Mountain climbing is an arduous endeavor. Both physically and mentally, it requires concentration, commitment, and endurance. It takes a long time, and gives you plenty of time to think.
Thanks to Deb Large, I had the opportunity to hike Katahdin last week. She shepherded the “Mountain Mamas” (Ginny Pidot, Jane Higgins, Wendy Wingate, Ellen Vickers, Connie Ottmann and me) from Roaring Brook Campground up to Chimney Pond where we camped for three days and two nights.
Not everyone hiked the whole mountain, but everyone met some personal goal. It may have been to be unplugged from the rat race for a while, or just to get in as far as the campground. The reasons for participating were as numerous as the personalities in our group.
There is very little that is “hike-ish” about climbing something like Katahdin. Those that have done it know that it requires equal amounts of endurance and courage. We started our climb up over Cathedral- a testament to physical stamina. From the summit we headed across the Knife Edge, requiring mental concentration and more than a little courage. After 6 hours of work we headed down Dudley. It felt like a 1.3 mile boulder field, but Deb assured us that most of them were merely large rocks, not boulders. We were not convinced.
You have a lot of time to think during an 11 hour walk. I made a lot of connections between what I was asking myself to do and what I ask my students to do. Over the course of the walk I had to make many decisions based on the information available to me. What was the best way to get over that boulder? Was I better with handholds or footholds? Where were my strengths and how could I best use them? Each decision required analysis of the problem, a review of the information available, and occasionally a reality check from a fellow climber. In the end, though, I had to live with the path I chose. I wasn’t always right, but I learned from each mistake.
I was surprised to learn how strong my arms were- I had always thought I had little upper body strength. I learned that knees are not useful as a point of contact with rocks. I was struck by the idea that any decision is better than no decision at all- something I tell my riding students all the time. A mountain can be unforgiving and choices must be consciously made- and as often as not, stuck with to completion.
I also recognized the number of ways to scale an obstacle. Sometimes it was forwards; sometimes backwards. Occasionally sideways. Our group often chose different methods to get across the same patch of ground
Most amazing to me was that there was vegetation at the top of the mountain. It was cold up there even now- and there was nothing in the way of dirt that I could see. And yet these trees, tiny as they were, were persistent in their quest to grow despite the odds against them.
I began to look at teaching through the lens of Katahdin. How much room is there for frontwards, backwards, and sideways movement towards learning when I am teaching? And how receptive am I to decision making as a learning tool? Am I as unforgiving as the mountain?
The ebb and flow between group collaboration and personal growth was evident. Deb provided a guiding hand to get us those last few inches down to a foothold we couldn’t see. We looked to each other for strength and encouragement, providing “dirt” from which to grow and succeed.
The lesson for me is simple. Find a way – frontwards, sideways, backwards – and embrace it. Use it as long as it works, then change your way. Continue to reach for what you can’t see…and grow even when there is no dirt.