Three Money Lessons You Can Learn From Mountaineering

I grew up in the great mountaineering state of Michigan*. (/Sarcasm: the highest point in Michigan is Mount Arvon at 1,979 feet.) I live fewer than 200 feet above sea level in the DC area. Yet, I'm an amateur mountaineer. It all started in 2011; I stumbled across the book, No Shortcuts to the Top, by famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs at the local library. The book detailed Ed’s experiences in becoming the first American to climb the world’s 8,000-meter peaks (the 14 mountains that are all higher than 8,000 meters or 26,246 feet).

I devoured the book in one sitting and passed it to Mr. Financier. We immediately dug into other mountaineering tales - including Into Thin Air, Annapurna, and K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain. (I heartily recommend them all!) Reading about adventure and life-and-death struggles on remote, dangerous mountains made us both decide, “We need to start climbing!!” Mr. Financier started researching and found a mountaineering class that we took together. The course taught us the basics of mountaineering and enabled us to summit Mt. Baker, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Since 2012, we’ve climbed several hills in Washington state, including Mt. Rainier, Eldorado Peak, and Mt. Shuksan. Along the way, I’ve observed that mountaineering and personal finance are the. exact. same. thing. These are the three money lessons I’ve learned from mountaineering:

Success requires small progress for a sustained period of time. When you approach a massive mountain, like Mt. Rainier (5,400 feet at Paradise, where you often start climbing from and 14,411 feet at the summit), you look up in awe. It’s a hulking, beautiful, slab of rock, snow, and glacier. The only way to reach the summit is to place one foot (carefully) in front of the other for hours at a time.

In fact, during my summit attempts, I can’t focus on the summit - it’s far more manageable to focus on getting to the next snow mound, cresting the next glacier, or crossing the upcoming crevasse. I find myself in a mountaineering groove when I’m thinking 5 - 10 steps ahead, and working towards a near-term goal.

This is exactly like loan repayment, saving for an emergency fund, and investing for retirement. If you’re staring down a massive student loan or have ambitions to retire with millions of dollars, your goal can seem impossible. It’s easy to get discouraged, lose focus, and stop making progress. Instead, you must break your goal down into more manageable steps and move diligently forward. Celebrate the wins along the way, and keep making steady progress. Your summit will come, and it will feel amazing when you arrive.

There is no substitute for excellent preparation. When you’re climbing, you carry your life on your back and are ascending thousands of vertical feet in tricky terrain. Superb cardiovascular health, yogi-like balance, powerful strength, knowledge of the terrain, comfort with your gear, knowledge of rescue techniques, and basic first aid skills are among the many non-negotiables for the responsible mountaineer.

When Mr. Financier and I are gearing up for a climb, we up our fitness. We throw 40lbs in our backpacks, put the treadmill on max incline, and hike our tails off. We practice rescue techniques and refresh ourselves on the minutiae of our gear. We obsessively read maps and summit reports from other mountaineers to understand the terrain we’ll be facing.

This is exactly like charting a financial plan. In the Five Fabulous Steps to Financial Freedom, I described the steps to build wealth. They’re interconnected - just like cardio and strength training - but also distinct. You first need to understand where you’re starting from with a financial inventory. Then, you need a plan to strengthen and grow your income. Managing your expenses ensures your hard work doesn’t go to waste. Next, saving and investing is putting aside funds to build and grow your riches over time. Finally, just like on the mountain, you need to carefully manage your risk.

Your rope team is your survival. When you climb mountains with glaciers, you’re vulnerable to crevasses - cracks in the glacier that can be hundreds of feet deep. These crevasses can be hidden under snow, so you must rope yourself to other climbers in order to be safe. When I climb, it’s often a two-person climb, where I’m roped to Mr. Financier. If I fall in a crevasse, I need to count on him to appropriately stop the fall and set up a rescue to haul me out of the glacier’s depths.

The same is true for your financial security. You can pick your own rope team - this might be your partner, or friends, family, and colleagues you surround yourself with. They’ll impact your habits - either pushing you to increase your risk (spending more than you can afford) or helping you reduce your exposure and safely manage risk (smart investing and avoiding silly money schemes.) Who is on your rope team today? Are they the best people to ensure your financial safety?

Just like money, mountains can be a source of renewal, empowerment, and strength - or tremendous stress, anxiety, and peril. I look forward to your feedback - is there anyone on your rope team that you’ll be cutting loose? Are you preparing to effectively build wealth, or does sloppy prep put your success in jeopardy?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Credit to my mountaineering hero, Ed Viesturs - who regularly says he grew up in the great mountaineering state of Illinois. He does so at 1:22 into this talk he gave at the National Geographic Society. (I met him at this event, squee! He was so lovely - encouraging and kind.)