Here is how it happens: you wake up one morning and think, today I want to accomplish something. Today, I want to do something hard and a bit impossible for me. Today, I want to climb a mountain.

You are a bit deluded. And optimistic. (You are usually optimistic in the morning.)

After some rearranging of the family plans, you pack up your bag with bug spray and sunscreen, bottles of water and a change of clothes and then you head out. You drive alone and think about the romance of climbing a mountain: you think about standing at the top, wind whipping your hair as you gaze out on the world below, the conquering hero. You think about time to pray and time to think. Lately your mind has been unquiet, constantly thinking and wrestling and popping to one thought after another without ever really settling in to think well about any of it. Your mind aches with constant unproductive use, and so you’ve decided to give your mind a time-out by making the rest of your body ache with work.

You set out with a few others. You are out of breath within ten minutes. (This is going to be a long day.) What were you thinking? but you keep going and everyone passes you. A new group of climbers come by and then they are gone too. This will happen all afternoon.

You listen to a sermon on your iPod Touch. An hour passes. You are still climbing, straight up. The sermon ends, you try some music. You realise that this is not the place for other people’s songs, this is the place for your own breath so you put away the music and listen to the noise of effort.

You are dirty and tired but you’re doing it, one foot after another after another after another. You sit at the switchbacks to rest, to rub your thighs with relief, drink tepid water. As you walk, you pray and you think and you rest. Eventually you stop thinking about all the stuff you wanted to think about and instead you simply exist, with God, with your own breath, with your own physical body’s unbelievable strength. It may not be pretty but you are still climbing up and up and up. Slowly, through the rocks and the dust and the sweat and limitations.

Why is that something that seems so hard to you is seemingly easy to everyone else? The other climbers are simply ascending, cheerily friendly and sympathetic as they sail past with their breezy encouragement to keep going. Women fly by with flat stomachs in their neon running shorts, one woman has on false eyelashes. False eyelashes! You’ve sweated off your make-up, your face is red, your ponytail is wet with sweat, you have dust and pine needles stuck to your ass from the last time you sat down to rest.

“Don’t look up,” one man advises. “You’ll only get discouraged when you see how much farther you still have to go. If you must look around, look down, look how far you’ve come.”

Why didn’t someone tell you that at the bottom? because you keep looking up and feeling your heart sink. Still so far to go. Keep going keep going keep going until the halfway sign mark, then the three-quarter way mark. These markers are discouraging: surely you should be done now but instead, you still have so far to go. And your thighs are quivering.

You keep going.

This is the point where you wish you could quit. This is the point where, in every other part of your life, you would say “Good enough!” and walk away. You would say things like “I tried my best” as you moved on to something easier, something to distract, anything really. Who wants to work so hard? In your real life, you would peace out, leave it to the experts. Surely someone else can do this.

Starting something hard is way more fun than finishing it well. Only the pines witness the resolute courage to keep moving.

The only way out is up. You are in charge of your own rescue.

You keep going.

The last half is the real work. You’ve stopped gazing at the trees with wonder. You’ve stopped praying, stopped philosophizing, stopped writing lame blog posts in your head, vanity vanity.

You are on all fours, scrabbling up rock face, your fingernails are filthy and torn. One poor woman fell down in front of you. She landed in the dust of the rocks in a heap, startled and winded. You picked her up, got her water, stayed for a while but she wanted to keep going. You could tell she was embarrassed by her fall, embarrassed to be needing something from a stranger, even kindness.

You keep going.

You are longing to be done. Done done done. you want to be done. You quit you quit you quit. It’s been three hours of steady climbing straight up. Your mind is still at last, captivated by the effort of your heart and body perhaps, you are simply willing yourself to keep moving.

And then you break through the trees to the rock and you are there. The last few steps to the summit, and you begin to turn back around slowly, panting, sweating, aching, dirty.

You stand at the top of a mountain and close your eyes to the view for a moment.

You did it.

You did it. You climbed nearly 3,000 feet up into the sky by yourself.

It wasn’t pretty. It was terrible work. It took you twice as long as you thought it would. Everyone passed you, even that one guy who was seventy if he was a day. Everyone was better at it than you. (Part of you resented them for making it look so effortless.) You are so tired, If you could have quit, you would have. But instead here you are right where you wanted to be all along.

You stand at the top of the mountain but you aren’t cheering and high five-ing anyone like a few other groups: you are alone. You’re happy. Deeply profoundly happy, filled with joy and accomplishment. You stand on the rock and look out and think: I used to be there and now I am here and I did that on purpose.

You take off your shoes, peel off your socks and simply sit in the wind, looking out into the world. It takes an hour for you to realize that your mind is quiet at last. Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.


In which we do it anyway
In which I thank the Duchess of Cambridge
thank you for sharing...
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  • Awesome, Sarah. Everyone needs to conquer a real, actual metaphor every now and then.

    • Yes, sometimes it’s so good to “get out of my own head” for a while!

  • Jemelene

    Today, this moment, I needed this more than you will know. Thank you isn’t enough Sarah. You inspire me to keep climbing.

    • So glad to know that, jem – you do need to keep climbing. We need you out here!

  • Oh Sarah….

    LOVE the title of the post.

    And this:

    – “…youโ€™ve decided to give your mind a time-out by making the rest of your body ache with work.” // There’s a thought! I *need* to do this more.

    – “You realise that this is not the place for other peopleโ€™s songs, this is the place for your own breath so you put away the music and listen to the noise of effort.”// “the noise of effort” -> LOVE. + “this is not the place for other peopleโ€™s songs” – > *sob*

    – “you would peace out, leave it to the experts.” // Made me giggle.

    – “You are in charge of your own rescue.” // #gotmerightinmyjunk

    – “It takes an hour for you to realize that your mind is quiet at last.” // Halleluyer! At last! At last!

    I feel the buzz of your beautiful victory in your sweet smile.

    Keep on, S.


  • Tiffany Norris

    Thank you for writing this. I’m climbing my own mountain (metaphorically), and I really really needed to read this today.

  • Thanks for sharing this, and well done on your achievement – keep challenging myself to do something like that, but keep chickening out. Thanks for the encouragement not to give up. Maybe one day soon I’ll take up a challenge like that. Thanks for inspiring me again.

  • …and I am definitely used to everyone going past me in a lot of areas of life. Marriage, success seem to pass me by and go to everyone else my age and younger. But I have learned to be content where I am, and I have my own journey, and I’m content with that. This is a great post, because it’s reminded me I’m not alone, and in fact most of us have felt this way, and it’s okay. Thanks Sarah.

    • That’s a good word, James. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Jodi

    This is great!!! Thanks! I ‘ran’–and by run I mean walked–a 20K this year and had the same feelings….hadn’t thought of it as a metaphor yet, but will do that now. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Appreciate your blog and the thoughts you share here. Blessings!

    • congrats, Jodi! That’s such an accomplishment!

  • Yes yes yes.
    I love this all and complete. But i love the part about getting to the place where you stop blogging in your head, because I see myself there so much.
    Thank you for sharing this journey with me, with us. I means the world.

  • Amy

    Oh, Sarah. My heart is puddling in deep, gulping sobs of relief at such encouragement. Life is closed in at this moment, and I want to quit, quit, quit so strongly. Yet your words pull the glimmer of truth and hope to the surface from deep within my heart. Truth that this deed, this work, this effort is not yet finished, and hope that the view from the top will be glorious. I am grateful for you.

    • Grateful to hear and know this, Amy. Thank you for sharing it. Praying here, too.

  • Melanie

    As we say here in Ireland, fair play to you, good woman yourself!

  • Katie

    beautiful! this is awesome! Here’s to you and your well earned quiet mind!

  • Love love love this, Sarah. Just love.

    “If you must look around, look down, look how far youโ€™ve come.โ€ I needed that it 4am today when I was in the middle of climbing a small mountain and I was so ready to quit.

    • That post was so worth it. I’m glad you didn’t quit. So gorgeous and good.

  • So proud of you.

  • Rachel

    Reading this as I prepare to climb Longs Peak… Such a good word. And yet, I’m so afraid of the descent! I know we will reach the top, but the way down is long and painful. And long! So long. I will try to remember these words…

  • I absolutely love the bit about looking down not up. What sage advice. What a climb, nicely done.

  • KHein

    Loved reading this honest account of doing something hard! False eyelashes indeed! Sweaty ponytails and needled pants are where the tough, holy work of physical activity comes in. I didn’t climb a mountain today, but I ran hard on the treadmill from the get-go and felt just like you describe at the end of it–like I was praying with my feet and blood pounding and my mind quieted. Thanks for this!!

  • Sherry

    When I was 16, I hiked up a mountain in Yoho National Park with a friend of mine and her family. A prairie girl from Manitoba, my mountain-climbing experience was minimal to say the least. I don’t remember much about that trip. I couldn’t tell you the name of the trail or anything else we did while we were there. But I remember my friend’s dad encouraging us when we quickly got tired, and she asked how much longer. His reply: “Don’t worry! It’s just around the corner and all downhill from there.” As we continued to hike higher and higher, his reply never changed, for two hours, then three… By the time we reached the top, we had stopped asking!

    I know that if he had told us at the beginning that we would be climbing for over three hours to get to the top, we would never have made that climb (never mind thinking of the climb back down!). But I will always remember the magic of that day when we reached snow fields in our t-shirts and shorts and had a snowball fight in July…

    “Don’t worry. It’s just around the corner, and all downhill from there…”
    Congrats on your climb!

  • Favorite. By far. “Maybe itโ€™s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.” Yes. wow.

  • fiona lynne

    Amazing!! I love the image of praying with your feet, it’s one that so resonates with me. And that encouragement to keep walking when only the pines can see you. Oh I needed that.

  • I’m nodding my head in agreement. I think there’s a huge blessing to sore muscles and physical tasks that make us sweat and grunt and get earth embedded in us. It does something to our mind. It reminds us who we are – and who we are not. It’s a beautiful, messy thing. A prayer born of screaming flesh and quieting minds.

    And this? “If you must look around, look down, look how far youโ€™ve come.โ€ A thousand times yes.

  • michellesarabia

    Favorite line – “Maybe itโ€™s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.” Beautiful!

  • J. Collard

    I’m glad for this one today. I needed to hear something like this.

  • mamadeano

    beautiful. that is all. Thankyou. I need to keep climbing.

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  • Maureen Koth

    thank you from the bottom of my heart thank you….i am in charge of my own rescue needed words

  • “Maybe itโ€™s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.”

    what an incredibly convicting line. maybe my stale prayer life needs more climbing and less reciting. thanks for the motivation, today.

  • paty

    So I am 56 and this year I started Bikram yoga-heated 90 minute yoga class. I have learned so much. One of our instructors said something that I remembered as I read your post-she said that the mind tells us to quit so much earlier than either our heart or body might tell us. So sometimes we just let our body lead the mind which is so anti-western but applies to climbing a mountain or sticking to 90 minutes of hot yoga. And it is true spiritually as well. Our mind will reason out things to the nth degree but sometimes our soul and spirit need to lead us.

  • audra

    My heart aches with how very much I needed to hear this, all of it. Thank you. Really. Thank you.

  • When I was in seminary we learned that in the bible, mountains often represent the places where heaven touches earth: mount Sinai, the mount of olives, even the attempt to reach heaven by building the mountainous Tower of Babel. But I think, sometimes, mountain tops really are a place where heaven touches earth and God does something deep and soulish and transcendent in us, near us, for us. Thank you for sharing your ‘high’.

  • Outnumbered 23

    “Eventually you stop thinking about all the stuff you wanted to think about and instead you simply exist, with God, with your own breath, with your own physical bodyโ€™s unbelievable strength.” I like this. I took up running, the boring long-distance kind, at a bad time some years ago and this describes how it is good. I decided I’m a “kinaesthetic pray-er” but “praying with your feet and muscles”is a far more poetic way of putting it ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad to have found this.

  • R W

    Little late to the party- but I love this post! Especially because the mountains are my safe place with God. And, your photos remind me of my own beautiful San Juans here in WA. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • Nichole

    I agree! I think that you need that you should get out for a while and accomplish something!