Mapping your inner landscape

One of many things I’m passionate about is a sport called orienteering. My intention in writing this chapter isn’t to give you a full introduction to this amazing pursuit, but I believe a short explanation could be beneficial. Here’s a summary I found on the website for the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club (RMOC).

“You use a map and compass to locate a series of checkpoints shown on a specialized topographic map. You choose the route, either on- or off-trail, that will help you find all the checkpoints and get to the finish line in the shortest amount of time. Each checkpoint (or ‘control’) is a distinct mapped feature such as a trail junction, a boulder, a hilltop, etc. The controls are marked with orange-and-white flags. Orienteering is often called ‘the thinking sport’ because it requires map reading, problem solving and quick decision-making skills in addition to athletic ability and general physical fitness.”

After moving from Switzerland to the United States, I’ve made Denver my home base between 2014 and 2016. The main reason is that my beloved partner Eunjung has lived here since 2000, when she moved from California to Colorado. I find some similarities between Switzerland and Colorado, especially when I spend time outside in nature.

There are high mountains (58 in Colorado with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet, and 24 in Switzerland above 13,000 feet) and many lakes. Colorado is home to more than 2,000 natural lakes, reservoirs and enough rivers to keep any water-lover happy. Switzerland, too, boasts several thousand lakes.

After my move to Denver, Eunjung and I went for many hikes and excursions in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. From the very beginning, I thought some of the areas I’d seen would provide excellent terrain and landscapes for orienteering, and imagined how wonderful it would be to create some maps here. I asked a friend from Switzerland, with whom I’d collaborated on several map projects, if he knew how I could find an orienteering club here and I also did some online research. That’s how I found RMOC two years ago.

After the initial meeting with Doug, the president of the club, we decided to go ahead and have me start creating some maps for them. I first mapped a 1,360-acre (5,5 km2) area called “White Ranch,” an open-space park near Golden, Colorado. Last autumn I finished another, even larger, map project entailing 2,340 acres (9,4 km2) and covering the area of “Tahosa” near Nederland, Colorado.

Orienteering maps are among the most detailed topographic maps available. Although they are somewhat similar to standard topographic or hiking trail maps, they are bigger (at finer scale, usually 1:10,000 or 1:15,000), have more mapped features and are much more accurate and up-to-date. These maps take a substantial amount of time, sophisticated skills and extensive experience to make. They incorporate a standard symbology designed to be useful to anyone, regardless of their language.

In addition to indicating the topography of the terrain with contour lines, orienteering maps show an array of significant features: forest density, water features, clearings, trails, roads, earthen banks, rock walls, ditches, wells, pits, fences, power lines, buildings and boulders. For a map to be reliable, accuracy is essential. It needs to be relevant to a competitor by showing the lay of the land in neither too much nor too little detail.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps. From a very early age, when I looked at a world map I imagined how exciting it would be to travel to other countries and explore other parts of the world. So far I’ve been to 35 countries, and I don’t think there has been a single country I haven’t looked at from the perspective of a mapper. When I later began studying geography at school, I spent many hours poring over the atlas and, most of all, kept looking at all those beautiful maps from all over the world.

My parents chose to live in a place close to nature with a nearby forest, so that my brother and I could play outside in nature instead of watching too much TV or playing computer games. From a very young age I was an excellent runner, especially in longer distances, and was known as the youngest organizer of a running competition called “Studweidlauf” in Switzerland. What started with 19 runners in the first race in 1985 grew into a large event, with about 300 kids running in 1994.

While I always found freedom when I went for a run, I felt a little bored just running on streets or on hiking trails. At age 12, I discovered orienteering. I did my first orienteering competition together with my brother, without having had any proper training in how to read such a map before. Before we started I was convinced it would be no problem at all, because we were both fast runners and had already spent many years playing in forests.

The first experience was devastating: it took us more than an hour and a half to complete a short 3K course. We got lost many times – even though the course was in a forest with many trails and was designed for beginners – and we both fell into a swamp hole. When we finally reached the finish line, we were covered from head to toe with mud and the organizers were already taking down everything.

It was late fall, so it got dark early. We were the last to arrive and, with our mother waiting for us at the finish with increasing concern, the organizers were just about to start searching for us. My ambition was triggered, though, and the following year I decided to take a weeklong orienteering course to properly learn everything needed to have a better experience while out in the forest.

Shortly afterwards, I took my first steps in mapping. Again, at first I had no proper training and no introduction. I was basically working without any base map; I just used a blank piece of paper and a pencil, plus my compass. I first started to map our neighborhood and areas near my school, plus some tiny sections of forests near the Swiss town of Spiez where I grew up.

My enthusiasm for mapping was noticed in the orienteering club I belonged to. In the summer of 1991, at age 15, I joined a more experienced friend in drafting the first “official” map of the forest I’d always played in and explored with my brother.

It took me more than 60 hours to map an area of about 123 acres (0.5 km2) where now, depending on the level of detail and the complexity of the landscape, it takes me about 30 to 40 hours to accomplish fieldwork for 250 acres (1 km2). No matter how long it took me 25 years ago, my fascination for creating this kind of map was born.

Since then, I’ve mapped about 20 different terrains, culminating in my project at Tahosa I finished in October 2016. This undertaking was extraordinary for many reasons.

First, it lies at a very high altitude. The area I mapped is located between 8,600 and 9,700 feet, and is the most spectacular setting for mapping or orienteering I have undertaken. There is a lot of variety: mainly gorgeous and open mountain forest, some dense vegetation, some swampy areas and only a few hiking trails. The terrain is very pristine and features magical areas with little mountain lakes.

One of the main reasons why RMOC decided to go ahead with this map project is that it’s located at the Tahosa High Adventure Alpine Base of the Boy Scouts of America. The facilities at Tahosa range from rustic campsites to buildings from the 1800s that have been renovated with more modern conveniences.

The remote location provides a wilderness setting ideal for stargazing, hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, fishing and many other activities. For other mapping projects, I always had to drive to the terrain I mapped and then drive back home. This time, however, I could stay in one of the small cabins and just get out of the cabin and start mapping.  

To accomplish this project, a 2,340-acre (9,5 km2) field survey, I was out in wilderness for a total of 290 hours, divided by 40 days and 11 stays. I had profound experiences while sharing the land with wildlife, or more appropriately, while wildlife shared their home with me.

Because the area is so remote and high up in the mountains, wildlife included animals like moose, elk, bears and mountain lions. Of course, I’d experienced many previous encounters with animals while mapping for other projects, but this was a more intense, higher-level situation.

I’m grateful all went well for the duration of my fieldwork, although twice I had an encounter with a male elk ready to charge at me – a terrifying proposition in the middle of mating season – and had another hair-raising encounter with a moose in one of the denser swampy areas.

The day before my last day of fieldwork, I suddenly heard a very loud sound coming from nearby. It almost sounded like a dinosaur roaring in one of the Jurassic Park movies. I had goosebumps all over, and could sense that this moose didn’t like having me in its territory.

I did what I’ve been told to do in such situations: run away as fast as I can and look for a big tree or rock where I can hide. You don’t do this in all animal encounters in wilderness; for example, if you see a bear or mountain lion, you need to stand your ground and make yourself bigger. But in the case of moose, there’s no chance you’ll win by doing that.

On a lighter note, I also saw many smaller, cuter animals like birds, rabbits and squirrels. They were very curious about what I was doing, and we became friends over time.

The title of this chapter is “Mapping Your Inner Landscape.” While working on this project, I mapped what I thought would be useful to people in the future who will try to find their way through the terrain. As I continued my work, it became increasingly obvious that I was simultaneously creating a map of my inner landscape.

I think everyone who’s spent an extended period of time alone in a remote wilderness setting would agree that you become very raw and naked. The experience was similar to a walking meditation.

As the mapping project progressed I became more and more aware of my thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. With no one else around, I grew more conscious of my inner and outer environment. It’s harder to have this type of experience when you’re in a city, because there’s so much distraction and so many others sharing the space.

I mentioned earlier that orienteering maps show many details. In the same way we become increasingly aware of our surroundings when we spend time in nature, we can symbolically find similar aspects in what I like to call our “inner landscape.”

For example, you must sometimes climb over (or find a way around) huge obstacles when you try to accomplish a goal. You may come to a crossroads on your path where you must decide where to go next, or meet others who’ve put fences around what they think is their territory.

On the other hand, you may discover new ditches, wells and other resources in yourself and others. We experience a lot of joy and gratitude when we are guided or guide ourselves to clearings and openings when walking a new trail on our life’s journey.

Today, just before I started writing this chapter, I came upon the following quote by Rod Stryker, who I have the good fortune to study with since last year. He’s widely considered one of the pre-eminent yoga and meditation teachers in the United States.

“Our world is getting more and more complicated. And as it gets more complicated, we have fewer answers for the difficulties that we are going through. That’s a beautiful thing because it’s forcing us to look more deeply at what is truth and what is real. We are being forced to go deeper, and to ask the right questions… about who we are, about what our nature with the world is, and how we can unveil this mystery of what it means to have a life, and to be a full person.”

Before you read on, I invite you to reflect a moment on the following three questions inspired by the above quote and my recent mapping project in the Rocky Mountains:

  • How often (a day, a week, a year) do I stop my activities and become aware of what my inner landscape looks, sounds, and feels like? 
  • How often do I stop to recognize both the immense beauty and the denser and swampier aspects of my inner landscape?  
  • How often do I truly recognize the inner landscape of someone I share a moment with, or walk with for a stretch of my life’s journey?

After you find some answers to these questions and, ideally, also write them down, take some more time to reflect on these questions:

  • What is true and real for me?
  • Where do I come from?
  • Where do I choose to go?
  • What route choices are presented to me?
  • What kind of checkpoints (or controls) are there for me?
  • What kind of checkpoints do I want to leave for others?
  • Where (and who) am I in this very moment?

While I worked on this latest mapping project I once got lost, ending up in an entirely different section of forest than the area I had demarked on my base map. It took me quite a while to find my way back out. After I tried unsuccessfully to find my way back to one of the small mountain lakes I had mapped just the day before, all I could do was take my compass and head north until I hit the next hiking trail about 40 minutes later.

When I look at my inner landscape, I realize I’ve also gotten lost throughout my life’s journey a few times, and it has sometimes taken me way longer than 40 minutes to find my way back. This is one of the reasons I feel so passionate about creating maps for others to help them find their way through a terrain, or helping others to create maps of their inner landscapes through my work as a life coach.

So far, I’ve only written about the two main requirements to accomplish a map project. The first is fieldwork or land survey, and the second is the actual design of a map. When it comes to creating an orienteering map, I have an established process.

I start by scanning the extensive handwritten notes I’ve made in the forest. I then incorporate them into the design of an actual map, which I create with the help of a special program called OCAD. This company was founded and is based in my homeland of Switzerland. Since working myself with a much earlier version of the program in 1993, there have been many updates on the software.

Whenever people ask me what is fascinating me about creating these kind of maps, I always respond that creating a map is just like “putting nature into art.” I probably spend more time on a nice design and layout than many other mappers, because I always really appreciate orienteering with a map of good readability. It also helps me trust the mapmaker more.

At this point, you may be wondering how all this relates to your current life situation. How, you may ask, does this relate to mapping my inner landscape?

We’re all born with certain gifts and talents to share with the world, and they’re related to our life purpose. Once you start doing the inner work and get more clarity on your life map – which can be seen as a guide to your life purpose – the next question is how can you further refine and express your unique gifts and talents.

Once you’ve mapped your inner landscape, it becomes an art to discover how best to communicate and express your gifts. As you put more time, energy and other resources into sharing them with the world, more opportunities arise calling for your unique contribution.

Whatever your passions, you share them with the world, symbolically speaking, through creative and artistic expression.

Sometimes I marvel at how I managed to map for 8 to 9 hours a day, up to 7 days in a row, during this project. All the while, I was working at an extremely high altitude. Keeping myself fit began with staying hydrated, which was very important. I drank up to 6 liters of water a day. Meanwhile, I was being nourished by the energy I received from the pristine setting, teeming with plants and animals.

I’d like to conclude by sharing about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” which is scientifically proven to improve health. A fascinating article I came across offers compelling evidence of the benefits of “eco-therapy.”

The practice of forest bathing has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.

Forest bathing – which is basically just being in the presence of trees – became part of a national public health program in Japan 36 years ago. If you’re interested, you can read the entire article at

At the end of the article, there’s a description of a great practice I’ve tried a couple times and have taught some of my clients to do. I’d like to take this opportunity to share it with you.

Simply pick up a rock at the beginning of your next nature walk, put a problem in the rock and drop it.

If you believe at this point of your walk that you can’t drop your problem so easily, you can always pick up your troubles again on your way back. However, after spending some time in nature, people rarely do.

To start mapping your inner landscape and unveil the mystery of what it means to have a life, take some time to connect with nature. Then, try asking yourself the questions I mentioned earlier in this chapter. Write your answers down and share your experiences and insights with others, like I do today.



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