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  • Billy Michels

Lessons from the Mountain

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

What I learned on Mt. Hood, and how it is driving me through cancer.

A Different Mountain, Same Skills.

Summiting Mt. Hood last year was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life so far. My cousin Jeff wrote me in late March with the idea of climbing Hood for his 50th birthday, in mid-May. A whopping 7 weeks to train and learn what the hell I was doing so I didn't kill myself or the two of us. The last time I climbed to 11,250 feet on a frozen glacier on top of a volcano was...never. Actually, I did make it to 14,763 ft up Mt. Cotopaxi, but that was in a van. Well, I did it, I made a plan, dedicated myself to training, envisioned the adventure, and got all the details lined up. That was just the getting prepared part.

During the actual climb, the lessons came at me from every angle, and as direct links or metaphorically speaking, I am using the same lessons for this climb over Mt. Hodgkins. Here are the big ones:

1. Don't look too far ahead.

Staring up at this monstrous active volcano from the bottom, you look way beyond the top of the chair lifts and ski slopes where the landscape opens up to vast swaths of bright white snow and enormous rock formations jutting out to form the crater, thousands of feet above us. To think about reaching that height was unimaginable. We did a practice hike up to 8,000 ft as my cousin tested me to be sure he wouldn't be dragging my ass up or down the mountain, smart boy. Either due to its sheer beauty or magnitude, I couldn't stop looking up at the crater as I hiked. After a while I found myself discouraged - the more I hiked and the more exhausted I got, the top didn't seem to be any closer. The key was to look directly in front of myself, and only look up occasionally to get my bearings. Looking right at the obstacles in front of me was much more productive than staring down the crater so far away from me. Following this pattern, it was always a gift when I would finally look up and feel the progress - I was indeed making way, and that crater was getting closer and closer.

2. Small steps will get you there.

My cousin, though a seasoned climber, was not very seasoned this year, or so he said. I, on the other hand thought I was in amazing shape, yet I couldn't keep up with him. I was exhausted, blaming the altitude, blaming the snow, blaming myself for not training harder, whatever...I was taking huge steps to try and catch him, trying to power myself forward. And then I almost bonked. I was leaning over my poles catching my breath, disappointed, and trying not to quit when I noticed his footsteps in the snow leading away from me. They were tiny, and I don't mean tiny foot size, but his strides were tiny - almost as if he was barely shuffling up the mountain. His heel print on one foot was even with his toe print of the other. Hmmm. So I tried it. I literally stepped in his footprints. It was very awkward trying to keep my feet that close, it was foreign to me. I always tried to take huge strides to keep up with my taller friends, and thought that bigger power strides were more effective. In this case, I was wrong. With the tiny steps, I barely moved my legs, barely bent my knees, barely engaged my quads, it was easy, and I was conserving massive amounts of energy. And the most important part, I made it to him without bonking or quitting. I remembered some Confucius wisdom: The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. Small steps will get you there.

3. Right gear, right shape, right attitude. 

There is no way you can climb a mountain of this size without being all in and dedicating yourself to the adventure. You need to be prepared, make a plan, do your research, and do more research. You need to find out what you will specifically need and go get it at any cost (this is your life, remember, make it happen). We thought we had all the gear necessary, we checked the weather, we checked forums, we checked the mountain updates, we checked with local friends, we checked with the dude at the counter of the equipment outfitter...and we adjusted. We found out on our test day that the snow at the bottom was too soft and not frozen as usual, this means we would be "boot posting" as our boots would sink a foot into the snow, zapping all our energy. So we went back down and got snowshoes, problem solved. I found an online training program for climbing such a mountain and stuck to the fitness plan, following every workout, every hike, even going as far as wearing my hiking boots on the stairmaster at my gym while wearing a backpack with 30 pounds of weight in it. Beyond the odd sneers and snickers from many of the a-type fitness buffs, I was proud to have 2 people come up and ask what mountain I was training for. Who cares what everyone else thought, this was MY adventure. I ate right, I trimmed back the drinking, I lost 11 pounds. I meditated, I envisioned the summit, I let go of my fear of not making it. I trusted that if the universe was with me, and if the mountain allowed me, it would let me stand on top of it for a moment.

You have to know you are going to make it. Use whatever technique you like: envision it, daydream it, project it, manifest it, believe it, pray on it, meditate on it, wish on it, ... just be sure you are positive and that you can "see" it happening. Use positive words. Our language and word choice are big indicators of our intentions. The obvious is cutting out, "I'm not sure", "might not", "could be a problem", "worried"...etc. But there are even some usually positive words that need to be gone as well, like "hope". Hope is such a nice a peaceful word, but it leaves open the chance that what you are after might not happen. I will never say "I hope I get over cancer". I have to know I will get over it, or the universe might not understand that I am serious here. I do not use the expression "fighting cancer" or a "battle" either. I imagine a battle and I see carnage and blown out buildings and destruction - I don't want to imagine that inside of me. The more we fight, the more we fight. I look to my cancer as a teacher, as a fuckload of lessons I need to learn. As the Buddhists do, they don't resist their enemies, because resistance and suppression will only spiral into something worse down the road. Instead, they invite their demons for tea. They get to know them, The listen to them. They learn from them. Then, like any great party - at some point it's time to tell them it's time to go. I believe I have some old stories about myself that are no longer serving me, and I need to let them go to become a better me, a Billy 2.0.

My life will obviously have to adjust, but it will adjust to make me an even healthier and better person.

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