How Investing is Like Alpine Hiking (or Anything New)

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This post is a companion to my entry in the GoBankingRates #MoneyMinute video challenge (find it here – contest has ended).

Partly on a whim and partly as a ploy to find a pleasant way to get a workout together, I talked my husband into booking a European hiking trip for our 30th anniversary. Before we reserved our spots, we viewed the schedule and found it challenging but doable. A few weeks before our scheduled arrival in Les Houches, France, we received a guide that seasoned hikers would recognize as route notes. Within these notes were the hints of extreme challenge that we didn't have time to comprehend.

Call me misinformed and ignorant but I had no idea how difficult hiking in the Alps is. Nor did I realize how incredibly magnificent the views are. My stunning naiveté, combined with my delight at the outcome, reminds me of how an investor may feel at the beginning of an investing journey.

No matter how smart (or fit) I am, no matter how much I read or research, firsthand experience is the best instruction. While I can acquire knowledge, I'll most likely view this information from a blurry lens of inexperience. When I have field experience, the meaning of resources, whether an online map of Mont Blanc or a investing classic like The Intelligent Investor, become much clearer.

Really, we worked to get ready physically, mentally, and emotionally. Here are a few of the things I did:

  • Purchased and read Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide (Cicerone Guides), only to discover later that Tour du Mont Blanc (Trailblazer Guides) is more user-friendly and appropriate
  • Watched The Way about the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, Wild about the Pacific Crest Trail, and Mile Mile and a Half, a documentary covering the John Muir Trail to get better understanding of trail life (note: The Way provided the best insight into this hike; check Netflix offerings to view for free if possible)
  • Took numerous hiking trips, including an 18-mile trek
  • Studied French using Rosetta Stone materials (French is spoken in most of the communities we visited)
  • Discussed the trip with my husband and son, who had completed a wilderness backpacking trip at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico

Our hikes including outings on steep trails, rocky trails, a trail requiring 32 river crosses, long trails, and more. Though we didn't consider ourselves stellar hikers, we considered ourselves competent ones.

Further, I am reasonably fit. Earlier in the year, I had ridden 100 miles on my bicycle in less than 8 hours. I had run a 10K in less than an hour; and the next day, I hiked over 10 miles on Widow's Creek Trail, a steep trail in North Carolina. However, if Widow's Creek Trail (rated as a 5 in difficulty on a scale of 1 to 5, and considered strenuous) were transplanted to the Alps, it would likely be considered an easy path.

Still, we had no idea that Alpine hiking would involve long steep ascents and even steeper descents, often over rocky paths near sheer cliffs that required careful selection of every step. And we would not guess that the distances presented in field notes were most likely rough guesses or perhaps as the crow flies. A 10-mile day in the brochure, for example, was recorded as an 18-mile, 467-story walk in the Health app of my iPhone6.

TMB steep path

Now, I should also mention that I conducted research as best I could but didn't uncover details that could have been useful to our planning and preparation. Many of my Google searches landed me on pages referencing climbing Mont Blanc in a technical sense, not hiking or trekking.

Still, I realized that there was likely more to know. I anticipated that there would be surprises in our trip. But I didn't know the the precise types of problems I would encounter. I just knew that there is nothing like firsthand experience for true understanding.

True to my expectations, the first few days of our 100-mile hike were difficult as we became accustomed to the trail. This process was made more challenging by an problem with the booking of one of the first of our overnight stays (entrusted to an outfitter) in which we were assigned to a bunkbed in a mixed-gender dormitory instead of the promised hotel room.

However, there were many pleasant surprises. These included:

  • Ready availability of drinking water at nearly every hotel, village, and stop along the way
  • Outdoor picnicking and dining with magnificent views
  • Fabulous fresh food at refuges on the trail (brought by helicopter at the beginning of the season and replenished by foot throughout the season)
  • Unusually clear weather that benefitted the safety of our hike
  • Easy to follow signs that made following the trail simple
  • Relatively fast recovery from the first few days of strenuous hiking

And, serendipitiously, our teenage son was able to accompany us on this trip. He carried some of our supplies and managed the bulk of the navigation.

TMB Lac Blanc

As we hiked and became more familiar with the terrain and route-note tips, we began to understand how the trail worked. After a few days, we were able to travel much faster and derive more joy from our travels. On more than one occasion, we passed other slower (and most likely newer-to-the-Alps) hikers. Sometimes, I ran (Alpine running is a sport by the way). Throughout, we were astounded at the beauty as one spectacular view succeeded the next.

Similarly, investing is best learned through hands-on experience. And even though there are painful moments and times when I realize that the process is harder than first anticipated, I have begun to accumulate fresh insights from my experiences, get a better understanding of strategies, improve my performance, and enjoy the process more than I might have believed possible.

Here are some specific ways that investing can be like Alpine hiking:

  • Markets (mountains) have ups and downs, ascents and descents; I can't avoid them but I should make sure my plans and timeframe accommodate both
  • There are tools to help improve the experience (these may be investing newsletters, blogs, spreadsheets, maps, or expert advice)
  • Not every tool is helpful or needed but the right ones can make my efforts safer and more productive
  • Investing may not deliver the precise results intended but generally I should be better off having made the attempt than if I sat idly at home
  • A good sense of humor about failures makes the overall experience more fun; but I should still learn from my mistakes and keep improving
  • I'm be surprised at how quickly I learn and improve when I focus on continually building my knowledge and capabilities

My point is that I may not be able to conquer every nuance of investing or Alpine hiking or anything new from the start. Certainly I can prepare myself. But it's likely that I can't be perfect. Instead of berating myself for misunderstandings, I can enjoy the journey and drink in the views whether it took me an hour or several to reach them.

TMB on top of mountain

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