Peak experiences offer an instructive metaphor for the value of hard work

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I’ve gained a whole new level of appreciation for the correlation between agony and ecstasy — or rather the connection between hard work, and I mean really hard work, and immensely satisfying rewards.

The epiphany occurred while I trudged up a mountain trail, my legs aching, my lungs desperate to pull a breath out of thin air and my mind befuddled. What possible reason could exist to justify this kind of suffering? The answer was apparent just a glance away, up from the path immediately before me and to the natural splendor that surrounded me.

If there’s a more instructive metaphor for the value of effort and determination than backpacking through the Colorado wilderness, I can’t imagine what it would be. Peak experience isn’t just a figurative description, but a literal event.

By way of explanation, my two sons invited me along for a four-day trip on the four-pass loop around the Maroon Bells west of Aspen. My sons are not only gracious that way, but also sanguine. I’m more than twice as old and perhaps only half as fit, yet they still believed I could keep up. My youngest son, Alex, had hiked the loop with college friends once before and promised a remarkable adventure. As it turned out, even Alex’s wildest pronouncements were woefully inadequate in preparing us for what we encountered. Remarkable, indeed.

The loop takes its name from the four passes along the nearly 27-mile route, each topping 12,400 feet in elevation. The trail is long and frequently steep, but wends through one of the most spectacular mountain landscapes on the planet. That includes not only the iconic Maroon Bells, but also other formidable 14ers towering nearby. Waterfalls tumble hundreds of feet from rocky ramparts. Vast meadows full of colorful wildflowers create Jackson Pollock abstractions. And alpine lakes sparkle with water as clear and cold as gin poured over ice.

Get the picture? Thankfully, I did. A bunch of them, in fact. Far better yet, I savored the privilege of seeing such sights with my own eyes.

That’s the juxtaposition that confronts those who make their way around the loop. The hard work required to climb more than 2,000 vertical feet from valley floors to rocky ridges, only to descend and then repeat the process. The rewards of jaw-dropping vistas around every turn.

Although it’s nearly inconceivable to me, the loop is popular not only among backpackers, but also trail runners. As we slogged along the trail with our packs stuffed full of gear, runners whizzed by carrying nothing more than water. They can complete the roller coaster marathon in less than a day.

If any of the runners were from Colorado — and I suspect a lot of them were — I now understand why the population of the Centennial State ranks among the fittest nationwide. Even one of the runners would skew the mean for a sizable number of the rest of us inhabitants with far less ambitious aspirations. I also noticed, by the way, most of the dogs who accompanied backpackers and runners along the loop appeared to be in better shape than I was. At least the dogs were panting less.

So what does backpacking have to do with business? A lot, actually, in comparing some of the basic processes involved.

Success depends in part on planning. It takes careful consideration to prepare for a backpacking trek through the wilderness: What to take and, more important, what to leave behind. It’s a matter of assessing comparative values and setting priorities. What’s required? What really isn’t? What might be nice to bring along, but ultimately would end up just weighing you down? Think about that the next time you decide whether or not to purchase a new piece of equipment or hire a new employee.

Take on challenges one step at a time. At least for me, the steep climbs up the four passes along the loop presented some of the most grueling physical challenges I’ve ever encountered. Not difficult in requiring an intense burst of effort, but difficult in demanding a sustained effort over long periods. All I wanted was to just get to the top. But I had to remain patient, to take on the task literally one step at a time. There’s a similar temptation in business to jump ahead to the perceived resolution of a challenge when a more patient and methodical approach might work better.

Enjoy the journey. It might be trite, but remains true nonetheless. While I experienced a sense of satisfaction in completing the loop, I quickly realized the joy was in the journey. I was actually a bit sad, in fact, the trip was over and there were no more ridges to crest or new views to unfold before us. Relish business successes both large and small. But appreciate, too, what it takes to achieve those successes and especially the relationships that are established with employees and customers.

Endure the agony. Enjoy the ecstasy. Put in the hard work. Reap the rewards.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at or 424-5133.