Of Peaks and Peakbagging


After completing the so-called "Kane List" in 2012 and now continuing to scramble and climb bigger and even more remote peaks, I find myself entering a somewhat reflective phase of my peak bagging career and my life in general. (I also turned 40 this year!!) Other friends also started completing (competing?) summit lists. Between us we have all stood on hundreds and hundreds of Canadian Rockies summits. Allow me to be honest for a bit, about why I climb mountains and enjoy the wilderness and why I will never again chase after a "list" of things to do, whether it's for summits, life goals or the latest fad of chasing a "bucket" list.


First some background. When I first started climbing mountains I never even knew there was a 'list'. I just loved the views, loved the exercise and loved getting out with friends. As I made my career in the bustling concrete jungles of Calgary the peace that comes with a solo trip on a beautiful summer day is what kept me sane. When Dave Stephens and the RMBooks web board came to my attention I lost a little bit of that innocence. I believe it started fairly benign but soon the atmosphere around the web board became competitive. Dave even started a spreadsheet to track everyone's progress on the list compared with each other. If you know anything about Dave, he could turn any occasion into a competition - I think it's his American blood! :-) Since I'm of Dutch heritage, I stupidly agree to take on any challenge so I can't blame this all on Dave either. For about 4 years I still climbed many of my peaks because I loved them, but many were tackled also because I wanted to accomplish something. I wanted to summit more mountains than anyone else. I wanted my accomplishments to matter to others. This was ultimately, a huge mistake that I have vowed never to repeat.



Over the years I noticed that the mountains were becoming too much of a checklist for me. Sure! I still loved getting out and enjoyed standing summits and hiking along the beautiful valleys, but there was always a lurking compulsion to be on a summit at every opportunity possible. When you're a family person such as myself, with a full time job and many other responsibilities outside of the mountains, it can get discouraging to see friends and acquaintance's successes in the mountains, when compared with your own. My most "accomplished" year was 2009 when I took four months off and managed to ascend 47 peaks in between all my family commitments. I know more than one person who has done over 120 summits in one year! Next to that even my best year looks rather tame! 


I began to notice something about myself that I didn't like very much. I would be in a bad mood if the weather was perfect for climbing and I felt stuck at home. I have a beautiful family and to feel stuck when I was at home with them was not cool. It certainly caused tension in my marriage too! My wife went through a phase where she absolutely hated (and I mean really hated) mountains and anything even remotely related to mountains. There was a few years where I don't think she even knew which mountain I was planning to do the next day or which one I did the day afterwards. :( In order to make things work with my family, job and love of the wild, I completely revamped my world view and lifestyle. I started working for myself so I could be my own boss. I worked 4 day weeks for many years so I could go out on Fridays rather than impact the family on weekends. My wife started to enjoy hiking, backpacking and easy scrambling and my kids got older and stronger and started joining me too. We live in a small house, drive older vehicles and don't travel abroad very much (yet). We live simply for many reasons besides my climbing, but it was certainly one factor in making many simpler choices in our lives. I still struggle with balancing my love of mountains and my love for my family. The best way to explain it is this;


When I'm with my family;

I miss the mountains.

When I'm with the mountains;

I miss my family.



I think most people who hike, scramble or climb, understand that there's a very delicate balance between climbing for the enjoyment of it and climbing for the accomplishment of it. For many climbers the two are very tightly coupled - and this is what drives them to some pretty amazing feats. For some very keen climbers the two are the exact same thing - there can be no enjoyment without accomplishment. Personally, I stop enjoying the mountains when my goal becomes bagging as many summits as possible within a set amount of time, without regard to how or why I'm summitting them or who I'm climbing them with. When my only focus is to stand on as many summits as possible, at every opportunity possible, I begin to view unclimbed mountains and unexplored landscapes as obstacles that must be conquered and figured out, rather than natural phenomena that offer me health, peace, tranquility and purpose.



I have come to realize that it is not only the accomplishment of reaching a peak that truly matters most to me. What matters most to me, is the personal enjoyment of planning a journey and wandering through the wildnerness on the way to the peaks above, experiencing the mood and character of the landscape as I move through it. I've had to remind myself of this many times over the past decade. Apparently I'm a slow learner... ;) It's so easy to be influenced by our goal and record obsessed culture! Lists are all about accomplishment and they can very quickly turn majestic and truly wonderful wilderness excursions into nothing more than a checkmark on the back page of a dog-eared book on a nightstand somewhere. Lists are great for focusing attention on certain areas or for ideas of what to do next weekend, but they have a hidden curse that I have personally experienced more than once. Lists can take the ultimate enjoyment out of climbing mountains when the focus becomes "getting the next summit on the list to make me feel accomplished" rather than, "doing the next trip on the list that gives me real enjoyment".



I am not a great climber or a mountain hard man by any stretch of the imagination - this is why I still don't climb difficult rock or ice. I simply haven't had the time or desire to put in the necessary training on rock or ice to be very good at it. I climb and hike and scramble because I like the wide open spaces. I like the smell of fresh mountain air and the freedom of balancing across a sharp ridge with birds flying overhead and nothing holding me back. I like the sound of a rushing stream as I hike next to it and the apprehension of coming across grizzly tracks in the sand as I hike up a remote valley with puffy white clouds floating overhead. I live for the smell of the pine forests and the sight of wild flowers blooming in harsh conditions where nothing should thrive at all. I love photographing the landscape as I wander through it. I can never drink enough fresh water out of the rushing mountain streams. This is why I spend time away from other responsibilities in my life. This is what gives me enjoyment. I do love the feeling of accomplishment after a long and challenging trip - Mount Assiniboine is one of my favorite trips for this reason. That was a trip that gave me the exact balance between enjoyment and accomplishment that I seek. It took me many years to work up to this mountain and this added to my feelings of satisfaction when I finally managed to ascend it. 



I do not get great pleasure out of taking a lot of risk - and alpine / rock climbing in the chossy Rockies has plenty of that! :) As I continue to climb more technically difficult mountains (i.e. the 11,000ers - and no, I am NOT chasing that list!) I have to remind myself that there is a balance between what I actually enjoy and what I sometimes think I should enjoy. Here is where I come to the crux of the matter. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own unique "sweet spot" between accomplishment and enjoyment. I found myself sacrificing personal enjoyment with some of my recent summits, because I was comparing myself to what others were accomplishing at the same time. I should have known better - but life is all about learning new things and relearning old ones I guess. 


Personal enjoyment should never depend on others' victories - this is the surest way to diminish the moments in your life that most deserve to be celebrated - no matter what they might mean when others do them or even do them better. Each of us is different and although the media loves to tell us that we should all love the same types of adventure and the same things in life, this is pure bullshit. So I will celebrate my moments on the summit because they're mine and I earned them. I will bask in the enjoyment of finally standing on certain peaks after dreaming about them for many years and spending many moments anticipating what it would finally feel like to travel there. 



Even though climbing mountains is something that most folks simply couldn't care less about, doing so has done wonderful things for me. It has helped me lose about 30 pounds and keep it (mostly) off for over a decade. It has kept me mentally in balance. It has helped me avoid depression that tends to run in my family. It has boosted my knowledge and appreciation for the natural world and the important role we humans have in it. It has given me perspective on life and provided me with an escape from the ho-hum of the office career I feel stuck in. It has provided me with friends. It has provided me with art forms that I love - photography and writing. 


I can't be truly proud of climbing mountains since I'm neither especially good at it or doing anything special with it, but it is a big part of who I am now. When I look at my life there are other things that I'm more proud of than the peaks I've stood on;


  • Family. (Although this has little to do with me - they're just great people!)
  • Humanism. (Gives me perspective on the meaning and value of human life.)
  • Generosity. (Taught me that to be selfish is to be angry, stressed and depressed.)
  • Fitness. (My running, walking and biking is what keeps me feeling forever young.)
  • Marriage. (18 years with the same beautiful woman and growing in our understanding of each other every day!)
  • Escape from Indoctrination. (Opened up a new world / life for me and my family. We are now completely free of tired old ideas of morality and purpose and are truly free to explore many areas of life including science, cognition, spirituality and humanity.)


I challenge all my readers to reflect and meditate on why you do the things you do and believe the things you believe. In this day and age of extreme narcissism in social media, there is a very fine line between sharing our experiences and bragging about them. We all owe it to ourselves and our friends and neighbors to consider our own motivations that are driving our pursuits in life. We should all carefully consider and meditate on the reasons we obsess and prioritize certain things and experiences in our lives. Are we really enjoying our accomplishments or are they simply checkmarks on our "Bucket List", with no consideration of true happiness, passion and contentment to back them up?


Live on friends! And may you truly enjoy your next adventure - whatever that might be! ;)


Really well written Vern. I've read tons of your TR's but only just read your page/blog. This one in particular rings true with me. Gained a lot more respect for you.

Thanks bud.

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