The Power of Dreams

I have never cried so much on a trip before.  Every time I summited one of the three high peaks in the Rwenzoris range, aka the Mountains of the Moon, I was completely overcome by emotion, welling up inside so that I could not speak and had to take a moment to compose myself, lest others see.  

Climbing Mt Stanley, Mt Speke, and Mt Baker was literally a dream come true.  Most will scratch their heads.  Where are the Rwenzoris (and how do you even pronounce that)?  Why were you compelled to go there of all places?  Why can’t you stop adventuring and just sit still for a while?

A region so unknown, I could only find 3 maps available out of the UK

A region so unknown, I could only find 3 maps available out of the UK

I first heard about the Rwenzoris back in 2005, 10 years ago!  I was just getting into climbing and picked the brain of a local woman, Alison Levine, about mountaineering.  In addition to being a mountaineer and professional speaker, Alison also founded a non-profit called Climb High Foundation that trains women in Uganda to be guides and porters.  That mountain range was called the Rwenzoris.  I then heard my mountaineering role model, Arlene Blum, mention the Rwenzoris in one of her talks at REI Mountain View.  Finally, my amazing sports podiatrist’s wife, Debbie, mentioned that out of all the things they have done (and they have done a lot – things like the Marathon des Sables, Ecoquest, climbed Aconcagua, etc etc), the Rwenzoris were the most beautiful they had ever seen.  All roads lead to the Rwenzoris…

The Rwenzoris also just so happen to have 3 peaks at or above 16k ft high – Mt Stanley at 16,763ft, Mt Speke at 16,137ft, and Mt Baker at 15,988ft.  My passion is high altitude climbing, so this put the Rwenzoris at the top of my list despite the time/expense to get there.

I obsessed about the Rwenzoris nearly every year, this mountain range almost no one else had ever heard of, researching/plotting/planning until the perfect storm of opportunity arose…

Celebrating 40

For some reason, turning 40 hit me particularly hard and I still can’t quite put my finger on it.  It’s not just checking a new box for the age bracket categories.  It’s not that I suddenly looked or felt older from my last day as 39 or my first day as 40.  My clients, most of whom are older than me, call me things like “kiddo” which is kind of annoying, but I also secretly love.  I think it was more the disparity between the perception of someone in their 40s being mature and responsible and how I feel.  I still feel SO young inside – there is so much to learn about the world and people, so many places to explore, so much inner growth to pursue – that mature feels like a ridiculous word to embrace at this stage.

I turned 40 on a particularly challenging Call of the Wild trip in Italy – the hikes and the terrain were not what was particularly challenging (especially because gelato and espresso were inserted between hiking segments!).  It was the first time ever that I did not personally gel with a group (that’s the diplomatic way to put it).  I never mentioned my milestone birthday because I believed most of the clients would feel like it detracted from their vacation and high expectations.  The rest of the summer rushed by as I ran like a chicken with her head cut off from one trip to another.  Something inside me felt empty for not taking a moment to celebrate. 

I sat with this for months trying to decide what I could do that felt worth to me as a great celebration.  I noodled and I brainstormed.  I foolishly asked for feedback on Facebook for ideas (to which I got the response, “But didn’t you get to go to Italy for your birthday?” and “How about going wine tasting?”).  Only Linda Sun mentioned climbing BIG peaks…exactly what I had in mind but how?  The finances are tight since everything I have goes into the business and I didn’t have the staff support yet to truly leave and be out of touch for any period of time.    

But if I set constraints aside, the objective that met all my criteria to be worthy of a 40th celebration???  The Rwenzoris.

My Mother

My mother passed away when I was 12 and she was 40.  After decades of never discussing my mother or her death with those who raised me, I always had a deeply buried sadness about growing up motherless, but I felt like she loved us until the end.   I only learned 2 years ago, accidentally from an extended family member, that she committed suicide.  This kind of information hits you hard, even as an adult.  Suddenly I felt abandoned all over again.  I will never understand why she did it – what depths of despair and hopelessness that she experienced.  Every day and every year I now live will be longer than she did.  It’s in her memory that I am dedicated to living an epic life worth living.  One that is full of vitality and happiness and pain and disappointment – whatever comes my way from the choices I make.

Me and Mom

Turning 2 years old

 

This is why I feel an increased responsibility not to waste the precious time that I have on this planet. I have the opportunity to, hopefully, double her life experience if I live until 80…but anything can happen any day.  On the journey back home, a passenger died on the flight that Eszter and Chris were on.  We don’t have details about what happened, but essentially one moment a fellow was coming or going to a faraway destination, and he never woke up.  No one wants to die, and few get to chose how they go, but I am dedicated to make the most of the time I have.  Exploring a remote mountain range on the border of Uganda and the Congo sounded like a fantastic way to spend my time!

Making My Own Dreams a Priority

Many regularly express envy of my lifestyle – with good intentions, they say I am “living the dream” and wish they could do it, too.  Not only do they not see the sacrifices I have made to leave the corporate world and try to make this combination of vocation and passion work, they are truly not interested. It’s easier and more fun to put someone on a pedestal than feign interest in the reality – the reality behind running any small business regardless how sexy the product is.   

I won’t go on and on about those sacrifices (I’ve been told I’ll hear the smallest violin in the world playing), but the last 3 years I have been dedicated financially, physically, and spiritually to helping others dreams come while putting my own on hold.

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild

My personal dream is to climb – to have enough time and financial security to be able to take off a couple of times a year to do something BIG.  I’ve been cranky and pent up and downright bitchy at times focusing exclusively on others.  Climbing the three high peaks of Uganda was the realization of a nearly 10 year dream in the making – the perspective resetting impact of this trip is difficult to put into words.  Making my own dreams come true simply must be as important and making others’ dreams come true, too.

For me, climbing is to love, to live, even to forget and release.  It’s the purest celebration of life that I know – my own life and those who have gone before me.  To climb is to be whole, and I am feeling whole again…thanks to the Rwenzoris!

Another One Bites the Dust (but doesn’t have to)

EXPEDITION BUZZKILL

 

I came out of the Rwenzoris mountain range on the border of Uganda and the Congo completing the most successful personal expedition in over four years since a bad injury and surgery.  I was flying high as a kite. I completed one of the hardest treks in the world and climbed the three high peaks ranging from 16-17k ft high. “I’m back!  I was born to climb big mountains and I’m back!!!” was the refrain in my head…

 

Until I opened my email and saw the subject line:  “PathWrangler is CLOSING – March 21, 2015 (IMPORTANT!)”

 

My jaw dropped, heart stopped, and blood pressure spiked.  NOOOOOOOO!

 

The owner, Doug Heinz, is a good buddy of mine.  We worked together at Moody’s KMV in the quantitative fixed income analytics field in the mid-2000s, both of us going on to a few other jobs until ultimately fleeing the corporate world.

 

Doug started PathWrangler in 2010 with another buddy, Eric Remza, my favorite Alpine Ascents Intl guide who taught me all my early mountaineering foundation (legend has it they bumped into each other on the North side of Everest and found they knew me in common-I’d like to take credit for the birth of PathWrangler!).  I acquired Call of the Wild Adventures, Inc, adventure travel for women in 2012 to pursue my passion of empowering women through positive experiences in the outdoors.

 

PW front pageWHY PATHWRANGLER FUCKING ROCKS

 

I immediately made Call of the Wild a client of Pathwrangler, and as Doug tells me, one of his model clients in terms of fully embracing PW.  I didn’t become a client for Doug or Eric, I became a client because in the first few months of taking over the business I saw some MAJOR issues that were intense, costly administrative burdens that negatively impacted the client experience, including but not limited to:

 

    • Document control issues – Some people wanted pdfs so the formatting would look good.  Other clients didn’t have Adobe Acrobat and wanted Word versions.  Some had Macs and didn’t have Word on their computers. Version control was an issue…Buddha forbid you ever had to make a correction and send an updated document.  Staff would send the wrong ones, clients could never find the email with the right one.  We needed a universal format that people could access at any time and we could update simultaneously – PathWrangler does exactly that.

 

    • Improved gear list – Clients had long complained that the gear list didn’t have product recommendations.  We were challenged to provide meaningful recommendations and facilitate the research and purchase of appropriate gear.  I was so excited that PW allows for comments about each item on the gear list and we can even add direct links to the products that we could easily update.

 

    • Streamlined questions – Many clients have the same questions, or later they become frustrated to find out someone else asked a question from which they could have benefited.  The typical way to handle client questions is one on one email correspondence or phone calls, hopefully logging the answers that at some point should be distributed to the rest of the clients or incorporated into trip materials.  It’s time consuming and error prone.  With PW, we encourage clients to ask questions in the discussion area (and when they don’t we still post their question and the answer for all to see).  Everyone gets to benefit from that information.  Further, if a client asks a question that really should be in the official trip materials, we can easily and immediately add it to that trip’s overview section (without having to send out a new version of a document!).

 

    • Facilitating client communication – Not only do we encourage questions, we post who the clients are, where they are from, and encourage them to introduce themselves.  It’s totally optional to participate, and I would estimate around 75% of clients embrace this aspect.  They LOVE getting to know each other before a trip – it’s a great sign of success when a group already has inside jokes before they even show up on a trip!  Further, we are often asked to help facilitate carpooling, hotel sharing, etc between clients to help get their costs down and reduce the stress of traveling alone to a new place.  Due to liability and high administrative burden, we can’t get involved in these discussions, but the clients can have them on PW.  We have seen women indeed share rental car costs, hotels, even travel to other states to meet and train in preparation for some of our tougher trips.

 

    • Reminders – We love to post periodic reminders without flooding clients’ email inboxes. Once the trip is staffed, we post the guide bios and invite the guides so that they can get to know each other.  For trips that require training, we put reminders about where they should be with their program.  For trips with deadlines, such as procuring international visas, we can post reminders.  For international trips, we post travel recommendations 2 weeks before. All of these posts live in one place on the discussion forum so that the clients can see them at any time and don’t have to go back to an inbox to search for a needle in a haystack.

 

PW comments

The discussions are off the hook for Kilimanjaro 2015. Arranging training hikes and even weekend training trips. Tons of gear questions. Age comparisons with everyone vying for the title of the oldest. It’s also the first time I’ve been donned a trip nickname PRE-trip (“Excrement Expert” or E.E. for short) 🙂

I’ve already written too much about how PW makes our lives and those of our clients easier…but it’s critical to understand what a blow this email was.  I felt for Doug as I knew how hard he had worked over the last 5 years, how he was always available to service our account, how he had not paid himself and paid others from his shallow pockets because he believed in the value of PW.

 

 

But then I selfishly thought of the pain, time, and expense that myself and Call of the Wild were about to go through transitioning back to the old way of doing things, and I said, “You deserve this.”  Why would that be my first thought???

 

PATS ON THE BACK ARE NOT ENOUGH

 

Well meaning folks give entrepreneurs like myself and Doug lots of “pats on the back.”  You are amazing.  Your passion is infectious.  You are having positive impact on the world.  What’s it like to be your own boss?  Must be soooooo AMAZING.  Blah, blah, blah.

 

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because positive feedback is wonderful.  But in the end, we are running businesses.  And businesses need to be financially sustainable to survive.  Words don’t pay the bills or create profits.

 

I gave Doug lots of pats on the back as well and had often pondered calling Doug and saying, “You know, PW adds so much value to our business, I just don’t feel right paying a piddly $25/month.”  The pricing is based on number of users, and as we only have one admin, we are at the bottom of the pay scale.  However, PW is now an integral part of the way we service our customers and create community.  Even though our margins are as thin as the rest of the adventure travel industry, I would easily justify paying $200/mo, one of our higher monthly commitments.

 

But I never did it.

 

Now, faced with the closure of PW, I am banding together with my advisory board and other PW clients to donate bridge money to keep it open.  PW simple cannot die.  It has no competitors.  It has revolutionized my adventure travel business.  It can revolutionize others.  Doug is a great visionary who can execute.  I truly don’t have $$ to spare, my pockets are shallow as well, but where there is a will, there is a way.  I still have some retirement savings, and I’m pulling what I can to keep PW afloat.  I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

 

MAKE YOUR CHOICE NOW

 

What are you willing to do to support a person, an idea, a great business that simply must stay in existence?

 

Think about it.  Don’t be one of those people, for example, who laments the closure of some small business in your community because you chose to shop at Big Box retailers when it was more convenient.  Or one of those PW clients who is using the service for free but haven’t converted to a (crazy low monthly) paid subscription. “Oh, it was so sad to see them go.  I should have done my part to support them more.”

 

Don’t wait, do it now!  Put your money where your mouth is for the things you believe in.  Oh, yeah, and sign up for a Call of the Wild trip while you’re at it!  😉

 

PW My Trips

The Case for Women’s Awards

Last night was the inaugural Bend Chamber of Commerce Women of the Year Awards ceremony where I delivered a pre-taped mini-keynote (as I won’t be back from Uganda until March 20).  I wanted to share this here as well as it’s critical to highlight the importance of women’s awards and provide inspiration to others!

 

“Hello! I am Emilie Cortes and I run Call of the Wild Adventures, adventure travel for women, here locally in Bend.  I would be with you all tonight but I am currently 9,000 miles away at the moment.  On this day I will be attempting to climb, Mt Stanley, the highest peak in Uganda and the 3rd highest peak on the African continent at 16,743ft high.  I hope that’s a good excuse!

I was ecstatic when I was asked to serve as a judge for the Bend Chamber of Commerce first ever Women of the Year awards.  It’s so important to recognize when in our businesses and in our community who are standing out.  But why is it important to hold an event that’s focused exclusively on women?

First, it’s important to recognize trail blazers!  Trail blazers, you say?  Are there really any trail blazers any more?  Don’t we live in an truly egalitarian world now?  Not so much.  After all, it was only 50 years ago that every industry was male-dominated and a women’s place was in the home.  There are many of us who experienced this directly or who saw our mothers’ struggle to make progress and fight for respect.  

This is why one of the awards, the Woman of the Year focuses on male-dominated industries.  Industries such as construction, finance and insurance, academia, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are still heavily occupied by men.  Women who are leaders in these fields are indeed trail blazers.  By learning about what they are doing and how they have been succession, we continue to level the playing field by showing that women can master management in these fields.  It’s not at all about putting men down, it’s about lifting women up!

The second is that we cannot be inspired by what we cannot see!  In my own personal career, I worked in finance in San Francisco for 17 years before making a shift to move to Bend to run my own adventure travel company.  When I looked around me, I saw many qualified, intelligent, dedicated women, but when I looked into the upper echelons of my industry and the companies for which I worked, I saw few or no women.  I felt like I did not belong!  It’s a natural feeling.  If I had seem more women in higher management positions, I may have felt like that was a realistic  career path for me.

Instead I chose to forge my own path and to focus my company exclusively on women. I’ll often be asked if I’m not being sexist or discriminating against men by running women’s only trips.  To that I always answer – ‘The entire adventure travel industry is welcoming toward men.  The other companies are owned by men, the guides are male, and majority of clients are male.  The men are doing JUST FINE! It’s extremely rare to go on a trip in the wilderness with only women and with female guides, and the experience is in stark contrast.  

Women are more comfortable to be themselves, be vulnerable, and work through doubt and fear.  The impact of female guides is palpable.  After being told our whole lives that the female sex is the weaker sex, it’s empowering to see women in charge, leading with confidence and making decisions without a man in sight.  One of my Nepali partners, who I love to death, is always so incredulous when I tell him that there are no men around our trips in the US AT ALL.  He always says, “But Didi, what HAPPENS if something goes wrong and there are no men around???”  You can’t help but walk away from one of these trips with the realization, that yes, we can take care of ourselves and be successful, if in the wilderness then certainly also back in civilization.

It’s with every fiber of my being that I am excited about and dedicated to the lifting up of women around me.  So I sincerely hope that this event has the desired impact on each and every one of you – to recognize the trail blazers in our community and to showcase who we could not see before, and be inspired by them!”