Showing up is (more than) half the battle!

I recently joined the board of the Cascades Mountaineers in Bend, OR and have been helping expand the reach to draw in new members and breath new life into an awesome organization. We are using Meetup.com to post events and make it easier for the volunteers to manage RSVPs and event changes.

I received a one email in particular that stands out from a woman interested in joining one of our monthly social climbs at the Bend Rock Gym – an opportunity to meet other climbers and get to know them in a low-key indoor environment. We’ll call her “Norma.”

Norma said she REALLY wanted to learn to rock climb and asked if we would be welcoming of beginners. I said “Of course! We have climbers of all abilities and those of us who are more experienced still remember what it was like to be a beginner.” She RSVP’d “yes” and then did not show up.

The next event rolled around and Norma reached out again asking, “I’m in my 60s and I’m worried I’ll be the oldest one there. I want to have new adventures and meet new people. Will I fit in?” I responded, “Of course! We have a wide range of ages who participate in the Cascade Mountaineers. Age is no barrier and in fact, I recently climbed a tough mountain with a friend who is 73.” Norma RSVP’d “yes” but then did not show up again.

Norma was interested enough to reach out, express her interest, and even express her concerns…but she let her fears hold her back.

Let’s deconstruct her fears. It was clear she was afraid she would be judged as a beginner and as an older climber.

If an organizer inaccurately described an event as beginner friendly, it would be the organizer’s error, not the attendee’s error, if the event really wasn’t beginner friendly. But how many people do you know would truly alienate someone new who was eager to learn?

I have climbed with men and women as young as 20 and as old as 73 and all were great experiences. As someone smack dab in the middle (at 40), I have no issues about my age or others’ ages as climbers. Yet, when I assured Norma that her age was not an issue based on the demographics of the club and the attitude of climbers generally, she still did not show up. Sure, it’s theoretically possible she could have been the only 60 year old in a group of 20 year olds, but she might have just been that much more welcome as someone who could provide inspiration to young folks.

Check out this incredibly intimidating group of people!

Check out this incredibly intimidating group of people!

Is it possible that she could have shown up to an event and found herself alone in a group of elitist a$$holes? Sure, it’s possible, but truly, how likely is that? Clubs are formed to help build community, volunteers donate their time to help others and share the love of the activity, and events are designed to enable people to get to know each other.

Norma failed only herself by not showing up. The risk was that she could potentially be rejected by a new group of people. The reward could have been the resolution of her aspiration to try climbing, and perhaps even discover that she was good at it and enjoyed it.  In the end, she felt the risk was greater than the reward.  Would you agree?

How are you holding yourself back? What are you wishing you could do or try, but you keep sabotaging yourself by failing to show up? What happens if you try by showing up, even just once?

Think about it.

SIX SIMPLE SECRETS OF HAPPINESS – Observations of a Wilderness Guide

Adventure travel is a fantastic way to see the world, get in on the ground floor to interact with locals, shake up your preconceived notions of what was possible, and bond with your travel partners. It’s also a fantastic study in human behavior, and I now feel that I can pick out a generally happy person within minutes of meeting them simply by seeing what they comment on when we first meet. Watching how they interact with others, how they approach obstacles, and how they treat themselves provides inside into the secrets of happy people.

1. Be Kind to Others
Those who are kind to others are the happiest by far. Their genuine concern often outweighs their own concern for themselves. You will find that others really react differently and will go out of their way to help someone who is warm and kind. Sometimes our culture idolizes strength and dominance, but most people don’t like to be on the receiving end of dominance.

Imagine you meet a stranger who immediately barks an order at you. You bristle because they seem to have a sense of entitlement that you should help them and they seem to believe they are so superior that they have the right to ask for help without any consideration for your feelings.

Now imagine you meet a stranger who says “Hey there, sorry to trouble you, but would you be able to help me with xyz?” They immediately give several impressions – 1) that they don’t assume it’s your job (even though sometimes it might be), 2) that you are gracious, and 3) you leave them some room to say they don’t know or to direct you to someone else. My experience around the world in many different cultures, is that this approach is far more effective to get things done, make friends, and garner support. You don’t ALWAYS have to be standing up for yourself, at least not until you have a REAL problem.

Learn your porters names!  They are people, too.

Learn your porters names! They are people, too.

I make a real effort to learn the names of everyone that works for me on my international trips, even when we have 10 porters with challenging local names, as well as key words and phrases in their native tongue to express appreciation. Small gestures, but I think some of these folks are not used to kindness from foreigners, so it can go a looooong way.

2. Be Grateful for What You Have
The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that wealth has a real dark side. In some of the poorest countries and regions, I have seen families that were all smiles and giggles when together, porters carrying heavy loads that were willing to bust into dance with me without an iota of self-consciousness, and young children playing with soda bottle caps with great delight.

Happiness is a state of mind, not a state of material accumulation.

Wealth, and the pursuit of wealth, seems to breed an unhealthy desire for perfect…whether in the structure of our lives, our partners, our clothes, even our food. Even though something may be so darn good already, there is always room for improvement, right? Just 5lbs less. Just a nicer car. Just a better apartment. Then I will be happy.

I have seen many clients ask for lots of customization with their meals in developing countries to make their culinary experience perfect (despite my warnings – generally these kinds of requests can be confusing and well meaning staff will get it wrong). When that meal wasn’t prepared exactly as they expected, they will often proclaim, “Oh! If ONLY it didn’t have the xyz ingredient, THEN it would have been perfect.” And they can be greatly unhappy with imperfection of a single meal and that unhappiness amazingly can seem to last for hours!

International trips are very perspective resetting.  When I return home, I always have renewed gratitude for a comfortable bed to sleep in, a safe environment, consistent electricity, and faucet water that I can drink and bathe in without a care.  We are very fortunate here in America.

3. Respect other Cultures
Other cultures are around us every day, you don’t have to cross any major seas to experience them. There are different ethnic groups, religious groups, differences across regions and even cities, and even gender can be considered a culture in my opinion. There are MANY different ways to react, to process, to address people and situations based on your cultural reference point. It can be quite jarring to barrel into a situation with your own perspective and no consideration for another’s.

In Tanzania and Nepal, it’s considered shocking for both men and women to show skin, many clients will ask again and again if it’s REALLY not OK to wear tank tops and shorts because they REALLY want to wear them. I feel as if I’m an overly strict parent by insisting that we respect the local cultures when I turn them down repeatedly. They are still adults and can do what they want, but I will not give my blessing. Why should we show up in someone else’s home and do things that are considered offensive?

Hanging with a family deep in the Makalu Barun region of Nepal

Hanging with a family deep in the Makalu Barun region of Nepal

Tread lightly, ask questions, try to understand, and where you cannot understand, try to respect…you might just learn something and others will react more positively to you. At the very least, you will not leave a trail of shock and dismay for your behavior.

4. Take Care of Yourself
Marytrism is a bad deal for you and everyone else around you. If you don’t take care of yourself, you become tired, cranky, overworked and generally unpleasant to be around. This is one of my greatest challenge areas that I’m working on. Even the simple act of doing a 10 minute meditation before starting my day on Kilimanjaro helped me feel far more focused and present. I have a great morning mediation from my coach, Gregg Swanson, which asks you to focus on ONE thing you want to accomplish that day. If we just accomplish one important thing each day, it’s amazing how far you can get.

When I was on Kili, every day I focused on being present and being kind to my clients. Sound weird that I’m talking about taking care of myself by focusing on my clients? It can actually be quite challenging on such a physically demanding peak to take care of yourself and be physically and mentally available to your clients. Their anxiety can be high and both the best and worst can come out of people on trips where they are far out of their comfort zone. In order to take care of them, I set aside time each morning alone in my tent to gather and focus my energy on them.

Working on my Zen on Kilimanjaro

Working on my Zen on Kilimanjaro

I give a big lecture at the beginning of each trip about how are are all a team now and have to support each other to meet our desired objective, but that a team is comprised of individuals who each need to take care of themselves to first in order to contribute to the team. Despite this, many and especially women, have great difficulty stopping a group to take care of something personal. Once such woman, after hiking down a very rugged section after the Lava Tower on Kili said, “I’m really hot and need to take off my jacket.” I said, “OK, let’s do it now before you overheat.” She protested, we hiked for 20 paces, and then she complained again of being hot. This time her tentmate said, “So why don’t we stop and take care of it?” She protested again, we hiked another 20 paces when she said something once more. This time I stopped and said, “OK, we need to address this now. Everyone take a break here.” Her response flabbergasted me – “Ha! I knew if I said something a third time, you would be willing to stop.” Far less drama and internal dialogue would have been necessary if she had simply stopped on her own. You don’t need to ask permission three times and receive a satisfactory answer in order to take care of yourself.

For more about putting your own oxygen mask on first…”Serious Self-Care.”

5. Avoid Blaming Others
It’s so easy to find fault in others or a situation if you are looking for it. Always having your negative radar on can be a major obstacle to happiness. This was very evident on one trip to Italy. Several of the clients had not read their materials nor heeded my advice to add stairs and stepmill machine to their training to prepare for their trip. I told each one over the phone that previous clients had said there were more stairs than they had expected (hence my recommendation to add stair workouts to their training). Once we were on the trip, several expressed concern about hiking along sea cliffs, the amount of stairs, and the warm weather. They were disappointed that I had not properly warned them.

We had numerous discussions about how the materials should be changed to properly warn people (although I was certain the materials did a good job, the customer is always right so I entertained all of their suggestions.) After the trip, I did a thorough review of the materials. Sure enough, there are descriptions of hiking up and down rugged trails, sea cliffs, numerous stone stairs and stair switchbacks, and suggestions to be prepared for hiking for 4-6 hours in hot weather. It’s easy to find fault when you are looking for it, whether or not it is there.

Instead, they probably would have had a much better time if they said, “Wow! Look at these glorious blue skies and sunshine we have and are blessed not to have any rain. And what a great workout hiking along dramatic sea cliffs so that I won’t feel guilty about my espresso, gelato, wine, and elaborate multi-course dinners.” Same experience with a different perspective can make all the difference in your happiness.

Hiking along sea cliffs

Hiking along sea cliffs

Beautiful village of Vernazza

Beautiful village of Vernazza

At the same time, you can’t be too hard on yourself. So what if you missed something or forgot something important…usually the only thing that’s the end of the world is death (and maybe a lost passport)! Things can be replaced or borrowed, schedule mishaps can be fixed, hikes can be cut short, meals can be reordered, miscommunications with friends can be repaired. So don’t blame others for your mistakes, but don’t blame yourself either. Just recognize the mistake, try to fix it, learn from it, and move on. You, and everyone around you, will have a much better time as a result!

6. Anxiety is Not Your Friend
Bad things happen whether you send countless hours worrying about them or not (and so do good things!!!). If you are afraid of flying, the plane probably isn’t going to crash and you may have spent 5 hours in agony worrying about it. And if you are worried that not worrying about a crash could actually cause a crash, let me assure you that your thoughts have little impact on the successful or unsuccessful outcome of a flight!

I have seen a lot of anxiety on the trips I have led around the world. Typically, what happens on a trip happens regardless of any one person’s worries. And often, when bad things happen, they are not so bad and are truly unexpected. It’s one of the great lessons that adventure travel teaches you – you can never be completely attached to an outcome, and you have to be mentally prepared for many obstacles along the way. This makes it all that much sweeter when you achieve your goal!

Being mentally prepared for obstacles and worrying about obstacles are miles apart. Being mentally prepared involves strength, flexibility, and a presence of mind to remain calm and think about options to solve an issue, as well as the awareness and acceptance that not all problems are solvable. Anxiety is a focus of energy on the thing you are most worried about happening, and in the end it often results in not being mentally prepared for any host of other things that many happen – your mind is far from a state of calm and focus.

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro from Mt Meru

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro from Mt Meru

Another story from Kili involves a woman who was incredibly fit and physically prepared for the trip, yet her anxiety level was off the hook. Her mind kept going straight to the summit, all the things that could go wrong along the way, and what she would have to say to people back home if she didn’t make it. Each night we did breathing exercises and a pep talk about how the only thing she had to worry about was putting one step in front of another each day. In contrast, another client was far less physically fit and was really challenged by the hiking each day. But she had no expectations about summitting, enjoyed the experience, and never stopped smiling. Every step and every day was a great gift.

In the end, they both summitted, but who do you think had a better time?  This is how I prefer to approach a big peak…If you can’t have fun and be kind along the way, it truly may not be worth it.  :-)

Found! (The Epilogue to Lost)

Within days before performing the piece “Lost” for the First Speak storytelling series at the Tin Pan Theatre, I climbed Mt Hood. I still performed the piece intact as it tells the story of how much climbing provides community, satisfaction and even validation…but at that moment, I had already been found…


The climbing season on Hood was nearly over. Temps were increasing, crevasses widening, fumaroles exposed, and rockfall increasing. Timberline Mountain guides, who are the exclusive climbing guides on Hood would be shutting down their operations in a matter of days.

I called my buddy Cliff, one of Timberline’s guides, to check on conditions and pick his brain. There was a short weather window, literally about 18 hours that was aligning perfectly between my crazy summer schedule and John’s schedule at the bike shop. Cliff said we should be fine. That there would be a nice boot track. In fact, we were able to get in on a friends and family deal (usually reserved for guided clients) and pay for the snow cat up to 8500ft, skipping the first 2500ft of slogging.

Now you might this this is “cheating,” and to some degree it felt that way. However, John had gotten up to 9 or 10k ft twice before and I had two false starts on Hood. The tough part is at the top, and that’s what we needed to surmount in order to calm the demons that unfinished business can conjure.

We drove up to Timberline Lodge’s overnight parking lot arriving around 8pm, and along with a handful of other determined souls, we tried to get a few hours of fitful sleep before waking at 12:15am and meeting the snowcat at 1am.

The snowcat driver was all business. “Sharps” (ice axes, trekking poles) get stashed in a cage on the outside of the cabin. We were warned of the prospect of the snowcat rolling and all signed a separate liability waiver just for the ride. The ride proved uneventful though and in about 20 minutes, we blasted up 2500ft ensuring we would be get a taste of real climbing quickly.

John and I were conscious to get ahead of the two guided rope teams (mostly so that they wouldn’t feel like we were just following in their footsteps and effectively skirting guiding fees). We were dialed, threw on our crampons, and set out with intention. I was nervous about my fitness level, so I employed the “one earbud” technique. It’s generally considered bad form to listen to an iPod while climbing with a partner in the middle of the night on a glacier, but I kept the volume down low enough so that I could still get a solid rhythm to follow and be able to hear my partner and stay aware of the specter of rockfall. It made me crank and we made solid progress.

There was another team we passed in a crevassed section who already looked wasted and it was barely 3am. “They’re not going to make it,” the little voice inside my head stated dispassionately. “I wonder what they think of me.” The last glaciated peak I attempted to climb was Makalu in Nepal in 2010. Four years out of practice makes you rusty. Injury makes you weak. Fear makes you tremble.

I was nervous and the echo in my head became deafening. I trepidatiously expressed my frustration with my nervousness to my partner who has cojones many times greater than my own. He admitted nervousness as well. Although John has a freakish level of fitness right off the couch, he’s experienced enough to know that if things go wrong on Hood, they can go really wrong. Remember those crevasses, fumaroles, and rockfall that I mentioned early? Add avalanches to that list earlier in the season. He’d gone up twice and turned around due to concern about avalanche conditions. Although I’m always the physically weaker of the two of us, I have more experience in that area. He wanted to come back with me to try to get ‘er done. His response didn’t inspire confidence, necessarily, but it did make me feel less alone in my nervousness.

Huge fumarole

Huge fumarole

We kept inching along, passing people, figuring out section by section, testing the waters…or the snow rather. We traversed north of the “Hogsback” to go straight up the “Old Chute.” A HUGE fumarole lurked at the bottom of the ascent up the Old Chute. A fall here could mean a deadly tumble into that fumarole. The climbing was not that tough, but that fumarole never vacated the back of my mind.

We began following a boot track that went straight up which makes the going a LOT easier. However, there were three crazy slow rope teams ahead of us who would not yield. We shifted right and began kicking in our own steps – exhausting work in these soft conditions. John took the lead and ended up kicking steps the entire way. Although he was doing the tough work of breaking trail, the snow was sugary and I still had to kick in a few more times to get good purchase with each step.

We passed the three rope teams and what we saw was astounding. Each team was roped together by some kind of hemp rope, the rope was tied around their waists (no harnesses), and they were carrying coils in their hands (providing no protection in case of a fall). No one was wearing a helmet. They were all clearly inexperienced except for the guy in the lead barking orders. No wonder Hood has a reputation for accidents due to its accessibility to the uninitiated. We wanted to put as much space between us and them as quickly as possible.

The chute got steeper and steeper. I knew some climbers rope up for the steepest parts and some people use two ice tools, especially when the snow is more firm. The slope really got my attention but I was comfortable forging forward front-pointing with one axe. We surmounted a slightly unnerving bouldery section with verglas (thin ice) in between the rocks to reach the crater rim right as dawn broke.

It was magical.

All those times when the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour, I think to myself EVERY time, “What the hell is wrong with you, girl???” But I muster the will to get up and get ready in the cold and dark. And then I am rewarded with this.

Easy part of the crater rim

Easy part of the crater rim

We made the mistake of roping up for the final section on the crater rim due to the big exposure (drop-offs) on each side. A guy died here a few weeks prior when a cornice on the north side of the rim broke. However, it was all reasonable scrambling and walking to the true summit to call Hood mine, so we wasted some time since it wasn’t necessary to bust out the rope.

I only took one summit photo holding a sign saying “Michelle was/will be here” for my mountaineering friend currently battling cancer. No need to dwell when the conditions were only going to get even softer now with the sun rising.

We reversed our steps to head back down the Old Chute. The temps began warming quickly and the snow was loosening up. It was becoming like weird chards of broken glass that wouldn’t hold your weight. I was gliding down with each step for a couple of feet before my weight would settle the snow. Unnerving but fast. Thankfully the snow firmed up a bit more after a few hundred feet.

The three rope teams were retreating without summitting. They were so nervous that they were going down backwards, facing into the slope, creeping along painfully slowly. We walked down facing forward, plunge stepping with increased confidence despite the fumarole lurking in direct sight.

Descending quickly

Descending quickly

The rest of the descent was uneventful until we reached the 8500ft. No snowcat now. We began to slog down the snowcat tracks when a lightning storm broke out on the horizon just a few miles away. So we began to jog toward the lightning, toward the safety of the lodge and civilization.

When it was all over, I was intensely satisfied. Mt Hood is a coveted objective and has turned around many seasoned mountaineers when the conditions weren’t right. But I was also left thinking, “Really, this is what I have been feeling so incomplete and lost about for the last four years?” It’s a funny thing how easy it is to take for granted what you have or what you can do, and how much you can yearn for it when you cannot. The human condition.

I’ve crossed Hood off my list.  And I am found again.

Fearlessness is Bullshit

“A rejection is just a re-direction in life.” – Jill Shapiro

The next time someone tells me they admire me because I’m fearless, I’m going to vomit. Don’t worry, it will be figurative, not literal. :-) It’s frustrating because many people seem to use it as an excuse. They are open to be inspired by someone they consider to be fearless, but they won’t apply that inspiration to their own personal situations. “Oh, he/she’s fearless, I couldn’t do that. I’m too afraid.”

There are truly few people who are actually fearless, and I would posit that they should NOT be admired. What’s so inspiring about someone doing something scary if they are devoid of fear???

I know how full of fear I am in all areas of my life. If I create a perception of being fearless, yet trying to convince others that “If I can do it, so can you!”, then I have completely failed. It’s difficult to identify with fearlessness. Why? Because fear is completely normal and human!

It’s precisely because I feel fear intensely, assess the risk, and then find a way to work through the fear that I can feel satisfaction and reward. When I was in college, I entered every single classroom assuming I was going to fail due to my lack of self-confidence, support network, and financial resources. However, I would focus on doing my very best at every assignment/test/paper, and I surprised myself by graduating first in my class.

When I first started rock climbing, both indoors and outdoors, I would tie in (connect the rope to my harness) and feel an intense wave of anxiety as I would walk up to a climb. That lasted for several YEARS, and sometimes I questioned why I kept coming back when the anxiety was so strong, but the sense of accomplishment of working through the fear to get to the top of a route far outweighed the discomfort of feeling that fear. Now that fear is completely gone as I was successful at desensitizing myself to it. However, I can still get “gripped” while lead climbing outdoors and am working on that primarily by controlling my breathing. So, no, I am still not fearless while climbing.

IS THE DANGER REAL OR PERCEIVED?

There are a couple of tricks to working through fear and keep it from holding you back from your dreams. The first trick is to find the peace of mind to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and say, “Wait, is this danger real or perceived?” You’ll often find it’s perceived. We are the ones that are paralyzed by fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of suffering. And if we work through it, things often work out just fine. When they don’t, such as when you bomb that presentation or don’t get that second date, no one else remembers it a year later.

When the danger is real, respect it. Fear can keep you alive. As the mountaineer/speaker/author Alison Levine says, “Fear is normal, it’s complacency that will kill you.” Fear is a totally valid human reaction to real danger.

Real danger - there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Real danger – there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Follow your intuition that that stranger might really mean you harm or that prospective work environment really could be toxic. I can’t even count how many times I’ve listed to my intuition in the mountains. Others around me might have thought I was wussing out, but my intuition told me the danger was real and I listened when the consequences were high. One such time was on Mt Whitney’s Mountaineers Route where I got the heebie jeebies on a slope and decided to turn around 700 ft from the top because I was concerned about avalanche danger when the temps rose later in the day. As we crossed that slope the second time on our retreat a little lower, I saw an extended crack in the snow. We practically ran across the rest of the slope. That’s REAL danger.

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney

WHAT’S THE BEST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN?

The second trick is to do the mental exercise of determining different scenarios. What’s the best thing that can happen if you take this risk? What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you continue to climb despite the fact that your toes are already numb and the temps are dropping, worse case is frostbite…maybe far worse. Best case is summitting your objective. Not an acceptable risk for me.

If you are afraid of telling that special person in your life how you feel about them, the worse case may be that you scare them off. Best case is that the feeling is mutual. How awesome would that be to find out that the feeling is mutual versus the prospect of finding out the hard truth that it is not? You’ll find the latter out sooner or later!

If you are worried about taking that new job, pitching to that new client, making the case for a promotion to your boss, what’s the best thing that can happen? You get the new job, client, promotion and have a chance in hell at being successful. Worst case is you have to work through rejection and focus on your next opportunity. Seems like a no brainer when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it?

POWER OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The third trick is to tell others and create accountability. Simply naming the fear makes it tangible and creates power to address it. Afraid of public speaking? Announce on Facebook that you are joining Toastmasters and want some partners in crime. Tell your friends that you are starting that new job search and they will keep asking you for progress reports. Make that standing weekly date at the climbing gym with a supportive partner. If you keep your fears locked away in your own head, it’s REALLY difficult. I always tell my climbing partners when I’m getting gripped on a route – they are well trained to shout encouragement and remind me to breathe.

Everyone has their own individual Achilles’ heels. I’m no longer really afraid of heights, of asking for what I want, of leading others in the backcountry, of delivering keynotes to large audiences, of taking risks with my career, but NOT because I’m fearless…because I’ve worked extensively through those fears consistently over YEARS. All of these things used to be REALLY tough and they are no longer.

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska?  Vulnerability

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska? Vulnerability

BUT I’m still working my fear of vulnerability and rejection. I’m confident in my skills, my abilities, and my potential to have positive impact on this world, especially in group situations. However, I am a really open, transparent, and giving person, and when I feel rejected or betrayed one on one, it can paralyze me with fear and a major gut reaction to pull back. Vulnerability and emotional pain to me is far more painful than any subzero temps I’ve endured, more draining than carrying the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried, and more intense that any unprepared bivy I’ve survived.

“Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we’re so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is the supreme creative act.” -Ram Dass

There are some good reasons for this based on my wacky family situation that cause me to continually seek ways of validating my self-worth and take things too personally. I’ve come to realize that’s my next frontier of fear. But just as with my history with heights, public speaking, career moves, guiding, I can chose let the fear rule me, to close down and protect myself…or I can continue to take risks, stay vulnerable, and potentially reap great rewards.

Even writing this publicly is the first step to naming the fear publicly and forcing accountability…I chose to consciously embrace vulnerability with other individuals.  Let the pain begin!  ;-)

What’s your Achilles heel? And what are you going to do about it?

Leadership Bones

I used to think I didn’t have a leadership bone in my body.

I was always a great student, worked hard, got top grades, but I was painfully shy and terrified of authority. My hard work helped me graduate first in my class from American University and then get into UC Berkeley’s business school, one of the best in the country.

But my fear of the limelight, fear of responsibility, and belief that I was not a leader persisted. Berkeley, and many graduate level programs, has a strong emphasis on leadership. If you are being groomed for management, leadership kind of goes hand in hand with having strong analytical skills. What good are good decision making skills if you can’t execute those decisions and create buy-in from your stakeholders, whether clients, employees, management, or investors?

I slipped into a high pressure and highly quantitative role after business school structuring esoteric collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Never you mind what exactly those are (they are less scary than they sound but evade a one sentence explanation), but suffice it to say, the work was very detail oriented and analytical. I enjoyed it and excelled at it.

Outside of work, I had been introduced to the world of mountaineering and was pursuing it with gusto. That’s a whole other story about how I got into climbing, but I discovered that I loved the sense of accomplishment that comes from selecting a difficult but achievable objective, researching it, preparing the logistics, training adequately for that particular climb, facing the obstacles that the mountain chooses to throw at you, and seemingly against all odds, making it to the top of a mountain and then back down safely.

Success on Kilimanjaro

Success on Kilimanjaro

I also had never been very athletic but found that some of my physical weaknesses became competitive advantages in the mountains. I’ve always been prone to easily overheat and become overexerted in warmer climates, but it turns out I have an above average tolerance for cold temperatures. I’ve always been very slow and steady, but it also turns out that slow and steady can translate into superior endurance and is the right way to help your body acclimatize at altitude.

 

FIRST ECUADOR EXPEDITION

After hiking Kilimanjaro (19.3 k ft) with success and completing a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course with Alpine Ascents, I decided to try my hand at the Ecuadorian volcanoes. Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo range from 18.3k ft to 20.5k ft…amazing that such high glaciated peaks can be found near the Equator! I went with Alpine Ascents again, one of the best mountaineering guiding outfits around. As usual, I was the only woman – 1 out of 9 men (6 clients, 3 guides/staff) for two weeks.

It was great. I don’t mind that environment as it’s only a matter of time before I offend the guys who are on their best behavior in my presence. :-)   However, our second acclimatization hike was really too tough for me physically. It was Imbabura, a tough hike with 5,500ft gain up to 15.2k ft. Most of the day was sunny, hot, and humid, but when we reached the summit by a section of exposed scrambling, all of the sudden the clouds closed in on the mountain top and we were all shook by a terrifying clap of thunder. Our helmets buzzed with the electricity in the air. The guides yelled, “Down! Down! Down!” and we practically ran down what we had delicately climbed up.

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

The sky opened up and let loose a torrent of hail which transitioned to rain as we descended. The volcanic ash soil turned to black, slick silt and we jogged down the mountain, bracing and falling and tumbling. I was absolutely wrecked from the hike and my quads were unreasonably sore. Bruce, one of the other clients, felt the same way, so we agreed to be on the same rope team for the first mountain, Cayambe. We attempted the climb but turned around early together to save ourselves for the gem, Cotopaxi.

Long story short, the only mountain I summited on that expedition was Imbabura and I learned a valuable lesson – no harm comes from conserving energy, but if you expend it all and overdo it, you may not be able to recover in time.

 

FINDING A NEW WAY IN MEXICO

I continued climbing peaks in California and Washington when I received an invitation to climb with my guide buddy Eric on an independent guided expedition to climb the highest peak in Mexico, Orizaba at 18.8k ft.

Although Eric is 6’2″ and freakishly strong, he has one of the slowest paces of any guide I know. He does it because he has the clients’ success and safety in mind. Typically, a Mexico volcanoes expedition would include both Orizaba and another high, glaciated peak called Iztacchihuatl, or “Izta” for short.  It was 17.2k ft high and Eric found that clients would be too burned out after trying Izta to be successful at the main objective, Orizaba.

Eric designed a more humane acclimitization schedule with Orizaba as the main prize.  Instead of pushing our limits on Izta, we would do two mellower mountains that would still incite the acclimatization process.  We hiked to the top of both La Malinche (14.6k ft) and Nevado de Toluca (15.4k ft) which were tough, good workouts, but did not destroy any of us.  All three of us clients, another woman from California and a French Canadian man, were successful reaching the summit of Orizaba.

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

I learned a valuable lesson about what works for me.  A much gentler acclimatization program with emphasis on not burning out before the primary objective helped ensure that the primary objective was met.

 

BACK TO ECUADOR WITH A NEW VISION

I hadn’t stopped thinking about Cotopaxi and wanted to go back. I mentioned the idea flippantly to my two climbing buddies, Jeff and John, who both jumped at the idea. I had never planned an international expedition before, especially not where I was the leader.

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

Jeff and John were great, they just said, “Tell us what to bring and we’ll bring it. Tell us where to show up and we’ll be there.” I leveraged my contacts, my new vision of what the itinerary should be, and my Spanish language skills. I developed a different itinerary where we would do 2 brand new hikes I had never done before (Pasochoa & Ruminahui) that weren’t as difficult but would provide exposure to high altitude. We would spend one night at the hut and practice on the glacier the next day before heading up to give ourselves yet another night at altitude without too much exertion.  Everything would be done with an eye toward maximizing acclimatization while minimizing exertion before attempting Cotopaxi.

I kept chuckling when the locals would start talking to Jeff and John in Spanish, assuming that the men would be in charge, of course. They would receive blank stares in return (Jeff and John knew how to order cerveza, but not much else) and then I would answer in my halfway decent Spanish, much to the locals’ surprise to see a small woman speaking for these two tall guys. While this was unusual, the locals also seemed to feel respected by a gringa speaking their language fairly well and out of mutual respect and interest.

At the climbing hut on Cotopaxi, the local guides also seemed surprised that I was “in charge” but I received nothing but respect there as well. Although the Latin culture has a reputation for being patriarchal, there are many men who respond positively to a woman who exudes confidence and demonstrates credibility.

I still remember cresting a final bump near the summit of Cotopaxi only to look down and see this frighteningly yawning crevasse below me. I yelled back to John, “Watch me!”, crossed it by gently placing each step on the snow-bridge spanning the crevasse, and began ascending the other side of the dip, passing a team waiting to go back down. As I passed by, one of the local guides said out-loud, “Un verdadero alpinista.” [Note that “alpinista” is a masculine noun despite ending in an “a” and being applied to a woman.]  That translates to “a true alpinist.” That remains the highest compliment I have ever received.

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater (photo credit: John Gray)

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater with me in the lead and Jeff in the middle (photo credit: John Gray)

What does this all have to do with leadership? Well, I discovered that in the right situation:

  1. I had the skills required to guide a group to making decisions that were appropriate for all of us and for the conditions.

  2. I had a vision! I had done this Ecuador expedition before, learned from it as well as the Mexican expedition to come back and do it another way that worked better for me and my team!

  3. I created a solid team. John and Jeff had the appropriate skill, gear, and demeanor. They both also respected my decision making and experience while providing their valuable input where they felt inspired to do so.

  4. I accepted help from my team. When I was suffering up the last 500 ft to the summit, John walked up to me and took a few things off my harness and pack to lighten my load. Even though I was the leader, the lighter load helped me feel stronger and our collective strength grew with John’s actions. Leaders do not have to be able to do it all!

  5. Even in environments like mountaineering in a developing Latin country (talk about a male dominated environment!), it is possible as a female to demand respect and credibility.

I began to believe that if I could successfully manage a leadership role in a high risk endeavor in a developing country with male teammates, there was no reason I couldn’t handle leadership roles in Corporate America…how might YOU be holding yourself back???

Lost

I performed this piece at the “First Speak” event at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR on May 31, 2014.  Watch or read below as I try to answer the age-old question, “Why do you climb?

I’m often asked to answer the age old question – “Why do you climb?” It’s a difficult question to answer adequately. I hesitate to speak for all mountain climbers of all styles, ages, and disciplines as it’s an intensely personal motivation. My automatic reaction to give the surface answer which never seems completely satisfactory to neither myself nor the questioner.

Yes, there is great satisfaction in meeting an objective, a natural discipline that must be summoned to train and prepare for greater and greater mountains, a camaraderie in the mountaineering community unlike that I’ve experienced elsewhere, the peace and focus of moving meditation, a deepening connection with and respect for nature.

…these are all valid reasons…

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

Ascending Mt Whitney with good friends

But none of these speak to the underlying DRIVE or REWARD to explain why the moving meditation or the satisfaction of physical challenge feed ME. Why do I feel drawn to the high mountains rather than trying to compete in triathlons or ski at resorts for example?

I think there’s some aspect of mountaineering that’s seems so extreme and remote to the “average” person…that once I realized I, “little ‘ole me”, could be competent in this environment, against all of my own and others preconceived notions, it felt even that much more impressive.

There’s something satisfying about actually BEING GOOD at something. Like, if you suck at golf, it’s not so pleasant to go out and try to play golf with your friends every weekend. But if you are decent or even excel, the reinforcement is confidence building.

I pretty much suck at everything physical.

I don’t have great motor skills or hand/eye coordination so I always suffered at sports like golf, tennis, or volleyball. I basically sat on the bench for any team sport or pulled the team down when I participated. I dabbled in adventure racing and mountain bike racing for a while, which appealed to me more than triathlons because they were more focused on backcountry activities rather than running or riding on roads, but I’m REALLY slow. Racing is kind of demoralizing to come in last, or if I’m lucky, second to last every time.

I discovered what my body is good at is endurance. As long as I go my pace and eat a little something every hour or so, I can go for hours…and I mean HOURS. I can just keep hiking and hiking and hiking. And that’s the primary ingredient for mountaineering. You also need to be able to carry a heavy pack and there are some technical aspects to climbing on different terrain like snow or glaciers, but it’s basically hiking up hill for hours and hours and hours. I have a surprising capacity for carrying loads uphill despite my stature, as long as it’s slowly.

I was smart and I methodically acquired skills over the years, learned from experts, and slowly progressed to more and more difficult, committing, remote, and lengthy climbs until my climbing “career” culminated in an attempt of Makalu, the 5th highest mountain on the planet.

I think if I were a man, 6’2″ and genetically gifted, mountaineering might actually feel less satisfying to me. I have to work hard, I have to train smart, I have to be strategic about how and with whom I climb…because it does not come naturally to ascend 5,000ft up steep snow slopes with over 50lbs on my back in weather that ranges from blizzard to heat wave. It’s NOT easy, but if I apply myself, train, prepare, focus, AND I make it to the summit, it feels like it was against all odds and I feel that much more impressed with myself.

BUT still, WHY do I need this kind of reinforcement, WHY does it feed me so much.

Without engaging the help of a psychologist to try to draw connections between the events of my childhood and my adult psyche, I still struggle to give a clear and meaningful answer but recently garnered some insight…

After three years of being on the sidelines of the mountaineering world, recovering from a stubborn knee injury and surgery, I’ve just begun tipping my toes back in the water and have set my sights on the Cascade mountains on our horizon, part of why I moved to Bend in the first place. Seeing those mountains day after day without climbing them is like being teased constantly.

I decided to focus on Mt Hood. Even though it’s the most impressive and the highest mountain in Oregon, it was still ONLY half as high as I’ve ever been. I know I’m out of shape and haven’t been hiking regularly for a long time, BUT it’s ONLY 5,000ft gain and only requires carrying a day pack. It’s steep but not ridiculous. I’m the mountaineer after all who has been to 23,000ft. This should be a realistic challenge to tip my toe back in the water to effectively day hike to 11,250ft.

Mt Hood

Mt Hood

I met some nice fellows through the Cascade Mountaineers club here in Bend who were planning an ascent of Hood. I called the trip leader, Frank, and explained my situation – “Yes, I have tons of experience. Yes, I do very well at altitude. Yes, my self-arrest skills are dialed, in fact I led a self-arrest clinic for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit in January. No, I don’t feel very fit and I’m worried about my ability to keep up with a group.”

Frank was understanding about my situation and was supportive and encouraging. I convinced him that if I had any trouble, I was self-sufficient and could turn around on my own.

The Wednesday before our climb, I met one of the other guys on the trip, Nathan. He was a young buck around 20 who was still in college. Sweet guy, but he said he had climbed North Sister the day before with a friend. North Sister. The mountain that some of the Cascades leaders were talking about trying with trepidation this season…

I joked with him and asked him, “Are you cool with climbing with someone twice your age?” and he asked back, “Are you OK with climbing with someone half your age?” I chuckled. He had a good sense of humor and said he was fine going any pace – he just wanted more experience.

Friday evening, I met Frank and the final member of our team, Bridger, to carpool. Bridger was a tall, handsome, young fellow. I would guess early twenties as well. I was thinking to myself…”Uh oh! TWO young bucks!” My anxiety level began to elevate.

We swapped stories on the 2.5 hr drive to Timberline Lodge. The plan was to sleep in our cars in the parking lot. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag on purpose because it seemed silly to use for three hours of non-sleeping. Instead I planned to bring my beefy super warm Denali-worthy down jacket to keep me warm for just a few hours. On every trip, it’s inevitable that you forget at least one item. This time it was my down jacket! So I lay in the back of Frank’s Subaru Outback with all my layers on, softly shivering.

Because I couldn’t sleep, the hamster wheel in my head was whirring. “Could I keep up? What about those gusts of wind hammering and rocking the Subaru? Would the young bucks be tolerant of my pace and rustiness? Would the weather hold? Do I have what it takes?” My anxiety grew to a deafening level and I could think of nothing else until our wake time of midnight.

I took myself back to a time in Ecuador where I and two of my buddies were attempting Cotopaxi, a glaciated peak that was 19.3kft. One of the guys was super fit and the other one had inadequate gear and needed to go faster to keep warm. To keep them happy, we had to go at a pace unsustainable for me and I nearly bailed at 1,000ft below the summit despite the fact that it was my second time traveling to Ecuador and all the training and planning that went into getting to that point.

I decided I would not even try to climb Mt Hood because I was convinced I did not have what it takes and that the pace would be too fast for me. Frank assured me it was the wrong reason not to go forward, “We want you on this climb!” I told him my anxiety was simply too great. They said they would miss me and headed out into the darkness. I jumped into Frank’s sleeping bag and while my body was happy with the newly acquired warmth, my heart was heavy.

After a couple hours of delicious sleep, I took myself to a leisurely and not-very-well-deserved hearty breakfast at Timberline Lodge. When I swung back by the cars, the boys had already returned. They were back so early that I was convinced they had had to turn around, but no! 9 hours door-to-door! I remarked, “Wow! Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t go with you! No way I could have done it in that amount of time!” They said, “No, we really wished you were there. The conditions were great. We went very slowly and surely. You could have done this.

I held back tears on the drive back to Bend but a few defiant ones snuck out and rolled down my cheeks. I was frustrated for myself for not even trying, for letting fear of the unknown keep me from knowing, for feeling like now maybe I don’t belong to the tribe of mountaineers. I did EXACTLY what I tell others not to do. I held myself back. I didn’t even try.

So why do I climb? Mountaineering defines me as a person. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think that should be the case, but it is. I am lost without it. A tortured soul wandering this Earth trying to find meaning and a place of belonging. If I am not a mountaineer, then who am I? To what tribe do I belong? How can I connect with this world? There is no neat resolution to this story…I will be lost until I find my way into the mountains again.

Never Give Up!

IgniteBend is a unique event where each presenter/performer only has 5 minutes on stage with 20 slides that rotate automatically every 15 seconds.  It’s fast-paced, fun, and very challenging.  I had to figure out what story or message I would share in just 5 minutes!  I chose my epic descent of Mt Sill (about which I also wrote for the Sierra Journal in 2009).  Below is the video and transcript of what I planned to say.  :-)

I travel around the country speaking about how to “Achieve Peak Performance,” telling tall tales from the mountains and how the lessons I learned transformed me as a person and a professional. The most influential trip out of all of them was Mt Sill’s Swiss Arête in California.

People often think that climbing is a really dangerous activity, but in my case it was mountain biking. I had a bad accident and managed to suffer a broken collarbone which needed a pin to hold the pieces together.

I was still recovering from the injury when my buddy, Jeff told me he was saving the Palisades Traverse for me as a birthday present – climbing 5 of the CA 14ers in one go. An endurance challenge along an impossibly long knife-edged ridge. How could I possibly say no?

I was out of shape and hadn’t carried a pack since before the accident, but I had been following 5.9’s in the gym, Jeff was willing to lead all the pitches, and I rationalized it didn’t matter how heavy the pack was if I could just go slow enough. Everyone needs a buddy like Jeff!

My pack ended up being the heaviest I had ever carried at 61#, nearly half my body weight, but I couldn’t complain as Jeff’s was 72# and weighing his pack actually broke our hanging scale!

The approach hike is 8 miles with a 3,000ft gain straight uphill to 11,000ft. We both suffered under the weight of our packs but made it to our new home at Sam Mack Meadow after 8 hours of hiking.

It’s difficult to describe the anticipation the night before a committing climb and you struggle to get everything prepared and get a restful night sleep. The wind howled all night as gusts up to 50mph as has been forecast. We woke at 2am, got ready in the cold and started hiking in the dark.

As we were climbing up the left flank of the Palisades Glacier, it was so cold in the shade with the high wind gusts that we were shivering even as we were hiking. We passed the high camp of another group of climbers who shouted, “You don’t know how bad it is up there!”

We reasoned that we could always turn around and go back to camp, but we had to see the conditions for ourselves. We reached the beginning of the rock climb at just over 13,000ft and got ready for the climbing to become more serious.

The climb is five long pitches (rope lengths) to the summit at 14,200ft. It’s moderate climbing but very strenuous in the altitude, and the high winds made for very chilly belays.

The crux, or the hardest part of the climb, is in the middle of the fourth pitch, past the point of no return. I reached over into a thin crack system, pulled backwards in a move that’s called a “layback” and I felt the searing pain of the pin blow through my shoulder.

I dropped and fell onto the rope, stunned and in pain, despondent that I knew something had gone terribly wrong but I still needed to get through the crux section. Adrenaline is an amazing thing and I still can’t remember how I got through the section to climb up to Jeff.

I told Jeff, “Jeff, we have a situation. I blew the pin in my shoulder. We need to get down and get me to a hospital. Don’t ask me about it again, I’m going to try to tune out the pain.” We still had one more pitch to climb upwards and reach the summit.

Jeff was eerily calm and just said, “OK” and got to work. It’s a scary feeling to be that high and know that you are so far from help. It’s important to be self-sufficient, and choose partners with whom you can work together to get out of emergencies.

We abandoned the goal of a full Palisades Traverse and began descending around Mt Sill, picking our way down carefully and looking for a faster non-standard descent route. The going was VERY slow as I was in pain and we had to try to find our way down an area about which we had no “beta” – climber speak for information.

We looked straight down several thousand feet and began a series of sketchy rappels. Around every corner, I thought “one mistake here, and we could both die.” We both kept that eerie calm when I started to slide on some ice and when Jeff dropped his backpack into the bergschrund.

There was no moonlight and could not find our way back to the climber’s trail back to camp. We had no choice but to spend the night out unprepared, spooning for warmth, hoping our significant others would forgive us as we did it for survival.

We spend the whole night awake and shivering, readjusting as our body parts kept going numb from cold and lack of circulation. We simply had to make it through the night and sunrise would guide us to food, water, and shelter back at camp.

We hiked all the way back down to the parking lot, grateful to be alive and in the grand scheme of things, unharmed. We found that the cars in the lot had been vandalized and my car had not escaped someone’s wrath. Instead of getting upset like I might usually at something like a parking ticket, we both gave thanks just to be back at the trailhead.

The accident and unplanned bivy taught me how to keep going in the face of adversity, when around every corner lies another seemingly impossible obstacle. Pick good partners, stay calm when the you-know-what hits the fan, and figure out what you need to do to keep going…and never give up!