The Elk Glacier Headwall Story

This story took place on a 9-day trip in August of 2007 in the Rocky Mountains.

It is what I call a “paradigmatic story”. It is paradigmatic for 3 reasons:

  • it is a story that involves a paradigm (an early version of the mental model of “the 12 Ideas that Rocked my World”),
  • it is a really clear and classic example of the stories that belong in this blog,
  • it is a story that benefits from being told with the help of some pictures.

It was the morning of Day Two. Oliver and I knew that we had to take our big packs (almost 70 pounds each!) and bushwack up the headwall that led to the basin at the foot of the Elk Glacier.

That morning, over coffee, Oliver and I had discussed some of the ideas that I was trying to get across in my college classes. These ideas included questions like:

  • What is happiness, what is enjoyment, what is “fun”?
  • What is the role of personal development (and “self-design”) in high quality recreation?
  • How can a person increase the quality of their recreation experience?

In our morning discussion I quoted Huxley:

“Experience isn’t what happens to you; experience is

what you do with what happens to you”.

— A. Huxley

We both knew about the headwall. We had done a trip the summer before and had struggled to descend it during one of the final days of that trip. The descent had been a bit of a nerve-wracking experience. And now, this year, we were faced with the challenge of going up it with 8 days worth of food, gear, etc. We knew that the elevation gain was just over 1500 feet and there was a narrow, rock-strewn gully that we had to scrabble up near the top. Here’s a picture of the headwall with the red line indicating the approximate route (no trail).

The approximate route up the headwall.

After breakfast, as I finished packing, I looked up at the headwall and I asked myself “Who do I want to be as I struggle up this headwall?” I answered that question with a few words hastily scribbled into my trip journal just before we started our hike. I wrote: “persevering, confident, positive attitude, appreciative“. And then we set off.

As we approached the start of the steep part we both stopped to look up at the slope and at the narrow gully above. Oliver turned to me and matter-of-factly said: “Let’s see how many ways we can enjoy this“. We both smiled and headed up. Slowly. Surely. Sweaty. Smiling.

Oliver experimenting with enjoyment on the steep climb with the big pack.

As I was going up the slope I thought to myself: “Yes this is tough going, but I am still in charge of at least part of my experience. I can interpret my experience in various ways, and I can bring the words that I scribbled into my journal to bear. Those words can be my mantra as I move up the mountain”.

And finally, here’s a picture of the narrow gulley near the top that further tested our beliefs and our experiment (and our leg muscles).

The narrow gully near the top of the route. Still a fair ways to go. And the packs ain’t getting any lighter!

There are two quick points I want to make about this story.

It may seem a bit “weird” that Oliver and I would engage in this kind of thinking and discussion, but …

Point #1

We were both free to do so. We recognized that particular freedom, and then chose to use it — to make it “come to life”. (I guess, theoretically, we were also free to whine and complain about the situation, but we chose to use our freedom in a different way). We knew that we were responsible for how we chose to use our freedom. (Note: On a 9-day expedition through remote territory you tend to get a clear sense of your own freedom … and your own responsibility … that’s partly WHY you go!)

Point #2

There was a somewhat unforeseen benefit to our mental musings and our existential game. Once we topped out of the narrow gulley and finally got to take our packs off for a well-deserved rest … we realized that our “game” had made the climb a little bit easier, and a little bit more “enjoyable” (whatever that means). Kinda makes you go “Hmmmmm …”.

2 responses to “The Elk Glacier Headwall Story”

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