On Confidence: The Mountain (Part I of III)



Confidence and women; women and confidence. Women should lean in; use power poses; not minimize our words or our selves; negotiate; and, above all, be confident! Without, of course, being bitchy or bossy or cold. The internet tells me confidence is “not something that can be learned like a set of rules; confidence is a state of mind.” (www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/confidence.html) Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code, say that confidence is “…less worrying about people-pleasing and perfection and more action, risk taking, and fast failure.” I take their quiz and score “low confidence.” What the hell is confidence, anyway?

We spent the night enduring shallow sleep invaded by the sound of grit hitting our tent at 12,500 feet. Even so, when I finally open my eyes to morning light, I am hopeful we might have a chance to hike to the top of this mountain. We need to descend into the safety of trees before the daily thunderstorms begin to pepper the high elevations with lightning.

Unzipping our tent door breaks the mountain silence; I look out at the rocky flat known as the Boulderfield, the flat area on the north side of Longs Peak, the only 14,000’ peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Outside, long skeins of low-hanging stratus clouds are weaving in and out of the jagged rock ridge above our tent. Turning to the east, far in the distance is a skinny cobalt-colored sliver of sky, the thin layer emphasizing the long stretch of gray cloud between it and me. Clouds this early on a July morning don’t bode well for the day–they will grow into afternoon thunderstorms.

Three years ago I introduced my husband, Chris, to this mountain, but we were forced to turn back before climbing much higher than where we pitched our tent last night. Today we are back, with hopes of making it to the top. Looking at the clouds, we shoot worried looks at each other and postpone deciding whether to go higher. Uncertainty fills my belly.

I emerge from the tent and begin rock-hopping my way to the privy, when another climber approaches me.

“Do you know the mountain well?” he asks.

I consider my experiences on this peak. I’ve spent years here, on and around Longs Peak, both during my work for the park and on my own time. I’ve attempted the summit three times, making it once and turning back twice. I’ve hiked to other features on the mountain multiple times, carried injured hikers down the trail in rescue litters, and loaded injured climbers into helicopters in the Boulderfield.

Do I know this mountain well?

I think of the other more technical routes to the summit, routes that require ropes and rock-climbing hardware. I think of a coworker who has summited the mountain over one hundred times and during every month of the year. I’ve only been on the mountain in the summer months. I’ve never done a technical route.

Do I know this mountain well? I am uncertain.

“Somewhat,” I answer.

Back at our tent, the gusty winds and layers of clouds haven’t dampened Chris’s excitement about today’s summit attempt. I’m filtering water out of a stream hidden underneath boulders when he heads to the privy. I hear the same climber ask Chris:

“Do you know the mountain well?”

My husband answers without pausing.

“Yes,” he says, with certainty.

I look at the water I’m filtering, the clouds overhead, and I’m flooded with emotion. I’m upset when Chris says he knows the mountain well. Every time he’s been here has been with me. Does that mean I also know the mountain well? Is he full of bluster or am I being too modest? How do I know what I know?

In studies, women are more likely to choose “I don’t know” on tests if they aren’t certain about an answer, while men tend to guess. When “I don’t know” isn’t an answer, women guess (and score) equally as well as men. “I don’t know” is scored as incorrect, but there’s no choice for “I’m aware of too many nuances with this question to feel comfortable answering without discussion.”

On a written test, the uncertain option scores as wrong. On the mountain, the score is never certain.

What is confidence? I yearn to acknowledge the wonder of the unknown, embody the confidence of experience and knowledge, and accept mistakes. Yet at the same time, I long for absolute lines demarcating expertise. At what exact point do I know the mountain well? I couch my statements with qualifiers and am cautious not to bluster or to claim I know something I don’t. I downplay my experience, expecting people to be able to separate true expertise from blustery claims.

Then I’m upset when my experience is minimized.

I stare angrily into the stream running amongst the rock of the Boulderfield. Did the climber interpret my answer as acknowledging the complexity of the high altitude environment, or as lacking in mountain knowledge and self-confidence? I suspect he left with the impression that my husband is more competent and confident in the mountains than I am. How do we choose whose judgment to trust?

Chris laughs when I tell him about our differing answers to this climber.

“I have a map and compass. What else do I need to know?” he says.

Is that confidence?

Part II

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