Lessons From a Mountain

Eli Vega is a published photographer and photography instructor, a published writer, and philosopher. He has photographed and hiked the Colorado mountains since he set foot on the Centennial State five years ago. Included among his serious hikes are three fourteeners: Mt. Bierstadt, Quandry Peak, and the state’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert (14,443’). Below are some life lessons that Eli extracted, internalized and of which he was reminded when he hiked his three Colorado fourteeners.

lone eagleI have lived in Colorado for over six years, having moved here from Dallas, Texas. I moved here to improve my quality of life, enjoy the natural beauty this state has to offer, and capture that beauty through my camera. During my lifetime, I have had more than my share of life achievements. It has occurred to me that it would take most people two or three lifetimes to achieve what I have been able to achieve. None of my achievements, however, have given me the sense of personal accomplishment like that which I have derived by hiking Colorado fourteeners. Three fourteeners have given me a sense of hovering perspective, a sense of size in the universe, and a sense of life context. “Conquering” a fourteener is the best way I can describe what it took for me to reach the summits. ”Conquering” a fourteener has many similarities to what it takes for us to navigate through life, especially as it relates to achieving personal goals and resolutions.

There are several phases of the hikes from which we can draw life analogies. The lessons that were relevant to my arduous personal achievements can be easily transferred to our everyday lives, both personal and work. Here are some of those lessons from my respectable masters—Colorado’s fourteeners.


Meditate—I had to relax my mind, body and spirit, not only at the time of the hike, but days before. Yes, taking deep breaths and positive self-talks do indeed work. I kept reminding myself of the true statement that is too often used as a meaningless cliché, “Take one step at a time.”

Planning— I had to carefully plan what I would need to succeed, in order to minimize the chances of failure. My planning included water, proper shoes, the right protection, contingency plans; etc. As they say, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Ask for Help
—You don’t know what you don’t know. I accept that there are things about which I know nothing or very little—like hiking fourteeners. I intentionally asked more than one person if they had hiked fourteeners. I asked for suggestions, tips, ideas, and advice. I’m glad I did. In looking back at my successful hikes, I realized that I might have been unsuccessful, or my mountain journeys would have been extremely difficult, if I had not asked for help.    


Setting missions—Without a definite, clear mission, I would not have been able to hike to the summit. My mission was simple and concrete: to get to the summit. The timing was also critical. I knew, from advice I had received, that I should be at the summit no later than midday or so. There was nothing vague or unclear about my mission.

Stay focused—I knew I had to stay focused on my mission. Any wavering or mental ambiguities would have derailed me from my mission.

One step at a time
—Although I had heard that quote many times in my life, I knew that it was really going to apply on my hikes. I followed my own advice. Every time my body gave me “I can’t do this” messages, I had to rely on my mind to remind my body, “One step at a time.”  

Self-Motivation—I didn’t have a coach, mentor or therapist to encourage me onward. I was on my own. I had to believe in myself. I never asked myself whether I was going to make it—I asked myself, “What is it going to take to make it?” In my mind, I knew I was going to make it; I just had to coordinate with my body, talk to my body, be patient with my body, and do what I had to do in order for it to achieve the same mission my mind had set out to accomplish. I recall   saying silently to my body, “I’m going to the summit, and I need you to get me there.”    

Pace yourself
—I had given myself enough time to achieve my mission. There was no need to rush myself. Additionally, I instinctively knew that things would get harder as I approached the summit, therefore it would be necessary for me to conserve my energy at the beginning of my hikes.

You can’t see your goals before you achieve them—Falling into the self-trap of having to know what to expect in advance is not as important as achieving our mission. Too often, if we can’t “see” our mission, we give up. I didn’t see the summit until I got to it! Did I think at times that I’d never get there? No. Upon reaching every “false summit” (those parts of the summit that are so big they look like that is the end of the line), I’d remind myself that I can’t get there unless I keep moving.

Allow parts of your body to question, weaken or struggle--except your mind—If your mind succeeds, the rest will follow. I stopped several times on the way up to give my lungs a break; to allow them to get the air they needed. It was like talking to them: “It’s ok; I’ll give you a rest before we go on.” My heart also sent me frequent messages: “Why are you putting me through this? You know I can’t handle this.” I talked to my heart too: “Hang in there. I want to live to talk about this…” I gave them both a break and rest periods--because I was on a mission.

Accept pauses, detours, stops and even doubts, but keep moving forward
—We often get discouraged when, on our way to our professional or life goals, we have to pause, take detours, or stop. And, in life, those slow-downs, pauses or stops can be days, weeks or even months. However, the only way we are going to achieve our missions in life is to simply keep moving forward. I often found myself having to go diagonally instead of upward, but I knew that it was the way toward my mission. I allowed myself to get disappointed, but not discouraged. In life, sometimes we have to pause, take some unplanned turns and detours, and even stop. That’s okay, as long as we are moving toward our mission.

You can’t achieve the goal right now, but
---We often lose our motivation because we want to achieve our goals “right now.” Our mission will not happen right away, right now. But, what we can do right now is take the next step, and every step is necessary in order for us to achieve our mission.

If you’re not sure what your mission/goal is, you don’t know what the next step should be
—I knew all along that the summit was “up there somewhere.” However, there were several times along the ascent--especially when I was walking on nothing but hard, uncomfortable rocks—when I would get disoriented. My clarity as to what my mission was helped to keep me on track.

Sometimes, we lose sight of the trail we’re on—I have to admit that sometimes I would get distracted from the trail. I would look up at my surroundings, the other mountains or even other hikers ahead of me or behind me. Then I realized that I needed to focus on the only trail that was there to help me achieve my mission.

Remember, the mission/goal is best achieved by not stepping on anyone
—Some of my work experiences and observations came back to haunt me during my hikes. I remembered the many individuals who would mercilessly “step” on others in order to achieve their professional mission. Getting to the top, both during my past career and during my hikes, can be best achieved by stepping on firm ground, not on people.     

While on your journey, help others
—It was common on all of my three hikes to see people checking in on each other, and motivating each other, whether on their way up or down. Some of the manifestations of that altruistic mind-set were comments like, “Are you okay?” “You can do it.” “You can see the summit from there.” “The rest of the way isn’t any steeper than this.” And so on. I did the same for others myself: “It’s worth every step—the views are awesome.”         

Don’t get cocky—It became very clear to me when I finally achieved my mission, when I reached the summits, that it was my achievements, not me, that were special. I didn’t feel like a better person for it; I just felt proud of myself for having achieved it.

You can see beauty you couldn’t have seen from below—There is nothing like getting a new and different perspective on life. It changes everything—the way you think and feel; the way you look at yourself, the way you see life and the world around you. It is definitely a life-changing experience. If we always see things only from where we always are, or from where we always have been, we miss out in life.

You can look down, or eye-to-eye at what seemed to be so high and unattainable—Before my fourteener hikes, I remember looking up at sky-reaching thirteeners and even the fourteeners. They all seemed so unreachable, so unapproachable and out of my grasp. All I could do is capture them with my camera as I looked up at them. But, when I arrived at the summits, those seemingly unattainable peaks were below me; I was now looking down at them. What I once considered out of my reach was now below the level of my newly achieved mission. The unachievable had been achieved.

Sometimes not knowing what to expect when we get there is part of the excitement and therefore worth pursuing—The journey itself is part of our achievement. No journey; no destination; no mission to achieve. Sometimes, not having a crystal ball is more exciting than if we knew exactly what to expect.

Respect the way you got there and the people who joined you along the way
—I never took any part of the hike for granted. I knew to respect every step I took; every rock I stepped on. It was all part of, not separate from, my mission. And, there were others with the same mission. I had respect for them as well, both on the way up and on the way down. I was about half way down during one of my hikes when I met a young couple on their way up. I could see the look of doubt on the young woman’s face. I looked at her and said in a reassuring voice, “It’s beautiful up there. It’s worth every step.” She replied, “Thanks. I needed some encouragement.”

Celebrate your achievement. It wasn’t easy. You deserve to celebrate—Celebrating affirms and recognizes our achievements and it reminds us that we did something special today. I celebrated by treating myself to a soak in natural hot springs and by getting a full-body massage after my Mt Elbert success! I planned that exact type of celebration before the hike.

Encourage others to fulfill their mission/goals/dreams
—We should share our experiences with others, in the hopes that they will be encouraged by our achievements. Maybe, just maybe, they will say, “If he can do it, I can do it.”

There is no correlation between age and the timing of success/achievement
—I was not twenty-something (or forty-something) when I hiked my three fourteeners. We sometimes use age, as well as other preventive anchors, as excuses for not trying.

The best personal successes/achievements are not about money or careers; they’re about personal accomplishments and freedom
—I felt so free during my hikes, knowing that I was doing something I wanted to do. It wasn’t forced upon me. Nobody challenged me. Nobody told me I had or should do it. What I did for myself gave me a great sense of personal freedom. I felt ethereal.

If you can achieve this, nothing in life is insurmountable—I am sure others have scaled the challenging heights and ruggedness of fourteeners with no personal revelations whatsoever. For me, however, it was painfully difficult. The bottom of my feet hurt during a couple of the hikes—I walked on slippery, pointed and unforgiving rocks for what seemed like an eternity. My thighs and calves were sore for two days after one of my hikes. After reaching the summits, I remember thinking that all my other life and professional achievements were dwarfed by these. The hikes, though painful and exhausting, were an individual effort; an individual achievement. It was no surprise that I wrote on the register of one summit, “What a great achievement.” I have, for many years, had high self motivation and self confidence. But this experience took my confidence to the “nth” power! I encourage anyone with self-doubts to someday hike a fourteener—you will never be the same again.


mt elbertOnce you achieve your goal/mission, you still need to be careful on the way down—You don’t want to ruin your achievement by doing something careless or thoughtless afterward. When I started back down, I kept telling myself that I was only halfway finished with my mission.  I carefully watched every step I took as I headed down to the distant trailheads. One wrong step and it would have changed my whole experience, and would have tainted my achievement. Achieving our mission is only half the trip—what we do afterward is just as important and meaningful.

Look back occasionally to remind yourself of your achievement—As I headed back down the rocky and daring geologic backs of those monstrous peaks, I looked back several times to see where I had gone. The farther I got from the summit, the greater the impact on my psyche and the more proud I felt. Several times I’d think to myself, “I can’t believe I did that.” It was a great feeling. I did it!

I will never forget my lessons from a mountain. Thank you Mt. Bierstadt, Quandry Peak and, let’s not forget, Mt. Elbert.

Eli Vega