Flatiron 1

The east face of the Flatirons behind Boulder, Colorado. The Third Flatiron is on the left.

It was late in the afternoon during a beautiful summer day as my lifelong friend Bryan and I walked down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, a pedestrian-only “street” like Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.  As we thought about what to do that evening, it came down to a choice of going to hear Dave Brubeck, a jazz pianist or climbing the third Flatiron with a night rappel.  We chose the adventure of a climb and night rappel – Carpe Diem!

Before heading to the mountain, in honor of a recent movie at that time, Dead Poets’ Society, we went into a used book store and picked up some well-worn books that were filled with the writings of great poets.  We made our way to the base of the mountain located at the edge of Boulder and prepared to climb.  The setting sun cast golden and crimson rays between the peaks of the Rocky Mountains into the warm summer air.  The Flatirons are tilted slabs, the third of which is at an angle where ropes are not needed for climbers with intermediate skills.  I was more of an advance-beginner-happy-to-not-fall-down-the-mountain climber.  About half way up, the lengthening shadows were accompanied by a slight breeze and the sound of a jazz being played on a piano; it wasn’t Brubeck, but the person was talented.  The face of the mountain seemed to catch and amplify the notes from somewhere far below.  While Bryan climbed ahead, I sat there for some time listening to the music, appreciative that an earlier choice of music or mountain had both come true.

Flatiron 2

West face of the third Flatiron with Boulder in the distance.

When we got to the top of the mountain, it was nearly dark.  It also felt like we had dipped our heads into the jet stream, except this one was coming from the east at about 50 mph with occasional gusts that were stronger.  I was glad I brought my wind breaker, but it really did not live up to its name that night.  After looking out over the lights of Boulder and briefly enjoying the view, we put on our headlamps and made our way to the anchor for the rappel.  Thankfully, we were somewhat sheltered from the jet stream as we got to the back side.  Once Bryan was down and I was belayed, I edged over the west face of the mountain until my weight was fully on the rope and started my decent into the darkness.  I reached a point where my feet did not reach the wall and the ropes were sliding smoothly until there was an unexpected jerk to an abrupt stop.  I shined my headlamp on my gear and saw my windbreaker snaked through the belay device with the rope. There was a fleeting thought of being stuck on the rope with no easy way down.  My training from being a pilot kicked in and I did not allow myself to panic. Eventually, I was able to maneuver myself and the rope just enough to extract my jacket.  The crisis was resolved and I enjoyed the rest of the rappel.

As we hiked down the mountain in the subsiding wind, we came to an open area that overlooked the lights of Boulder and Denver.  It was like a dense starfield that blended at the horizon with the other stars.  In honor of the movie Dead Poets’ Society, where highly-engaged teaching had an indelible impact on students’ learning, we pulled out the books we bought earlier.  We sat for a long time in the glow of the starfields and our headlamps with the words of great poets like Whitman, Frost, Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau, echoing off of mountain’s walls.  It was a rich experience that punctuated the earlier adventure with deeper meaning.  Life’s possibilities were before us.  Education was a focus in our lives, even on that distant evening on the mountain.  This was long before we both became professors.

Lessons from the Mountain:

  1. The present moment is all we every have so make sure to take time to appreciate your surroundings.  You never know when you might hear jazz.
  2. It is never good to panic if you feel stuck. Too many times people complain when they could be using the same energy to resolve the problem.  Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  3. Taking risks can make life more rich and memorable. Trust you can develop solutions to problems as you move forward.  If you don’t take risks because you fear problems, then you will most likely stay stuck.
  4. Embrace life-long learning in diverse ways.
  5. Make your life sublime and leave footprints in the sand – see the poem below.

Bonus:  My favorite poem from that night on the mountain.

 A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.


Image (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2014 from: https://www.fin.ucar.edu/ucarf/contact.html

Image (September 21, 2010). Retrieved September 28, 2014 from: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/106897990