What’s next? The mountaineer’s most frequently asked question

There is an old Zen story which goes as follows:

A young monk was hurrying on his way one afternoon when he reached the banks of a huge river. A powerful current surged past him and there appeared to be no visible means of crossing if he wasn’t to be swept away.

He walked up and down the bank with a heavy heart, frantically searching for a way of getting to the other side. He was about to give up when he saw an old Zen master on the far bank. He waved his arms to attract the man’s attention and shouted across to him.

“Sir, please tell me, how do I reach the other side?”

The old man looked thoughtful for a few moments, then shook his head and replied:

“My friend, you are on the other side.”

Is reaching the other side really so important?
Is reaching the other side really so important?

I expect there are several interpretations of this story, but when I first heard it the one that occurred to me was this: that our lives are such a constant quest to get somewhere that sometimes we fail to appreciate where we are.

For about five years of my life, once I realised how much I enjoyed high altitude mountaineering, I had an ultimate ambition of reaching the summit of Everest. I did a few easy hikes and climbed some trekking peaks purely for the enjoyment of being in the mountains, but I also did some tougher expeditions which were the next step on the path to achieving that ambition. They may not have been my first choice of holiday, but they were challenges which I knew I needed to overcome if I were to progress. Luckily I enjoyed them, too.

In May 2012 I finally achieved my ambition, and when I returned to base camp safely, and posted some messages to let friends and family, and all the people who had been following my adventures, know I had reached the summit of Everest, I received many kind messages of congratulation. By far the most popular comment, however, was a simple two word question:

“What’s next?”

It was a question that was impossible to answer. I was exhausted, and for the last few weeks I had only one goal in view. I had finally achieved it and returned alive. The achievement was only beginning to sink in, and it would be a long time before I fully appreciated it.

Over the following months many people asked me about my story, and were keen to find out what it felt like to climb Everest. After I told them, nearly all of them wanted to know what I was going to do next. Many of them didn’t even want to hear the story at all, but they still asked the same question. “Oh, you’ve climbed Everest, have you – so what’s next?”

Not surprisingly, after returning from the summit of Everest 'what's next?' wasn't the first thing on my mind (Photo: Grant 'Axe' Rawlinson)
Not surprisingly, after returning from the summit of Everest ‘what’s next?’ wasn’t the first thing on my mind (Photo: Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson)

Wasn’t climbing Everest enough for these people? I thought to myself. Why does there have to be a next?

Of course, there’s always a next. It’s nice to have something to aim for to give life a purpose, but the next is never as important as the now. It’s the now that we live in, after all. And when I look back on the last few years, I feel lucky to have had some unbelievable experiences, and I realise that the next isn’t so important, either. Most of you have achieved something with your lives, and have a wealth of experience to draw upon. That experience is surely much deeper and more meaningful than what you might potentially do in the future?

I found something to do after Everest, of course. I’m gradually working my way through the Seven Summits. I’ve climbed four of them now, and tried and failed to climb a fifth one, Denali, last month. I’m also working on a full length book about my journey to the summit of Everest, but don’t hold your breath, as it’s going to take me a while. But most of the peaks I climb won’t be connected with these goals at all. I will simply be climbing them to enjoy that feeling of being in the mountains. Life is all about living in the moment.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets asked that same two word question on a regular basis.

“What’s next?”

I think it must be the mountaineer’s most frequently asked question. I expect many of you reading this get asked quite a lot, too.

It’s probably the most frequently asked question for anyone who travels a lot, and if you meet a well-travelled person today, please don’t ask them where they’re going to. Ask them where they’ve been. You will surely hear a much more interesting story.

And if you still want to know where I’m going next, thank you for asking, but since I’ve gone to the trouble of writing them I’d appreciate it so much more if you resisted and read about my past adventures instead.

Alternatively I could collect a dollar for every time I get asked the question. You never know, I might just be able to retire.

How about you?

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7 thoughts on “What’s next? The mountaineer’s most frequently asked question

  • August 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm
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    Life is all about living in the moment. I can take great joy in achievement in other things such as the smile of my children or them telling me that they love me. I also take great joy in seeing my dogs every day especially my little rescue dog who is unabashedly the sweetest dog on the planet! As an arm chair climber and reader of you blog and books I also take great joy in reading about other achievements such as yours.

  • September 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm
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    What next?

    The only answer I want from you Mr Horrell is ‘go straight to Mike’s VirginGiving page and sponsor him’

  • September 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm
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    Very well, I’m prepared to strike a deal with you, Mr Collins. If you would like to make a donation to CHANCE at http://www.educationfornepal.org/how-you-can-help/donate/ then I will match it for whatever cancer charity you are supporting with your JustGiving page (or is it the Hadrian’s Wall Support Fund?).

    CHANCE is the Nepali educational charity I’m a trustee of. We have just been appointed National Award Operator for the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award in Nepal, and our main campaign at the moment is to introduce it into schools and scout groups across the country. We’re happy to accept donations that have been obtained from grumpy archaeologists by means of mutual backscratching, and unlike JustGiving’s online donation service, nobody takes a 5% cut and every penny will go to our charity. 🙂

    You can read more about my involvement with CHANCE here:
    http://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2013/why-im-paying-nepal-back-for-the-good-times/

    Feel free to post the link to your JustGiving page here. Don’t forget to let me know how much you’ve donated so that I can return the favour.

  • September 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm
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    Yes, I use VirginGiving for precisely the same reason you use the BT/Openreach system, namely that no-one takes a cut of the donation (don’t think I’ve ever mentioned JustGiving, but don’t you let facts get in the way of a good wind-up:))

    Having called your bluff and sent a tenner to your good cause (does this mean that you can’t check? in which case just assume that a donated £100), you can donate to my (Oxfam) Great North Run page at:

    http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MikeCollins1

    I appreciate that the other reader of your blog won’t necessarily want to read our bickering, but if it raises more money then I couldn’t care less (incidentally who is the grumpy archaeologist you refer to…..are they the mysterious other reader?)

    cheers Hoz

    mc

  • September 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm
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    All done. The grumpy archaeologist will be that little bit more cheerful this afternoon.

    Oh, and thanks for the donation. Our finance man Bill will be able confirm!

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