How do you climb a mountain?

Illustration: Linnaea Mallette Source: Public Domain Pictures.

Growing up I was fascinated by mountaineering. Stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries of early climbers risking everything “because it’s there” captivated me. I must have read the account of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Everest a dozen times: the Khumbu Icefall, the South Col, the “Hillary Step,” the final slope to the summit. Every stage was enthralling.

There’s something about mountains that attracts our spirit: the raw beauty, the physical and mental challenge, the teamwork and camaraderie of shared sacrifice. Every society has seen mountains a special places, sacred places where we may receive a sense of transcendence, of something more.

But mountains can be intimidating.

Mount Everest. Photo: Gautam Dutta. Source: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Their sheer size and remoteness demand that we take them seriously. The bigger and more difficult they are to get to, the greater the challenge and the greater the mental reward when we achieve our goal. We see this again and again, even on modest hikes: when we reach the summit there’s a sense of euphoria and joy, handshakes, laughing, other types of congratulations. Even in the most dangerous circumstances, mountain climbers always seem to spend a few minutes at the summit to celebrate.

But how do we get there?

Accounts of mountaineering have four elements: preparation, scouting, execution, and review. Encountering each of these steps makes their stories compelling. Every circumstance is unique, but there are universal aspects. Preparation involves gathering a team and acquiring the tools needed; scouting the route inevitably contains the breath-catching thrill of seeing the peak for the first time; execution is the adventure itself; and a thorough review includes reflection on what the climber learned along the way.

I’ve seen during my years managing money that facing our finances is a lot like climbing mountains. They’re distant and daunting, often shrouded in fog and mystery, and they can intimidate us. But they yield to the same processes.

The summit on a recent hike in the White Mountains. Photo: Doug Tengdin.

Preparation means gathering the tools and team necessary to achieve our goals. Sometimes the goals are clear, but sometimes the process starts with reviewing what your goals should be. Maybe you’ve climbed the biggest mountains in the range, and you want to look at some new peaks, something less spectacular. A good guide can help you clarify where you want to go and how you want to get there.

Scouting out the path means looking at the situation objectively and clearly. The summit may be in the clouds now, but it hasn’t always been that way. People have gone this way before, there are trip reports, personal accounts, even guide books. And even when making first ascents, early climbers could talk with locals who knew the lower paths and by-ways. In finance, having a clear, complete picture of the pathway and some of the most common risks we’ll face along the way is crucial. And there’s usually a breath-catching moment when we see our objective.

Then we get to execution. It’s always amazing to me how small a single human step is: just two or three feet. And mountains that may require hundreds of miles of trekking and climbing eventually yield to these humble, little steps. Also, every plan of action needs adjustment. Changing weather, equipment failure, and personal circumstances always come up, and always demand attention. It’s foolish to aggravate a blister on your foot when stopping for a minute or two to apply moleskin will save you hours down the road. Saving, investing, and growing our wealth almost always comes down to some fundamental principles: spend less than we earn, let our money work for us along the way, and let the power of compounding work over time. Small, simple, humble steps

Finally, review along the way will improve our experience the next time, and perhaps help those who come after us. Maybe we don’t need as much equipment, or maybe our companions had different experiences. Each step should be discussed and analyzed, often with a specific framework.

The mountains will always be attractive in their mystery and challenge. How do we climb them? One step at a time.

Photo: Doug Tengdin