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???

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!

Are you surviving or thriving?

Many people are intrigued by my departure from the corporate world to follow my passion of making adventure travel for women, but I’m going to take us a few years back to one of the hardest climbs that clearly demonstrated the value of following my passion.  I’m including the video from this talk.  It was done with amateur videography equipment so apologies that the audio is not the most awesome.  Regardless, you might get a kick out of the live version as well.  🙂

Mt McKinley, or its native name, Denali, is the highest mountain in North America and is known as a “mountaineer’s mountain.” Even those who have climbed both Everest and Denali often say Denali is tougher.

Denali - West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Denali – West Buttress and West Rib routes visible

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

Bye bye, link to civilization for the next 3 weeks!

It’s 20,320ft which is high, and as you may know, as you go higher, the air pressure drops making less oxygen available. However, it’s location close to the Arctic Circle makes it feel higher as well because the air pressure also drops as you go further north. You are dropped off by ski plane at 7,800 feet and have 13,000 ft of glacier and vertical relief to climb to the top of this formidable mountain.

It’s intimidating when you are dropped off as you are on your own for 21 days. You worry about your physical preparation, skills, logistical planning. As you look up around the Kahiltna Glacier and see these intimidating peaks all around you are only 9k ft high and realize there’s over 20kft of climbing because you nearly climb the mountain twice.

IMG_3979The typical routine is to carry heavy loads up higher, dig caches 6-10 ft deep, bury your cache, and head back down to sleep at a lower altitude to recover. The total load I carried was around 120# split between my backpack and the sleds dragged uphill every day. There had been a volcanic eruption of Mt Redoubt earlier in March.  As a result of the heat-absorbing ash that blanketed the glacier, it was less stable than usual so we chose a night schedule. That means that we slept during the day, would wake IMG_3983around 10pm and be climbing before midnight each night.

Sometimes people tell me vacations sound like their worst nightmares. 🙂

But I was in heaven. It was the most intense, isolating, scary, committing thing I have ever done, and John kept saying he was surviving but it seemed like I was thriving.

It made a difference later after we made our way up to our final camp. We had to dig out a platform and build walls made of snow blocks. It was hard work as we were now above 16,500 ft which felt like digging at 19k ft. You would pull three strokes of the snow saw and have to lean against the rock to catch your breath.

Location of our high camp

Location of our high camp

We came down to recover and witnessed an accident up high that proved to be fatal to the two fallen climbers. It made me nervous and we decided to take a rest day and head up the fixed lines, our descent route, to familiarize myself when I was unexpectedly shut down by incredible pain upon each inhalation. I was debilitated. We waited three days and each day tried again but the pain only got worse.

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

Unhappy camper at the ranger medic tent

I got checked out by the ranger medic and we confirmed that it wasn’t anything life threatening. I still had to get myself out of there. A helicopter ride was an option but any self respecting climber will at least try to self-evacuate rather than put others’ lives at risk.

So we packed up from 14k camp and started to head down. I was in excruciating pain the entire time as breathing was unavoidable. But we were hell bent to get all the way down what had taken us 14 days to climb up, we descended in 11 hours.

I kept thinking of John’s words, “In this environment, I am surviving but you seem to be thriving!” It was a good thing that I was so passionate about climbing, about being on that mountain at that time, and about getting my own butt off the mountain. It was the only way I could keep going was to remind myself that I WANTED to be there.

Having the time of my life!  :-)

Having the time of my life! 🙂

Sometimes the paths we take when we follow our passions can seem really difficult. But the reality is that life is really difficult and there will always be obstacles and challenges along the way no matter what.

If you are living supporting someone else’s dream, those inevitable challenges can seem intolerable. But if you are following your own passion, you will always be working toward your personal mission.

Then the question becomes…what is YOUR passion!?!?

Plan B on the Clear Creek Route

This is the story I shared at the Armchair storytelling event in April 2014 at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR.  The theme was “Plan B.”  Listen below or read on…

 

It was 2005 and only my second full season of climbing. And by climbing, I mean mountaineering – multi-day ascents of snow covered or glaciated peaks ideally at least 14,000ft high. One such mountain was Mt Shasta, one of the southern most Cascade volcanoes in Northern California standing at 14,162ft high. I had successfully summited the summer prior via the Avalanche Gulch route, the normal route, with a guide service. I returned with Gregg*, a leader of the Sierra Club, and a man I greatly admired for our second attempt of the Clear Creak Route. (*name changed)

The Clear Creek route is an unpopular route due to it’s long approach, both on unmarked logging roads and then hiking from around 5,800ft up to around 8,000ft where we would make camp in the protection of the last clump of trees. It creates a tough and long summit day with over 6,000ft gain up to 14,162ft.

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Gregg was a the trip leader who organized this trip after we aborted our 2004 attempt due to rain at “main camp.” We were back with an even smaller team, just Gregg, my friend, Nora, and myself. It was nice to have a small team with fewer variables in terms of team dynamics.

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Gregg was an experienced trip leader, long distance ultra-thru-hiker, and mountaineer. I knew he had climbed Denali and even though he didn’t summit, simply the fact that he had set foot on that mountain and made it to 17k camp made me worship him as someone I aspired to be like. Denali is a very serious mountain where they drop you off by ski plane and you try to get to the top in around 3 weeks. Gregg was extremely knowledgeable about all things mountain-related…he knew all about Leave No Trace wilderness ethics, dehydrated all his own food, and yes, had lived on the flanks of Denali.

My friend, Nora, was tall, gorgeous Italian woman who was really intrigued by the physical challenge and drama of mountaineering. She was ambitious but really cautious. After we made it to “main camp” with considerable effort, she stated that this was as far as she would go. She was too beat from the approach hike and was happy as a clam to sleep in and serve as our “base camp manager” maintaining radio contact.

I was bummed that she wasn’t going to try to go higher, but in reality, if she really had serious doubts about her ability and desire to go on, it would likely mean we would all have to turn around. With a small team of three, it’s just not wise to send someone back down to find camp alone.

Gregg and I decided to stick with our plan to get up at 1am and be hiking by 3am. When that alarm comes in the middle of the night, I ALWAYS snooze at least once and think to myself “Why the hell do I do this shit?”, but then I find some kernel of willpower deep within and get my butt out of my sleeping bag to get ready in the freezing cold and a state of brain fog.

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing in the middle of the night is a difficult thing to describe. It sounds quite miserable, but it’s actually quite magical. Even if there is the sound of wind, the silence is absolutely deafening and you tune into the sound of your own breath, the soft sounds your clothes make while moving, the crunching of your crampons in the firm snow, and the creaking of your ice axe when it shifts so lightly with each placement. You can’t really see where you are going and fall into a trance like moving meditation where you have never been more disconnected yet more aware at the same time.

Incredible hoar frost

Incredible hoar frost

We had gained over 5,000 feet with less than 1,000ft to go when we came around a ridge to the north. We were completely blasted by a steady stream of wind that felt like what I imagined the Jet Stream to feel like. We had to head directly into the wind on a slope of jumbled rocks and rime ice, ice that’s growing into the direction of the wind, which really slowed us down and sapped our energy.

We could look up now and see the summit in the distance. It was at least an hour or two away but now was within our grasp. Gregg started to say something to me with a desperate look on his face, but I couldn’t understand him. “What???”, I shouted over the wind. He was practically slurring his words, “I’m so cold, so cold and so hungry. So sorry. I must eat now!” He tossed his pack down and started digging around for food.

I watched him in a bit of disbelief. Here was my mentor acting like a starving madman, and he was violating a cardinal rule. If you stop for a break, the first thing you do is throw on your down jacket to conserve body heat before you do anything else. I felt weird giving Gregg any kind of direction, but I said, “Hey Gregg, Why don’t you put your down jacket on first? Then we can stop and have a break.” He said, “No! Too hungry! Must eat first!” as he was visibly shaking now trying to tear open his protein bar wrapper.

The final traverse up and left to the summit

The final traverse up and left to the summit

Then he began to explain that he was too tired and didn’t feel like he could make it the rest of the way. He said, “You are doing great and are strong enough to finish this climb. Take my GPS. I have all of the waypoints that you can follow to the summit.”

I was surprised. Why would he want me to go on? Clearly he wasn’t doing well and there is safety in numbers. It would be a huge deal for me to go on alone with my low level of experience at this point to summit by myself. I was looking up at how close we were to the summit and thinking about the fact that this was our second attempt and all the physical effort we had put in to getting to this point. But maybe I could do this and it would be a huge coup for a beginner!

Then Gregg broke through my thought processing and said, “Really! You should go! I will make myself a little fort from the wind and sit here and wait for you!”   Sitting without moving in the middle of a freezing jet stream for several hours when you are already too cold just didn’t make any sense to me. I literally looked at Gregg, looked toward the summit, looked at Gregg, and looked toward the summit again, calculating how long it would take me to get there and back to him. No way around it, it be at least 2-3 hours.

An image suddenly came to mind of Gregg’s wife, who I had never met in person, asking me why I left her husband on the side of the mountain. She was asking me this because in one scenario in my mind, Gregg was nowhere to be found when I came back down to regroup. I realized I didn’t have any good answer, that the allure of the summit was not great enough to explain to a loved one why I had chosen to go on.

I knew Gregg might continue to fight me if he felt I was turning around because of him so I said, “You know, I’m actually pretty tired, too! I’m ready to call it a day. Why don’t we head down together and we can take another break when we get out of the wind?” Gregg reluctantly agreed. I knew from my previous guided climbs that guides like to put the weakest person out front…partly so that they can better observe how that person is doing and pace the group for that person’s speed, and partly to avoid having the person fall on top of them. Not explaining my thought process out loud, I told Gregg he should go first. He looked at me for a minute, as if he was processing my words in slow motion, and said, “I don’t think I can do it. My brain feels like I’m in a fog and I can’t see the way down.” I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This guy is my leader. This isn’t good!”

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

“OK, Craig, follow me then.” Gregg and I began to work our way down the loose bouldery and icy section slowly but surely until we rounded the ridge. The wind suddenly fell silent and the temperature spiked with the solar radiation bouncing back up off the snow onto us. We stopped again for another break and ate some more. Gregg seemed like he was rapidly reawakening from his fog. I explained how I had been really concerned up higher and that he hadn’t seemed to be making much sense.

Gregg looked at me with some humility and said, “I think you made the right call. I don’t know what I was thinking. I must have been sliding into hypothermia.” We continued down the thousands of feet left to retrace back to main camp. On one of the steeper slopes, Gregg and I were heading down side by side when my feet slipped out from under me in the slushy snow of the early afternoon. I started to slide but my reflexes were fast. I flipped

Standing "tall" under a towering cornice

Standing “tall” under a towering cornice

over so quickly and arrested my fall with just one hand on the head. Gregg was standing above me looking down at me and said, “Wow, you really have learned some things in the last year!”

I beamed as if Gregg was my sensei and I was the young grasshopper who had just graduated from training! The mountains are a fantastic training ground with lessons to bring back to our every day lives. I realized that on this climb, the obscure Clear Creek Route on Mt Shasta, I learned to respect authority, but not to be afraid to ask questions or even take charge, especially if your life or that of others depend on it!

Wilderness Skills for Daily Life…

I can’t tell you how many times I am grateful for my wilderness skills…in the urban environment! It’s true that survival and outdoor leadership skills have a powerful, confidence building aspects. The impact and transferability of those skills on my daily life is amazing.

Let me share a few recent examples how these skills translated into dealing with emergencies and building my self-confidence…

Stranded in a Winter Storm

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was driving north on Hwy 97 to complete my move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Bend, Oregon. I was driving alone, save for the company of my cat, Espresso. Espresso is an excellent companion and very talkative, but I had low expectations of her ability to contribute problem solving skills should an issue arrive during the drive.

Luck would have it that I was driving into a major winter storm, but I could no longer delay the drive as I simply had to get to work on my new business (www.callwild.com). I was a bit anxious about what the drive would have in store and how my little front-wheel drive Mazda 3 would handle driving in snow, even with tire chains, for such an extended period of time.

About 8 hours into what was supposed to be a 10 hour drive, the traffic came to a complete halt. I could see that I was about 10 vehicles back from the impasse in the road. A trucker, with whom I had chatted with while putting on my chains some miles back, got out of his rig and checked on me and make sure I had food, water, and warm clothes. He said there was another big rig across the road and there was no telling how long it would take to clear the accident.

Ten vehicles back from the accident.  What if I had been a bit faster getting my chains on???

Ten vehicles back from the accident. What if I had been a bit faster getting my chains on???

I did a quick inventory of supplies for both myself and Espresso…food – check, water – a bit low, but check, warm layers – check. In fact I happened to have a duffel full of snowcamping gear as I was prepared to lead a snowcamping weekend for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (BAMRU). I have a rule that when I am driving alone, I never let my gas tank fall much below half. I had plenty, but turned off the car to save gas. I posted a few updates to Facebook about the eventful drive and then turned off my phone to save battery.

After an hour had passed, a long time to sit in a car talking to your cranky cat, another trucker came up from behind to check on me. He said he had lots of food and water if I needed it. I took him up on the water offer (although I had a stove and fuel and could have boiled snow if need be). Later one of my girlfriends from BAMRU, Rachel, joked that I should have asked him if he needed rescue! However, I thought his generosity was touching, did indeed need more water, and generally try to be sensitive with the fragile male ego.

Espresso, the cold and cranky cat

Espresso, the cold and cranky cat

Another half hour slid by, darkness set in and the temperature dropped to 25 outside the car. I thought of all the stories about people that had become stranded in the snow and perished waiting or going for help. I wondered if other people alone in their cars were getting cold or worried. As I happened to have all my snowcamping gear with me, I literally could have slept outside for days and been fine, but it was really all that snowcamping experience that made me feel comfortable in the situation. I know how to avoid hypothermia (eat, drink, move to generate body heat but not enough to sweat – staying dry is almost more important than staying warm), how to build improvised snow shelters, how to make tracks in the snow that can be seen from the air… I have felt extreme cold before so I know how much it sucks, but that it won’t kill me even if it’s uncomfortable (of course, it IS possible for cold to kill you, but I have survived some pretty cold environments in Alaska and the Himalayas).

As my friend, Stephanie, put it on my Facebook page, “I’m not worried about you, Em. If you can survive at 20,000ft on the side of a mountain, you can definitely survive this!”

After more than 3 hours and a scurry of flashing yellow lights on Oregon DOT vehicles, the traffic began to move. I checked in to a motel that night, deciding that 11 hours in a vehicle was enough for one day, but I went to sleep with the satisfaction that I had the confidence to get through a potentially epic night.

It wasn't exactly clear sailing the next day, but I got a couple beautiful breaks in the weather

It wasn’t exactly clear sailing the next day, but I got a couple beautiful breaks in the weather

Crash on Hwy 101

Many avid outdoors people take the Wilderness First Aid certification, a two day course that covers the treatment basics of common wilderness injuries and illnesses. It’s a great certification to have. However, if you are spending longer periods of time in more remote backcountry settings, especially if you are responsible for leading trips, the Wilderness First Responder is the way to go. It’s a real commitment at 10 days and a higher price tag, but the WFR (pronounced “woofer”) takes your wilderness medicine skills to a new level.

For those 10 days, you learn all every possible ailment or affliction that could occur in the backcountry (I exaggerate a bit, but that’s what it feels like!). It’s a great combination of reading, lecture, discussion, practice, and scenarios. By the end of the course, everyone feels “scenario’d out” and groans when the instructors announce to prepare for another scenario…however, those scenarios have a purpose – to create the muscle memory so that automatic pilot kicks in when you are full of adrenaline.

Practice makes perfect at my NOLS WFR course in Boulder, CO

Practice makes perfect at my NOLS WFR course in Boulder, CO

After getting my WFR cert, my BAMRU friends warned me of the “WFR curse.” The WFR curse is that you will suddenly start coming across accidents and medical situations in the urban environment. Sure enough, that has happened several times in the last year, but the most intense one occurred on Hwy 101.

I was leaving a dental appointment in San Carlos heading toward my job in Menlo Park. I was stressing about the backup getting on to the freeway as my former boss was a real timekeeper and I had only requested a half hour block of time off for my appointment that morning. As I began to enter the freeway, I drove through the cause of the hold up – four banged up cars scattered around. It looked like everyone was OK as they were all standing outside their cars talking on their cell phones. I sighed with relief…until I drove past the last car and looked in. It still feels like slow motion. I turned to my right and saw a sedan with the side smashed in, air bags deployed, and a gentleman sitting fully erect glued to his seat with the impression of being paralyzed or unconscious. No one was attending to him.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but the thought actually occurred to me to keep driving so as not to incur the wrath of the timekeeper boss. Fortunately, the thought was fleeting. I pulled over and ran back toward the car, surveying the scene as I approached. Responder safety is #1 – last thing you want to do is give the paramedics two people to treat rather than one!

I crawled in the back seat continuing to survey for broken glass, blood, anything that could harm me. A fellow was shouting at the driver, who was clearly in bad shape, to turn off his car. I looked the driver over, calling on my WFR protocol. I turned the car off, introduced myself (name, qualifications, permission to touch him), and began to ask questions, including his name in order to establish rapport.

I won’t go into all the nuances, but there are things you are not allowed to do in the urban environment that you can do in the wilderness environment, so my focus was simply on stabilizing him until paramedics arrived. I determined there was nothing that needed immediate attention (i.e., major bleed that needed direct pressure), but that there was a Mechanism of Injury (MOI) that could have caused a spinal injury. I explained to Gino why I was holding his head still and kept talking to him. He was in a lot of pain and could not move. He began to wail in a disturbing primal tone from deep in his throat. I asked him to listen to my voice and focus on breathing with me to calm him down – miraculously it worked. Thankfully the paramedics arrived quickly and asked me to continue holding his head while the got the C-collar on him and transitioned him out of the car.

Nothing I did was brain surgery, but it was still pretty intense to me and my adrenaline was definitely flowing. Based on the lack of reaction and general cluelessness of the others standing around, I really credit those bloody WFR scenarios with the ability to remain calm, think through protocols and determine what I could do to help. Who knew the WFR could come in so handy in an urban setting?

Tough Audiences

In 2010, I joined a small expedition to Makalu, the world’s fifth high mountain. We didn’t summit due to weather issues, but I gained a ton of experience attempting to climb my first 8000 meter peak.

Makalu is known as one of the tougher 8000ers. It’s particularly remote, the trek is one of the more challenging, the base camp is higher than most at 18.5k ft, and there is no real retreat from base camp. On Everest, where base camp is around 17.5k ft, you can hike down around 3 hours, get a hot meal, sleep in a bed, and give yourself a break from the ailments that tend to plague you at high altitude. Porters have carried injured climbers down to clinics in the Khumbu for treatment and helicopter rescues are common to take serious cases back to Khatmandu. In contrast, on Makalu, there are no clinics along the trek, in fact there are almost no villages! Once you arrive at base camp, it is a 7 hour arduous trek over glacial moraine boulders just to drop 2,000ft to get back to Hilary camp – not much of a respite from the altitude. Helicopter rescues are only possible out of Hilary camp so you would need to be carried by a poor porter over that terrain!

View of Makalu from Hilary Base Camp - we still need to circumnavigate it to get to ABC

View of Makalu from Hilary Base Camp – we still need to circumnavigate it to get to ABC

It was an intense experience knowing that rescue was unlikely, or at the very least difficult, if the caca hit the fan. The climbing was tough over rock, snow, and glacier. I spent one night alone at Camp 1 with avalanches raining down around me and slept one night at Camp 2, setting a personal altitude record at ~23k ft. I was challenged both physically and mentally on the headwall and the small ice fall.

When I came back from the Makalu expedition, I presented a slideshow of my trip to my new coworkers (the owners had allowed me to extend my start date in order to go on the expedition). At the end, the President of the company said, “No wonder you aren’t afraid of the Trustees!!!” Indeed, even presenting poor investment returns to a room full of curmudgeonly Union Trustees can never seem as intimidating as looking up the 250ft headwall on Makalu and beginning to jumar up the headwall’s fixed rope starting at ~21k ft.

Not quite halfway up the Makalu headwall.  Over 21k ft here.  Grueling.

Not quite halfway up the Makalu headwall. Over 21k ft here. Grueling.

Indeed, I keep these intense experiences in the mountains near and dear to my heart. They help me keep perspective in my daily life in civilization. How bad is that parking ticket, really? Will it be the end of the world if this conference presentation isn’t well received? What if a client asks me a question for which I’m not prepared The perspective I gained provides me with more self-confidence, helps me think about risks differently, and provides more calm during emergencies and high pressure situations. Most importantly for achieving my personal and professional goals, I’m much less likely to hold myself back out of fear.

Now you don’t have to get yourself dropped off by a ski plane on a glacier in the middle of Alaska to develop these confidence building skills. Start small by getting your CPR or WFA cert. Go on a hike in a new spot with a map – figure out where you want to go and how to get back. Take some courses like the annual Sierra Club backpacking or snowcamping training series.

However you chose to do it, the important thing is to get out of your own personal comfort zone to stretch yourself. If you can do it in the outdoors, it suddenly feels so much easier to do back at the office!