Voice of the Mountains

Essay: Shift Your Understanding

By Steve House

“Yeah, this is hard, but I’m hard,” Lydia thought to herself. 

It was day seven traversing a remote peak in the Garhwal Himalaya; and Lydia Bradey and her partner had been buried by avalanches six times. The previous night they had openly discussed that they could survive only one more night before they would succumb to hypothermia, and die. And somehow, as she was repeatedly facing near-death experiences while traversing that peak she thought to herself: “This is hard, but I’m hard.”

What a thing for a young woman to learn. For anyone to learn. In Voice of the Mountains #3, Lydia recounts a seldom-told story, in addition to her famous story of being the first woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen, but another story, a story rather deeper. More elemental. I think she lets us in on the experience, the moment where she changed into the person that became a pioneering figure in climbing history. 

The shift for Lydia was foundational. And she internalized the lessons of repeatedly experiencing near-death after “A few days of staring at the wall from PTSD.” And from that day on, she understood that bad things happen because of your decisions, and ergo, good things are also the result of your decisions. She discovered her agency.

Lydia’s experience is the exact inverse of the way most people think this works. The hard and the bad things happen first, then you understand cause and effect, and that gives you courage, and courage is what empowers you to go out and make the good things happen.

Which is not so different than my original thesis for Voice of the Mountains #3: The best journeys end with your understanding of yourself shifted. Which I wanted to approach from the perspective of a pioneer; exploring the difference between doing what you should not do and doing what people believe you can not do.

Impossible is always changing. And it takes a dose of crazy to see that the impossible is possible, and a dose of discipline to shape yourself into the person that can execute on the impossible-idea. In short, making the impossible, possible; changes you. Doing what you should-not do; that changes everyone.

Once the impossible is done it starts a stream of conversation: “They did it, why can’t I do it?”

Doing the impossible shows that hard work can overcome.

When the should-not is done the conversation is tidal. It goes like this: “They did it, why can’t we all do it?” They’re a woman and I’m a woman and therefore: Why can’t all women do it?”

Doing the should-not lifts the veil of ignorance, for all.

Should-nots come in many forms, and pioneering female climbers have unassumingly–and persistently–climbed through windows when doors are slammed in their faces. There is an old saying that goes: Pioneers get arrows and settlers get land. To be a ground-breaking female climber means taking a lot of arrows. To dig in and test whether or not the best journeys end with your understanding of yourself shifted we have to ask: How is a pioneer’s journey different from the proverbial settlers that follow?

The mountains taught Lydia one of the most crucial lessons of our modern age, the age of AI, the antidote to cynicism and despair: Agency.

And Lydia wasted no time in translating her agency into the first female alpine-style ascent of an 8,000-meter peak and then the following year her famous Everest ascent.

Could this insight change how I raise my boys?

Does it change how I coach athletes?

How much should I let everyone in my sphere ‘learn the hard way’. As my grandfather used to say often: A burnt hand teaches best. Have we gone soft? Does this align with my own experiences of stress and growth and change?

Yes, hell-yes, it does.

We should all listen and learn from Lydia’s humility and her lifetime of hard-earned wisdom. And she calls us in for abdicating our own agency as a society: “No wonder our teenagers are really stressed because we’ve brought them up in a world of blame culture.”

Us to life now: “This is hard, but I’m hard.” Let’s all promise ourselves to look at the world a little more like Lydia.

Exploring the poetic soul of the mountains.

Voice of the Mountains explores the mental and emotional adventures found in discovering who we are and what we’re capable of. Here we engage in self-reflection and humility, and embrace the beauty and struggle of the alpine experience equally.