How to Climb a Mountain

Sep 18, 2022

Hey! It's Nick!

Recently, I climbed Mt. Whitney with my good friend Daniel Ching (better known in the musical world as the first violinist of the Miro String Quartet). At 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, and while the climb doesn’t require any technical mountaineering experience or equipment, it is still considered one of the toughest single-day hikes on earth: 22 miles, 6600 ft elevation gain, usually requiring 12-18 hours to complete.
 

What the hell was I thinking? I’m 48, have little hiking experience at all, and none above 10,000 feet: I’m no young svelte mountain goat. The idea to do it was planted by another friend who had done it twice, of course both times younger than I was now.

Like any mountain above 10,000 ft, altitude is an issue: at the peak your lungs are only getting 60% of the oxygen they’re getting at sea level. People continue to die on this hike from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), often because they can’t be rescued off the mountain quickly enough. Even if you don’t die, it’s estimated that only 30% of people attempting the hike even reach the summit.

One poster at the beginning of the hike makes this explicit: “Do you seek exhilaration and inspiration? Or misery?” Not something to be taken lightly. So why this mountain, why now? Standard-issue mid-life crisis?
 

Well, partly I wanted to do it before I couldn’t. And it wasn’t exactly “now”: Dan and I had been trying to get a permit to single-day hike it through the lottery for years. And it remained a dream until 2022, when it became VERY real: we were doing this.

And we did, summiting in ten hours and down in six, and it struck me on the hike down how much preparing for and especially doing the hike was so much like prepping for any big musical
achievement.

 
Study 

We studied—trip reports, gear lists, weather, got advice from friends—for months.
It was a serious hike met with serious prep, really no different than prepping a concerto:
we listen, we mentally break it down in parts, we train and practice, and we visualize well
before we ever make the attempt.
 
Get the right gear

Prep led to 100 questions: what’s the right hiking pack? Trail runners, hiking shoes, or hiking boots? Poles or no poles? Regular food or bars/gels? Doing extensive research, I bought the gear I knew would perform for the right price, and this is no different than how I treat my instrument: can it do what I need it to do? Over and over? Does it fatigue me or can I make it better? Fine-tuning this, and asking these questions over time—and the answers WILL change over time —gives the best chance for
success.


Test 

As prep I wish I could have hiked at altitude, though I did do prep hikes of 16 and 20 miles with my full sack, to get the experience of being on my feet that long, what it felt like with a full pack, and how my gear worked—or didn’t. This is no different than playing through a full recital for friends before doing the “big” show: don’t make that be the time when you discover you can’t make it all the way through.


Focus

We started the hike at 2:15am, and for 3.5 hours used headlamps to see. This was among the most unexpectedly fun parts of the trek: sure, our legs and mind were fresh, but there was something about the dark and only seeing the path directly in front of us that made that part of the hike, even though it wasn’t necessarily faster, seem so much easier. We were forced to concentrate on only what was directly in front of us, much like efficient practicing: knowing what we want to achieve in any practice session, breaking things down and focusing on that—and ONLY that—before moving on to the next thing.

Especially if you only have a short amount of time to practice, have a clear goal and
make it ONLY about practicing that, nothing else.

 
Slow but steady 

After the sun came up, we now fully saw what we had gotten ourselves into: climbing the tallest peak in the massive, beautiful Eastern Sierras. We soon came to the infamous 97 switchbacks, a zigzag rock and gravel trail that quickly gains elevation. Already past 10,000 ft, the air was thinning and it was slow going for our old butts. We got into a slow rhythm where we would climb a bit until our heart rate started going high (about 150), stop and get it back down, and then do it again. And again. And again...so many times. That slow pace allowed us to feel good the whole way through—at least as good as you can while your caves and thighs are screaming—and this is exactly like practice: when faced with something we can’t do, we break it down, we slow it down, but we keep at it consistently, even if the gain seems slow.

Just ask any cellist about the first time they learn to play octaves...


How bad do you want it?

After the 97 switchbacks, after countless stone stairs, there’s...more stone stairs. A seemingly endless amount. The air is even thinner now at 12,000 feet. You can’t even see the top of the peak yet. So...just how badly do you want it? How badly do you want to nail those octaves? How badly do you want your intonation to improve, or to play that whole sonata that seems way above your level?

I sometimes like to give students pieces a little harder than they may think they’re ready for, especially if they REALLY want to play it, because I know they’ll work that much harder to achieve it, and who’s to say they can’t do it unless they try?

 
The top is not the end

Just after noon we reached the peak, or as a lot of hikers like to say, “congrats, you’ve reached the halfway mark.” Hiking down is literally anticlimactic: you’ve already reached the top, you’ve seen what you have to go through. Sure, you get to go down, and it’s a bit easier, but still no walk in the park. This is often where people stumble and get injured, thinking the hardest part is behind them. In music, this is much like just practicing only the hard bits, and neglecting easier passages: I can’t tell you how many performances I’ve seen, including by pros, where they nail hard bits but stumble over some of the easier bits.

Don’t be that performer: the most important note is the next note, every note, until you’re done.

 
Going past obstacles

There was a point on the hike, 17 miles in with 5 miles left, where I didn’t want to stop—at least, not until I could stop moving for good, since it hurt to start up again. And sometimes, when we’re in deep—practicing, rehearsing, performing—we have those moments when we could do it all day, where we have moved beyond our technical limits, if even for a brief moment.  

It’s a Zen, flow state, and it’s worth considering every time you practice: did you get there? Did you give it your all? Could you give five more minutes? Could you do that passage one more time? To grow,
we all have to push past these boundaries on a regular basis.


Earn your celebration

We finally made it down at 7:45pm, 17.5 hours after we had started, exhausted but exhilarated—our whole bodies hurt, and we felt like arthritic old men. But we had achieved something that we weren’t sure we could, and the burger and beer afterwards tasted all the better for the achievement. So make sure you’re recognizing your own hard work, and rewarding yourself, even if just a little. Whatever it
is, earn it: it will never feel as good otherwise.

 

And finally, to address the “why” question from the beginning:

Do something that scares you a little.
 
David Bowie said it best: “If you feel safe in the area you're working in, you're not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom you're just about in the right place to do something exciting."

The thrill of attempting something we weren’t sure we could do until we did it, that we might fail, even die, but also making sure all the other steps above were in place so we didn’t feel like we were going to die or fail, meant everything.

 
What’s your mountain?

And how can Thrive help you climb it?

When you join Thrive, you’re not only getting advice on how to play your instrument, but so much more:
insights into career and business skills, wellness videos, and most importantly, a community of like-minded individuals and teachers who are here to help you get to the next level and climb YOUR mountain.

Nick

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