I recently went to my spot: the Rocky Mountains, about 30 minutes from home. Hiking in these hills is a shower for the soul. The memorable times I’ve had in the Rockies camping, hiking, biking, skiing, and golfing, and the lightbulb moments that have sprung up as I’ve traversed these mountains, make me indebted to them. The smells, wildlife, views, and the preceding endorphin dump after a strenuous hike add to the magic of the Rockies.
On this day, I went to a familiar mountain with my dogs and a friend for a hike. The plan was to go for a quick 10-kilometre trek that I’d done 100 times before. It was early afternoon, and the sun was shining. No snow shoes needed, nor parkas. Just the basic winter gear.
Unbeknownst to us, we were about to get hit by the perfect storm…
Starting the trek, it was relatively warm; sun rays were leaking through spruce tree branches, and I could smell their terpenes (natural oil) due to the thawing. It smelt like Christmas.
We quickly made it to the first vista, admired the view, and continued for the remaining seven kilometres ahead. As we entered the denser part of the forest, clouds rolled in, and light snow began to fall. It created a mesmerizing quietness.
About 30 minutes later, the snow started to dump and completely blanketed the mountain with about three inches of white. All the familiar markers I knew from this trail had disappeared…
Not to worry, I hiked here many times before and could do it on muscle memory. Stupid.
10 MINUTES LATER: “Weird,” I muttered to my friend, “we haven’t made it to the second viewpoint.” I told him it had to be near; we probably just veered off trail a bit.
“Let’s go right.” Ten minutes go by, and still no vista. The snowflakes were getting big, and visibility was poor. We decided to head back down because we weren’t equipped for this weather. While the Rockies are beautiful and serene, they can be an unforgiving place for the unprepared.
Descending northeast toward the starting point of our hike (or so we thought), our surroundings seemed vaguely familiar. Then, my youngest dog (barely out of puppyhood) was gone. Both dogs like to run around in the woods when we hike, but they always come back every few minutes to check on me. Only one did this time.
My friend went one way and I the other as we yelled, “Nola!”
The sun was starting to drop behind the mountain. Dusk was coming. Thankfully, 15 minutes later, Nola came barreling at my friend, and all was well, except for the weather, which had taken an even worse turn. We were nearing whiteout territory.
“We’d better pick up the pace,” I said. On top of the poor visibility from the snow, it was getting darker — fast.
So we carried on. The unfamiliar began to present itself in succession. We walked to a creek I had never seen before. I figured we were off the path a bit and should cross it. In my mind, we were headed in the right direction. Then another creek appeared. We hopped over that one. Then an unfamiliar field was in front of us.
We were officially lost…
The snow was getting thick and deep — the type of snowpack you wouldn’t do without snow shoes. “Let’s turn back a kilometre and get back on track,” I said. I felt responsible for this emerging disaster as I invited my friend along. It was now dark. The temperature had dropped about ten degrees since we started, and my fingers were numb.
We began walking back in hopes of getting on track again when we saw the silhouette of an enormous, athletic deer bounce past us, no further than 40 feet away, effortlessly and silently. Escaping my anxiety of being lost in the dark on a cold mountain for a few seconds, I thought the deer must have been in his prime. Beautiful and robust animal with massive antlers. I quipped to my friend, “he knows exactly where he’s going.”
We carried on…
After slogging through the snow, we got to a clearing and had cell phone reception. One bar. Enough, at least, to check Google maps. The map showed a vast mountain range, the town of Bragg Creek, and Calgary (where I’m from); that was about it. Looking at the map, I told my friend “we need to head toward Bragg Creek. It’s sort of in the right direction.” Unfortunately, it was directly behind us, guessing about 25 kilometres.
Somehow, we had been going the wrong way.
I turned and asked my friend to pull out his compass. The compass showed we needed to go 80 degrees east. We had our first marker!
Neither of us knew whether it was 5 or 25 kilometres we needed to walk. But, for the first time since being lost, we had our North Star.
By now, it was freezing cold. We had both fallen into deep snow more than once. It was at least 15 degrees colder than when we had started, which, not that we needed to be told, indicated we had been gone for far too long.
Time became our greatest enemy, so we picked up the pace…
Hiked over one mountain. Then another. And another. I started to worry about our direction. We didn’t have to clear three mountains to get lost… nevertheless, we stuck to the ‘80 degrees east plan.’ What choice did we really have?
My friend mentioned his toes were frozen. I acknowledged the rather ominous statement, but we both knew his toes were the least of our concerns.
We carried on without veering off course more than two degrees (stuck to a 78-82 degree east spectrum on the compass). One eye on the compass, the other on the bushes, rocks and snow beneath our feet. The darkness caused us to fall over several broken tree trunks and fallen branches many times.
After our third mountain, another moment of clarity: Moonlight, our second marker! There was a break in the clouds for the first time since the snow started. It’s amazing how much light the moon can provide when it’s pitch black out. The moon lit up our path. No more tripping over things. Moments later, my phone began vibrating. My wife was calling. Boom! Cell service was back…
After telling her the situation, with a few sprinkles of fake calmness so she wouldn’t worry too much, I pulled up Google maps. It showed us significantly closer to Bragg Creek. We had covered nearly half the initial distance on the map back when deciding to head 80 degrees east. This was our third marker, and it demonstrated that we were making the right moves. Optimism and energy returned. We kept on the path until another mountain was in front of us. The moonlight was fading, so we did what we had to and climbed it quickly!
Nothing looked familiar much of the way up that mountain, and my optimism faded. But then we reached the top. The moonlight was almost gone, however, there was enough of it left to help me recognize something familiar:
A fallen tree trunk perfectly propped up by two other dead tree trunks that it serves as a bench for hikers. The only place I’ve seen Mother Nature create furniture like this was on the mountain I had spread the ashes of my last dog after she passed (click here for the life lesson she taught me).
We were at her favourite spot to run around and chase chipmunks. I know this place well. Fourth marker!
Over 4 hours had passed since we started the hike, and almost three since we were lost. Despite the darkness, thankfully, I knew exactly how to get down from there.
When we returned to my vehicle, the dashboard showed the temperature at -16 degrees celsius. We were not dressed for that cold, and so much snow had fallen, combined with my sweat, that my pants were stiff as a board. They had a layer of ice stuck to them.
There was a moment while lost when I believed we had a 50% chance of spending the night on that frigid mountain. Who knows if we would have made it through or not.
Thankfully, we avoided what may well have been a fateful night because we had objective markers of progress. They helped us recognize that we were headed in the right direction.
On any journey, whether entrepreneurial or hiking a mountain, markers are needed to let you know you’re heading in the right direction. They tell you whether you’re getting lost, veering off, or progressing toward your goal.
Markers are especially critical for an entrepreneur while building a business. They’re vital in those early startup days.
You see, many founders go astray from their model and vision, or stick to a path that never had much chance at success because they don’t course-correct due to an inability to measure progress. They lack the proper markers.
Those early days of launching a new venture can be lonely. No one is there to hold your hand through the proverbial wilderness. You can get stuck in your own head. Lost in your ideas, assumptions and routine… and it’s easy to veer off course, sometimes with devastating financial consequences.
At the outset of launching a new venture, list objective progress markers you’ll abide by… maybe an industry-leading CPA or a high-bar standard from the first 100 customer reviews. It could be a level of engagement from your followers, say an open rate of 30% from your email subscribers with a 15% clickthrough rate, or you can tie it to a revenue target and market share percentage. You want proven barometers of success in your industry that clearly show you’re heading in the right direction. Therefore, you can quickly course-correct if you don’t see those markers along your entrepreneurial journey.
So often, we set out on a new entrepreneurial journey and get lost in work. The grind. We think working hard is progressing. We keep doing what we think is right without asking ourselves if we are staying on the right path. We get distracted by the routine, and we forget to measure — to pull out the compass, so to speak.
Find your markers,