Don’t Get Happy!

This article appears in my Winter, 2008, e-newsletter. If you’d like to receive the MountainWorld News delivered to your inbox, you can sign up here!


I remember it like
it was yesterday. We, the varsity football team at
, had just trounced our final opponent, completing our
undefeated run of ten games. We were off to the championships,
and we were proud.

Hooting and
hollering, we high fived and pranced around on the sidelines.

Coach Walker
, veteran football coach and amazing English
professor and poet, marched over with his usual stern affability
and barked: Don’t get happy, boys, don’t get happy!!

Strange way to
, I thought to myself. We just won…we went
undefeated…we deserved to be happy!

But Coach wasn’t
talking about simple celebration, about revelling in a moment
hard won and well earned. Rather, his "don’t get happy"
admonition was an warning against cockiness, against the
complacence brought on by success…and just as quickly
destroyed by it.

High school
football in northern New Hampshire and the serrated ridges of
the high Himalaya may be worlds apart, but Coach Walker’s
passing admonition on that chilly November day has resonated in
my decisions on mountains and in life.

While guiding on

Mount Rainier
Mountaineering, Inc.
, we had a favorite saying for clients
(later made famous by

Ed Viesturs
): The summit is optional…coming down is
Similar to Coach Walker’s "don’t get happy", our
saying was not meant to dash spirits but rather to ward off poor
decision making brought on by celebration and subsequent ego.

Just like our
sideline celebrations on the football field, climbers often find
themselves celebrating on the summit, high fiving with big
smiles and a relaxed feeling that all is done, the challenges
are over, it’s all downhill from here.

But really, the hardest
part is just beginning, the climb is only 50% finished at the
summit, and if our defenses are lowered we no longer see and react
to dangers and difficulties efficiently and effectively. Our joy
at reaching the summit threatens to derail our success on the
climb that remains.

As Coach said, don’t get happy.

The same is true
on the football fields and towering summits of life: we should
certainly celebrate our accomplishments, take pride in our
abilities, the goals we’ve reached and the hurdles we’ve
overcome to get there. But, we shouldn’t get happy, we shouldn’t
let our momentary success cloud our vision of the terrain yet to
come, crevasses yet to cross and dangers yet to be seen.

When we avoid the
temptation to "get happy", we discover what I cover in my
keynote presentations: The Summit Perspective. This
is the understanding that the summit, the end goal,
the winning touchdown, is but a moment in time, a patch of snow.

The true joy in climbing our mountains, in reaching our elusive
goals, lies on the sides of our peaks.

As the cliche
says: It’s the journey, not the destination, which counts.

Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

  1. phil summers
    phil summersFebruary 17,08

    To paraphrase Kipling….

    When triumph and failure can be treated the same as the poseurs’ they are, then one is a man…
    A sentiment I adhere to.

    Tis better to play or perform as best as one can, with fair play and sportsmanship rather then a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, be it on a mountain, on the cricket ground or in life.
    Lessons for all of us methinks.

    Good reminder today Jake.


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