I remember it like it was yesterday. We, the varsity football team at Holderness School, had just trounced our final opponent, completing our undefeated run of ten games. We were off to the championships, and we were proud.
Hooting and hollering, we high fived and pranced around on the sidelines. Then Coach Walker, veteran football coach and amazing English professor and poet, marched over with his usual stern affability and barked: Don't get happy, boys, don't get happy!!
Strange way to celebrate, I thought to myself. We just won...we went undefeated...we deserved to be happy!
But Coach wasn't talking about simple celebration, about revelling in a moment hard won and well earned. Rather, his "don't get happy" admonition was an warning against cockiness, against the complacence brought on by success...and just as quickly destroyed by it.
High school football in northern New Hampshire and the serrated ridges of the high Himalaya may be worlds apart, but Coach Walker's passing admonition on that chilly November day has resonated in my decisions on mountains and in life.
While guiding on Mount Rainier for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., we had a favorite saying for clients (later made famous by Ed Viesturs): The summit is optional...coming down is mandatory. Similar to Coach Walker's "don't get happy", our saying was not meant to dash spirits but rather to ward off poor decision making brought on by celebration and subsequent ego.
Just like our sideline celebrations on the football field, climbers often find themselves celebrating on the summit, high fiving with big smiles and a relaxed feeling that all is done, the challenges are over, it's all downhill from here.
But really, the hardest part is just beginning, the climb is only 50% finished at the summit, and if our defenses are lowered we no longer see and react to dangers and difficulties efficiently and effectively. Our joy at reaching the summit threatens to derail our success on the climb that remains.
As Coach said, don't get happy.
The same is true on the football fields and towering summits of life: we should certainly celebrate our accomplishments, take pride in our abilities, the goals we've reached and the hurdles we've overcome to get there. But, we shouldn't get happy, we shouldn't let our momentary success cloud our vision of the terrain yet to come, crevasses yet to cross and dangers yet to be seen.
When we avoid the temptation to "get happy", we discover what I cover in my keynote presentations: The Summit Perspective. This is the understanding that the summit, the end goal, the winning touchdown, is but a moment in time, a patch of snow.
The true joy in climbing our mountains, in reaching our elusive goals, lies on the sides of our peaks.
As the cliche says: It's the journey, not the destination, which counts.
- Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.