Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Local Maximum

Recently back from a wonderful skiing holiday with Jo’s extended family (eight adults, seven children), I am reminded of the principle of the local maximum. In a mountain range, the local maximum is the highest point in its immediate surroundings, and once one has climbed to the local maximum one must descend before it is possible to climb any higher.

Ski lifts connect local maximums. From the village where we were staying, a button lift pulls skiers to a ridge at the top of the nursery slope. It is still at the bottom of the mountain, but from here you can generate enough momentum to peel off to the right and keep going along the flat-or-even-up-hill track to the next village along the valley. From here, there is a four-person chair-lift that carries you up the mountain. Sometimes, because mountains are irregular in shape, it is not possible to be carried to the very top and you must ski down in order to pick up another lift. By going up and down, up and down, it is possible to ski several connected mountains in a row.

It helps to have a guide, and well-maintained markers, to make the connections; and travelling companions to share the experience.

Skiing down the mountain can feel effortless, enjoyable, exhilarating. It can surf the cusp of being in- and being out- of control, swept along on an adventure. Or, balanced at the top of a steep drop, it can feel terrifying, overwhelming: too far outside of our experience, our ability, our capacity to face the challenge, it can be confidence-destroying.

Moving up the mountain can be painstakingly slow hard work, if you are side-stepping under your own steam. It can be largely effortless, carried on the work of others who built and maintain chair-lifts, funicular railways or gondolas. Or it can require trust – that the cable will hold, that no-one will slip under the restraining bar – and test us emotionally if not physically.

On the mountain, you are aware of others: jockeying for the chair-lift, sweeping past you or holding you up on the piste, taking a tumble, catching their breath and admiring the view. Each moment a snap-shot, for we do not see from where they have come or where they will go from here, other than in broad or immediate senses.

Each New Year brings its own ups and downs, its share of joys and sorrows, bad times and good. Risings and fallings, and risings and fallings again. Tipping-points and turning-points. Effort and learning and measures of good- and ill-fortune to boot. Sometimes we think we have ‘arrived,’ only to discover that we have only just set out. That is all part of life. Whatever 2015 holds for you, may you know the Rock beneath, and find camaraderie with those around you.

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