Climbing Mount Baldy, one step at a time

The summer I turned 16, my scout troop traveled to Cimarron, New Mexico, to spend more than a week backpacking in Philmont Scout Reservation. At this time in my life, camping was one of my favorite things to do; somehow, back then, I managed to actually get to sleep on the ground. I looked forward to spending so much time on the trail, playing capture the flag (if we ever had energy) and watching the stars at night.

But it turned out to be one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I was out of shape, having quit playing soccer but kept up a soccer player-like diet. I wasn’t all that ready for trekking long distances in high temperatures while carrying a heavy pack. Even with my tentmate volunteering to carry the tent each day, I was the slowest in the group.

Two of the adult leaders always stuck behind me on the trail. One of them, Adrian, often pushed his walking stick into my back to nudge me ahead. I called it “the Philmont wind” at my back.

Mount Baldy
My trip to Mount Baldy was before digital cameras took off, so here’s a photo from Wikipedia. By Gert2 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Xnatedawgx using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

A climax of the trip (literally and metaphorically) was a hike up Mount Baldy, also called Baldy Mountain, the highest point in the Cimarron mountain range. The hike required ascending nearly 3,000 feet from the base camp below. Fortunately, the day before the hike was a lite hiking day, and we got to spend hours upon hours sitting around the camp at Baldy’s foot, trying to capture some incredibly slow-moving flies that buzzed everywhere.

Someone suggested that we retire early that day and get up really early in the morning to hike Mount Baldy in time to see the sunrise from the summit. So the following morning we set out on a trail we could hardly see. In fact, we missed a switchback at one point and didn’t realize it until we hit a dead end.

I suggested we sing “High on a Mountain of Love” by John Denver. Someone told me to save my breath. I’m not sure if he was actually concerned about me conserving my energy in the thin air, or if he just didn’t want to hear me sing.

Baldy was one of the most strenuous hikes I’d attempted. I suffered from exhaustion and maybe a little altitude sickness as we climbed. One of the boys had to turn back after vomiting. It was cold as the wind blew and snow patches surrounded parts of the trail.

Maybe I could turn back, too, I thought.

Finally we reached a place where the trail went up a steep, rocky embankment toward the summit. I’d had enough of physical activity for the day, and the thought of scaling this steep hill made me sick.

I sat on a rock and announced, “I’m watching the sunrise from here.” Our troop was split up into several small groups by this point. Adrian offered to stay with me while the rest of the group went a head.

After a few minutes, Adrian said, “Bryan, can you take one more step?”

“Sure,” I said, and I sarcastically stood up, took one step, and sat down again.

“Can you take one more?”

He asked me to think of the hill not as a long, arduous task, but as one step after another. One step at a time.

I agreed to try it out and started taking one step, resting a moment, and then taking another step.

Group at the top of Mount Baldy
The summit of Mount Baldy. By AwBaseball25 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

“Try smaller steps,” he said, pointing out that a patient pace would conserve energy. So I slowly climbed Mount Baldy until I reached the top. The horizon was bright.

We could see many miles of mountains, hills, and fields rolling away in every direction. Someone pointed out the bright line of flames in the distance — a wildfire in Colorado that we’d been told about as we started the trip. (Small story — one of the Colorado firefighters who was battling that particular fire had a daughter who I met in Virginia and dated for a few weeks about 10 years later. Small world, huh?)

It felt like we were on the summit forever when the bright sun crept over the horizon.

I thought of this experience while reading “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore. After listening to the audiobook a bit over a year ago, I bought a print copy so I could read it again and pay more attention to its guide for overcoming procrastination and producing more creative, satisfying work. The book explains how procrastination is caused by negative, false attitudes about work and about human nature, including the idea that our work is some monumental task, like climbing a mountain in a single bound. But by breaking up our work into smaller segments, by punctuating short, in-the-flow working time with breaks filled with enjoyable experiences (he calls it, “guilt-free play”) we can overcome the anxiety that the mountain of work calls us. Rather than saying, “I’ll never finish,” Fiore says we should say, “When can I start?”

Instead of saying, “I’ll never get to the top of this mountain; I’m watching the sunrise from here,” we should say, “Can I take one more step?”

I’ve been reading the book again for less than a week, and it’s already transformed my attitude about work and procrastination. I still have a long way to go, but the fact that I’m writing this post (fewer than two weeks since my last one) is a sign that I’m making progress.

Here’s to a more productive year.