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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What does this all have to do with leadership? Well, I discovered that in the right situation:
I had the skills required to guide a group to making decisions that were appropriate for all of us and for the conditions.
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!
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.
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!
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???