If you probe enough, almost everyone has at least one. They may be reluctant or even embarrassed to voice it out loud, they may have only a vague vision rather than a crisp idea, but at their core most people have a few ideas on their bucket list of life that they dream about. It doesn’t really matter what they are; canoeing the Amazon from source to sea, mastering the art of oil painting, learning how to speak Japanese, what matters is how they make you feel, and the purpose or meaning they confer.
The problem with dreams though, is that they often remain just that. Our short-term needs and concerns provide endless barriers, preventing us from turning the yearnings of our souls into reality. It is far easier to keep such fancies distant and hope that one day, when life gets easier, these things will come to pass. But if you, like me, are still in your twenties, then I hope to convince you that there is no better decade in your lifetime in which to tick some of that bucket list off and pin down a dream or two.
One of my dreams will come as no surprise to those who know me well. As a keen outdoorsman and longtime sufferer of ‘polarhuller’ (I love the high latitude places in this world) something I have always wanted to do is to climb the highest mountain in North America, a peak known formerly as Mount McKinley, but now rightfully referred to simply by its indigenous (and mythical-sounding) name; Denali.
Denali ticks all my boxes. To see a photo of it, is to see the epitome of a mountain. With the third greatest prominence of any peak in the world it looms massive, its vast bulk rising over 6,000m higher than the plains around it, shielded on all flanks by immense glaciers and wrapped in the ominous clouds it generates. It is one of the most isolated mountains in the world, standing proud in the Alaskan wilderness and, of the seven continents’ seven summits, has the worst weather of the lot. Its northerly latitude, and the lower atmospheric pressure that goes with it, gives Denali the same density altitude as a 7000m peak in the Himalayas, despite being just under 6,200m in height itself. In an average summer only 35% of the mountaineers who attempt to summit the mountain achieve their goal and next spring I will be throwing my hat in the ring, to see if I can be amongst the fortuitous third that make it to the top.
I can tell you exactly why I have long wanted to scale Denali’s heights. Most of it comes from the thrill of such an ostensible adventure; the remoteness, the physical scale of the challenge and of doing something that is so unashamedly hard-core. Since my teenage years I have been a keen hill-walker and mountaineer, with some of my fondest memories formed on ice caps in Arctic Norway and snowy summits in Scotland. Denali represents the pinnacle of my mountaineering ambition and the end game of my passion.
I also like to think that I have mountaineering in my blood. My grandmother’s father, Geoffrey Bruce, was on Mallory’s expedition up Everest, a feat that earned him an Olympic Gold Medal, and on my grandfather’s side our family crest is an Ibex, an alpine goat well known for its sure-footed fearlessness on the vertiginous slopes of our planet’s greater ranges. These sentimentalities may seem absurd to some people but they impact on my consciousness and form part of my identity; part of my impression of who I am.
Despite knowing that I wanted to climb Denali for almost five years now, until this spring I had no intention of ever realizing this goal, at least not in the near future, until the push came from an old friend of mine. This friend, Leo, has decided partway through his post-graduate medical training to take a year out. Like me, he has always fantasized about climbing Denali and he asked me if I would consider joining him on this mission during his impromptu gap year, before, as he said, “life becomes less flexible for this sort of adventure”. Initially, I wasn’t sure that I could find the time or money to go, but the more I thought about, the more I realised he was right, and that life was only going to become less flexible from hereon in.
In our twenties, many of us lack the responsibilities that are almost impossible to avoid in later life. Currently I have no family dependent on me. I have no dog, no house, no mortgage. I have fewer obligations to loved ones than I will at almost any other time in my life. I still have good physical health and, crucially, I am still young enough to have intensely formative experiences, that will shape who I am and who I want to become.
I appreciate, of course, that not everyone is as fortunate as I am and that many of you will have burdens and obligations that I do not, and which cannot be left unattended. But plenty of you will be like me and in the situation where you have more freedom and independence now than you will at any other time in your life until retirement (and that’s if pensions still exist by the time we are old. I have my doubts…). If that is the case, then this is surely the decade to conquer your own personal Denali, whatever that may be.
Not convinced? Fine, hit back at me…tell me I’m being reckless and that you’re in your twenties, the perfect time to build your career. Why would you waste any of that invaluable time on fanciful distractions? Well, how about because taking six months to a year out of work, while it may put you behind your direct contemporaries, is hardly going to hold you back long term. Even if you don’t pick up your career again until you are thirty that still leaves you a good three to four decades to get to where you want to go professionally. If you can’t make it in that time then I’m tempted to say you never would have.
Ok, but what if your work won’t give you the time off? In this instance, I would suggest that you consider just how important your current job is to your long-term vision for yourself. Might it be more beneficial for you to go somewhere else for a while, and do something different? Might you benefit from broadening your horizons a little, leaving your bubble behind for a time and reevaluating what you want to achieve in the next 5-10 years? It is all too easy to become so entrenched in the daily routines of our lives, with so little time and space to reflect on what we are doing, that we cease to take stock of where we actually are and where we want to be. A bit of distance, be it mental, social or physical can often provide invaluable perspective.
Now for your final questions: why do I care? Why does it matter to me what you do? Why can’t I just go off and climb my sodding mountain and be quietly smug about it? I’ll give you two reasons:
Firstly, because I think that the world at the moment, perhaps more than ever, could benefit from people who have additional strings to their bow and a broadness of perspective. Secondly, and more importantly, because I needed a push to take the plunge and commit to my Alaskan adventure next year. The decision to climb Denali was the catalyst that led to me resigning from my current job, after three excellent years with my current employer. It has shaped my immediate future and sent my life into an exciting new chapter. Maybe for one or two of you reading this post, I can be that push and help you realize the same excitement and terror that I am currently feeling about the next ten months.
“You weren’t born to just pay bills and die” is a frequent meme on my Instagram feed. Yes, its cheesy but it is also true. Go be that surf-instructor in Costa Rica. Go open the vegan café you’ve been dreaming of, or become an expert in contemporary jazz. Go spend a year living with nomads in Kyrgyzstan or write that novel you’ve always wanted to. Go and do something that you will look back on with amusement and pride when you are older; something that means something to you and that enriches your world, if only for a while.
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