Mission Creep

Something that’s happened to me again and again — something that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble one of these days, in fact — is getting sucked into way bigger hikes than I expect to do when I first set out. Innumerable are the times I’ve told friends I’ll be home by dark only to find myself charging through cholla and prickly pear well after sunset. Some of us learn slow, I guess. Some of us never learn at all.

A Body Hijacked

But it’s almost like another soul takes the helm, driving you up and over ridge after ridge, higher and higher — even as the weight of the hours accrues. Even as food and water supplies dwindle. You feel possessed; turning around before reaching the summit fades as an option.

Real outdoorspeople probably have a better name for this phenomenon, but since I don’t know what it is, I’ll just borrow a military term and call it “mission creep.” Lots of history’s great outdoor explorers have described this mental fluke, including ol’ John Muir, whose mountaineering essays I’ve been reading recently.

The Uncontrollable In Us

“[W]e little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us,” Muir writes, referring to his perilous first ascent of Mount Ritter. “I could not distinctly hope to reach the summit… yet I moved on across the glacier as if driven by fate.” Sound familiar?

He then goes on to describe another strange psychological phenomenon, one that (though I’ve never done anything as awesome a Muir) I’ve also experienced scrambling around on Dakota sandstone in the hogbacks by Gallup or on the Sandias’ Knife’s Edge after a snow. It happens when you get yourself into a life-threatening situation: The bizarre calm and clarity that comes upon you, allowing you to escape safely.

Guardian Angel

“The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel — call it what you will — c[omes] forward and assume[s] control,” he says. (I’ve changed the tense here to generalize from the specific incident Muir’s describing.)

“Then my trembling muscles bec[ome] firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock [is] seen as through a microscope, and my limbs mov[e] with a positiveness and precision with which I see[m] to have nothing at all to do.”

Maybe it’s the possibility of an exhilarating meeting with our guardian angels that keeps so many of us from learning our lesson regarding mission creep. In hindsight, when I’m in the car haggard as all get-out, I’ll often get a shiver down my spine, “What was I thinking?” But this is a fleeting horror. In no time, we’re back out there rolling the dice again and again and again.

Learn More:

  • Trigo Canyon, Part 1: A First Voyage Into The Manzanos (Farther Still)
  • Mount Ritter — By John Muir (Sierra Club)
  • Guardian Angels Or The ‘Third Man Factor’ (NPR)

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