Lessons Learned on the Trail

  • Stephanie Barnett

Learning to Descend

Climbing mountains. It’s the quintessential metaphor for making a change. It’s what most anyone can understand on all human levels - nature's unrelenting image of the physical, mental, and emotional work that is necessary to evolve. When we think of climbing mountains, one might imagine a steep and steady incline and anticipate potential struggle along the way. But the summit, the success point, is what we think of and say, “Once I get there - everything will change.” 

Unfortunately, what we’ve done wrong, is we’ve conditioned ourselves to stop there. To not look beyond the summit. We’ve used mountains as a one-sided measure of the change experience, when in actuality, there is a whole other piece that must be understood and experienced in order to survive and continue forward - the descent.

“The descent is the most dangerous part of the climb,” explained one of our instructors as we sipped hot drinks and shoved fist fulls of trail snacks into our mouths. Having just spent the last 7 hours climbing up the Easton glacier route on Mount Baker, we had reached the empty summit, took photos, celebrated and rested; but, with weather coming in, we were preparing to tie back into our two rope teams and begin the descent back the way we came. One might imagine that going downhill would be a relief, no work at all, and even...luxurious. 

It was quite the opposite. After 5 more hours of down-climbing, I could barely take another step without my right knee buckling under my weight, I couldn't feel my big toes (a numbness that didn't subside for at least two months after), and exhaustion like I've never felt.

In nature, no matter the size of the hill or mountain, coming down can involve many hazards - both seen and unseen. From snow covered slopes, to slippery leaves and rocks, or even crevasses waiting silently beneath your labored boot steps. Often times, those who are unprepared for this type of travel are at a higher risk of injury - in part to both not having appropriate gear, as well as an unprepared mindset and understanding of the objective. 

The same goes for anyone making a major shift in their life. When we think about making change, all we want is to not be where we are, so we focus on where we want to be - and that’s where most people stop. But what happens after we get there? 

A phrase I’ve picked up in the coaching world is, “New level, new devil”; and that new level, is the other side of the mountain. When you look out from your summit, what is often in sight is a continuous range of other peaks and valleys - an openness. It is exhilarating, and sometimes even confusing. But before you can start toward that new objective, you have to come down from where you are.

What’s surprising about descending is that it is often just as difficult as the ascent. There are similar physical, mental, and emotional challenges - and they are all a completely normal part of literally climbing mountains - as well as in making a significant life change or accomplishing a big goal.

So, how do you approach the descent? Here are a few simple things to keep in mind to make it a bit easier to recognize when you are in the “Descent” phase.

Know & Anticipate Your Pivot Point

The beginning of a descent period is usually marked by an ending of something (ex. a goal, project, relationship, career, etc.) - whether it resulted in a perceived “failure” or “success” isn’t as relevant - the descent is still a key part of the change process.

As I mentioned above, the summit is the usual objective that we focus on when climbing the mountains in our lives. So, it makes sense that in this metaphor, the summit is the pivot point into the period of descent.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts & Feelings As you start to transition from the summit into your descent, it is important to pay attention to your recurring thoughts, feelings, and actions. Observing your mindset and subsequent behaviors is at the core of understanding where you are and where you are headed. It will also help you to become unstuck and move forward...eventually (more on that in #3 below). What is most notable about this particular period in the cycle of change is that it seems as if we have no control and are immobilized by circumstance (outside factors). This can lead to a victim mentality that can create feelings of stress, desperation, and depression (among others) that are not always necessary or helpful.

Practice Your Self-Leadership Now, with the Descent in full-swing and those thoughts and feelings building up over time, it is no surprise that it would result in very low levels of energy and minimal action steps. You might find you don’t want to do much other than sit on the couch, binge-watch Netflix, and each a plate of nachos. And you know what? A certain amount of that is acceptable during this period of time. However, don't let the nachos take over your life. Instead, recognize the feelings that are coming up, have some compassion for yourself, give yourself some space and let it happen. If you're sad - be sad. If you're angry - be angry. Forcing yourself to by-pass this necessary “hibernation” period of the change cycle can actually hurt you in the long run because you are not allowing yourself to fully experience and understand yourself, or what’s at the root of some of those feelings.

The key to being successful during this period and to not get stuck here is your

self-leadership. When I was at the National Outdoor Leadership School, my own self-leadership was just as key to my team’s success as it was to my own. So, what does self-leadership look like? On the trail it was, taking off my boots and socks every time we took a break and checking my feet for hot spots, or going into the tent early before bed so I had some time with myself to reflect, journal, and set intentions for the next day, or even to tell someone I was anxious about a particular objective (which then opened the door for communication around safety).

In front-country life, it often is a combination of taking personal time, but also engaging with your support network, and taking care of your physical health. All of those habitual actions will support your continued movement and ability to move past the darker parks of change.

Remember, the Descent is the part that most of us don’t plan for - which is what makes it the most dangerous and vulnerable. If we succeed or fail, we don’t want to spend time in this period because it doesn’t feel productive. However, if we don’t take the time to process the thoughts, and feel the feelings involved, not only will the actions we take not be as substantial, but even more importantly - we won’t fully release the negativity that is driving all of it. Without releasing that negativity, we’ll only continue to fall, whether we’re on our way up or down the mountain. Most of all, it is important to know that everyone eventually slips and falls on their way down, the key is in learning how to catch yourself, shake it off, and continue moving forward.

Not sure where to start? Luckily, as a Coach, this is what I'm here to help with. We work together to understand where you are getting stuck, and end the seemingly endless circle of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. If this sounds like you, make sure you click this link to schedule your complimentary 90-minute Clarity call so we can get you moving again.