The Practice Of Slowing Down

Phil Powers - Denver, Colorado
As heard on All Things Considered, April 3, 2006
Phil Powers

Mountain climbers learn how to rest-step – that is, to pause between each step to catch one’s breath at high altitudes. Climber Phil Powers believes this technique of pacing is valuable in everyday life.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in the importance of pace. I grew up in a frenetic household, both parents working jobs that demanded their attention 24/7. I was little and fast and rushed around, and I still have that person inside me, always at risk of moving too quickly, missing the connection, making mistakes.

The forest behind our house offered a peaceful respite. My passion for the vertical world took me from tall trees in my backyard to climbing steep cliffs and crags. As a teen, I was moving easily over the landscapes of the American West and was drawn to higher summits. When I was 19, I learned something called the “rest step” from an old mountain climber named Paul Petzoldt. He advised me to rest in the middle of each step completely, but briefly. The rest step, which I still practice today, allows me to walk or climb with little effort. I can move very quickly yet still find a pause in every step.

The awareness of pace I owe to my teacher has served me whether I am seeking the world’s highest summits, sharing my love for the mountains with others or kneeling to look my son, Gus, in the eye when he has a question.

It serves me as I drive, adjusting my speed to gain a bit of calm and reach my destination only minutes behind the “record time” a faster lane might provide. It serves me at home where we maintain a tradition of gathering each night at the dinner table to eat and talk to each other.

In times of crisis, pace comes to my aid. Another of Petzoldt’s lessons was when faced with an emergency, sit down, collect yourself, make a plan. When needs seem most urgent — even life-threatening — the practice of slowing down offers calm and clarity.

In 1987, I was in Pakistan to climb Gasherbrum II, one of the world’s highest peaks. We were a small group and it was a very big mountain. Our expedition faced more than its share of difficulty: A long storm wiped out most of our food rations and an avalanche devastated our camp, obliterating our tents. One of our party developed altitude sickness; blood poisoning threatened another. In the face of each disaster, we carefully developed a new plan. Snow caves replaced lost tents. Soups replaced full meals. Eventually we climbed slowly to the top, then made our way safely down.

Concentrating on how I move through the world is important. It’s why I reach mountain summits and life goals with energy to spare.

There is magic in any faith. Every once in a while, rushing about, my belief in pace rises up, slows me down and grants me a view of a sunset, a smile from a stranger or a conversation with a child. I owe these moments to what I learned from an old mountain climber and have practiced ever since.

Phil Powers is the executive director of the American Alpine Club. He has made dozens of mountaineering expeditions to Alaska, Asia and South America since he began climbing as a boy in Oklahoma. Powers has written two books on mountain-climbing and lives in Denver with his wife and children.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva.