Turning back: A lesson from Flat Top Mountain 

“Flat Top Mountain? Well sure it’s just about seven miles from the city,” welcome center volunteer, Bob assured us with a wide grin as he pointed out the mountain on a map. 

“Now some people hike all the way up it but that’s not for me,” he continued, scratching at the bout of white hair atop his head. “There’s a nice little over-look though at the base and that’s only a short walk and you can see all of Anchorage.” 

My husband and I scurried off to the mountain and after a brief appreciative moment or two at the overlook area, we were ready to ascend Flat Top Mountain. The trail was covered in packed snow and lined with coniferous trees not tall enough to hide the looming white faced mountain ranges that encircled us. 

After clearing a small stretch of trees, the trail opened up spaciously in every direction revealing Flat Top in all her glory. 

“So we actually get to the very top from this trail?” I questioned, more to myself, as I cupped my hand over my eyes blocking the sun. I squinted at the mountain top and saw several tiny moving grains of rice that represented three people who had completed the climb. 

“Look they are parasailing!” Adam exclaimed as he squinted and pointed towards one the grains of rice who was now airborn, gliding slowly around the mountain on a bright blue and yellow parasail. I watched as the flyer’s shadow cast out over the mountain top. I wondered how far he could see. 

“Let’s go so we have enough day light to get up there,” I said decisively, surely I wasn’t going to let parasail man have all the fun today. 

Our hike continued with only minor inclination. We laughed and talked about Alaska and our brimming excitement after being on our trip for only one day. I couldn’t quite explain it yet, how Alaska was making me feel. It was kind of like coming home. I decided Curtis Welch, an Alaskan doctor in Nome, Alaska in the 1900s, described it best when he said Alaska provided plenty of room for him to stretch out his soul. Stepping out of the airport yesterday and seeing those mountains had been like stepping out of a small room you hadn’t realized you had been cramped in most of your life. There was this freeness and eagerness in my spirit. 

Adam turned to me while pointing to the trail ahead, small, iced-over footprints that inclined, almost vertically up the rest of the mountain. 

“I don’t know if we can do that,” he said, as he pushed his foot over the prints, testing their slickness. 

“I mean, even if we make it up, can we make it back down?” 

I frowned at the trail and turned my head to look up the rest of the mountain. The parasailers and tiny specks of humans were gone. 

“Yes. We can do it. I’m fine,” I stated decisively as I began my ascent. 

Before we knew it, we were half way up the ever steepening and icy incline. 

“I think we need to go back,” Adam said. His brow furrowed. “I mean look down there. I’m not saying we’d die but we would get seriously hurt hitting those rocks if we fell.” 

But the thing about turning back is that it feels like giving up. It feels like you chose comfort and simplicity over perseverance and challenge, and that doesn’t feel good. After some discussion, I reluctantly agreed to turn back. No sooner did I turn around and set my first foot in front of me did I realize just how difficult going back down was going to be. My foot slipped. I wavered and crouched until I basically crab walked my ass down the vertical part of that trail. 
Adam was right. We weren’t prepared for this. We were the Cincinnati tourists with no metal spikes in our shoes and no real experience mountain climbing. But somewhere along that slipping and sliding and ass-scooting descent of shame, I realized something. 

The sun warmed my face as I carefully meticulously placed each foot in the next most trustworthy and least slick appearing spot. What a sight we must be! I thought as my fear suddenly became humourous and turned into a moment of laughter. I turned around to check on Adam and smiled, he was scooting too. 

Maybe it is okay to turn back, I decided. After all, there is honor and humility in realizing your limitations and making decisions within that acknowledgement. It makes you real, authentic and capable within your own abilities. There is no shame in realizing we are small, in understanding our vulnerabilities. 

As we drove away, I watched Flat Top Mountain become smaller in the distance. I studied her rocky edges and snow blanketed face. Maybe one day I’ll make it to the top. She’ll still be here waiting and my soul certainly won’t let this be the last time I come to Alaska. I think it too needs all this space to stretch out. 


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