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When Ambition Leads Where Angels Fear To Tread

As an advisor to The North Face, psychotherapist Timothy Tate discusses wellness within the context of outdoor adventure athletes. What can the rest of us learn?

One of Albert Bierstadt's masterworks "Among Sierra Nevada in California."  The painting speaks to both the allure and eternal mystery of the high mountains.
One of Albert Bierstadt's masterworks "Among Sierra Nevada in California." The painting speaks to both the allure and eternal mystery of the high mountains.
What makes for an ambitious person?

Recently a member of the official North Face adventure team visited me in my Bozeman psychotherapy office to talk about the pressures such extraordinary individuals face. He talked about his own “hunger” for the snow, traversing impossible lines in mountainous terrain and the need to have this hunger if such precipitous land was to be ridden. 

There had been years when such a hunger was missing, he said, but once the determination to succeed returned so did his fearless skill. Common to the athletes affiliated with North Face that I have come to know, this kind of impassioned mind and energetic body demands succor. And the bitter cold mountains provide such an amphitheater of relief to the restless.

How does high altitude danger assuage ambition, or is such a forbidding world the place where competent ambition and fearless skill find a hard-faced mortal adversary? How is one achieved without the other? As the young man said to me: “I am hungry.

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There is an assumption in mountain towns like ours that we all know to what he was referring. Hunger can emanate from many different kinds of origins and assume different forms when acted upon. It can take a person to new exalted life-changing heights; it can also result in being airlifted from the sanctified eyries, with hero worship turning to mourning. 

For many of us we gain a vicarious thrill living in places where such drama surrounds, where the young are constantly pushing to surpass the limits and lore of their elders, sometimes toting chips on their shoulders with things to prove. I am fascinated by how the so-called “extreme” and “ambitious” can become wound together like entangled lovers. 

This autumn, Bozeman mountaineer Conrad Anker and I hosted New Yorker long-form journalist Nick Paumgarten, who was in town interviewing us about our efforts to establish a Wellness Initiative within The North Face brand. Conrad, as many readers know, lives in Bozeman and is widely respected for his summiting of Everest and other peaks, his appearance in the acclaimed film Meru , for being among those who found the body of legendary missing climber George Mallory and for being the best friend of the late Alex Lowe. He was beside Alex when he and David Bridges died in an avalanche on Shishapangma in China. 

How could super-athletes, among the most physically fit people on Earth, benefit from a program focused on achieving better wellness, and what implications does it have for the rest of us? 

The mettle of the concept was tested even as it was being incubated. It came in April 2019, when sorrow swept through The North Face’s elite athlete corps after three mountaineers were swept away in an avalanche in western Canada. Their names: Hans Jorg Auer, Jess Roskelley and David Lama. 

Ambition’s shadow brother is grief. Grief is the spring-loaded trap door into oblivion. I mean this in the original meaning of the word from Latin, ob “over” and levis “smooth, slippery.” 

When the fickleness of fate arrives and nature exercises her indifference to human suffering, there is nothing to grasp—no hand hold to cling to, no surface upon which the ice axe can avail a self-arrest. 
When the fickleness of fate arrives and nature exercises her indifference to human suffering, there is nothing to grasp—no hand hold to cling to, no surface upon which the ice axe can avail a self-arrest.
We go outside because it makes us feel good. No one argues with the therapeutic effects. We go to clear our heads, to get exercise, to get away and escape, to socialize, to discover new things, see new places, grow physically and spiritually, to test ourselves and sometimes to bring home food for the table. I’ll bet you can compile a list of 100 other reasons. 

The irony of those sating the hunger of their ambition at the elite level is that increased appetite for pushing one’s fearless skill often increases the number of dangerous variables. Human error is just one. Often unseen and uncontrolled is what the elements have in store.

I’ve seen why the mountains are perceived to represent an escape from what some consider the mundanity of the valley below or cities distant. Why do you think this psychotherapist chooses to live and base his practice here? 

Everything is put on the line for an elite climber, runner, kayaker, mountain biker or skier making a crux move on a pitch or through a hydraulic at flood stage, moving along a knife edge-trail with a 1,000-foot vertical drop or jumping in to make a couloir descent and hoping the boots don’t pop out of the bindings prior to making the turn. 

Ambition in whatever form it takes can bring us to a world beyond the common, reminding us that without effort and risk taking, reality gets high-centered on the bog of the perceived ordinary. I have seen plenty of examples in my practice where ambition goes out of bounds, moving beyond the zone of wellness and enters mental illness. When recklessness becomes part of the equation, whether for seeking fame, as a desperate scream for attention, or even to act out a half-suicidal death wish, there can be trouble. 

This kind of ambition might be a little less tragic if it didn’t cause hurt to the survivors left to deal with the trauma of pain. In my profession, I see heroes, exhibiting real courage and perseverance, in those who are left to pick up the pieces of loss and restore the very sense of normal that those living on the edge shunned.

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The triad of ambition, relationship (with others and ourselves) and unavoidable loneliness has been an ancient subject of meditation that continues in the modern world. It is a platform for poetic rendering that fashions meaning in life by similes and metaphors. Beyond the pale of the sentimental “romantic” notion of relatedness, it is an inner dwelling that is off the map, yet heart-achingly familiar to each of us. 

The passionate soul that demands to experience the extraordinary isn’t contained to the mountains, of course. It can demand the same from personal relationships. Navigating the terrain of intimate relationships might be as challenging as the alpine ascents themselves, except the topography is the swirling invisible world of emotion, feelings, assumptions, trust, vulnerability, beliefs, memory and perception. 

Exceptional physical skills in the mountains don’t necessarily transfer to possessing benefit in the domestic domain, where self-adjustment is a virtue. In terms of emotional support, the vigor and intensity of mountain athletes often is matched either by an equally intense partner or by someone who is accepting, compassionate and steadfast in their own grasp on reality. Often we read the rationale in obituaries, “Well, at least he or she died doing what they loved.” 

 What does it mean? Could the same be said of a shopkeeper or school teacher who met an untimely end at work? And does such an aphorism really provide solace to those who feel abandoned, or told themselves the worst could never happen, or are left to raise orphans alone and feel, in hindsight, that their importance was subordinate to the need for adventure? How do we as loving respectful partners bear the tension of the needs of the other without betraying our own character and needs? Welcome, then, to the larger riddle of humanity. 
Lake McDonald - Break In The Storm.  Photo courtesy NPS / Tim Rains
Lake McDonald - Break In The Storm. Photo courtesy NPS / Tim Rains
Life in the modern world is fundamentally hard, let’s face it; harder if you choose to engage all of your human faculties and strive to become more aware. Every one of us is on a search to find personal meaning. Sometimes, however, the pressures of that quest can become so intense that we need to numb ourselves through drugs and alcohol, or partake in aberrant self-destructive behaviors, addictions and neuroses, or check out by drifting into psychosis.

There is no free lunch, nor shortcuts, and for the lucky ones there is no delineation between what you do that makes you passionate and happy and who you are. The only certainty is that we’ll all meet an end and along the journey of getting there we have the opportunity of choices, at every turn, to change our perspectives in the direction of better wellness. 

The very profitable self-help industry proliferating in the 21st century has plenty of sudsy products and approaches that frankly leave me cold. Some of them encourage participants to deflect or obfuscate, for example, the causes of dysfunctional behavior or relationships. Therapists do not “fix” another’s problems any more than 12-step programs are guaranteed to generate people who are more kind, self-reflective and enlightened. 

Doing the necessary inward-looking work requires one being honest with themselves and not blaming others. Change only happens when we are willing to confront the sources of our own pain and insecurity that tend, by the way, to be set early in life and sometimes reach a crisis later.

Unions of people—in marriages, friendships and family—are complicated and fraught with abundant mysteries that require a degree of dedicated effort to probe. Relationships wither quickly like a house plant without water, if not nurtured with love, kindness and compassion.

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Now consider the combinations possible for ambitious individuals in relationships. One involves a pairing of two ambitious people, another is an ambitious person and a seemingly contented person who ends up settling for neurotic suffering and solitude. Let’s take a look at each in turn. 

The combo of two ambitious people coming together, or the power couple dance, is driven by a common desire to compete and succeed at a self-defined goal. This goal can be mutually shared as in “let’s make a fortune or climb a tough route or ski impossible terrain,” but when pared down, such a goal is embraced on an individual basis, yet both individuals are motivated, willful, particular and anxious. 

The adjectives I use are probably familiar to you, but what about anxiety? Anxiety is the friction our psyche feels when time is not spent wisely. The drive to excellence fuels this force, and in a world where we are bombarded by digital demands, how to use time efficiently, as in what is the through line to my goal, can become an obsession. Obsessive thoughts, routines and compulsive behavior are learned ways of managing anxiety. 

Our mountain community is charged full of such energized successful people who set the pace for the marathon of community identity. Mountain towns tend to be dynamic places that, in turn, attract dynamic people. If a couple, in contrast, is composed of one ambitious person and one content person, then the burden of emotional material is carried by the content one. 

By content I mean a personality not driven by ambition but more from a sense of comfort in the ordinary. And as Lynda Sexson, a local scholar and author wrote about in her book Ordinarily Sacred, there is much to be said about such a posture. 

 Content is neither a stance of resignation nor one of passivity. It is one of acceptance of the way things are, even if that state does not match life expectations. It takes as much of a dedicated practice to be at ease as it does to be in shape for ambitious strategies. Yet in our youth oriented, driven society, “content” is often defined as a “slacker” or of being unimaginative. 

Just as I would advise people not be judgmental of the functioning contented individuals, it is important that they understand what motivates their partners and not describe it as something it’s not. 

The third choice in a broad stroke of common relationship dynamics is the neurotic suffering zone. This domain is defined by partners identified with either traditional gender roles or by an insidious comfort with emotional drama as a substitute for the hard work of a hand-crafted character. Far too often relationships slip into the gumbo of repetition and safety-seeking, relying on a comfort that accompanies routine no matter how neurotic that approach may be. 

By neurotic I mean refusing to tackle the messy work of facing one’s own shadow ,preferring to project said shadow onto the other: blaming the other for the fix we are in or for dysfunctions that began early in our lives. The joy of conscious relationship that is committed to the life long journey of facing the mysterious without the comfort of defensiveness, blame, judgement and personal inadequacy, is worth the trouble. 

Beyond coupledom, there is, for some, the solitary path, not uncommon in places like ours. We all know of someone who, by choice or default, lives a solitary life. Terms like hermit or recluse can be used for such a person.
St. Paul the Hermit by Mattia Preti
St. Paul the Hermit by Mattia Preti
Introvert works as well, and can often help one understand the value in solitude. In our society that rewards extroversion and living outside of our own skin rather than in it, introverts often get maligned, though they can be quite adept at living in their heads, possessing astute perceptive abilities, being artists or analytical thinkers and not concerned about grooming their persona or personal appearance. 

This does not mean they don’t have ambition; they may feel shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight of which the extrovert readily seeks. 

 I remember interviewing a hermit on the west coast of Ireland. He lived in a cottage by the sea with a cat. He had not held a conversation with anyone for over 20 years, he said, although he would exchange pleasantries with town folk when attending Sunday services in the local parish. He wasn’t anti-social. One of the points he made was that a person who is considering withdrawing from the world had better first make peace with themselves and their maker, otherwise isolation is tormenting.

 It strikes me that we have locals who live such a life, living for Bridger Bowl Ski area to open, spending their lives in inner solitude in ways that others cannot fathom, and are otherwise content to be off the public radar. In the trifecta of ambition-relationships-loneliness we are left to consider the state of loneliness. From what I have learned in my four-plus decades of working with countless people, from juvenile delinquents to wealthy elders, I can tell you that feelings of loneliness at all ages are increasing.

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 My focus here, again, is understanding the state of mind lurking in the background gestalt of the exceptional person, one driven by ambition. Maybe you have gone on solo backpacking trips or hunted alone or went off on backcountry ski adventures by yourself. 

The comfort of solitude in the swallowing expanse of wilderness is its own zen riddle. Why does it provide solace and nurturing for some and not others? We are drawn to such aloneness, and this should not be misinterpreted as a rejection of the social community. 

What it has to do with is living with ourselves, not expecting that another person can fill the emptiness we feel. Alone does not equate to lonely. For many, loneliness is a product of not being able to find ourselves or getting lost in the script that others hand us and expect us to follow. In every aged man or woman is the flickering light of a wide-eyed boy or girl—hungry and curious and free of distortions of self they will accumulate from others. They have not learned shame or guilt, inadequacy, blame or false expectations that might originate in a belief system that would not otherwise be their own. 
There is no remedy for a haunting sense of separateness. Yes, you can still stand on top of the world and feel lonely if you do not reflect on what caused your desire to reach the summit. 
Not wanting to conform can cause alienation. Whether or not this existential loneliness is an aspect of the increased suicide rate of Caucasian males aged 25 to 55 remains to be seen. There is no remedy for a haunting sense of separateness. Yes, you can still stand on top of the world and feel lonely if you do not reflect on what caused your desire to reach the summit. 

There is a spot in my own mind that refuses access from other people. It’s different from the feeling that “no one understands me” (for I know my close family members do). It is instead a hidden if not disguised place, like an overgrown garden well, that is both a place of serene retreat and sorrow. 

 This loneliness is reflected in the eyes of those who yearn and feel and empathize and grieve and love, and it is innate in each of us but not always embraced or uncovered after years of becoming entombed. And although we may be well aware of the adage of mindfulness, that “there is no place but here and no time but now,” a call still rings in the soul to be answered. This is a sense of loneliness that never goes away, no matter how at peace with ourselves we become. And it is not a fault to feel it; this is what makes us human. 

What then is ambition? 

I believe the healthy kind—enhancing well-being and minimizing chance for harm—has to do with seeking answers when none are found in the normal routes—the safe ones—in which introspection can readily be avoided. The good news: in our loneliness we are not alone.

What comes to me is that those among us drawn to the splendidly daunting and unforgiving mountains sometimes find a secret door to the hearth of loneliness, warmed by the absence of ordinary nonsense and the flickering light of satiated ambition… at least for a temporary time being until they find themselves below in another valley, yearning to ascend again.
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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