From Summit to Studio: Exploring Parallels Between Returning to Everest’s Base Camp and the Songwriting Journey

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Alison Levine discuss her amazing adventures climbing Mount Everest (not to mention the tallest peaks on all of the other continents!) What an inspiring and humbling story of human endurance and potential. In her powerful and fun presentation, Alison shared many lessons learned, and I found myself reflecting on how some of those lessons translated to my work as a songwriter and a musician.

The Beginning of the Journey and Terrifying Obstacle Number One

I was blown away over and over as Alison explained what the process of climbing Everest entails. For example, when you attempt to climb the tallest mountain on Earth, you start with a hike to base camp that typically takes about 8 days. Think about that – over a week, just to get to what is basically your starting point! Then you have to spend 4 or 5 days there, to start the process of acclimatizing – letting your body begin to get used to the high altitude. You are now nearly two weeks into your Everest adventure, but you haven’t even left Base Camp.

What Alison told us about next really blew my mind.

The next step is to attempt the climb to what is called “Camp 1” – the first of several milestones as you ascend the mountain (there are four such Camps along the way). As it happens, there is a terrifying obstacle to overcome on this first major stage in your Everest attempt. On the way to Camp 1, you have to traverse the Khumbu icefall. The Khumbu icefall is considered by many to be the most treacherous part of climbing the world’s tallest mountain (but as harrowing as it is, that’s not the thing that blew my mind). The Khumbu icefall consist of massive ice blocks that calve off the Khumbu glacier, creating gaping crevasses to crossed. And of yeah, these ice blocks can move. And if you slip off of the tied-together-with-rope aluminum ladders that are used to traverse the crevasses, you’ll likely fall hundreds of feet to your death.

Traversing the Khumbu Icefall (source)

Returning to Base Camp (Again and Again)

But wait – here’s the really crazy part! Assuming you survive the Khumu icefall and the trek to Camp 1, you will stay there a couple of days and then return to base camp to continue acclimatizing! Then you will hike up to Camp 1, traversing the Khumbu icefall again, then head up tio Camp 2 and stay the night, then you will return to base camp AGAIN!

In fact, those who “seek the peak” (I just made that up!), will generally spend 19 days trekking to and from base camp before beginning what is typically a 40 day effort to ascend the mount from there. Who know? Talk about endurance! Alison shared the phrase, “backing up does not mean backing down”, to encapsulate one of the life lessons that comes with an attempt to climb Everest.

What Does This Have to do With Songwriting?

As this brave, strong woman shared her story, I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience as a song writer. I have often had to “back up” as I worked on a song, going back to “base camp” in a sense, to work on or recreate fundamental elements of a song, such as bass, percussion, rhythm guitars, and so on. It can be very frustrating.

I am currently working on a song that I have been chipping away at slowly for years. I spent untold hours working on an acoustic guitar lead part, struggling to get a sweet, smooth sound. It took weeks, but I got there. Then further down the line, after having spent many hours on guitars, percussion, harmonica, and bass, I decided the percussion needed to be replace becaue it simple wasn’t as much fun as the rest of the song. As I started working to replace the percussion, it became apparent that this song really needed a shuffle feel. Once I adjusted the grid in my DAW to use 1/8 note triplets, it became obvious that all of the existing song parts – rhythm guitars, bass, lead guitar, etc., need to recreated or edited to reflect the new shuffle feel for the song. Aauugghh! Thank God I had a capabale a patient producer to help me through this, or I may have simply bailed on this tune at that point.

So as I sat listening to Alison Levine talk about the rigors of an attempted ascent to the tallest peak in the world, I couldn’t help but think, how dare me whine about having to recreate or spend time editing elements of a song I am writing! I know I am not alone in having to do this sort of backtracking with writing and recording music. And of course, this concept of “going back to base camp” applies to many aspects of our personal and professional lives. I hope I can keep this in mind as I continue down the road I’ve chosen, and be a little more patient the next time I need to take a few steps back, or possibly start over. Going back to base camp can be a very healthy, and helpful, part of the process.

So, did Alison make it to the top?

I imagine a few of you are wondering if Ms. Levine made it to the top of Everest. In the story she related, she was the leader of the first team of American women to attempt the ascent to Everest. She explained how they were hundreds of feet from the top when a storm blew in. After months of planning, preperation, and climbing, they ultimately had to turn around and give up. Now you might think, “if it was only a couple hundred feet” couldn’t they just run up there and finish what they started? Absolutely not, not if they wanted to live to tell their story. At that extreme height in the atmosphere (almost 30,000 feet, or 5.5 miles!), each and every step is an ordeal, requiring you to stop and breath and rest before taking the next step. Just one more example of the extremes of human endurance that this endeavor entails. It would have taken hours to complete the ascent, and they would be exposing themselves to extreme risks far beyond those they had already taken.

As it would happen, many years later Alison Levine would climb Everest yet again, and that time she made it to the top.

So the next time you are struggling with a song or some other undertaking, and realize that you need to back up a bit, or you need to start over, think about the incredible feats of endurance like this that many have undertaken just to be able to say they did it. If they can spend weeks climbing a mountain and surviving treacherous conditions, knowing that will have to come back down and start over, repeatedly, you can certainly take the time to start your work over, in the comfort of your studio, home, or office, so that you can get the job done right and get to the top of your own personal peak.

Learn all about Alison Levine here:

From Summit to Studio: Exploring Parallels Between Returning to Everest’s Base Camp and the Songwriting Journey

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