Norman Bethune Sanson was a naturalist and meteorologist. He lived in the Rocky Mountain community of Banff during the first half of the twentieth century. One of the early curators of the Banff Park Museum, which was just across the avenue from where we used to live, he was known for his frequent hikes up to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. There, he would take regular readings at the weather station he had built. On July 1, 1931, he was presented a large, bronze medal on the occasion of his 1000th ascent up the 5.5 kilometre trail, which gains a 655m elevation gain as it winds its way along the switchbacks. One thousand hikes up Sulphur Mountain – impressive!
When we lived in Banff, hiking up Sulphur was one of our very favourite activities. In later years, we would test ourselves to see how fast we could run / hike up the trail. Our son was just three when he first hiked it with us..but not until he had secured a solemn promise that he could have a treat at the top to acknowledge his effort –we were pleased to “deliver”! Norman, of course, in his day did not have the luxury of finding an observation deck and restaurant at the top that served chocolate milkshakes as in our time! Over the years since we lived amidst those wonderful mountains, we have visited regularly and always included at least one “ascent” of Sulphur while we’re there. And even though almost thirty years have passed, we logged our fastest time up the trail last year at just over 1 hour and 4 minutes. We found that reassuring considering the conventional wisdom which suggests that “you get slower with age”! Nope, that’s just not true.
Not only was the hike up Sulphur great exercise and as much adventure as we wanted to make it, but it was free. I must confess to a rather smug pleasure in knowing that the tourists who glided above us in the Swiss-built gondola had paid a significant amount of moolah for their ride to the top. Oh yeah, and until a few years ago, if you hiked to the top, you could ride down for free...not anymore though – that little “loophole” has been filled, so, for us, it’s always an up and down hike now! Anyway, the point I wanted to make with respect to Norman is about a small plaque that was placed near the old weather station in memory of the man who was known as the “gentleman naturalist”. On that plaque, you will find his name, his dates, and the epithet, “Gone Higher”. Whatever one’s theological or philosophical perspective, I think those words give both direction and inspiration, particularly as we stand on the threshold of the New Year before us.
The idea of going higher is exciting! “Going higher” can mean focussing with greater intent on the things that are good in life and deepening and enriching our experience of them. It can mean endeavouring to become more compassionate, more patient, more forgiving, more thankful. Perhaps it could be making the effort to recognize the good in those around us and resisting the temptation to find fault or weakness. “Going higher” implies exploring and celebrating life in all the varied ways we can do that. It means finding the idea of “living the questions” more exciting and exhilarating than being content with easy/comfortable answers. It means laughing more and telling our ego to “get lost” instead of lurking around us and distracting us from living. “Going higher” means acknowledging that even our tears are part of our humanity, and to grieve our losses is to acknowledge our loves.
Norman Sanson could have elected to sit in his living room, cosy by his fireplace and wrapped in a warm “Snuggie” - I LOVE that Subaru Canada commercial! :-) - a bowl of sweets by his side, content to gaze out his window at the magnificent Rocky Mountains. Norman chose, however, to do what seems to be the better way – to climb his beloved mountain a thousand times, his heart and lungs pumping, and filling each and every cell of his being with life-giving oxygen. Years ago, after running my first 10k, (and feeling like I was going to die!) a trusted friend assured me that whatever “distance” you can do, you can double!. I believe that his sage advice is true and that it also has a broad application. Whether it’s in terms of running or paddling, or sharing compassion, or learning a new skill or whatever...we can go higher. Settling for the status quo, the way things are, just doesn’t seem like nearly as much fun!
Whatever our ability, or disability, our age, or particular passions, it seems we are called to “go higher”, continually extending our reach for the adventures that life offers. Certainly, there are times when we stumble and fall, and when events around us or in distant places, eat away at our resolve or cause us to feel deep discouragement. Getting back up on our feet and back on the trail, however, and continuing the “climb” promises great and serendipitous surprises that delight and satisfy.
In his recent blog, Barefoot Ted McDonald spoke about “lots of love and lots of exercise” - two things, I thnk, that could deeply enrich life for most of us in 2010 and beyond! Norman Bethune Sanson, after whom Sanson Peak (2256m) is named, might just have agreed with that.
Peace to all this New Year,
Top image: Sanson Peak, Banff National Park.
Middle image: a local "Whiskyjack" - they love to share your lunch!