What’s the difference between confidence vs arrogance? When I was young, a mountain trail gave me an early lesson between confidence and arrogance. This is an excerpt from my latest book Tomorrow Together: Essays of Hope, Healing, and Humanity.
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When I was young, a mountain trail gave me an early lesson between confidence and arrogance. It was labor day weekend, my freshman year of high school. My friend Mike asked if I wanted to hike a fourteener with him in Colorado. Fourteener refers to the tallest mountain peaks. Those that rise above 14,000 feet, hence the name, and Colorado boasts 53 of those peaks. 58 if you use a more generous definition. Hiking them is a pastime for many Colorado outdoor enthusiasts. But up to that point in my life, I had never done it.
Now a key feature of hiking these peaks is you have to start early. You get up at 4:00 AM, grab breakfast, drive, and arrive at the Trailhead by 6:00 AM or even earlier. You start early to get up and back down the mountain quickly before afternoon lightning storms come up. So I waited in the dark, outside my house for Mike and his mom to pick me up. I wore brand new hiking boots and a pair of blue floral print shorts that my mom had sewn for me. Thanks, mom.
We arrived at Mount Bierstadt trailhead and started hiking just before sunrise. There was a re-crust of ice lining the edge of the mountain stream, and icy do drops weighing down the Willow branches. So you can picture it was cold. And the Willows, the trail winds through acres of shrubby Willow bogs before climbing up the Stony peak, and the soil in those bogs was wet and soft in places.
In the middle of the trail, we came upon a churned-up muddy stretch. It looked like the muck would be soft and slimy during the day. But right now, early in the morning, the frosty mountain had frozen the mud, and the dark ice looked cold and solid. Nevertheless, Mike, his mom, and my friend, Matt walked around the mud. Not me. I had new boots, strong boots, boots that wouldn’t mind a little mud. After all, isn’t that what boots are made for?
So I boldly stepped on the ice-encrusted mud and sank up to my waist.
Confidence vs Arrogance
My friends tried to pull me out, but the cold wet slime created a vacuum. And as they pulled, I could feel my feet sliding out of my boots. Ultimately, my friends found several long branches and were able to wedge them down by my feet, working around and moving aside enough mud that it released the vacuum that had threatened to steal my boots off my feet.
When my friends hauled me out of the mud, my hand-sewn blue floral shorts, weren’t blue anymore. Sorry, mom. By the end of the day, the dried crusty mud covering my legs, infiltrating my socks, and chafing between my toes was the start of a valuable lesson to check my arrogance vs confidence and that the mountain always wins.
It’s a lesson I’d learned more deeply as I became familiar with these peaks. I mentioned that you start early so that you’re well off the summit by noon. That’s when the lightning storms begin. The storms come up suddenly because the sun warms the exposed Rocky peaks, the heat radiates from the stones into the surrounding atmosphere, which warms and rises in a column. The rising mass meets cooler air and the, as the rising air cools moisture condenses, forming clouds and all of that energy and moving air creates electricity.
One time I was on my way down the mountain well before noon, but not before an electrified cloud swirled up and sleet pelted us. A woman with longer hair found it standing straight up. People stopped for pictures. I hike with collapsible metal walking poles and as I swung the pole forward the air around it audibly crackled with energy. That’s a good way to get killed. We ran down the mountain and were lucky.
The mountain always wins. You may have prepared for an ascent for months and hiked for the better part of a day, but if a storm comes up there’s only one healthy choice. Turn around.
There’s a difference between confident grit, resiliency, and arrogance. The former helps us to push through our self-imposed barriers, understand our potential, and stand on new heights we may never have imagined.
Arrogance is a failure to understand ourselves and our environment, and to confront the hard facts. I love the mountains because they are such potent teachers. They draw out grit, build confidence, and reward resiliency, but you cannot cheat the mountain.
The mountain always wins.