Making the Most of the Viewless Summits
Sometimes, we go into an adventure expecting a breathtaking vista and a pretty picture; but life often has other plans
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Pine trees have always held a kind of magic for me.
The straight, unwavering geometry of these forests always makes me feel as if I’m walking through ancient, overgrown corridors. The trunks creak like the rusted hinges of ancient doors, groaning with each gust of wind — while the upper branches whisper and sway.
Softy, mossy carpet underfoot.
The sweet smell of their needles.
My first real hike of the season brought me through one of these sprawling, organic halls, and I couldn’t’ve been more thrilled at the outset.
Plans to snowboard with a friend fell through when we looked at the forecast: 60 mph winds were enough to make anyone miserable on the lift. Unwilling to brave bad conditions for worse snow, we decide to salvage our day with a hike. Nothing too strenuous.
I picked a spot off the map that looked like it would take us to a nice overlook, without breaking the tree line.
With our target acquired, we drove west, headed for a four-mile loop up to a knoll in Evergreen.
We clutched our hats and turned our heads away from the howling wind, crossing the dusty field between the trailhead parking area, and the forest.
We made excellent time through the woods. Within 45 minutes, I could tell we were closing in on the summit: the tall pine trees grew increasingly sparse, broken up by fields of bright green shrubs and moss.
The wind blew a bit stronger, the rustling louder. I felt my enthusiasm building with the breeze. Surely, the view from the top will be incredible.
But the incredible outlook I’d hoped for, never came.
Experiencing Something Completely Different
Of all the interviews I’ve endured, no hiring manager or admissions counselor could ever match the nerves I felt during my Eagle Scout board of review. The experience was a life-changing reflection on leadership, service, and my years spent as a Scout.
I sat down in a tiny conference room before the committee. I shivered — though I’m not sure whether it was from nerves or the cold December air, leaking in through single-pane windows. I smoothed out the wrinkles in my uniform pants before resting my hands on the edge of the table, resisting the urge to fidget.
12 years after the fact, I’m having a hard time remembering who asked the first question, or what exactly it was. But among the early inquiries was one to the effect of:
“What was an outdoor experience you had, that you wish every Scout could have?”
My brain rifled through a young lifetime of memories. Countless summits I’ve stood on, the breathtaking views I’ve seen, and the unique places I’d explored. But one jumped to the forefront of my mind.
In the backcountry, you never really get into trouble from one thing going wrong. It’s when problems start to pile up that you find yourself in danger — and what a massive pile we had on that hike.
A late start, a long way to go, and temperatures flirting with zero as we traipsed through the frozen forest. Each tree drooped, encased in ice from the recent freezing rainstorm.
We walked for 8 miles without rest, carrying heavy packs, to try and reach the rendezvous point. The other half of our troop had formed a second crew, hiking in from the opposite direction.
Since they were making the much shorter trip — only about a mile and a half — they had all the tents and were in charge of actually making camp. We just had to reach them. Of course, this also meant that we needed to make it to camp, or we would have nowhere to sleep.
This endeavor is one of the few times in my life I truly feared for my safety, and ultimately think it will wind up getting its own story on another day.
The big takeaway here is that when we were setting out to start our adventure, we were expecting to see this at the end of the trail:
Instead, we got a frigid void.
The sunset picture above was taken by the other crew. When our team reached the summit, it was pitch black. All that work, for nothing.
Well, maybe not Nothing
Even though the trip didn’t wow us with an incredible view, it was certainly the experience of a lifetime. The things I remember most are, in order: the way the sun lit up the crystal trees; wondering if I’d lose my fingers to hypothermia; and the best damn bowl of fettuccini alfredo I’ve had in my life.
I picked this example in my board of review because it taught me the most about myself, what I was capable of, and what to do when the end goal isn’t what you were expecting.
After all, the point of Scouting is to mold you into a capable, honorable adult. And how often have you reached a milestone in your life, only to find it wasn’t all you hoped it would be?
Experiences Make Stronger Memories
I’ve spoken to another committee member from my troop, who has sat on plenty of Boards of Review. Out of all the times a Scout was asked to recount their favorite memory, no one ever told them: “standing on top of the mountain, admiring the view from the summit.”
On the contrary, it was almost always a trip involving some kind of disaster or setback.
Sometimes the viewless summits are the ones we look back on the most because they allow us to focus on the experience, shift our expectations, and adapt to changes.
I Want to Hear from You
Can you think of a time in your life when a summit — or big milestone — wasn’t quite what you were expecting? I’d love to hear about it; you can leave a comment below just by clicking the button.
And if you enjoyed this article, liking, commenting, and sharing are all fantastic ways you can support more writing like this, and help welcome more people into the sustainable outdoor community.
This weekend, I’ll also be hosting a discussion thread where we do a complete 180: instead of discussing viewless summits, we’re talking about the mountain tops that really did deliver. The best of the best.
I can’t wait! In the meantime, thank you so much for reading! I look forward to seeing your responses.
Broke Back Trail in Lassen National Park was the hike with no view. I got so close, 350 ft from the top and ran into warm bear scat. I had to hit hard descending. It was high wind and threatening a thunderstorm. I was so determined to get to the top. It was the last hike I took solo before the Dixie Fires... and now I'm living vicariously through you... until I move west again.
I will certainly do so. One view I'm interested in is Shasta. It's a goal - although I may be too old by the time I get back out there... but I'm still holding on to that glimmer of hope we all share: to get back on the trail "one more time."