The Mountain I Didn’t Climb

I didn’t make it up a mountain yesterday.

Noah reading the map on the top of Mt. Eisenhower. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Noah and I had gone to Mt. Eisenhower on Saturday, and struggled up the 3.3 miles to that summit. We got a late start, the humidity had spiked, and we both hadn’t slept exceptionally well the day before. But we made it after having to really dig deep and push. We talked about Kilimanjaro and our readiness (or lack thereof), and said we had to show we could do it. We both were pretty wiped at the end of the day.

We spent the night at Moose Brook State Park in Gorham, New Hampshire—after getting burger at a townie dive bar (not my best fatherly moment, but at least the burger was good)—and got up yesterday to head to Mt. Waumbek nearby. Waumbek is just barely a 4000 footer in the Whites and, while longer at seven miles round trip, is considered one of the easiest to do. A stroll really up a mostly gently incline with a few steeper sections. It sounded exactly what the doctor ordered.

As we started out, I told Noah that we needed to do this or we might not be able to make Kilimanjaro at all. (Also not my best fatherly moment.) I began struggling abut a half mile in. While cool the humidity was still up, and my clothes were soaked through. I sweat a lot while hiking, but even this felt excessive. I just didn’t have much left in the tank.

And I felt like a big fat failure.

I had missed a lot of my training due to twisting my ankle about a month ago, and thought perhaps it had come back to haunt me. We talked a bit more. He said if I didn’t have it that it would be better to turn back—that it wasn’t our day. I gave him a hug and promised that I’d do all I could to get in better shape before our trip.

On the way down it dawned on me that we both had inoculations on Friday for our adventure in Tanzania, and that might be a significant reason for how we were feeling. Both of us had been tired and also felt a little chilled whenever we entered air conditioned spaces. And sure enough, after looking it up, fatigue and a slight fever are typical symptoms the first couple of days. This would explain some of our struggle and my profuse sweating.

I realized, however, that I’ve been making this trip—and this whole sabbatical really—about accomplishing goals, about making the summit of Kili, and checking off a bunch of hikes. But it’s not about that. It’s about being refreshed and becoming the best man, husband and father that I can through this gift of time away. Whether I reach summits or not will not determine those things, but how I take the journey will.

I have been making this trip to Africa about succeeding on the climb and reaching the top, and not about sharing this amazing adventure with Noah. The first is about me—I’m the priest who summited the highest peak in Africa—and the other is about our relationship—I took the adventure of a lifetime with my son, and we had a blast.

Belden Lane writes about the mountain he didn’t climb, in Backpacking with the Saints.  “There are times on the trail when you have to turn back. Nothing is more discouraging. Maybe you’ve done something stupid, like losing the map. Changing weather conditions may have made it dangerous or foolhardy to go any further. Maybe your gear is soaking wet or the black flies have become unbearable. Sometimes you simply do not have it in you to go on. Whatever brings you to that point, you admit defeat and grudgingly head back toward the trailhead. Yet there are times when not reaching one’s goal on a pack trip may be even better than having done so.” (127)

I want to make my sabbatical, all of the fifteen weeks left, about my relationships—with God, my family and myself—and not about accomplishments. I want to train hard, certainly—and plan to do so—but I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. I don’t want my son to feel like we failed and wasted our time if we don’t for whatever reason make it to the very top. I don’t want my family to feel as if the only thing we can think about in the two months before Kili is what Noah and I need to do so we can get there. This is so much bigger than that.

So I’m glad I didn’t make it up that mountain yesterday. It opened my eyes to what I could have been throwing away this summer. And I get to try again today to see that it’s about the journey and not the destination. About the experiences with those I love most in this world and not the accomplishments.

About experiencing deep renewal in the wilderness.