One of the guides called out from behind as we made our slow, careful way through the wet, marshy landscape. Spring snows had left the trail gushy and messy, and I was doing my best to keep my balance.
“Look,” he yelled, “Off to the right!”
As soon as I did, I stepped on a sharp rock and went sprawling. And got wet.
Anyone who’s ever done an epic hike- and I mean truly epic, where you don’t have a nice, wide flat path onto which to put your boots- can relate. When you’re on difficult terrain, you simply MUST pay attention, or pay the price.
I was the only white woman — the only woman for that matter — on a summit attempt up Mt. Kenya, Kilimanjaro’s little sister. From the beginning of our spring attempt when heavy rains greeted us as soon as we began our journey, this trip was considerably harder. The terrain was much more challenging, the rocks harsh and spiky. You had to watch every single spot where your foot landed or else you landed with a thump. Some options included falling a very long way. Not a good option.
Back in 2014 when I climbed Dead Woman’s Pass on the journey to Macchu Pichhu, I was on my way down from that high point. The rocks which make up this journey are worn smooth and very uneven by the millions of hikers. That mist that often gathers at the top of the pass makes these rocks moist and slippery.
Anyone who has spent any time hiking will tell you that there’s a very clear-cut choice: hike downhill while watching where you put your feet…..
OR stop and take in the scenery.
I tried to do both, as I happened to glance up to see remarkable vistas stretching as far as the eye could see. My god, that’s beauti — —
The next thing I knew my right big toe was wedged hard between two rocks. Forward momentum and gravity combined swiftly to toss me tip over teakettle on my ass, while ripping the ligaments in my ankle in the process.
The man immediately behind me, startled and concerned for my well-being, did precisely the same thing. We lay next to each other laughing, and ruefully checking the damage.
Our rear guide came running, asking if I wanted to get medevacced out. Oh hell no. I Rocktaped my ankle and continued on, lesson learned.
Or at least until 2018.
I was on my way up Mt. Kenya, which is a much harder mountain than Kilimanjaro (which sports a veritable highway to the top). Lots of wet mushy ground, lots of rocks, scree fields, and difficult terrain. Four to nine hours a day of hiking. You get tired. And sometimes sloppy. Which can be very dangerous.
So I fell, because I tried to do two things at once. After I toppled over, assisted by my pack, I got back up from the damp and rocky ground. I re-balanced the load back into place on my hips.
I was lucky that I hadn’t been on that very high scree field (below), where a misstep could have sent me flying all the way back down to the distant bottom, likely badly injured. This was at close to 15,000'. Then I’d have to hike the damned thing all over again. That would have sucked-especially because the sun had already set by the time we got to the top and we still had more than an hour to go. We were exhausted. And still, we had to be intensely focused in order to make it to our pre-summit camp far on the other side of this ridge. Not something you disrespect, especially with a summit attempt early the next morning. Such things keep you focused.
One of the benefits of doing adventure travel, and I would add to that, other sports like learning how to rock climb (not me, but a great many others) offers many of the same benefits. Because of the inherent dangers, you absolutely MUST focus on where you are and what you’re doing. One misstep and that could well be all she wrote. There are far too many stories about a climber whose (wo)man on belay (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/belay)is either checking out the butt cheeks of a climber on the next crack or simply half asleep. People die like this.
When you and I engage in sports that require our absolute full attention, that practice has a terrific way of focusing us in the present moment. When the average attention span is about eight seconds these days, if our life is dependent upon watching our every step, we learn to stretch that span out like taffy. Challenging sports that require that we show up in full.
Why? Because despite widespread claims, the brain cannot multi-task (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794). It is a myth, and the truth of this is underscored daily. Ask the families of those nine people a day on average killed by distracted drivers, or the thousand or so those texting drivers put in the hospital.
This is one of the reasons I love to immerse myself in challenging sports in Nature. She can be unforgiving of mindlessness, and of those of us who back up towards a cliff to get that perfect selfie. The news is full of barely-functional morons who are determined to get that epic shot and end up doing an epic ass- over-teakettle onto the rocky shore hundreds of feet below. While I may be sympathetic with their families’ loss, Darwin does take his due if you aren’t paying attention. It’s arguable that our distant ancestors had to possess a highly developed attentiveness to their surroundings if they were to survive. It’s arguable that the majority of us in our Western world have rather lost this skill, even as the dangers haven’t dissipated. They’ve simply morphed. Where there might once have been a saber-toothed tiger, there are cars with texting drivers. The end product is much the same.
Distracted driving, distracted loving, distracted living are the order of the day. We always and forever somewhere else, and when we look up to have the world swim back into focus, we genuinely have no clue where we are, who we’re with or what we’re doing there. We’re all familiar with that de-focused deer-in-the-headlights look of a loved one who just came up for air from a long Facebook feed.
“Huh?” “Where am I?”
Earth, for starters.
Attention is, in fact, life. Most of us spend a great deal of time reliving the past or planning — or worrying about- a future that isn’t here yet. Both are time sucks. Both cost us being right here, right now, enjoying the moment. Or we are so hijacked by our technology that we are forever and always elsewhere, which has a terrible side effect of costing us our lives- our time, in other words. If you’r always somewhere else, you aren’t here in the moment, living.
The world’s best free-climber, Alex Honnold, is a case in attention. This is a man who has climbed ridiculously difficult rock without equipment. Kindly, ask him how many times he’s pulled out his cell phone to take a selfie as he dangles hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground. This is called focus. In a world where so many of us toss around the term mindfulness as though we understood what it actually means, Honnold lives it. He’d damned well better or he will end up as an unfortunate bit of bear food. (https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/7983777/free-solo-documentary-on-pro-climber-alex-honnold-el-capitan/)
I don’t possess Honnold’s power of attention. I do, however, work hard on it, and one of the habits I have is to eschew my technology. While it’s hard, it also frees me up to be present for the most important things in life. To wit:
Last week my Thai masseuse Melissa commented that she wouldn’t be spending Christmas with her partner. Why not, I wondered?
“They all sit around all day on their iPhones,” she said. “That’s a waste of my time. I’d rather be with friends, or alone with a book.”
I’m with Melissa. My Christmas is spent with a growing family (they made room for me some seventeen years ago) which doesn’t allow iPhones at the table or during Christmas events. Meals are lively, fun, full of stories over good food. It’s pure joy to be with them. I have hours of endless and valuable conversations with people I love.
That’s a good Christmas. The time slips by in laughter and loving company. I get to savor people I appreciate. Listen. Share my own stories. Watch everyone open gifts. Celebrate the lifelong bachelor son who finally fell in love, and got a house with the GF. Laugh about dumb presents and good food and all the year’s events. Make fun of growing or disappearing waistlines, applaud progress, listen to challenges, and in all ways be part of a community.
This isn’t my blood family.
But they are my love family.
They have my full, undivided attention.
Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of success is just showing up. While Mr. Allen has his own set of legal troubles for where he chose to “show up” in his own checkered life and how, he has a point. We are largely defined by where we place our attention. Far too many of us are present in body only. The rest of us is far, far away, and yet we want all of what life has to offer. We’re not designed that way for a reason.
If you attend to the love you have in your life, it grows. If you attend to the beauty that surrounds you, it shines. If you attend to the gifts that life places at your door, even the ones that cause you discomfort, you rise. That’s a full life, when we fill every moment with our being. If you’re wandering off mentally, you’re likely to fall off a cliff, literally and figuratively. Life will pass you by, and you can lose it altogether.
As we approach Christmas, how can you use your focused attention to demonstrate your love and appreciation for those who care about you? How can you put your technology aside and be present for the presents life has to offer?
When the New Year rolls around, what commitments might you make to be more available- not only to others, but most importantly, to yourself? What is the life you really want to be living?
Where is your attention? The rest of you will follow.