AKA “I Saw My Reflection in the Snow Covered Hills”
The clouds move faster up here. The air is thinner, crisper. A half-hour drive from my home and I arrived in Provo Canyon. Pine trees as green as ever, stand in stark and beautiful contrast to the aspen and scrub oak, whose leaves burn in vivid, rich oranges yellows and reds.
When I left home, I packed my camera into my hiking pack, with the intention of retrieving it once I hit the trail. Not two miles into the canyon, I was parked on the side of the road cursing my shortsightedness and digging into my bag in search of my camera.
Two wild turkeys were pecking at the ground on the shoulder opposite my parked car. They seemed aware of my presence but too intent on their task at hand to really take notice of me. I’ve seen hundreds of wild turkeys in the hills of Utah, sometimes in flocks of 40 birds, but I’m always as excited as a child when I see one. I snapped a few shots and hopped back into my car. The turkeys slowly meandered up the driveway of a million dollar forest estate.
No more than half a mile down the road, I parked on the shoulder once again. This time it was the mountain itself that had caught my eye. I was staring at the back side of Mt. Timpanogos, an 11,752-ft. peak in the Wasatch Range that looks down over Utah County to the west and the Sundance resort to the east. The limestone rocks towered over the forest below with a dominance that I was intent on capturing, despite knowing that a camera could never do it justice. The snow shimmering near the peak created an even richer contrast with the flaming aspen and the stone cliffs.
I wasn’t the only one unable to resist the photo opp. In the two minutes I was parked on the side of the road, two other drivers stopped and began snapping their own photos of the mountain. I turned in circles taking in the range of colors and textures. The sky was clear and the sun shone down with a soft warmth. The cool air gave me that feeling I have come to crave – that feeling of being in the wilderness.
For $6 I bought a 3-day park pass at the entrance to the Aspen Grove trailhead. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that my expedition would only last for one day. I had packed the bare essentials – food, tent and sleeping gear, and camera equipment. For an overnighter, it felt like a pretty heavy load. One reason for the excessive weight was the extra sleeping pad and small blanket I had packed in hopes of avoiding an uncomfortably cold night. It was early October and there was already snow on the ground. I wanted to be prepared.
As I prepped my gear in the trailhead parking lot, I realized that I was the only one there with an overnight pack. Everyone else must have received the memo that summer was over and although the forecast called for clear skies, the temperature would drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I laughed it off and reassured myself that I’d be fine with my double sleeping pads.
Online, the hike up the Aspen Grove trail is described as intense and arduous. Over a distance of roughly 14 miles, you experience an elevation gain of nearly a mile. With a pack that weighed roughly 30 pounds and a serious climb ahead of me, I had two hopes. The first was that I would see a herd of mountain goats on top of the mountain. The second was that I would reach the top of the mountain.
In 2015 I started a company with a colleague of mine from my MBA program and a software architect whom we’d recruited to be our technical co-founder. Our spirits were high as we dreamed about the company we would build, the financial success we would have, and the lives all of us would be able to live in thanks to our genius and grit. We met with potential customers to pitch them on our idea, took their feedback, and built a pretty good product. We raised money from investors, filed a patent, signed beta customers, and even converted those beta customers into paid customers. We grew our team, won startup competitions and government grants, and raised even more money.
Everything was going great and the future looked as bright as it could be. There was only one problem – over the last few months I had grown increasingly unhappy. The company was doing fine and still is, but I was exhausted and trying to wear too many hats.
Two months before my hike up Timpanogos, I had a difficult conversation with my management team and we decided that it was time for me to step away from the company I had founded and run for the last three years. It was a very challenging experience for me. I watched the thing I’d built from the ground up handed over to someone else to run. Someone who I had to admit was going to be much better at running the company than I was.
I had serious concerns about what I was going to do for money, as launching a company had not left me in the strongest financial position. I had serious self-doubt about my ability to achieve my goals. And I had to live with the reality that all the things I’d hoped for and worked so hard to obtain were still well outside of my grasp.
Launching a company gave me purpose. Every day felt like a do-or-die situation, so I worked hard to focus on the most important things. I could feel a direct correlation between what I was doing and the potential success of the company. This experience made it difficult to think of looking for a job, as I wasn’t sure I’d find that same sense of fulfillment and purpose working for someone else. So, like someone reeling from a bad break up, I jumped right back into the dating world and decided to launch a new company.
I had known a lot of good things about launching a company, as I had done it once before. I knew the Lean Startup methodology well and went to work validating my ideas. Early signs from potential customers were good, but only a month into the project I began to see some very bad signs. While customers were interested in what I was doing, they weren’t ready to hand over their hard-earned cash in exchange for my services. I wanted so bad to go right back to being my own boss, however, reality began to settle in on me. Life wasn’t going to hand me something unless I took a lot of risk for it, and at this point in my life and career, I was beginning to feel a bit more risk-averse.
When I set from the Aspen Grove trailhead I was all alone. Rather than accompanying me, the few people in the parking lot were headed towards the Stewart Falls trail. I didn’t mind the solitude, in fact, I welcomed it. With my backpack situated and my camera strap around my neck, I was filled with anticipation for the adventure that lay ahead of me.
Throughout my ascent up the mountain, I encountered only two people. Both of whom were descending. There was a nice lady, perhaps in her early fifties, who used two walking sticks to ensure her balance. She had not summited but was hurrying down the mountain to get to work. The second person I encountered was a man, who also appeared to be in his early fifties. As we passed he noticed my sleeping pads and let out a surprised laugh. “You’re going to sleep up there!” he said in a way that could have been either a question or a statement. I replied that I was and we both went on our ways.
The solitude, rather than making me feel alone, gave me a sense of empowerment. I enjoyed the freedom to stop when I wanted and spend as much time as I liked observing. I snapped pictures of anything I thought looked interesting – views of the landscape, plants, birds, and bugs. The higher I climbed, the grander the landscape became. My line of sight extended farther with each step I took, making the views increasingly awe-inspiring. I tried to make sure I stopped periodically and turned to take it all in.
My pace was my own. There was nobody beckoning me to move faster. There was no rush to reach my final destination.
Aside from some scattered cumulus clouds, the sky was clear. The weather was warmer than I had imagined it would be, and shortly into my hike, I found myself stopping to remove my jacket. A sign warned that there would be little water available after the second set of waterfalls along the trail, so I made a mental note to stop and fill up my water bottles at the second falls.
Water can be extremely heavy – a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. The same trail sign warned that I should drink a gallon of water before reaching the summit. I hated the idea of lugging extra pounds up the mountain, but my short stint in the Boy Scouts had instilled a deep fear of heat stroke in me. I knew I had to do it.
The first waterfall came just as the terrain transitioned into a steeper grade, a much steeper grade. From that point on it felt like I was walking on a stair master, and the only way to get up the mountain was to follow the seemingly endless switchbacks. My goal was not to reach the top as quickly as possible, rather I was hoping to stop frequently and take photos along the way. The periodic photo stops provided me with ample rest time, but the climb was already beginning to feel intense. The trail was seldom visible beyond 30 or 40 feet, and as I looked up the mountain it was difficult to visualize the path I’d be taking.
Sometimes I would try to look up the mountain and guess where the trail would lead. I was hoping for the shortest route, the one that would take me directly to the top. Unfortunately, the trail wasn’t designed with the most direct route in mind. But what I began to realize as I climbed was that it was designed with the easiest route in mind. The frequent switchbacks allowed the trail to be less steep than it otherwise would have been. Had the route been cut into the mountain as a straight line, it would have been impossibly difficult.
Despite my growing understanding of why the trail was carved into the mountain as it was, I couldn’t help but complain to myself each time it turned away from the summit. It often felt as though I was walking east when I needed to be walking west, or that I was turning south when I needed to be turning north. One step back for two steps forward.
Just over a year and a half into our startup, we faced some serious challenges in reaching our next milestones. The development of our product was moving along and most of our beta customers were still happy with our progress. However, we were low on cash, we didn’t yet have a product that customers were willing to pay for, and we began to feel some misalignments on our team.
Taking on the risks of an early stage startup is an experience you must endure yourself, in order to fully appreciate. Undeniably, there is a level of adrenaline that makes the experience exciting. Each day brings its own feelings of fulfillment because you’re constantly trying to focus on the most important things and working to accomplish them. But there are also serious negative emotions you must battle.
There is no guarantee of success, which means that every day could be one step closer to reaching your life’s dream or one step closer to failure. Adding to your emotional burden is the sacrifices you make from a lifestyle perspective. You spend less time with friends, less time with family, and less time doing things that are fun. Eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, and exercising all become increasingly difficult goals. You also sacrifice from an income perspective.
Granted you are sacrificing current earnings for a much larger financial potential in the future. But again, it’s not guaranteed. Even if it’s calculated, risk is risk, and it can weigh on you. While all of my MBA colleagues were cashing in on signing bonuses to buy new houses and upgrade their cars, I was keeping an eye on my runway to make sure I didn’t get too close to the edge.
There came a point where we had to make really hard decisions from a financial perspective and from a team perspective. Letting members of my team know that their part in our company’s journey was now coming to an end was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. These were my friends. We had worked side by side. We had dreamed together. I had recruited them with visions of what the future could be, and now I was here telling them that they had to go find a different vision.
It didn’t feel good, but it felt right.
The face of the mountain, which makes up the first section of the hike, is extremely steep. However, once you’ve ascended this portion of the trail, the land levels off quite a bit and the landscape changes into a small valley. The switchbacks end abruptly. There is still a good amount of walking to be done before the hike is over but for a few miles, your legs don’t work quite as hard. As you transition from one terrain to another, there is a beautiful set of trees, which you must walk between to continue into the valley.
The twin trees stand as sentinels for the next portion of the journey. As I passed between them I felt a shift in my spirits and increased energy in my legs. Now instead of vertical hills of shrub oak and rock slides, I was surrounded by rolling hills of short grass and stone. The trail turned northwest and lead me towards Emerald Lake, a small body of water that sits directly below the summit of Mt. Timpanogos. Emerald lake is fed strictly by melting snow from above and by mid-October was completely frozen.
I walked down to the lake to snap some photos and observed the frozen sheets of ice that had cracked along the shore. I gazed up at the massive cliffs that towered 1,300 feet above the small lake. From this vantage point, I could see the metal shed that sits atop the summit of Timpanogos. To reach the shed you must continue for several more miles, up another stretch of very steep terrain. A large saddle to the north of the summit is the exit point from the valley I had entered. For the time being, I was content to enjoy the view from where I stood.
Approximately 1,000 yards from the lake and just over a small hill sits an old, stone shelter. The roof is made of tin, and inside there is a stone fireplace. Wooden benches line the interior walls. The shelter was built in 1959 to accommodate hiking parties, some as large as 1,000 people, that were popular at the time. In an effort to preserve the environment on the mountain, these hiking parties were eventually disallowed.
The stone shelter on Timpanogos is similar to many of the places you encounter when hiking. Almost everyone finds it necessary to tag their name in permanent marker or on the walls or carve it into the wooden benches.
It’s a strange interplay between the natural world that people journey to experience and the man-made word they’ve temporarily escaped. I have similar thoughts when I see litter in the wilderness or pass people on the trail blaring music from their phones. The shelter itself is not beautiful, but maybe it would be more serene if it had fewer signs of human carelessness and less permanent marker smeared across its facade.
I had intended from the outset to camp near the shelter, but I wanted to ensure I had some level of privacy (as if there was anybody to hide from). To the north of shelter, just beyond a small rise, I found a comfortable place to pitch my campsite. Visibility was limited from the main trail. I spent some time decompressing inside of my snug hiking tent; eating much-needed food and writing down some thoughts from my experience thus far. Outside, the wind blew with a sense of urgency, but inside my tent, the mood was tranquil and reflective.
By the time I had reached my campsite and pitched my tent, I had yet to see a mountain goat. Or any animal larger than a chipmunk for that matter. I was eager to get a view of the surrounding area, in hopes that I might spot a herd of goats or some other quadruped.
Directly north of my campsite was a large ridgeline that extended to a point high above me. I was later told that this point was known as Brian’s Head. I decided that the ridgeline would be easy enough to follow and the point would give me a good view of the surrounding area.
The hill was mostly tall grasses but occasionally I encountered pockets of stone, where the hill had experienced a rock slide. When I reached the ridge, I was surprised to find that the opposite side dropped straight down for several hundred feet. The ridge itself was fairly easy to navigate, and I followed it upwards towards the peak.
Mixed into the stone, snow and occasional shrub brush were clear signs that goats had passed through not long before me. Goat prints were scattered throughout the patches of snow and mud, and goat droppings could be found all along the trail. Some of the droppings were obviously old, but some seemed quite fresh.
As I climbed the ridge, I would occasionally stop to catch my breath and gaze out at my surroundings. From my lower vantage point on the ridgeline, it appeared that someone had built a snowman atop of Brian’s Head. When I reached the top, I was surprised to find that it was not a snowman at all, but a small, white statue of Buddha. How long ago had someone placed it there, I could not say, but it was a pleasant surprise.
The views from Brian’s Head were absolutely breathtaking. I could see in every direction for miles. The small valley below the Timpanogos summit wrapped around the point where I stood. I could see the trail I had followed coming from Aspen Grove, and I could also see the alternate trail that began in American Fork Canyon. The east side of Bryan’s Head was a sheer cliff of limestone that dropped for hundreds of feet below me.
The cold wind blew across my face and body, but the thrill of standing above the world warmed my soul. I scanned the landscape for miles around, both with the naked eye and my long-distance camera lens, in hopes that I’d spot a group of mountain goats. In my mind’s eye, I saw their off-white coats standing out against the pale green grass. But there were no goats to be seen.
I meandered down the ridge, disappointed that I had not spotted any goats but grateful for the chance to stand atop the hill and take in the world around me.
When you’re all alone on top of a mountain at night, the sounds outside can give you an unnerving feeling. You question whether the noises you hear are just the tarp blowing in the wind, or perhaps they’re coming from something more heinous, like a grizzly bear or a pissed off mountain goat. The only thing between you and sudden death is a thin piece of polyester. It may not be rational, but for a second, your mind can wander.
Back home my wife was praying I made it off the mountain safely, but despite being alone in the woods I never felt any real sense of worry or apprehension. The only time I was even startled was during my hike up the mountain, when I almost stepped on top of a sage grouse. It flew out from under my feet and put the fear of God in me.
Amazing things can happen when you force yourself to focus. With the realignment of our team, we were able to extend the runway of our company by two measly months. It did not make me feel better about our decisions, but I hoped that it would give us just enough time to survive. The pressure that came with our finite existence forced us to become very focused. We made an inventory of the things we absolutely had to do, and we prayed earnestly that it would be enough.
With just two months of cash in the bank, we shipped some much-needed product features and began closing paid deals – some of which extended our runway by another two months on their own. The dark clouds that had hung over us began to part. We began to feel the warm rays of the sun once again
There continued to be minor setbacks, as there always will be, but we felt like we could start thinking big picture again. For one thing, we needed to start looking for talented people who could help us keep the momentum rolling. But before we could bring on new people, we needed to relocate to a respectable office space. For the past eight months, we’d been crammed into a 100-square foot box in a dilapidated building.
We had a microwave, mini-fridge, and four bodies shoved into a poorly ventilated space. It was not cozy. The extremely low rent, which the landlord allowed us to pay on a month-to-month basis, was the only things keeping us from leaving.
We did find a new space, and it was a significant upgrade. We also found a smoking hot deal on office furniture through a friend of mine, who ran his own startup. We paid pennies on the dollar for the furniture and filled our entire space. With the additional space and hip, new office vibe we attracted some top engineering talent. We signed a few more customer deals and had strong interest from an industry group to form a partnership.
Given the momentum we were experiencing, it seemed like a good time to approach investors. Raising money always takes longer than you would hope, but we were able to secure investments from some very good people. We had cash in the bank, paying customers, a great team, and a lot of exciting things in the works.
There was only one problem, and it was a big one. I was unhappy.
At some point in their lives, almost everyone has a product or service idea that could eventually become a business. Very few people make the journey from their concept to paying customers, because it is extremely challenging. But getting to paying customers is not even close to the end of the journey. Once your company has paying customers, you move into the scale phase of a business. This is where I began to struggle. We had moved from a chapter in our business where I felt empowered and confident, to a chapter where I began to feel ill-prepared.
From the beginning, I had always said that founding a company was not about my ego and I would do whatever was necessary for the company. Even if that meant stepping aside. It’s just that I didn’t expect it to come so quickly. Fortunately, we did have a great team of people that I fully trusted. They were understanding of my situation and eager to continue in the pursuit of our dreams.
With a heavy heart and worn out leg, I realized that I would not be summiting with the rest of my team.
My night was spent eating, writing, reading, and eventually sleeping. The temperatures outside dropped below 10 degrees, but inside I was comfortable and warm. The extra pad and small blanket I had brought to wrap around my sleeping bag had paid off.
In the morning I decided to go looking for goats, rather than trying to summit the peak. I’d experienced the summit before, and while it ached a bit not to attempt it this morning, I was more eager to see a goat. Where to begin looking though, I did not know. The evening before I had been unsuccessful in locating any mountain goats from the top of Brian’s Head, so I was setting off on a blind search.
I decided to start down the trail in the direction I had come the previous day. If I was unsuccessful at finding a goat, at least I wouldn’t need to backtrack to get down the mountain.
Near the twin trees I had passed through on my climb, there is a small pond. It sits south of the trail and is tucked into a joint where the mountain suddenly changes directions from east to north. This small pond, just like its sister Emerald lake, is the result of melted snow from the cliffs above.
The area around the pond seemed as good a place as any to go exploring, so I set off to see what I could find. Along the path to the small pond were several patches of trees and shrubs, as well as the same grassy fields that cover the valley. I decided to set my pack down next to one of these patches of trees and make my way over to the water. As I moved towards the water, I felt the undeniable feeling that I was being watched.
I’d experienced this feeling before, when I was a kid, walking alone through the foothills of Northern California. We had camped with a number of other families near a small creek. I was walking down a dirt road to meet up with some others who had gone ahead. Just before our camping trip, I’d seen a TV special on mountain lion attacks. The reporter had pointed out that attacks were increasing in frequency in the very hills in which I found myself alone.
The report also said that mountain lions like to attack from above, but will seldom attack if they lose the element of surprise. My view of the hills along the road was blocked by the large oak trees, and when the birds went quiet, I felt certain that a large cat was stalking me.
To my relief, nothing ever appeared, and I caught up with the others in due time. However, that feeling of being watched had returned to me now on the mountain. My first instinct was to look up, and about 300 yards above me on the west side of Robert’s Head I saw a mountain goat. He dropped his head and watched my every move with his beady, black eyes. I was thrilled that I had finally found a goat. It was alone, but at least it wasn’t a mountain lion.
Distinguishing the genders in rocky mountain goats can be challenging. Both males and females have small black horns and white beards. They also have thick, white fur that makes it difficult to see gender specific parts. I’m convinced that the goat I encountered was a male for a couple of reasons. First, the size and shape of the goat indicated to me that it was male. Second, it was all alone, which is more typical for a mature male than a female.
The distance between us was enough that even with my long-distance lens I couldn’t get a very good shot with my camera. I wanted to move closer, both to get a better photo but also to see him up-close. One thing seemed certain, if I attempted to go straight up the mountain in the direction of the goat, he would run away from me and I would never be able to keep pace with him.
There seemed to be two possible options for getting a closer look. The first option was to go up the south side of the mountain and try to scramble from one piece of cover to another. My concern was that the goat would spot me as I scrambled in the open. The second option was to go up the north side of the mountain, which seemed to be a more difficult climb but would provide coverage during the entire ascent. The north side of the mountain curved away from the goat and would allow me to stay out of his line of sight until I became even with him.
I opted for the latter route and mentally tracked a course that I thought would be feasible. Between the mountain where the goat stood and the meadow where I stood, was a small gully with a creek running through the middle. As soon as I dropped into the gully, I was out of the goat’s line of site. I began scrambling up the side of the mountain, trying my best to stay on the rock outcroppings. I figured that the rocks would dampen the sound of my feet.
The mountain had a fairly steep grade, and I stopped every 30 feet to catch my breath. After climbing for about fifteen minutes, I guessed that I had climbed to a height even with the goat. He had been grazing near a large patch of scrub oak, and my aim was to climb above the shrub patch without alerting him.
As soon as I began walking through the tall grasses, I couldn’t help but make too much noise. Throughout my scaling of the mountain, I was convinced the goat would spot me and make a run for it before I was able to get a glimpse of him. Now as I approached the shrub oak, small twigs snapped beneath my feet, and the hope of seeing the goat up close faded. I made it to the spot I’d planned and searched for the goat but saw nothing.
Who was I to think I could stalk a goat, who had already seen me and was probably an expert at avoiding people? I wasn’t upset, at least I had given it a try. Before I started up the north side of the mountain, I had told myself that the chance of getting closer would be slim.
With a sense of defeat, I turned to head back from where I’d come. When I pivoted to make my turn a grapefruit-sized rock came loose beneath my foot and I slid to my knees. The rock went rolling into the shrub oak, making a terrible racket as it crashed from branch to branch. It felt like the final insult to my injuries. I couldn’t have snuck up on my car, had I wanted to.
As I stood back up to continue my descent, I heard something running north through the bushes just below me. The goat must have been hiding in the scrub oak, and the falling rock spooked him. I quickly headed north myself and came around the corner of the bushes just before the goat. We were 30 feet apart. I stopped. He stopped. We sized each other up and I sat down to show him I was not there to do him harm.
He seemed to relax immediately. Rather than running away from me, he simply dropped his head and continued grazing. His furry coat was thick and white, and he appeared to be healthy and strong. His shoulders were powerful and gave him a noble and graceful demeanor.
I began snapping photos as quickly as possible, but a voice inside my head told me to put down the camera and enjoy the moment. The goat began walking north, and each step he took provided a stunning new photo opportunity. I fired away with my camera but forced myself to stop periodically to take in the experience.
I probably only spent ten minutes with the goat, and then decided it was best to leave him alone. Before I began my descent, I thanked him for his time and wished him luck for the coming winter. During my climb down, I turned periodically to take more photos. He was stunning and the experience left me with a sense of tranquility. I descended the mountain with energized feet and a lightened heart.
Anything worth doing takes a significant amount of hard work and determination. If you really want something you’re going to have to sweat for it. You may even have to shed some tears for it. I was satisfied with the outcome of my hike. I hadn’t summitted the mountain, but I was able to experience the beauty and grandeur of the earth. And I was able to observe a magnificent creature in his natural habitat.
The obvious thing to me was that this was not my last hike. How could it be? There is so much more to experience. So, in a way, I wasn’t satisfied enough by my adventure. Which is pretty much how life goes. Any goal we set for ourselves will necessarily be followed by another goal. Why? Because we need something to drive us. We need something to make life meaningful.
Had I stayed on with the company I founded until it eventually exited, it would have been a great experience. But as soon as it was over, I would be looking for my next adventure. I guess that’s why it’s so important to enjoy the journey. Just as Mt. Timpanogos threw countless switchbacks at me, before I reached my destination, life sends us down twists and turns that we don’t expect.
Sometimes we get frustrated because we feel like we’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes we can’t see where the trail will go, and just have to trust that life will work out how it is supposed to. We seldom realize that switchbacks are what make the climb possible.
I’ll always be climbing. I’ll always be putting one foot in front of the other, on the hunt for my next adventure. And I believe that life will give me my ten minutes with a mountain goat from time to time. Life will give me grand vistas and awe-inspiring limestone cliffs. I’ll embrace those moments. I’ll soak them in. But I’ll know that they aren’t the end. Because, in life, there is no final summit. Life’s just one big trail.
Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.
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