Thoughtful Thursday#12: Doing Nothing Well: Finding Frogs—and Success—on the Summits.
An article with particular relevance now, far from the summits...
Below, you'll find the start of an article I wrote awhile back about the proper mindset for mountain climbing. In this period, when people are taking responsibility and self-isolating, it seems like it could have new and special significance:
Frogs are not typically associated jagged, snowy, glaciated summits. Nor are the squishy creatures seen as nearly as impressive a mascot as creatures with teeth and claws—tigers, wolves, and the like. Regardless, as our climbing season begins they should serve as the mountaineering mascot for any aspiring summiteer—and also as a useful guide in the lower elevations. Consider the frog, sitting on its lily pad: If there are no flies nearby, there is nothing to do but sit and breathe. Impatiently swimming circles around the lily pad would only scare flies off...and there is no use trying to chase down a fly if you are a frog. So nothing is done, save sitting and breathing and waiting. Yet, all that “nothing” is a powerful, purposeful something. It is preparation for the precise moment when the fly does arrive. Suddenly, our squishy friend becomes the picture of complete readiness, focus, and action: Frog-tongue-fly-mouth. Task dispatched, it's back to sitting, breathing, and being ready.
This is why the frog is the perfect—if improbable—mascot for climbers, the symbol for what we should aspire to be at elevation: Complete action when the moment is ripe, complete repose otherwise. When the weather is clear, our basecamp becomes a launch pad. When the mountain coldly commands us to wait, the tight confines of a wind-battered tent, filled with a crushing pile of gear, and stinking tentmates becomes our lily pad. There is nothing left to do but sit and breathe and be...
It seems easy, but paradoxically, this is a crux for many drawn to the mountains. While summits have little value outside of the climbing economy, save for cocktail conversation, climbers nonetheless seek this currency. In its own odd and useless way, climbing culture is goal-oriented and its population is driven. “Dirtbag climbers” living in vans, flush with time, but dedicating every dollar to the next expedition, are one component. And then there are the “corporate climbers,” used to crushing office hours and squeezing training for high-altitude achievement into any spare moment. Over my years as an alpine guide, I have come to see that the vertical world presents to them a peculiar challenge, for nothing in their training or in their lives have prepared them for the subtle craft of doing nothing. It is contrary to everything they think life has taught them: Namely, that progress is made by doing something. In fact, often one must do several somethings all at once, if perhaps poorly; what modernity calls “multi-tasking.” Eating is done while meetings are done while emailing clients. Life in lower-altitude, higher-pressure environments has taught them that this is how progress is made.
This approach has its own set of hazards in the lower elevations; taken into the higher atmospheres it can become positively deadly. With thin air and fickle weather, progress happens at a pace the mountain dictates. Violate those dictates and die. With a storm raging outside, sometimes the only thing to do after breakfast is to wait for lunch. There will be no clients to email during this lunch...only you with your dwindling salami slices and—after conversation with your tentmate has petered out like the terminus of a glacier, and the crackers are long gone—you with yourself. Success on the climb means becoming comfortable with your self doing no thing.
At this point the counterintuitive logic of “frog-style mountaineering” comes into play. Accomplishing the goal becomes dependent upon an ability to frame the goal in a way more suitable to the mountain world. Antithetical to modern culture, progress becomes measured in terms of an ability to do nothing. Within the tight confines of the tent an object lesson is offered to each of us: “You are not in control of everything. Simply control those things you can and let go of the rest.” Slice some salami, squeeze the empty mustard bottle one more time, sit, breathe, and wait—perfectly accomplishing nothing—which is precisely what climbing is about. Action when appropriate and doing nothing well. And, if our climb is truly successful, we will carry this approach with us back down to the valley.