Perspective in an Overshared World

In 2010 I finally completed the so-called “Kane List” (2nd edition). Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. I continued to scramble and climb bigger and ever more remote peaks, and plan longer and bigger canoe trips and backpacking adventures. I find myself now entering a somewhat reflective phase of my peak bagging journey and my life in general.

Lists, Lists and more Lists

Friends and acquaintances around me have also started completing (competing?) summit lists and have moved on to go ever bigger – completing the 11,000ers list or upping their technical climbing skills. Every day as I ride the crowded c-train to work, I look down at my iPhone screen and am reminded on various social media feeds and blogs, just how free and adventurous many of the people around me seem to be. The question I end up asking myself constantly, is;

How do I keep a balanced perspective in regards to my personal pursuit of adventure and my life in general – especially while living in an overshared world where comparing our lives to others around us is almost unavoidable?

How does explor8ion.com fit into this current ethos where the camera on the front of our phones is used more than the one on the back? How do I share what I do with others without caring too much about the reaction? Why do I share what I do? If I share my adventures with others, thereby reducing the “wild” in wilderness, am I not contributing to the problem, rather than preserving that which I love? Or does sharing the backcountry help to garner more love from more people, thereby keeping it more pristine rather than forgotten and unprotected? These are questions that I ponder often while tramping through the woods or going for my daily walks around the neighborhood.

Vern climbing a gully on the ridge – note the ax that I’m using to help with the small holds on the slabs. Photo by Steven Song.

It’s so easy to be influenced by the goal and records obsessed culture that surrounds us. Again this week, the outdoor social media headlines are dominated by how quickly a team ascended a popular rock wall. I feel like so many folks are unduly impressed with unimportant details such as speed, danger and size rather than what really matters – did the team actually ENJOY their adventure?! Most of our social media feeds and lists are all about individual accomplishments and I have discovered that this can very quickly turn majestic and wonderful wilderness experiences into nothing more than a check mark on the back page of a dog-eared book on a nightstand. Lists are great for focusing attention on certain areas or for ideas of what to do next weekend, but they have a hidden curse that I have personally experienced more than once. Lists can take the ultimate enjoyment out of climbing mountains when the focus becomes “getting the next summit on the list to make me feel accomplished” rather than, “doing the next trip on the list that gives me real enjoyment”. Social media feeds are the same. Rather than asking what makes us truly happy, a lot of us seem to be asking what will garner the most “likes” and “shares” next weekend. Instead of asking what we really want to do, we look at what others have done and try to gain their (apparent) happiness by mimicking their (public and shared) actions. Their list becomes our list. We want their social media feed rather than our own. We want their life feed rather than our own – but only the public facing one of course!

Allow me to be honest for the remainder of this post, about my perspective on climbing mountains and why I will never again chase after a “list” of things to do, whether it’s summits, life goals or the latest fad of chasing a “bucket” list. Please note that I am simply sharing my own personal meditation with you in hopes that maybe it can offer some perspectives that I’ve discovered for myself.

Happiness is a personal thing that comes from within each of us individually. It took me many years to discover what truly made me happy and content – and to my great surprise, it wasn’t just bagging peaks or even avoiding the daily grind of work! 

When I first started climbing mountains I never even knew there was such a thing as lists of summits. I just loved the views, the exercise and going out with good friends who shared my passion for fresh air and exercise. As I made my (very reluctant) career in the cloistered concrete jungle of downtown Calgary, the peace that comes with a long solo trip on a beautiful summer day is what kept me sane.

Mount Assiniboine with the moon as the sun sets. Our route goes up the ridge trending to skyline left from bottom left.

When Dave Stephens and the RMBooks web board came to my attention, I lost a little bit of my early hiking innocence. I believe it started out fairly benign but soon the atmosphere around the web board became more and more competitive. Dave even started a spreadsheet to track everyone’s progress on the Kane list compared with each other. Social media didn’t really exist yet, but the first hint of its future influence was already starting in the early days of online beta and trip reports. I started a web site called fresh-oxygen.com before changing over to explor8ion.com. I copied Dave’s idea of detailing my adventures, mostly as a way to remember them later for myself. There was no online community like Facebook or Clubtread back then, other than around 20-30 of us on the RMBooks forum, who all knew each other personally. It started out as good fun – we all wrote about our weekends as a way to entertain each other back in the boring humdrum of everyday life on Mon-Fri. Everyone I knew worked full time jobs, had families and considered themselves lucky just to get out 10-20 times per year. Yes. Per year.

Bill feels 20 again!

Once the tracking spreadsheet was born, I continued to scramble and hike many peaks because I loved to do it, but I noticed that I also wanted to summit more mountains than anyone else and if I’m brutally honest, I often wanted my summit list to matter to other people. I was looking for approval and kudos on my weekend pursuits and it made me feel special when people congratulated me on a certain peak or ascent time. This was ultimately a mistake that I have vowed never to repeat. Since the advent of social media I’ve seen this attitude explode around me, especially on Instagram and Facebook. Despite vowing to avoid this bottomless pit of unhappiness, I find myself standing on it’s slippery edge despairingly often. I’ve heard friends state bluntly that without Facebook they wouldn’t be climbing the peaks that they are – an honest admission that still amazes me with its implications. Ask yourself;

Are you doing what you’re doing in life because you really love it? Or are you doing it because you think you should love it? Because others love it? Because of the reactions of others?

Over the years I noticed that there was a compulsion lurking deep within me, ordering me to bag a summit at every opportunity. When you’re a family person such as myself, with a full time job and many other responsibilities outside of a single-minded pursuit of personal adventure, it can be very discouraging to see the feats and progress in technical climbing skills of your friends from behind a desk. My most “accomplished” year was 2015 when I managed to ascend 60 peaks in between all my other life commitments. I know more than one person who has done over 120 summits in one year! Next to that even my best year looks rather lame! I have to continually remind myself that there is a balance between what I actually enjoy and what I sometimes feel I should enjoy, and sheer numbers will never bring the happiness that quality imparts.

Unhealthy Ambitions and Sideways Glances

With the onset of social media making it very easy to brag, share and project so-called perfect lives and an unending stream of accomplishments with the whole world, I often find myself feeling very underwhelmed with my own adventures and my own life in general. I’m sure I’m not the only one affected this way. I’m not stupid. I completely understand that much of these projections are either completely false or at the very least, exaggerated, but they’re still tough for me to ignore. Part of the reason I am affected negatively by social media brags, is probably due to my naturally competitive nature. I tend to be hard on myself when I think other’s are outworking or out-adventuring me.

Phil enjoying himself at the false summit.
Phil enjoying himself at the false summit.

I have done enough research and met enough people to know that even the seemingly perfect lives of travel bloggers, mountain guides and ski bums isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a reason I haven’t pursued any of those things seriously myself. In a world full of people desperate to obtain “likes” and “shares” from complete strangers, I am constantly fighting my own desires for outside approval. It’s taken me many years to fully understand that the inside approvals and likes are the ones that really matter. The “likes” that really mean something only come from ourselves and our loved ones – not the 45,678 anonymous IG accounts, many of which aren’t even real people but rather emotionless marketing bots from Russia. 

Eating supper in a pretty special spot – not too many humans have sat here over the years.

As the years ticked by and my summit list grew longer and longer, I began to notice something about myself that I didn’t like very much. I would be in a bad mood if the weather was perfect for climbing and I was “stuck” at home with my family. Even when I did manage to get out for a day or two, I was only happy temporarily and only when bagging as many summits as humanly possible. I have a wonderful family and to feel “stuck” when I was at home with them was not healthy or fair. It certainly caused tension in my marriage – I can assure you of that! Despite adjusting my attitude many times, I still struggle with balancing my love of open spaces and my love for my family. The best way to explain it is this;

When I’m with my family; I miss the wild.

When I’m with the wild;I miss my family.

In speaking with friends who share the responsibility of family and jobs, I know that I’m not alone in these feelings. We are all affected in some way or another by the lives we see others living. We know we shouldn’t care, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the Jones’s when everything they do is shoved in our faces every minute of every day. There’s millions of them, all continuously oversharing the best moments of their lives on the endless conveyor belt of our social media feeds. The nature of social media is also such that we don’t notice that someone might not post for three weeks. They might not post for a whole year. The conveyor belt of endless drivel doesn’t care! It simply recycles someone else’s happiness in front of us – leaving us with the impression that everyone but us is constantly happy, successful and thriving in their lives.

Keeping Perspective in an Overshared World

I think most people who love adventure, understand that there’s a very delicate balance between going into nature for the enjoyment of it and adventuring for the accomplishment of it. For many people (especially climbers and type-A personalities) the feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment are very tightly coupled – and this is what drives them to some pretty amazing things. For some very keen folks, the two are the exact same thing – there can be no enjoyment without accomplishment. Personally, I stop enjoying the mountains when my goal becomes bagging as many summits as possible within a set amount of time, without regard to how or why I’m summitting them or who I’m climbing them with. When my only focus is to stand on as many summits as possible, at every opportunity possible, I begin to view unclimbed mountains and unexplored landscapes as obstacles that must be conquered, rather than an elixir for my soul, offering me an artistic outlet, health, peace, tranquility and balance.

Phil checks out the views from the SW end of the summit block – note the impressive rock wall of the west outlier at right.

I am not a great climber or adventurer by any stretch of the imagination. I simply don’t have the time, funds or desire to put in the necessary training to be a full time dirt bag. I climb, canoe, hike and scramble because I love wide open spaces. I like the smell of fresh mountain air and the freedom of balancing across a sharp ridge with birds flying overhead and nothing holding me back. I like the sound of a rushing stream as I hike next to it and the apprehension of coming across grizzly tracks in the sand as I hike up a remote valley with puffy white clouds floating overhead. I like the feeling of my muscles straining against a warm wooden paddle as the sound of water rips around the hull of my canoe. I like the feeling of morning fog drifting around the small rocky island I’m camped on, as the haunting call of a nearby loon drifts over the water and bounces off the hard rock and thick forests all around me. I live for the smell of the pine forests and the sight of wild flowers blooming in harsh conditions where nothing should thrive at all. I love photographing the landscape as I wander through it. I can never drink enough fresh water out of the rushing mountain streams. This is why I spend time away from all of the other responsibilities in my life. This is what gives me deep and honest enjoyment. I could care less what others think of what I love to do – at least that’s what I tell myself. 

Rising mists and ducks as I paddle out of Telescope Lake.

I love the feeling of accomplishment after a long and challenging trip. I have a personality that thrives on testing my own physical and mental limitations. Mount Assiniboine is one of my favorite trips for this very reason. That was a trip that gave me the exact balance between enjoyment and accomplishment. It took me many years to work up to this mountain and this added to my feelings of satisfaction when I finally managed to ascend it. Mount King Edward is another example of a peak that took me years to summit, and many difficult attempts and life lessons. I choose to believe that most folks who travel the world, hike and climb mountains or do other arduous outdoor adventures, start out with the pure intent of having a good time and enjoying their lives. I think it’s only when we notice that others are paying attention to our accomplishments, that we are in danger of losing this innocent perspective. In my personal experience, it’s only when I start paying attention to others that I start to feel unaccomplished or unfulfilled.

The pure passion for adventure that so many of us start out with can very quickly be dulled by oversharing and over caring about others’ opinions and reactions to what we do.

I’ve finally come to understand that my personal enjoyment or fulfillment should never depend on others’ accomplishments or what strangers might value in their lives. Looking at my Facebook feeds and Instagram posts with envy or longing is the surest way to diminish the moments in my life that most deserve to be remembered, enjoyed and celebrated – no matter what they might mean to anyone else. Each of us is different and although social media loves to demand that we all love the same goals, adventures and outcomes in our lives – this is a lie. We all have commitments and responsibilities in our lives that we’d rather not have. We all look longingly at that “perfect couple” or that “lucky person” and wonder why they seem to have so much more freedom and adventure than we do. This is the hidden curse of an overshared world, IMHO. Instead of considering how good we have it, we are lulled into slowly feeling more and more dissatisfied with our (great) lives.

An incredible full rainbow on Talon Lake.

I will enjoy my freedom, secure in the knowledge that nothing in life is truly free and everything requires some sort of sacrifice, whether we realize it at the time or not. My personal sacrifices have given me a wonderful marriage and family life – something that should never be under appreciated and something that means more and more to me with each passing year. My summits are that much more sublime due to the fact that I have to pick and choose them carefully – balancing them with the other loves and priorities of my life. The lakes that I paddle are ever more sweet, the longer the time between visits. I will celebrate my moments on the summit because they’re mine and I earned them. I will bask in the enjoyment of finally standing on certain peaks after dreaming about them for many years and spending many moments anticipating what it would finally feel like to travel there. I will enjoy that remote lake that I planned and dreamed on visiting for 2 years – not because someone else might care but because it feeds my soul. I will enjoy my family and my life because it’s mine and because I’ve chosen to make sacrifices and take on responsibilities so that others can enjoy a good life along with me.  

A Personal Challenge

I challenge all my readers to reflect and meditate on why you do the things you do and pursue the lifestyle you are committed to. In this day and age of social media, where the camera on the front of the phone is used more than the one on the back, there is a very fine line between sharing experiences and bragging about them. We all owe it to ourselves and our friends and neighbors to consider our own motivations that are driving our many hurried pursuits. We should ask ourselves if we are really enjoying our accomplishments or if they’re only check marks on a meaningless and endless “Bucket List”, with no reward of true happiness, passion and contentment to back them up? There is no right or wrong way to do life – there’s simply consequences for the choices we make throughout. Some consequences are easy to live with, but others – not so easy. 

Phil on the summit ridge of Pipestone with Douglas in the background.

The most important thing I’m trying to impress on all of us is that we are worth far more than the sum of our social media feeds or ‘gram worthy moments. We are among the richest, freest and most uninhibited societies this earth has ever seen. We must celebrate that! We must meditate on that! We should all live our lives as largely, loudly and boldly as we possibly can. We shouldn’t worry about what others think of our choices but we should ensure that we make ones that we can live with 10, 20 or even 30 years from now.

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