With little mountain-climbing experience under any of our belts, a few friends and I decided to take on Mount Elbert, Colorado’s tallest mountain. While regular climbers may not consider this “Gentle Giant” a tall task, it was for us inexperienced climbers.  Is investing your “tall task”? If so, you can learn a lot from our experiences. And you won’t have to climb a mountain to do it!

Develop a Plan

During the planning process for our mountain climb we researched online and spoke with several people who have experience with high altitude climbs. We learned the layout and terrain of our trail and the potential effects of altitude on the body as well as the importance of the time of day you begin, dressing correctly, and proper hydration and snacks. We even got a few training days in beforehand.

Similarly, you need to develop an investment plan before you jump into the market. 

Avoid Short Cuts

When climbing, you may be tempted to veer off part of the designated trail and take a shortcut to reach your destination quicker. Climbing straight up through switchbacks is more troublesome than it looks. While this strategy could potentially shorten your climb time, it could also introduce you to greater risk. Your shortcut could be steeper, rockier, or even unsuitable to use.

The same concept applies when you’re selecting investments. You may be tempted to chase returns or make quick gains by taking on more risk than your plan allows. While this strategy can succeed in certain scenarios—at least in the short run—I wouldn’t recommend using it on a regular basis. One bad move in taking on too much risk can have lasting effects on your long-term returns.

Take Self-Assessment Breaks Along the Way

When climbing in high altitudes you need to stop periodically to drink water and assess your body’s tolerance to the task at hand. Unexpected health events such as altitude sickness or a bad blister can happen. But they can often be avoided by periodic check-ups.

When investing, it’s important to review your portfolio on a regular basis. You want to make sure you aren’t taking on too much risk or that your investments aren’t too heavily weighted in one specific area. What if you get hit with a major unexpected expense? Proper assessments along the way, such as re-evaluating your emergency fund, can make it easier to absorb these unanticipated negative events and keep you moving forward.

Keep Focused on Your Long-Term Plan

This one may be the most difficult takeaway. A couple times during the hike doubt set in, and our group was unsure if we would reach the summit. One such time was when we hit a false summit on the mountain. A false summit is one that appears, as you are climbing beneath it, to be the pinnacle of the mountain. You reach it only to discover the summit is much higher.

We were warned about false summits before we began. But that didn’t make it any easier for us to overcome this psychological obstacle. The key for me in these more difficult moments of the climb was to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and not deviate from the game plan. 

This is similar to the short-term volatility we anticipate when investing in the stock market. Even when you know, prior to its occurrence, that a financially negative event is likely, it can still be difficult. It might be easy to think about pulling out of the market entirely. Looking back, the times we felt unsure on the trail would have been the worst times to quit because we were so close to getting through the tough parts. This is often the case when investing, as market volatility or downturns are often the worst times to sell out.

Summary

After pushing through some challenges and fatigue along the way, we managed to stick to our original plan.  We all reached the summit of Mount Elbert! The views from the top were breathtaking and the feeling of accomplishment was unmatched. If you stick to your investment plan and meet your retirement goals, you just might feel the same way.

Anthony Harcourt is a portfolio manager at Bedel Financial Consulting Inc. For more information, visit their website or email Anthony