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5 Things I Learned When I Lost a Friend to the Mountains

The brightest lessons can emerge from the darkest hours.

By: Nate Luebbe + Save to a List

I’m fortunate in this life to have many friends who share my same passions. I never need to look far if I want to share a nice hike, good beer, or night of live music. It is rare, however, to meet someone whose fiery passion for everything they do is so contagious that it inspires everyone around them to push their limits.

I met Justin on Craigslist. He sent a single sentence reply to an ad I had posted looking for a new roommate. Since I was broke and the deadline was coming up, we scheduled a time for him to come by and see the place. He introduced himself as Jarstin McFlarstin (an actual nickname that everyone, even family, calls him).  The apartment was an absolute shithole, but only minutes after his arrival we were already swapping stories of grand adventures – summit conquests and life changing hikes. I was immediately inspired. My Friday plans changed from beer and video games to 8pm bedtime and grueling hike in the morning.

We lived together for 3 years, even working side by side as line cooks in a Thai restaurant in downtown Boulder. We egged each other on, as guys in their early-20’s often do, to see who could run the fastest, eat the hottest chile, or get the cute girl’s phone number.  He even convinced me to wake up at 3am one day to go climb TWO 14,000 foot mountains, then drive back to Boulder for an 8 hour shift in the kitchen. We came down the wrong way and had to summit a third peak to get back to the car.  I literally fell asleep fully clothed on my living room floor when our shift was finally over.

We hiked and climbed everything we could think of, and continuously pushed each other to go harder.

Summit #1. Notice how we're still happy.

One day Jarstin and some friends took off to Grand Teton National Park to climb the middle Teton. His friends came back. Jarstin didn’t.

Losing a friend is never easy. But Jarstin and I had jokingly covered the topic before and I knew that he had very literally died exactly how he wanted to; pushing his limits in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. It was almost poetic. It reinforced for me that we are simply visitors in nature. Things can, and will, go wrong. But beautiful life lessons emerged from the shadows of that day.

Here are the 5 things I learned from losing a friend in the mountains.

1. Making excuses is the same as preemptively quitting. 

You see, Jarstin was born with a rare condition that caused severe curvature of his spine, and deformation of his legs. He grew up wearing Forest Gump style leg braces and didn’t even take his first steps until age 10. When the braces came off the ONLY thing Jarstin wanted to do was walk. He walked to school.  He walked around the local parks in Benicia, California.  He enjoyed his walks so much that he landed a job on the trail crew in Sequoia National Park. A man at age 24 with one leg still deformed and significantly shorter than the other had chosen a career in hiking. Grueling 14 hour days of physical labor, no creature comforts beyond a simple sleeping bag and a worn-out tent, and dehydrated food for months at a time.

Jarstin straight-up kicked my ass on the hiking trails, but there was no excuse I could think of to not keep up.  If this lopsided goofball could practically jog up the side of the mountain while telling dirty jokes and whistling old showtunes he learned from his father, then my fatigue was downright pathetic. He would fall multiple times during a hike, but be back on his feet so fast I almost thought he just took a break to do a quick pushup.  I was exhausted, sweaty, and hungry, but here was Jarst – stumbling uphill faster than I could even run back down.  I had no excuse to stop. I ended up in the best shape of my life that summer.

If you want something, go get it. Making excuses is just another way of giving up ahead of time.

2. Live fast, die young. 

I know that’s just about the most cliché sentence I could ever type, but I seriously mean it. Jarstin packed more life into his 27 years than most do in 40. At one point he had bought a ticket to Thailand, arrived with $25 to his name, and spent the next 2 years hand-building a bar on the Mekong. With some clever marketing and hard work he eventually sold enough drinks to tourists to buy a plane ticket home.

That’s the kind of adventure seen in Hollywood movies, but very few people have the guts to gamble like that. I still don’t, and probably never will, but the lesson has stuck with me. This is your only trip through this life. Not everything will go exactly as planned, and not everything you experience will be pleasant. But you should arrive at the finish line satisfied with your attempt. Give it your all. Take risks, gamble, push yourself, and make a serious lasting impression.

Who knows, maybe some day your friends will even write about you.

3. Trade comfort for memories. 

Your grandkids aren’t going to want to hear the amazing story about the time you Netflix-binged an entire season of House of Cards without a bathroom break. You won’t fondly reminisce about how you once wore sweatpants for 3 weeks straight because you were too lazy to do laundry.

Spend a couple of nights in a tent when the weather dips below 0°F (did it). Have a float plane drop you off in the middle of the Canadian Wilderness with some food and a canoe so you have to paddle back across the US border (did that too). Walk into the woods with nothing but a jacket and a pocket knife and spend the night in a handmade shelter, eating dinner that you foraged yourself (surprise, did it). Or spend 14 hours climbing mountains before a full kitchen shift. Thanks, Jarstin.

I find that most of the best stories I’ve heard in this life involve some sort of discomfort. A broken tent, a flat bike tire, lost luggage. Comfort is temporary, but amazing experiences turn into life-changing memories.

Out of my comfort zone, into my life-long memories.

4. Nobody is beneath you.

One of Jarstin’s best friends was a part-time dishwasher in our kitchen. Jorge spoke almost no English and for the most part kept to himself. But Jarstin took it upon himself to learn enough Spanish to ask Jorge when he needed help, ask how his day was going, and just generally be a friend. Maybe one of the only friends Jorge had in town.

A year later Jorge got a new job as a line cook at a very expensive restaurant in town, and Jarstin and I were repeatedly treated to exquisite cuisine for free, simply because we had taken the time to treat him like an equal when very few others would.

Don’t forge relationships for your own benefit. Forge relationships because all people are truly worth knowing. If you’re genuine and true, the good will follow.

5. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. 

Jarstin lived his life on stage. He was always singing, doing impersonations, whistling or cracking jokes. Sure, some of it was dumb, but nobody bats 1.000 in this world. Having the guts to throw it out there and let the world see the real you is terrifying, but overcoming that fear is true freedom. I’ve heard countless people retell stories of Jarst and his incredible freedom of expression is always the centerpiece. Nobody remembers the stupid jokes and nobody remembers the failures. But everyone respects the effort and the selflessness of going for it.

Does this look like a man who cares what you think?

The greatest people in history have failed, very publicly. The gumption to get up and carry on is the measure of the man or woman, and all successes are born out of first learning how to NOT do it.

You have no reason to not. Go out and do.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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