What I learned in the Italian Alps

Last year, I spent 5 days randonée skiing in the Alps as I have for the past 4 years or so.   My mom refers to it as ‘that crazy skiing’, I often call it ‘uphill skiing’, since 90% of the time is spent slogging up mountains on skis fitted with skins so they stick, or most of the time stick, to the snow so you can climb a 30 degree pitch.  Any steeper than that, or in icy conditions, you end up zigzagging back and forth across the slope to make headway.    I learned a few things on those trips that are useful in my more mundane daily life.

1.  Find a pace you can continue to do all day and stick to it.

I am often tempted to go fast early in the day — get some miles under my belt, make some progress.  Unfortunately, going fast and taking long breaks seems to make the day harder.  You don’t really get to where you are headed any sooner and you can’t really predict when you are going to completely run out of steam.  The best progress is made when you work at a strong steady pace, and stop for short intervals to refuel or check out the view.

Windy climb

Windy climb

2.  Love the suffering.

On the road trip to the mountains, one of my skiing pals asked why my husband doesn’t join in.  Our good friend, S., said: “Il n’aime pas la souffrance.”  My french comprehension can sometimes be a bit spotty, so I understood him to say that B. (the husband) doesn’t like the ‘sud de France’.  If you skip over those ‘d’ sounds, like the French like to do, ‘souffrance’ and ‘sud de France’ sound amazingly the same.  Trust me.   Anyway,  B is definitely a fan of the ‘sud de France’.  On the other hand,  like many (all) of us he doesn’t like to suffer.

Somehow if you are going to climb mountains, or succeed at making pots, or whatever you choose to do, you have to figure out how to enjoy the suffering.  Six hours of climbing at high altitude is not really fun in the normal sense of the word.  You are out of breath, at times scared, occasionally worried about avalanches and crevasses, but mostly wondering when it will end.  Its often hard to enjoy the suffering in the moment, sometimes the best I can do, is think about how great it is going to feel when its over.

Pick a pace and stick to it - climbing a glacier.

Pick a pace and stick to it - climbing a glacier.

3.  When you achieve the goal, you are always going to think – that wasn’t so bad.

I don’t know why this happens but it is worth remembering when you are in the thick of it.  When you get to the top of that mountain that seemed insurmountable from the bottom and you are looking back on the journey, you inevitably feel that it wasn’t nearly as hard as you thought it was going to be. So set your targets high and far.  When you have succeeded it’ll have seemed easy.

4. Stepping far outside your comfort zone gives you the courage to take small uncomfortable steps every day.

Several friends have asked: Why do you do this?  Why do you climb those mountains, and face potentially life threatening risks in the name of fun or sport or whatever?

First let me say, that the goal isn’t to put myself in danger. But having faced some scary moments; a friend plummeting down a hill in an avalanche, another tumbling down a crevasse, walking a windy, icy narrow ridge…it really puts more typical scary moments in a whole new manageable perspective. I can always say, “This isn’t nearly as difficult as that time…”

5.  Be Confident.  Trust yourself.

The first time I faced a steep downward pitch that seemed to fall off into oblivion on both sides, I was petrified.  I couldn’t make even the simplest turn on my skis without skidding off my edges.  I was close to tears.  I just wanted not to be there. I completely forgot any skills I had.  I didn’t believe I could do it. And well, I couldn’t.    Somehow I managed to get down that day, slowly.  Incredibly slowly.

Now when I face a similar pitch, I have learned to believe in myself, to point my skis downward, face the mountain and ski with gusto.  I will even throw in a ‘virago sauté’ here and there.  It turns out that confidence makes all the difference.  How do find that confidence? – doing stuff, practice, in your gut.  You can dig it up when you need it.

6.  Life is an individual and a team sport.

We all send our kids out to play sports or join a theatrical group to learn about teamwork and develop self confidence and skills. And I suppose that when the stakes are high, if you really believe the goal is significant enough, you can learn some of those things on the soccer pitch or the stage.  But there is nothing comparable (that I have participated in) than climbing and skiing at altitude with a group of people to understand what teamwork really means.

Each person has to carry their own gear, share in the carrying of collective gear, get themselves up the mountain but also make sure that everyone else does too.   The implications of failing can be substantial.

On one slope, where avalanche risk was not null, the pitch was steep and a little icy and there were some major rocks to avoid, our trip leader assessed everyone’s skiing ability and determined the skiing order.  The best skiers and experienced mountaineers would go first and last, in case someone needed help.  The rest of us skied down one by one with the instructions: don’t fall (that’s my favorite), avoid the crevasse, don’t hit the rocks, and don’t stop. Easy peasy.

You are on your own to succeed but the group is getting ready to help if … lets not think about the ‘if’.  (see no. 5 Confidence)

We challenge each other to reach higher, work harder, to learn new skills so that the everyone reaches their personal and group goals.   And since you want them to invite you back for another go, you have to do this with charm and grace.

7.  Face your challenges in the here and now.

I don’t know how they do this, but every person I have met in the mountains seems unflappable.  They live in the moment while simultaneously planning for the rest of the day, the week…  They face each challenge as it comes.  They don’t panic (at least not on the outside).  Their calmness in the face of difficulties influences others to maintain their cool.

I want to be like them.

I am making progress.  I used to lie in bed in the mountain refuge imaging the next day – the difficulty of the climb, the steepness of the pitch on the ski down, the wind howling over the ridge, the rappel…while I should have been sleeping.  And not getting enough sleep wasn’t going to help me in the morning.  I’ve learned to let go.  To focus on the task at hand and trust that I’ll succeed at the next one too when it arrives.