Successfully summiting a mountain, as in life, means preparation.

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CLIMBING season on Rainier is under way, and with it comes the flock of would-be summiteers exhorting the cult-of-positive-thinking mantra, “Mind over matter!” This phrase belies an alluring but woefully misguided idea that simple faith in an outcome leads to its actualization, an idea so pervasive in our culture that it shouldn’t be surprising it has also permeated the climbing community.

In my personal experiences as a climber and my professional experiences as a guide, I’ve come to understand that positive thinking plays a vital role in the challenges of climbing. But I’ve also witnessed the pitfalls that occur when people put positive thinking, devoid of proper preparation, into the forge of reality.

While positive thinking provides a nice burnish to a proven track record of training, each season a host of climbers encounter disappointment and even danger when positivity is not accompanied by realistic preparation. Before heading up the mountain, each should ask, “What physical efforts were taken in advance of this mental commitment?”

Kel Rossiter guides with Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated and owns Adventure Spirit Guides.
Kel Rossiter guides with Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated and owns Adventure Spirit Guides.

Out climbing at Washington’s Index Town Wall last summer, I experienced the power that arises when these physical and mental elements intertwine. While doing an airy traverse hundreds of feet up, I checked in on my balance, monitored my grip strength and mentally noted how well-matched my strength was to the task. Reminding myself to breathe, I looked up toward the welcoming crack above and told myself, “I have the power reserves to pull through.” I told myself this because I knew it to be true — I had been training all summer. Mind calmed, I lunged for the crack and moved successfully upward.

So yes, positive thinking is a powerful tool for climbers. But, with that crisp and curt awakening that only experience provides, I also know that this thinking has at times also landed me painfully back to the reality that gravity and mountains do not care about positive thinking.

Mountains seem to attract us for the tough love they offer — we stand beneath them and feel both a sense of smallness and a kind of ambitious grandeur. For those fixated on the summit, a narrowing of focus occurs and the flanks of the mountain go unobserved. But along the way, the truth is revealed: Every mountain’s summit is simply the end of a long climb up its side.

While no summit occurs without a vision toward the top, that vision must not obscure the many preparatory steps necessary along the way — building aerobic endurance, tuning specific muscle sets, learning efficient glacial climbing technique — to name just a very few. And each of those steps contain entire staircases within. This is not meant to be discouraging — far from it. Anyone truly attracted to mountains is attracted by the challenge. I am simply suggesting positive realism.

While no summit occurs without a vision toward the top, that vision must not obscure the many preparatory steps necessary along the way”

The face of positive realism can be found in Anshul, who headed up Rainier with me two seasons ago under perfect conditions. Things began well, but by the fifth hour he was flagging. Checking in, he told me, “I could continue up, but it would not be wise — I am tired and we still must get down.”

It was a pleasure to see someone so simultaneously in touch with his mind, his body and the reality of the mountain — we turned and began our descent.

Last year, I again saw Anshul on Rainier. He’d logged more time at altitude by summiting Shasta and Whitney and had a steady daily workout. Those summits lent him confidence and he said he felt ready for Rainier. His confidence was not the empty, positive-thinking sort; it was a confidence backed by preparation. I anticipated success for him, and indeed he did summit. Later, I asked him about it and he told me, “You can’t build a shack and believe your way into a mansion — how could it be any different with mountains?”

We bring many emotions and intentions with us to the mountains. They offer only a stony silence. Let us use that quiet space that mountains provide to consider the difference between simply having a positive attitude and having done proper preparation.