Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind". It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. –Wikipedia
Emilie Drinkwater on a failed attempt of Peak 6135, Ladakh, India

My initial thesis for this blog entry was that attempting first ascents is the ultimate way to seek the unknown, and so failure is one of the most beautiful tragedies. Luckily it was my driving shift, somewhere between DC and Fayetteville, WV, so I had a few hours to think it through and conclude that I was completely wrong.
Our trip to India was framed by failure. Kirsten, Emilie and I were given a photo of a beautiful mountain halfway around the world and spent more than a year planning an expedition to try to climb it. We day-dreamed and night-dreamed about it. We emailed, conference called, wrote lists, bought gear, trained, raised money, gave up work, strained relationships at home and went into debt to get there. We trekked for days, built trails and kairns, stashed gear, slept poorly and endured headaches while acclimatizing, established a high camp and sat and watched the mountain for days.

Finally, we attempted it. Several times. The reasons why don’t matter for this story, but we failed. We turned and walked away, leaving a mystery behind for another party, another year. 
But by going to plan B for the remainder of our trip, I had one of most memorable and successful weeks of mountain climbing in terms of summits attained, lessons learned and fun had. Success because we failed.  
We went to the mountains thinking our goals were to do all-women first ascents and to go rock climbing. Plan B involved letting both of those things go. There was a literal period of mourning. But the outcome we were really after – pushing our physical and mental selves through remote exploration – was what mattered, as it turns out (duh!).
Each and every decision we make, every day, is an opportunity to assume a beginner’s mind and tread into the unknown...and I am pretty convinced that failure is the best path towards it. 
I’ve talked to middle-aged people who say they understand less now about life than they did ten or twenty years ago, and to divorcees who regret assuming they understood the nature of their partnerships or the recipes for a successful marriage. Beginners at poker tables around the world make the pros livid when they win the entire pot.
The intentional return to a beginner’s mind feels almost religious in practice. As the expedition drew to a close, I journaled obsessively about modeling my life after basecamp living. I thought creating days in my normal life that are like rest days in basecamp - defined by simplicity, rest and thoughtfulness - would encourage boldness and open-mindedness (I've been trying to not start my car or answer my phone or turn on my computer one day every week to get started on this). But it is not just the physical, structural space that makes the beginner’s mindset possible. 

In a beginner's mind, failure is not tragedy at all. Failure probably cannot even exist in such a mind. But I'll be damned if I don't find myself still daydreaming about what might have been if we'd kept going up instead of down that mountain that day...

Bivied at our high point on 6135

6135 - A mountain for another day, or day-dream 
Favorite gear from a summer in the Karakoram:
Mountain Hardwear W's Phantom 15 sleeping bag
Polartec test jacket
Sterling Fusion Nano Ropes - especially the PINK one!
Petzl Myo XP Headlamp
La Sportiva Ganda Guide shoes

1 comment:

climberism said...

Nice Janet! Going back?