10 things that the wilderness has taught me about life


10 things that the wilderness has taught me about life

Study nature,
love nature,
stay close to nature.
It will never fail you.

— Frank Lloyd Wright

I have been obsessed with learning lessons in the wilderness since I was a little kid.  For some reason, I sometimes struggled to make sense of the difficult moments in my life – as a child, it is hard to understand why people choose to “bully” you for the things that make you the most special and unique…. as an adult, it was nearly impossible for me to understand why I felt so unfulfilled in my life, but simultaneously terrified to make a change.  Looking at these moments through the lens of the wilderness helped me to understand the reasons that I was experiencing these challenging opportunities in my life – while at the same time, helping me to find the strength, joy and space to continue being “me” … in a world that often encourages us to lose our individuality.  Life lessons made sense to me in the mountains.  On each backpacking trip or each climb, a theme emerged – a theme which gave me the ability to make sense of the chaotic world around me. Away from the “noise” of the world, the mountains gave me the chance to truly discover myself and my true path in life.  In my most fearful, darkest moments, the skills that I learned while ascending peaks and navigating trails, crept into my life to help guide me.

Recently, I made a list (because who doesn’t love a good list, right?) of the 10 lessons that have been the most instrumental in shaping my own personal life. As a kindred adventurous soul, I hope that they are impactful lessons for you too.

1. Get out of the sleeping bag.

If you are a climber, you know that getting out of the sleeping bag is sometimes the most difficult part of any climb. I remember climbing Mt. Rainier for the very first time: we woke up at 11pm and the wind was howling outside of our tent. Thoughts like, “Why am I doing this?” and “What the heck was I thinking?” instantly swirled in my mind. The sleeping bag was SO COZY and comfortable. I wanted to bury my head in my sleeping bag and snuggle in the comfort and safety of my tent. The warmth of the sleeping bag is a beautiful thing, but it allows us to do something dangerous: it allows us to hesitate. When we hesitate, we start thinking – and when we start thinking, our brain tells us exactly what we need to hear in order to stay comfortable. Comfort is good in certain situations, and our brain has our best interest in mind (or so it thinks), but extraordinary achievements do not happen by staying comfortable. I still remember when I got out of the tent that day on Mt. Rainier: the frigid air was whipping through camp, and as we started climbing the Emmons Glacier, I felt my lungs burning and my heart pounding with excitement. I looked up at the massive mountain in front of me, and I saw a bright light in the distance. It was so bright that I thought it must be a headlamp of another climber, but then I realized that it was a star. It was a star so bright, that it seemed like I could reach out and touch it. That moment was permanently etched in my heart forever – and so was my first experience of climbing Mt. Rainier.

In those moments of hesitation, we unintentionally get in our own way. It’s easy to stay comfortable. It’s easy to surround ourselves with familiar things and places. It is difficult to step out of the warmth and into the cold, unknown vastness of the world – but it is truly the only way that we will ever be able to witness the moments in our lives that have the ability to show us who we are.

Sunrise from the upper slopes of the Emmons Glacier, Mt. Rainier.

2. Walk toward fear.

I used to think that getting nervous on a climb meant that I was, “weak”. Now I know that it means I’m doing everything right. Being in the wilderness is intimidating and sometimes downright terrifying. When you experience fear in the mountains, it is usually warranted – things like falling or being eaten by a bear can be completely legitimate fears. On a climb, I am usually the most terrified of falling – especially in tricky areas that have significant amounts of exposure. These fears are completely rational and normal, but part of the climbing experience is acknowledging those fears, accepting them, and figuring out how to ascend the peak, even in the presence of fear.

In our personal lives, fear tends to look and feel a little bit different – in fact, very often we don’t even know that it is there, but it still manages to completely paralyze us. Think about a person who absolutely hates their job, to the point that it is making them physically ill – and yet, they won’t leave – why? Fear of poverty is likely at play – whether they realize it or not (I know this, because I experienced this exact fear, and had no clue how powerful it was). Fear of failure also makes a strong case for accepting a life of mediocrity – it’s much easier to slip through life unfulfilled but beneath the radar, than it is to be vulnerable and expose yourself to things like, “looking stupid” or “seeming irresponsible”.

When I made the decision to leave my job and launch into full-time entrepreneurship, it did not happen overnight. It took me A VERY LONG TIME to recognize, name and become aware of all the fears and limiting beliefs that were holding me back from living the life of my dreams. Through it all, I held the belief close to my heart that walking towards fear was the right direction of travel. Each time that I felt uncomfortable, I would experience that urge to rush back to safety – and that became my cue to push onward. Truly, every exciting opportunity and experience has been waiting for me just on the other side of fear. The most amazing thing of all is that on most occasions, the “thing” that was so terrifiying, was merely a blip on the widescreen of life. When we climb, we often look back on the scarier moments and we reflect on them as the most enjoyable parts of our experience. Just remember – most fears in life are based on the illusion of stability – and the only thing constant in life is instability. Don’t let fear hold you back from doing something incredible.

3. Nothing good happens at the trailhead.

Trailheads include horrible parking, smelly pit toilets (if you’re lucky), and seemingly endless amounts of dust (please tell me I’m not the only one who has noticed this?!). I love trailheads, because they are the start of an exciting adventure, but you have to leave the trailhead to actually get started. Yep, that’s right: you have to lock your vehicle, utter a quick prayer that you didn’t forget anything in your pack, and hit the trail.

It’s cool to have all the gear and the fancy boots and trekking poles, and yes, you do look incredibly awesome with that curvy ice axe – but you need to actually go use it. Which means that you just have to start. This is about going for it, whether you are “perfect” or not. In fact, don’t be perfect. Maybe your pack is a little heavier than you would like it to be, or maybe you’re nervous because it is your first backpacking trip. Here’s the thing: if you wait for the stars to align and everything to be completely perfect, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life.

I have wanted to start a podcast for a long time – and I delayed recording my podcast because it wasn’t going to be “perfect”: I don’t have a recording studio, I don’t have fancy music or a voiceover introduction, and I didn’t have a graphic designer who could configure some gorgeous art. You know what? I finally realized that I was holding myself to an unachievable standard of perfection, and so I just went for it. I made my own art, I bought a microphone that I barely knew how to use, and I recorded it sitting in a closet in my mountaineering gear library. Was it perfect? No. But it was beautiful, because I created it and I didn’t wait around for things to be exactly right.

Don’t get caught in the waiting. The adventure does not happen at the trailhead (unless you get stung by a bee in the pit toilet – but that’s a completely different story altogether).

4. Mountains crumble.

The mountain analogy is overused, in my opinion, and quite often by people who have never climbed a mountain. Which, is totally fine, but I want to clarify something. I often hear metaphors that talk about mountains as being serene and stable, etc… but if you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know that mountains are anything but serene and stable. Mountains are dirty, messy, moody, and crumbly. The biggest mountain in the world is eroded by the tiniest raindrop, or the smallest gust of wind.

What does this mean for you? It means that stability is an illusion. There is nothing stable in life except for instability and change. Do not build a box for yourself and limit the possibilities in your life. Everything, and I mean everything, can change in a fraction of a second. Your life is beautiful and you are infinitely powerful and capable of absolutely everything that you can visualize in your wildest dreams. Don’t paralyze yourself by trying to control things that are out of your control – go with the flow and trust that the earth will support you and love you back, no matter what.

5. The world is a good place.

This one is so important to me. The wilderness has taught me this: what you focus on, is what you attract more of in your life. When you spend time as a friend to the mountains and the trees, you have a deeper connection to yourself, others and to the planet that we live on.

When you focus on negativity and “bad” things in life – not only do you only see and attract those things into your own life, but you lose the ability to notice the incredible miracles that are taking place each moment before your eyes. “But Anastasia,” you might say, “That’s nice that you are Miss Polly Positive, but there are so many atrocities occurring right now.” And, yes, I agree with you – but by allowing those atrocities to distract you from seeing the love in the world and by distracting you from sharing your own love and creating a ripple effect to the rest of the world – aren’t you inadvertently giving those things power over you, and thus not actually helping the situation? When was the last time that becoming angry over something that you had zero control over had any tangible results or effect, other than to make your life more miserable?

This planet is a miracle. Go outside and touch the ground, feel the wind, sense the sun warming your face. We are spinning on a ball through space, being warmed by a giant star. We have a moon that orbits us. The world is covered by an ocean so vast that we can’t even comprehend its existence. The world itself is a living, breathing, pulsating orb of life – of which YOU are a part. Do not miss out on the ability to connect with yourself and others because you are so focused on searching for things to be upset about. I am not suggesting that indifference is a good tactic – what I am suggesting is that when you are a good, deeply connected individual, the ripple effect that your positivity and love will have on this world is FAR greater than the effect that you will have by fighting hate with hostility. If you fight with hate, you will lose. But if you fight with love, you will always – ALWAYS win. Visit the wilderness – absorb the love and the awesomeness on this planet – bring it back and share it with everybody you meet. Inspire others to be the change.

6. The earth does not judge.

I was bullied as a kid. Do you know how most kids go through an “awkward” phase? Well, let’s just suffice it to say that I went through an “awkward decade and a half”. Starting at age nine, I cut my hair off (i.e. think: it was shaved in the back) and I thought I was Huckleberry Finn. I had a southern accent and I spent most of my time playing outside. I moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, and apparently those things were not accepted by my new peers. As a result, I sustained some pretty horrific treatment for several years – to the point where my parents actually removed me from school and homeschooled me from 8th-12th grade.

Officially was not lying about being awkward (I’m the one on the left).

Around this time, my mom started taking us hiking and my family started camping and taking vacations that involved hiking. Almost immediately, I was addicted. Yes, I loved seeing new places and experiences, but I mostly loved how I felt in the wilderness. The rocks and trees didn’t care how I looked – they didn’t try to make me feel like a failure at life because I chose to wear overalls, long before overalls were cool. When I was climbing and exploring, I felt strong and confident – I felt proud of who I was. For many years, the mountains imparted their own strength into my heart, until I learned how to find that strength within myself.

Me (on the right), howling wolf sweat shirt and fanny pack. At Glacier National Park.

It doesn’t matter if you wear make-up, don’t wear makeup, have expensive hiking clothes, have cheap hiking clothes, are an expert, are a beginner – the wilderness doesn’t care. It just is what it is, just like you are who you are. It allows you to be you. In a world that can be cruel and judgmental, finding a place who accepts you for exactly who you are can give you the space that you need to accept yourself – so, in turn, you can share your heart and purpose with the people who need to hear your story.

7. Everything is better with the people you love.

I am the most extroverted-introvert that I know. I love being “on stage” and talking with people and inspiring them, but I am equally as happy being home, writing on this blog or recording a podcast in the closet of my mountaineering gear library. When I first started hiking, I did a lot of solo adventures – and I loved them, but I would always return home and try to explain my experience to others. If you’ve ever hiked solo, you know exactly the “glazed over” look that can sometimes surface as a result of these conversations, i.e. “Uh-oh, here goes Anastasia talking about another one her hikes.”

The wilderness is a special place to me – and when I share it with somebody else, it almost feels as though I am letting them see a vulnerable part of my soul – a part of who I am that can be stirred to tears by watching the sunset over an alpine lake. The places I’ve been and seen are, “secret places” to me – because my deep connection with those places unlocks my heart. It is an exquisite experience to share that with somebody else. When I met my husband and when we went on our first hike together, I watched him gawking in awe at the shadow of the mountain at sunrise on Mt. Adams. Each time we explore together, he always stops at every creek to watch for trout. I love that curiosity. I love that we can fall asleep watching the stars and, no matter how busy our lives might be at home, we always hold a moment like that in our hearts together.

Summit of Mt. Maude.

I have climbed and hiked with my mom and with my sisters and with my dear friends. When I think back on my life and the moments that are special to me, those are the memories that immediately come to mind. I cherish them more than anything in my life.

8. You can always see the next step.

When you have a big goal or a vision, it is so easy to get lost in frantically trying to figure out how to make it happen. Using myself as an example of this: my mission is to impact millions of people using my experiences in the wilderness to inspire others to pursue deep change and lasting fulfillment in their own lives. That sounds crazy, right? I have no clue how in the HECK I am going to impact millions of people (because that’s a lot of people) – but I have this unbelievable vision of being able to do so – in fact, I KNOW that I can do so – and I know that I am 100% caprable of being able tomake a massively positive impact in the world.

Don’t get lost in the how. You cannot possibly know how to do something that you have never done before, and so you have to focus on the things that you do know how to do. What do I know how to do? I know how to write – I know how to share my heart – I know how to ask others to help me on my mission – I know how to climb mountains and hike – I know how to love and how to give. I know how to see things in people that they cannot yet see in themselves. I know how to connect with others. I am deeply emotional and vulnerable and I am not afraid to share those parts of my life with others.

On each climb or backpacking trip, you have a goal or a destination in mind. If you’ve done your homework, you know a lot of things about that route, but until you actually set foot on the trail, you have absolutely no idea what it is going to look like. Sometimes, when I climb, I find myself incredibly nervous about the more challenging sections of route finding – my mind instantly starts swirling with fear of the unknown. In those moments, it is critical to pause, and realize that I can always see the next step. It’s right in front of me. Maybe I have to take a detour or go somewhere a little different – maybe I even have to backtrack a little bit – but it’s always there. If you get caught up in your mind and become fearful of the “how”, it will paralyze you. Instead, you have to focus on just taking that next step.

9. There is depth to life.

When I first moved to WA, I remember seeing the mountains from the highway – they appeared as a flat, two dimensional series of bumps on the horizon. When I climbed Glacier Peak, it was the first time that I truly took a journey into what felt like the heart of the wilderness.⠀

From high on the slopes of Glacier Peak, I not only experienced the sense of accomplishment from ascending an spectacular mountain – but I also felt the vastness and the depth of the mountains for the first time. I was no longer in a two-dimensional world – I was smack dab in the middle of layers upon layers of peaks, valleys, rivers, forests, glaciers and rocks. The tremendousness of the experience – the truly infinite expanse of the world around me was so overwhelming, that I was unable to hold back tears.⠀

You can’t understand the mountains by looking at the horizon from a distance. You have to journey inward. You have to feel the ground beneath your feet, smell that sulphur rising from within the crater of a volcano, touch the icy skin of a glacier or sip from the crisp water of a mountain stream.⠀

In discovering ourselves, we also must journey inward. Like the wilderness, we are incredibly complex – we are made of billions and billions of regenerating cells and each fold in the gray matter of our brains holds memories, thoughts, ideas and dreams – some painful, some wonderful, all unique.⠀

Too often, we drift though life on auto-pilot … trying our best, but never quite understanding why we aren’t finding fulfillment. We convince ourselves that we don’t deserve it. To find yourself, do not look to who you think you are supposed to be – a two dimensional copy of somebody else that you are admiring from the distance. Instead, journey within and look at who you are – which is something that nobody can duplicate. In the overwhelming vastness of this planet, you are the only you that will ever exist.

10. Mountains are not climbed in a single leap.

This seems so obvious that it is almost ridiculous to say it – of course mountains aren’t climbed in a leap (unless you have freakishly long legs). For some reason, we forget this lesson in life. We set a goal or decide that we want to accomplish something, and we get so impatient and frustrated on the journey that we quit or become discouraged – instead of realizing that the journey is the process. You have to take all the steps to get to where you are going: you have to plan your trip, pack your bag, drive to the trailhead, hike for miles and miles, be OK with pooping in a hole, become disgusted by your own stench, and still make the decision to keep on ascending toward the summit. In the mountains, this makes perfect sense, because you know that in order to get to the top of the mountain, you’re going to have to keep moving. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to forget this in our own lives – and when we don’t have immediate results we end up being unkind to ourselves or we incorrectly assume that we are doing something wrong.

You aren’t doing anything wrong.

If you look back on your life right now, you will see that you took billions of steps to get to the exact place where you are standing. Which also means that you need to take a heckuva lot more steps to get where you want to go. Trust in the process, take that next step, and realize and trust that you are exactly where you are supposed to be and that each part of the journey is absolutely critical in order for you to achieve your goals. Don’t be dissuaded by little nudges off your path – those are merely trail blazes that are guiding you in the right direction.

We are all in this together. Let’s make the most of it.

What lessons has the wilderness taught you?

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