks. Zermatt is alpine heaven, a climber's paradise, with 4,000-meter peaks staring down at you from every direction. I stayed at the Hotel Bahnhof, where Edward Whymper and his team planned the first successful assault of the Matterhorn in 1865.
The large bed and piping hot showers were godsends after a day of climbing or trekking. Advance reservations are essential, but I'd rather stay nowhere else in Zermatt. It cost me less than $1000 for 8 nights -- a fraction of the price at most any other hotel. So what if it doesn't have a restaurant? Cross the street and the eating joints line up like shoppers on Black Friday. Oh, they say Zermatt is a car-free city but it's a lie. Electric vehicles of every size are just waiting to mow you down if you're not vigilant. (Cross the street at your own risk!) Still, there is no better place to explore the unfathomable Matterhorn region than Zermatt.
I came to Zermatt in search of a summit or two -- and, like Terry Fox, the Canadian who ran thousands of miles on one leg to raise money for cancer research, I wanted to give a nod to the Becky Black Memorial Fund, which I started a few weeks ago. (To date, 650 million Canadian dollars have been raised in Terry's name. I'm trying to raise $25,000.) I decided I'd display a banner with Becky's name on it every time I summited one of Zermatt's peaks. You ask, "Weren't you even a little bit afraid?" Oh yeah. For the first hundred yards or so I always had butterflies in my stomach. But as Helen Keller once said, "It's okay to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation." (A heartfelt thanks, by the way, to everyone like Helen Keller who has been an inspiration to me.) To climb my first 4,000-meter peak (that is, anything over 13,123 feet), I drew on less than a year of experience climbing the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. After a lot of looking back at the past year, I asked myself a big question: "Are you really up to it?" Charles Dickens once said that it was focus that made him such an accomplished writer. "I could never have done what I have done," he said, "without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time." Coming to Zermatt I think was the Lord's way of saying to me, "Dave, I want you to concentrate yourself one more time."
In climbing I've discovered something I love -- a thing that really turns me on and excites me. Passion is what enabled Aimee Mullins to set records for running even though she's missing two legs. I care passionately about what I do in life. I really want to do them. I don't know where these passions come from (other than from the Lord), but I've got them. I love teaching. I can't imagine doing anything else. I think being irrationally passionate about what you do is enormously healthy. I'm what psychologists refer to as a "striver." Strivers are people who know what they want and run straight toward it. There's something in me that pushes me to challenge myself as a climber, and I just have to go with it. Exploring your passions doesn't mean you have to go all the way. I have no interest in climbing anything much over 15,000 feet. And yes, it's hard work, but that's part of the fun. (By the way, I've never known anyone who has accomplished anything in life who didn't work hard at it. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Before leaving for Switzerland I trained 100 miles a month not to mention the hours I spent in the gym lifting. Still, it's not about the hours. It's about enjoying what you do.)
Here's my message for you today, good friend. (Yes, I'm in a preachy mood.) Be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your God-given goals. I believe that climbing not only brings me satisfaction but also a sense of confidence. We become confident when we meet a challenge head-on and overcome it. I'll never forget the day my guide Walter took me to Zermatt's famous Klettersteig -- a vertical rock wall on very exposed terrain. A long metal ladder is the key point in the entire climb. It took us 4 hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet. Focus was absolutely critical.
Many people work hard but they're not focused. They're Dabblers and not Doers. I realized as soon as I began climbing the Klettersteig that I had to focus. The focus paid off and I completed the course.
When Bill Gates started Microsoft he focused on one thing and only one thing. "Microsoft is designed to write great software," he said. "We are not designed to be good at other things." Being able to focus will help you regardless of what you're doing. My formula for climbing is simple: training and concentration, and then more training and concentration. The truth is that we all find it easy to focus on what we love doing. When people are lazy, they're usually lazy about things that don't interest them. To climb you've got to love the sport -- and then you're got to push, push, push yourself, mentally and physically. Mostly I've had to push through self-doubt. In climbing there are plenty of opportunities for second-guessing yourself: Will my body adjust to the elevation, will my legs be strong enough to carry me, will I tire out before the climb is over? On this trip there were many moments when I said, "Oh man, I can't believe I got this far!" The trick is to keep pushing yourself, even when you think you can't persevere.
Setting goals can help us push through our manmade barriers. I wanted to bag two summits on this trip, and I got them both. So even though I'm not a very experienced climber, I realized my dreams, thanks (1) to the grace of God and (2) to pushing. In life it is always important to have goals, no matter what those goals are. My goals for next summer are to summit my second 4000-meter peak and to scramble up the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. On each trip to the Alps I want to set for myself titanic challenges and try to rise above them. As I've mentioned, I'm not necessarily cut out to be a climber. Walking and trekking come much more naturally to me. But I enjoy new challenges and I think climbing pushes me. Summiting the Breithorn at 13,661 feet was a real challenge for me, but I think I took on that challenge to propel myself forward in life.
I find that being pushed for a climb (or a half marathon) actually helps my teaching and writing. Pushing is absolutely necessary in a creative environment. As a youth I wasn't very self-disciplined, but now I'm very self-disciplined and I think it keeps me in top shape. Thankfully, I had Walter to push me along. I need people in my life who keep telling me, "You can do it, Dave." I really need that support system. Not that I will ever be in the same league as Walter, who has summited the Matterhorn 17 times. But watching him excel at his job helps me dig down deep and push myself harder than I ever thought possible. I love pushing myself to the limit. And it's a lot easier when you have a guy like Walter as your mentor. (Or is that tor-mentor?)
In my day I've seen a lot of good teachers sort of get to a certain point and then just take it easy. And that's where they stay for the rest of their careers. My philosophy is simple: If I can say, on December 31, that I'm a better athlete or teacher or dad than I was on January 1 of the same year, then I've been successful. Not for the sake of being better than someone else, but just because it's so satisfying to be improving at something.
In the coming days I'll be sharing with you a few pictures, videos, and stories about my Alpine Adventure. Nothing I say will be new to you. But it's good to hear these truths over and over again. "We need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed," said the great thinker G. K. Chesterton. I think that one thing all of my posts will have in common is the fact that I'm always challenging myself to be better, to strive for a difficult goal. I'm really never satisfied where I am in life. I'm always trying to push myself to the next level. But I'm not a person who's unhappy if he isn't perfect. I just want to keep improving. Friend, be the best that you can be. Work as hard as you possibly can to get it right. Instead of focusing on getting to the top, focusing on doing your best. Whatever you are doing with your life, do it to the very best of your God-given ability. You gotta keep pushing yourself.
As I said, it's easier to push yourself if you actually love what you're doing. Forget about your weaknesses. Find something you're good at and go for it with gusto. From the moment I summited the Breithorn I knew I could accomplish a big goal. So I'd say, do what you love to do and everything else will fall into place. And no matter what you do, the secret to accomplishing your goals is plain old tenacity. Don't be discouraged if it takes time. It takes a long time to become really good at something. On this trip I failed to summit the Matterhorn. I did climb to over 10,000 feet, but that doesn't really count. So what? When you fail, pick yourself up and try again. Gerry Schwartz, CEO of Onex, said "Failing doesn't stop you. Quitting stops you." So persist through your failures and disappointments. I've learned that if I can put just put one foot in front of the other, things generally work out well. Sure, setbacks will come. The problem is when we give up on ourselves. Adopt a "Don't look back" attitude. Actually, climbing is the hardest thing I've ever done besides burying Becky. But in climbing I've discovered something I really love. What is it that gets you excited? Nothing is more important in life than being passionate about what God has created you to do, whatever that is. Said Martin Luther King, Jr.: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"
As for age, age is merely a state of mind. It's a label people use to pigeonhole others and place limits on what they can be. I choose not to be governed by labels. And doing what I love to do is one of the ways I stay so young at heart. For years now I've left age at the door when I've walked into the different rooms of my life, being far more concerned about doing fantastic work, supporting my colleagues, and showing leadership without having some lofty title on my office door. Be an original, friend. There's only one of you in the whole world. And no one else can be as good a you as you.
July 21, 2016
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.