There are mental health lessons to be learned from nearly every activity. For NoStigmas volunteer and contributor Mike Bushman, the most indelible of those lessons were embedded on hiking trails. During the next few months, we will share the best of those lessons, and how they apply to everyday life for so many.

3) Sometimes You Chase False Summits

I’d climbed many mountains before, but not ones out West where you cross the tree line with miles remaining to hike.

At Humphrey’s Peak, my goal was to reach the summit. Humphrey’s Peak, in Flagstaff, Arizona, served as a critical scene in a story I’d written. I needed to know what I conceived was accurate. I needed to make it to the peak. 

Days before, I’d hiked in the nearby Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point. It’s a 12-mile trail that starts at 7,000 feet of elevation and descends to 3,500 feet at Plateau Point.

After some less rigorous sightseeing, I drove to Flagstaff and carb loaded for the Humphrey’s Peak hike. At sunrise, I was at the trailhead, situated at 9,000 feet. The trail climbs over five miles to 12,700 feet at the peak. It was mid-November, the end of the hiking season for a peak that could then just as easily be encased in snow and ice.

While there was ice on the trails at higher elevations, particularly in shaded areas below the tree line, it wasn’t the footing that made this hike difficult. I’d been in the Chicago area only a few days before. My only incline work had been at lower elevations in the Grand Canyon. I was far from altitude-adjusted. This became abundantly clear once I passed the tree line, trudging through the lunar landscape covering the last 1-1/2 miles to the summit.

Even more clear then was that I hadn’t trained enough. I was forced to stop frequently, to rest my legs and to keep my heart and lungs from bursting through my ribs.

As I approached what looked like the summit, I was relieved as much as delighted. I’d made it. The descent would be far easier.

I hadn’t made it though.

I’d been chasing a false summit. I had further to go.  

Humphrey’s Peak has three false summits. They give you hope that you’re almost to your goal, only to crush your spirit as you take what you think are the final incline steps. When you look up, though, the trail continues over the ridge. 

When I hit these false summits, in hiking and in life, I have to take a break, gather my thoughts and admit I’d been fooled. Hardest of all, I need to keep going. My goal hadn’t been to get to something that seemed like the summit. It had been to get to the top, even if that meant enduring 20-mile-per-hour winds aggravating nearly freezing temperatures.

On Humphrey’s Peak, as in life, my goals kept moving from what I had been envisioning, feeling at times nearly impossible to achieve. Several times during my career, I was told I needed just one more achievement or to wait to get past the current hiring freeze. A promotion was no more than months away. But something else would intervene. A bad quarter. New leadership. Different priorities. Internal politics.

The goal moved.

The disappointment of thinking I’d made it, only to find out that there more struggle to endure, could be debilitating. But I believed I could still make it. It was worth working toward that goal. It might have been further away than I thought, but I couldn’t give up.

Life is full of times we discover that it’s a far longer path to what we want to achieve than we can possibly see—or even imagine. 

Those disappointments can either be roadblocks or hurdles, depending on how we face them. Often, I had to fight off my gut reactions—depleted energy and altered attitude.

When I hit those false summits on Humphrey’s Peak, I knew that if I ever wanted to reach the true summit, it was better to keep going than to climb down and start again another day on another mountain.

That meant shaking off my frustration, and trudging on.


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