Out of the Office: Beliefs, perceptions and the summits of Cooper Landing

I send photos from my hikes to family members, and this summer, my 3-year-old nephew had seen enough.

He complained the images were useless to him because they didn’t include signs or obvious trails. That meant he could never find those areas, so he requested a simple snapshot of my house instead.

And that got me thinking about July 4, 2000, and an interview I did with Leon Galbraith.

Galbraith, then a senior-to-be at Skyview High School, had just finished fourth in the Mount Marathon junior race in Seward.

I asked what he did to train for Mount Marathon while living in Cooper Landing, which has plenty of peaks but no trail signs on the highway to point the way skyward.

He gave me a bit of a quizzical look and said there’s plenty of mountains in Cooper Landing, specifically mentioning the trail up Slaughter Ridge.

Until my nephew registered his complaint all these years later, I let the moment quickly pass from memory because I had more pressing things on my mind.

I was about to make my debut in the men’s race, and while I’d done trail-sign ascents like Hope Point and Bird Ridge, both on Turnagain Arm, and Skyline, in the Mystery Hills, I hadn’t spent a second running mountains in Cooper Landing.

In hindsight, that provides a valuable lesson about how humans use a mix of beliefs and values to perceive the world around them.

According to “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own” by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, “Your mind operates via prediction. Perception is not a process of passive absorption, but of active construction.”

The cortex, where nearly all higher-order brain functions are carried out, has six layers of cells, with the lower areas taking in stimulus.

Stimulus doesn’t passively travel upward. The Blakeslees write that for every fiber carrying information up the hierarchy, there can be as many as 10 fibers carrying predictions and beliefs down the hierarchy.

“Many of your perceptions — what you see, hear, feel, and think is real — are profoundly shaped and influenced by your beliefs and expectations,” the Blakeslees write.

This method of operation — the constant melding of past experiences and beliefs with current stimulus — makes our brain exceptionally agile and powerful.

It’s why Roger Federer can do what Roger Federer does at Wimbledon while neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert points out in a 2011 TED Talk that pouring water into a glass without splashing any out constitutes a doctorate project at a top robotics institute.

But as my nephew shows, our brain has its pitfalls. He has already learned that hikes mean trails and signs. This will most likely end up being a deep-held belief that influences his perception.

One day, he might ask a runner who lives in an area surrounded by mountains how he or she trains for Mount Marathon, because the routes to none of those peaks appear in the book “55 Ways to the Wilderness.” None of those trails have signs.

It’s a haunting revelation. What else have I missed? What other deep-held beliefs about people or things — the way they look or act — have created a blind spot all these years?

I don’t know.

But what I do know, what I figured out about the mountains of Cooper Landing in my 20th summer on the peninsula, is that the empty vastness of Harding Icefield can be seen from the jumbled rocks atop Langille Mountain.

The bushwhacking, if you lose the trail on the way down from Axis Peak, involves trough after trough of devil’s club and great hordes of mosquitoes.

And the Cecil Rhodes traverse is the king hike of the peninsula.

Driving through Cooper Landing will never be the same. I know now it’s possible to train for Mount Marathon there.

Reach Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak at jeff.helminiak@peninsulaclarion.com.

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