During my recent climbing trip to Ecuador, a fellow climber and I had a discussion on the question “Do people change?”. I did answer the question in a very contradictory manner. Thanks to being stuck at home with vertigo, I had plenty of time to think further about the question, specifically on how climbing and being outdoors has changed me.
I do believe that we are born with our very unique personality. Even I, neither a mother nor in frequent contact with babies, can tell easily how from a very young age babies have their own view of the world. Barring traumatic events such as war, I do not think this personality changes.
But I do think that we do change how we implement our personalities, based on the experiences life throws our way, and the choices we make in how to respond to life. As chance would have it, Gil Fronsdal spoke about this very topic at the Monday Dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Center the night after I returned from Ecuador. The people he told us about were a group of prisoners, murderers, he has been working with at St Quentin. Gil related how some of these men, after years of inner work, have achieved the goal to be Safe People: people in whose company one immediately feels safe to let the guard down and be oneself. People in whose presence one can feel acceptance, love, and freedom from harm.
It struck me that in the last few years of my life, I have been blessed to meet several Safe People, most of them from the mountaineering community I so enjoy. Thinking about why this might be, I do believe that the mountains itself have lots to do with it.
Mountains very quickly put you in your place. There is a clear understanding that we, as humans, are not really in control. We can control the route we choose, the safety measures we implement, we can control our decisions based on what is happening. That is not very much compared to things outside of our control: weather, water, conditions, timing, how everyone in the group happens to feel that day, rockfall, crevasses, … All these factors focus our mind to be present with the world, with our bodies and minds, with our climbing team, instead of on our ego and our ideas, preconceived motions of what should happen.
Mountains, forcing you to be present, also will expose you to yourself. My first solo backpacking trip left me yearning for more; a silent walking meditation that forced me to face myself in a way nothing else ever will be able to. When it is just you and the silence, stars sparkling overhead, no noise to distract your thoughts from what needs paying attention to. There is no cop-out for being prepared, for taking care of yourself, for a critical self-assessment on who you are, where you are, and where you need to go from here.
Mountaineering has made me confident in knowing my religion is not the Christianity I grew up in, allowing me to let go of the pain and boundaries I kept getting caught in. Now, I have the scary freedom of trusting my spirit as it is, as I was born with. Desert Tortoise has come out of the burrow to walk the earth. Still with shell on, but hey, every tortoise needs its castle for protection! As more layers come off, I am learning that time to go explore the mountains and deserts is more important to me than the amount of my salary. My Black Diamond ice axe makes my heart swoon more than the wedding ring I used to wear. Skinny-dipping in a cold mountain lake to wash of the grit of a hard hike or climb has more glamour in my book than looking sexy in a designer bikini at a fancy resort. I am becoming more independent, less dependent on other people’s judgements of what is a right and moral way to lead a life. Moral absolutes are giving way to careful thought on how to avoid causing harm.
So, while I am still the character I was born as, coming back to the mountains after a 15 year hiatus has started to change me. This last week, it has finally led me to understand what I need to change towards. Yes, to become stronger, become a better climber, work on my fitness, and all the outward changes go with it. But all the more important, I now know my ultimate journey is to use what the mountains give so freely to form my spirit, to become a Safe Person. Safe for myself to trust in what I feel I need to do, and ultimately, I hope, to be someone others feel safe to open up and be themselves with. To make room in my shell so others can feel its protection and warmth, too.
Something happened which made me realize I have much work to do to become a safe person in people’s life. We had a really good combination of climbers in Ecuador. However, after a few days I noticed one of the climbers kept apologizing for himself. He apologized when he found a situation funny, when his actions might inconvenience someone, when he might say something controversial. Maybe he was just extremely polite. But it made me feel that here was a person who did not feel safe to be himself around me, who did not quite trust to freely be who he is and be accepted for it. Ironically, the very first time I met this climber I immediately knew that he is a Safe Person to trust without hesitation; and I have since noticed how others quickly know the kind soul in him as well.
Lastly, I want to give thanks. Thanks to all the people who have made me feel safe and accepted: To Aaron, who knows how to gently challenge me to push myself beyond my own boundaries while equally gently accepting when I can go no further. To Louise, who keeps teaching me how to be in the Wilderness. Thanks to Lisa, who cheerfully just knows I can do it. To Matt, who always calm and competent, helps me trust myself. Larry, who manages to crack a silly joke to first make me mad, then laugh at the situation. To Emilie, who reaches high and keeps having at it until there is a summit picture. Then there is Rick, who has probably no idea how that one conversation in 2003 about a benefit climb for the Cleveland Clinic revived in me a memory of intense love for the mountains, which did not let go of me again until I was back home on the rocks, breathing thin air.