Climbing a mountain can give you a sense of achievement and joy
It was a little past 3am. Or maybe it was 4am, I had lost count of the hours, immersed instead in the seconds it took to take a single step. The process went like this: deep breath, lift arm, move hiking pole forward, lift leg, move leg forward, breath out. Stop. Take rasping breath. Repeat. A voice in my head kept protesting against the cold, hard effort. It’s OK to stop and go back, it said. But a deeper calling moved me towards my goal: the summit of the mountain that I knew, but could not yet see, was ahead of me.
Climbing a mountain is, by all accounts, a pointless pursuit. We go up to simply come down again. Hazards abound. Yet, despite the futility and risk, man has long been pulled towards mountaintops.
“Because it’s there”, was the reason George Mallory (allegedly one of the first men to ever climb Everest) gave for climbing the mammoth mountain, his stark answer belying a more complex reasoning he later gave in writing: “There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever… [But] if you cannot understand that…the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”
Indeed, as I discovered in the early hours of the morning as I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year, the true battle I faced was the one within myself. As in life, in each step I had two choices: give up, or give it all you’ve got. And the choice I made in each moment – literally – determined the heights I reached.
Eventually, I stood on ‘the roof of Africa’, 5,895 metres above sea level, feeling truly alive, truly at peace and, above all, like anything was possible. I was hooked.
I am not alone. An increasing number of women in Asia are flocking to fulfil their mountain dreams and, in the process, discovering a simple formula for happiness and well-being.
MASTER THE MOUNTAIN, MASTER YOURSELF
“It’s the sense of achievement and accomplishment I get once I’ve reached the summit – it’s an unparalleled feeling,” says Justina Kozicki, 29, who’s climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia and Mount Agung in Bali, and has now switched to mountain running to get more daily mountain highs.
“Each time I hit a wall and push through, I come out stronger, and expand the horizons of my mental and spiritual capacity,” she says. “And in that space somehow I find utter peace and serenity and calmness of mind.”
Says Kozicki, almost puzzled: “All these factors I mention – they seem to make me extremely happy.”
Her experience is referred to in the field of positive psychology as ‘mastery’ – a feeling of well-being and happiness that comes when a person accomplishes something that matters to them. (It’s a powerful motivational tool, too, taught at top business schools and is one of three tools documented in Daniel Pinker’s 2011 New York Times bestseller, Drive.)
Mastery gives us pleasure. Her gleeful words also echo those uttered half a century earlier by Mallory of his Everest ambitions: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
FACE YOUR FEARS
Does climbing a mountain seem scary, intimidating, daunting? That’s precisely the point. Achieving the very thing that seems so impossible shifts your perspective. All of a sudden, obstacles in your life that seem impossible to overcome – all those metaphorical mountains – suddenly become surmountable. Getting to the summit you learn that, like in life, every mountaintop is within reach if you just keep climbing.
There are other reasons, of course, that being amongst mountains can add to your happiness and well-being: you’re in nature. Research has long documented the benefit of fresh mountain air, nature and altitude on our happiness and our health. A study of 1,991 hikers taking part in weekly nature walks published in the 2014 edition of Ecopsychology, for example, found that hikers were less stressed and less prone to depression.
Living at altitude means a lower risk of obesity than living at sea level according to a 2013 study of American cities and may even reduce your risk of dying from heart disease according to another study published in 2012. So powerful is nature to our health that the Japanese even have a word for soaking up green goodness: shinrin-yoku, literally ‘forest bathing’.
Historically, mountains are considered holy and sacred. The Japanese, for example, must climb Mount Fuji “at least once in their life – it’s almost like every man’s pilgrimage,” says Chiaki Fjelddahl, a Hong Kong-based Japanese mountain climber and ultra runner. “We Japanese actually believe all mountains in Japan are sacred, because that’s where the Gods live…Because Mount Fuji is the tallest, and in a way the most beautifully symmetrical and perfect, it is the most sacred.”
Simply put: being in such sacred places is good for the soul.