two man hiking on snow mountain

The Go-To Metaphor

I recently had one of those weeks. You know the kind I mean? The ones where you have to dig extra deep to stay focused and get everything done but there’s a payoff at the end? Like the week before vacation where you have to get your work projects in order, home projects in order, buy extra food for the cat sitter, set the watering system, and pack all the while still feeding, watering, and caring for yourself and your family.

So, during this particular week I kept coming back to my go-to metaphor for life: mountain climbing. That’s the one that sticks for me even though I haven’t climbed a proper mountain in ten years.

One step at a time: For any mountain that I’ve climbed, there is a moment in the parking lot that I look up at the summit, or what I can see of it from the base, and doubt that I have any chance of reaching that point in two or three days time. The mountain looks massive and my stride looks incomparably small. But seeing the task ahead of me, I shoulder my pack, and start one step at a time.

Rest breaks: The first time I climbed a mountain it was with a guide named Jason. For every hour we climbed, we took a 10 minute rest break and he would lie down on the breaks. He had a go-to philosophy: Why stand when you can sit and why sit when you can lie down? He was a master of not only making sure we stopped to care for ourselves, but also capitalizing on that time.

Team work: On the higher reaches of most mountains we rope up in teams of five or so, with about 30 feet of rope between each climber so that if someone falls, the rest of the team can dig into the snow with their ice axes. This method either keeps them from falling very far, or serves an anchor to pull the climber out if they’ve fallen into a crevasse. Is there a better metaphor for remembering that others are there to help us?

Self-care tricks: When you stop to rest, especially during the pre-dawn hours, the sweat instantly freezes on your skin and you get really cold, really quick. So the trick is to have your parka handy. And here’s the key, you load your parka pockets with yummy snacks so that when you put it on, it’s like one-stop shopping. By yummy snacks, I mean trail mix with candy mixed in or your favorite nuts, not protein bars that are going to look, feel and chew like leather. Because when you’re so incredibly tired that feeding yourself feels like a chore, it has to be appetizing and handy.

Set a turn-around time: The idea of a turn-around time makes me think of the guide Rob Hall who died on Everest in 1996. He was so focused on getting his client to the top that he ignored the time he had told his team they would turn-around no matter whether they’d summitted or not. While the consequences are usually not nearly as dire, there is often a similar limit in life, whether it be bedtime or the time you have to leave for the airport. There’s a moment where you just have to stop what you are doing and call it good.

The slide down: One of my favorite mountains to climb is Mt. Adams in Washington State. We leave our camp in the middle of the night to head for the summit. About 20 minutes out of camp there’s a 50-degree slope that takes hours to tackle. But what takes about five hours to climb only takes 45 minutes to slide down on our butts for one of the best payoffs ever.

So that’s my metaphor for life – climbing. I haven’t even touched on false summits, the rest step, and the pressure breath. When I’m tackling something hard, it works for me to envision the components that will get me through: put one step in front of the other, take regular rest breaks, rely on my teammates, make it easy to take care of oneself when things are hard, set a limit for when you have to stop and then enjoy the payoff.

What’s your go-to metaphor?

I’ve posted a piece about applying climbing wisdom on my blog: Life: Risky Business.  I also post on Mondays at the Heart of the Matter blog. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

39 thoughts on “The Go-To Metaphor

  1. I love your mountain climbing metaphor. It’s so impressive, not only because of how you’ve tied it into life — but you’ve actually climbed mountains! So impressive. My go to metaphor? I’m thinking about when I started swimming Masters with a coach, entered my first swim meet, learned to dive off the blocks. I had tee shirts made for my team and coach of what I said after each practice and steps along the way. “Hey, it’s not that bad!”

    1. I love your swimming metaphor, Elizabeth. I’m imagining there’s the “just dive in” and the push-off at the turn – plus “Hey, it’s not that bad!” That’s great!

      1. Yes! My coach, who coached my daughter in high school and then taught me how to swim used to laugh at how often I’d say “Hey, it’s not that bad.”

  2. My biggest lessons were from chronic illness; how by not knowing I had to rest and care for myself after my first occurrence, I had inadvertently pushed myself so hard physically and mentally that I had a relapse.

    I still hadn’t learned my lesson, so I kept having relapses until it became a chronic illness. As I was learning to go through recovery, a friend had advised “to keep my energy in a bottle” which meant holding back and not pouring myself 150% into whatever I was doing, but to learn to stop at say 70%, because I needed more time to recover from a difficult day, and had far less energy reserves than when I had started pushing myself.

    Even now, I need to remind myself of it because as good as I feel now, I have learned what my true physical limits are and not what I wish them to be, and the reality is less than what I want it to be.

    Self care, and becoming aware of where our limitations lie aren’t a sign of selfishness or weakness, but of wisdom. Life isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon, and we want to be able to go the whole distance and not fall down!

    1. The energy in a bottle – that’s a good one. Imagining what is worth pouring it out for, how much to keep in reserve, how to refill it. What a great image from a really hard time – thanks for sharing it!

    2. Hi Tamara, I really like your bottle metaphor! Like you, I’ve learned the hard way how to pace myself with chronic illness. I was used to just sucking it up and making it happen, but those days are gone. I like what you say about personal physical limits also. They’re not what we wish them to be, and many times they’re less than we want them to be. I’m closer to accepting this now than I’ve ever been. Take care.

    3. I agree with Tamara and its taken me a while (years) to learn to pace myself and not push too far. And to recognise that if I want to do something that’s going to take a lot of physical or emotional effort, I will pay for it so I need to prepare for the relapse/crash

  3. Similar to Tamara, the “energy bucket” analogy was very helpful to me, as well as the concept of always keeping an energy reserve by stopping long before I was depleted.

    My personal go-to analogy is viewing the human body and it’s potential through the lens of biochemical mechanics, and those principles tendril out to the rest of life. My body is a machine powered by the proper ratios of minerals and the correct chemical reactions at the correct intervals, both of which are influenced by the appropriate nutritional inputs. Inputs + Processes = Outputs.

    Extrapolating out to life, we need to have the right inputs (knowledge, relationships, nutrition) and engage in beneficial habits (sleep hygiene, stress reduction, enjoyable hobbies), which will lead us toward our end goal or desire (good health, companionship, a sense of meaning).

    1. Oh, I love inputs + processes = outputs. A good equation always gets me. You’ve done such an amazing job at turning your difficulties into lessons and sharing with others. Thank you, Erin!

  4. I have only recently begun to live en examined life after having had a recurrent spinal cord tumour removed and some damage to my spinal cord. I don’t think I have a metaphor worthy of sharing. I have been reading though – a lot about Stoic Philosophy and I think there are many useful anecdotes in there.

    1. That spinal cord tumor and the ensuing damage sounds like a powerful impetus for examination. Thank you for sharing. The Stoics certainly have lasting influence and I think you are right about the useful anecdotes.

  5. I wish I had something more evocative and pretty like a mountain-climbing metaphor! Mine’s pretty mundane but it works! One of my grad school advisors kicked my butt regularly when I got mired in the doctoral process and he’d invoke a little imagery, using a clock. “Time’s gonna pass anyhow…you might as well move forward with it.” I loved his folksy wisdom. It worked. Now when I get stuck, I see time whizzing by and figure I’d better get moving. But I’d rather have your mountain climbing metaphor. 😉 Thanks for sharing with us, Wynne!

    1. Oh, I like the clock – so much to mine there. Time passing. You’ve got to spend the time to wind it if you want it to work. The second hand versus the minute hand versus the hour hand. That’s good!

  6. I’m with Vicki, I wish I had awesome Mountain Metaphors like these. They’re so inspiring Wynne. Love them. I find your comment about setting a turn-around time to be so perceptive. So many of us fail in thinking about effort in that way. “There’s a moment where you just have to stop what you are doing and call it good.” That is so hard for me to do. The perfectionist in me fights that and someones good is just that . . . good enough. Wow. The thumping you hear is me knocking my head against the wall, saying “D’oh, get that through your thick head Brian!” Ha, ha, ha. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Ha, I’m laughing about the thumping. I don’t think it’s just you – I’m thinking about all the climbers and guides who have died because they couldn’t stick to their own turnaround time. Something about human nature makes it so hard.

      And you have great running metaphors!!

  7. It’s so nice how you break down your go-to metaphor. I think that mine is a staircase, going down might be easier than going up, but it depends. Sometimes also when you go down you have to pay attention and put one foot after the other carefully.

  8. Perfect analogy to draw between that up and down of the climb and life in general Wynne! Excellent. I don’t know that I have a metaphor per se, but I am now stealing “pressure breath” each time I attempt Pinnacle Peak- or hike around Colorado with the family!

    1. I’m glad you like the analogy, Deb, because it seems perfect for you as a hiker. And yes – the pressure breath is so helpful at altitude. Can’t wait to hear your results!

  9. Wynne, I really like your climbing metaphor. I don’t really have a metaphor or visual I use. I think I’m still in the infant or like toddler stage of learning my limits, etc. LOL I’ve definitely adopted the one step at a time and rest breaks, though. Still working on the self-care tricks 🙂

  10. Great piece Wynne! I find everything related to your mountain climbing adventures very interesting- more please!🙂 If I have a go to metaphor or two they would have to do with either running or football (I speak as a fan only for that one.

    1. Oh, you have used both running and football to great effect in your writing. Makes me think of your “Playing for each other” post, Todd. Such a great one!

  11. Lovely post Wynne. I really like your climbing metaphors. As you might flying/aviation is my go to metaphor. I love how lessons from one domain can almost always be applied to real life. What you learn along the way is never wasted even if you stop climbing or flying. Wishing you well Wynne 🙏

    1. Oh, AP2, you know how much I like your flying metaphors. But the thing I love most about your comment is “What you learn along the way is never wasted even if you stop climbing or flying.” Right! Never wasted – we have ample opportunity to go back and use the lessons learned. Brilliant!! Sending you lots of well-wishes and blessings!

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