Reaching the Summit
Why We Never Quit Climbing Our Biggest Mountains
My wife Jackie and I live in Avon, Indiana, and we never quit climbing our biggest mountains. We love it here and gladly make it our home most of the year. Our neighbors are wonderful, the amenities plentiful and everything we need is right at our fingertips. Best of all, our daughter Amy, her husband David, and their four boys live six minutes away. Our son Tim (the voice of the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse) and his two boys are less than two hours away.
But another Avon beckons to us, some 1,100 miles to the west. It’s teeming with adventure opportunities, local traditions, snow in winter, gorgeous scenery – and oh, did I mention mountains? Located in central Colorado at the base of the Beaver Creek ski area, Avon has been our temporary home for a week or two during many of the last twenty summers.
This alpine town and its mountains were also the settings of the first chapter of a story that altered and enhanced our lives forever. My love for mountains began when I was in elementary school, and my parents made vacations to the west a high priority. We didn’t have a lot of money, but mom and dad saved up every year and helped grow their kids’ love of the high country in places like Yosemite, Banff, Wyoming, Glacier and of course Colorado.
As a result, when we had children I was determined to give them the same opportunity to be drawn to the big peaks. As they grew older, I initially committed to conquer at least three summits with Tim. Our first was Long’s Peak, the highest visible mountain to the northwest of Denver. I tried that climb with my mom and dad when I was 11, but dad and I got sick at 13,000 feet and had to go back down.
What a thrill it was to stand on top of Long’s Peak with my son some 30 years later after a challenging eight-mile climb. We went on to do three more summits over the next few years. My daughter Amy and I also topped out on several 14,000-feet climbs after that.
During those climbs, we learned that mountains have much to teach us about determination, perseverance and appreciation of the beauty all around us, but I never dreamed of the tougher lessons that were still to come.
In 2003, Jackie and I returned to our beloved Avon, Colorado. The kids were grown and ready to start their own families, traditions and vacations, so we were on our own for this trip. One day I mentioned to Jackie that I wanted to tackle another 14,000-foot climb and she said she would like to try one too. She was already an avid hiker but hadn’t bagged a summit.
We picked Grey’s Peak in central Colorado. A fourteener is never easy, especially for those of us who live near sea level, but this one seemed doable so we went for it. Thankfully, after some six hours of steep hiking, Jackie and I celebrated on the summit as July snow flurries landed in our hair and a storm rumbled in the distance. We headed down quickly, eating a progressive lunch along the way.
We couldn’t have been happier or more proud of our success – until about three months later.
Jackie went to her doctor with symptoms that appeared related to past problems. Her general practitioner said nothing looked serious but suggested she see a specialist to confirm his diagnosis and give extra peace of mind. Within a couple of weeks she and Amy, who was preparing for her upcoming wedding, decided to go to the appointment, have some mother-daughter time over lunch and then look at wedding dresses.
However, after a couple of hours, Jackie called me and said the surgeon was sure she had stage-three colorectal cancer. While Jackie had undergone a colonoscopy and other exams during prior months, a tumor had not shown up. A tumor had been hidden and the cancer had spread into the surrounding area of her body. The initial prognosis included two bouts each of radiation and chemo, two surgeries and extensive recuperation.
And it was possible that she would die.
Just three months before, we had climbed Grey’s Peak and were celebrating. Now, we felt like we faced Mount Everest and were devastated. Our first thoughts were that we must take our new mountain on all at once, and yet that was overwhelming.
Only after some time absorbing the initial shock and facing our mountain head-on were we able to think like climbers again, and bring experience to Jackie’s cancer. We were reminded that there are basic principles that all climbers know will give them greater chances of success. We knew they could apply to any mountain – even a personal, major one like ours.
Some people face mountains of debt, poor relationships, grief and loss, unknown futures, children who are struggling, or addictions, just to name a few. And while everyone’s climb is unique, it’s essential to include the basics.
Here are a few:
Climb one part of your trail at a time.
Never climb any mountain looking at the summit. It’s just too big and you’ll become paralyzed and discouraged by trying to scale your mountain all at once. On real mountains, we take candy bars and eat one after we’ve reached our first goal. The same works on our personal mountain. Only focus on the next task, the next switchback!
If you owe money, worry about the next payment. If you have an addiction, your next step might be making an appointment, attending a meeting or changing a small lifestyle habit. If you’re grieving, the next goal might be getting through the following day or an upcoming holiday.
Never climb alone.
We quickly learned how much we needed other people to help us, whether it was bringing food, encouraging us when we were down or taking Jackie to appointments when I could not. It’s not the time to be tough, suck it up and do it all yourself. Get a few of the right people around you – have some fellow travelers you know and trust, and who will motivate you.
Be honest about your mountain.
Don’t dress it up and make it look better than it is. If you owe $50,000 then admit it all. If you have an illness, talk about how serious it is. If a relationship is tenuous then spill the whole story to someone.
Personal, challenging mountains are part of life and we can bless them or curse them. But the best response is to embrace them. Each challenge prepares us for something down the road and makes us stronger in the process.
Thankfully, Jackie is healthy and free of cancer. We’ve been able to share our journey in businesses, schools, workshops, podcasts, blogs and faith groups. In fact, our whole story and other lessons can be found in my new book available at Amazon.com called “Never Quit Climbing: Overcoming Life’s Seemingly Insurmountable Mountains.”
Gary is an author, motivational speaker, coach and consultant for businesses, schools and churches. He has also been an educator, counselor, chaplain and pastor. Learn more at neverquitclimbing.com.