Walking up a mountain, one step at a time

Walking up a mountain, one step at a time

Last weekend I went skiing in Alagna, Italy. On our first day I skied about 2 hours, and mostly on piste. On the second day we met our ski guide in the morning who asked us if we were fit and able and willing to walk up the mountain a bit for a really great run. Well, of course we were!

My fellow skiers all had skis that could be fitted with skins, but mine couldn’t and I didn’t want to ski on a different pair, so I asked the guide what my options were. He suggested snowshoes which I could fit under my ski boots and which looked a bit like tennis rackets. I asked if there was a downside to that option and he smiled and said ‘Well, it is about 30% more tiring to climb up a mountain with those things.’

On our way down in a nice little couloir - Photo by Mathys van Abbe
On our way down in a nice little couloir – Photo by Mathys van Abbe

Being in good condition and, well, a bit stubborn, I figured to give it a shot. About an hour later we arrived at the highest lift station and started our ascent. The guide graciously offered to bind my skis to his backpack so I could focus on the walk. I thanked him and he said ‘Don’t worry, but I’m doing it for myself. I don’t want to see you exhausted by the time we get up and then having to carry you down’. A nice confidence boost, thanks.

My friends started joking about how I shouldn’t worry and they would wait for me at the summit for an hour or two until I got there. And then they started walking, while I was still fiddling with my snowshoes. Our Italian guide was in front and our friend Raymond Landgraaf from Otro Elements, who lives in the area, was in the back, to make sure we all made it up the mountain.

After 20 minutes I was already exhausted. It was incredibly warm in the sun and out of the wind, the snowshoes were heavy and unwieldy, the path was too small and steep and I kept slipping every few steps. I looked up and noticed my friends were now small dots in the distance and the summit didn’t look anything closer either. I turned around and it seemed I had only covered a tiny distance.

I stopped to catch my breath and started cursing myself. Out loud.

At some point I felt a hand on my shoulder, and looked up to see Raymond standing next to me. He asked how I was doing, and still out of breath and with my heart racing, I pointed at the skiers in front of us, and the summit above that, and, under my breath, said ‘Impossible! Too heavy! Fuck this!”

Raymond just smiled, grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and started talking.

“Boris, you are going about this all wrong. The mountain doesn’t care about you, but also isn’t against you. You have to accept the circumstances, not fight them. Don’t look at the summit, or those skiers, or even think about your snowshoes. Look around you. It is beautiful here. Stop fighting what you can’t change. Focus on your breathing, on your heart rate, on your next step and on finding your rhythm. Once you find your rhythm you can do anything.”

I’m not sure what happened but I listened to what he said and something clicked. I turned around, took a few breaths and then took a step forwards. Then I inhaled and took two more steps. After a few more steps I focused on my poles, and how I was moving them. Eventually I felt myself getting calmer and I felt my heart rate lowering. My movements started feeling more secure and logical. Almost effortless.

Well, not effortless, but not exhausting either.

As I found my rhythm I started thinking about my life, and how what Raymond said had so made so much sense. In two or three sentences he had described what it is like to be an entrepreneur. When you start a business you might set a goal at the beginning, and you keep that goal in the back of your mind. But from that moment on you focus on making small steps. And you keep making the next step, and then the one after that.

You don’t get distracted, or demotivated, by what others say or do. You just focus on finding a rhythm and making that next step that gets you closer to your goal.

I know this. This is what I do every day. And after making small steps for a long enough period you suddenly look back at your life and realize all those small steps led to something, and your goal is suddenly a lot closer.

As I was thinking about all of that my world was now nothing more than my rhythm, and my view was restricted to my snowshoes, and the 30 centimeters in front of me where I was going to take my next step.

Then something unexpected happened. I noticed the back of a pair of skis. I had caught up with one of my friends, and was now even passing him. I remember he said something as I passed him, but I didn’t really hear him and didn’t reply, because I was too focused on taking my next step. And then the next. And next.

Some time later, the same thing happened again. I noticed skis, passed another skier, and just kept on walking. Then, after passing several skiers, I saw someone standing still, on my path. I slowly looked up and saw the Italian guide standing there, on the summit, with a huge smile on his face. I smiled back at him, raised my right index finger in the air and asked ‘First?’

Back down in the valley - Photo by Mathys van Abbe
Back down in the valley – Photo by Mathys van Abbe

The guide pointed back at my friends, who were peeling the skins off their skies about 20 meters lower. Then I noticed Raymond walking up to me with an ever bigger smile on his face. He said ‘Oh man, what a sight! You found your rhythm! You went up that mountain like a freight truck!’. He gave me a bearhug and I found myself overwhelmed with joy and almost crying from happiness.

Now, I didn’t win any race, or even beat my friends to that mountaintop. I didn’t even carry my owns skis and they had most probably just stopped close to the summit and I had passed them not even noticing we were already there.

But all of that didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I found my rhythm and learned an important lesson that can be applied not only on a steep mountain but also in daily life, whether you are an entrepreneur or just someone trying to accomplish a task that seems daunting.

The lesson is that you need to know your goal, then find your rhythm and then keep taking one step at a time, until you get there. It al seems so logical. But sometimes you need to be reminded of those simple truths, preferably on a sunny and snow covered mountain in Italy.

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