Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Minds Are Malleable, Trails Are Not

People often ask me what I think about when I spend twelve hours alone moving over trails in the Himalaya, and I usually don't have a good answer. For some reason though when I woke up this morning I remembered a mantra that I tell myself over and over again as I traverse the ridges of the mountains, 'my mind is malleable the trail is not'. What I mean by this is that the trail is what it is, it does not change and it does not give you a break, if the trail climbs 3,000' it means that if you're going to get from point A to point B on it you're going to have to climb 3,000'. This all seems rather simple and straight forward, but it's more complicated because we like to lie to ourselves, and make promises that we can't keep, ones that we have no control over. We excel at sabotaging our own morale. We like to pretend that things are not as they are.

After my last trek up to the everest region I met up with the two British trekkers I had spent some time with, Rob and Ian. As we were out in Thamel tossing down some well deserved fajitas Ian discussed what he thought was the hardest bit of trail. He did the whole section from Jiri up to Gokyo and then over to base camp, he had some really long days and climbed up to points over eighteen thousand feet with some rather steep sections. The hardest part though? The flat section of trail leading along the ridge that leads back to Namche Bazaar. It was a long day, and the first that they had really gotten stuck out in the rain, they had left that morning from Pheriche and were hoping to make it a little ways south of Namche. As they got onto that ridge they were wet and tired, clouds reduced visability to a mere fifty meters, and the trail consistently meandered around corners hugging the mountain on the right. Wanting to just be in Namche already Ian explained that it was just so disappointing to round each one of those bends and not be in Namche. He kept telling himself that Namche must be around the next corner, and it never was...well eventually it was but not as soon as he would have liked. It made this part of the trail unbearable for him.

We all do this on the trail. We promise ourselves that the ledge above you is the peak, that the village you can see in the distance is the one you're aiming to stay the night in, that the final destination is just around the corner. Thus we lie to ourselves and fill ourselves with false hope. These aren't promises we can keep, the trail doesn't change to fit our expectations. The trail is what it is, and wanting something to be different than it is will never do you any good. The trail is not malleable. I have over time learned this the hard way after many long days of hiking in the White Mountains back home.This is not the end of the realization though, the other side of this is that your mind, your hopes, and your expectations are malleable. This is the most important part.

What friends of mine jokingly call my "endurance trekking"  is really a mental game. Yes it has a physical component, but anything that requires long sustained action is more about a frame of mind then bodily strength. A huge part of this is not bullshitting yourself, and keeping yourself focused on the moment and not what lies so far before you. While trekking the only thing you need to ask yourself is if you can, right now, take another step. Sometimes you're exhausted and the answer is no, and if it is then take a break and enjoy the scenery. Most of the time though, you know you can, you have it in you and you can keep on going. It doesn't matter what's over the next climb or around the next bend. The trail doesn't change. I always assume there is another rise, I always assume the next town is not where I'm trying to get to, I always assume there is more to be done. When I'm wrong its then a case of pleasant surprise instead of morale crushing disappointment.

Marcus Aurelius notes several times in his meditations that only fools are surprised by how things are. He drives home the point that it is when we have these poor mental models of how things are, often misshaped by our own desires and sense of ego, and that the expectations these create are not a wrong the world has inflicted on us, but that which we have inflicted upon ourselves. It is not the worlds fault that we misjudged things for what they are or expected them to be something that they are not. This is the lesson of the trail, that the difficulty is internal and we often create the toughest barriers ourselves through wanting things to be other than they are. The test we face is more about overcoming ourselves than it is about climbing that rise before us or getting to that next village to spend the night.

So what do I think about then when I'm trekking long days through the mountains of Nepal? I think about how I'm one of the luckiest people on this planet. I enjoy the scenery and take in the views. I always remind myself  that my expectations and opinion are malleable, but that the trail is not. So when I close in on mile 34 and Ive been walking for fourteen hours over some of the more dramatic terrain on earth I think only that this is the trail I have to cross, and I don't know what lies ahead for sure, but I think I can take another step and if I keep on moving I'll get to where I'm going.


  1. Excellent and very inspiring post.
    "We excel at sabotaging our own morale." Can't that sword cut both ways? We can lie to ourselves to push ourselves further. i.e. When our body is screaming at us to stop we can tell ourselves that we aren't really hurting, that we'll take just 1 more step when we really know we'll do 100.

  2. Thanks Liam!
    Yes we certainly can. I think my focus on the negative side though is because, at least in my experience, that is the part that comes naturally to us. No one needs to teach us to sabotage ourselves, we seem born with a certain leaning toward it. Learning to turn it around and use it to push yourself is something we gain through experience and mental discipline. At least that's how it's been for me.


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