Serious Self-Care

The mountains have taught me many critical lessons that have enabled me to live life more fully and feel more confident to take risk.  I began climbing around 10 years ago and was formerly someone who always considered herself to be unathletic.  In school, I was truly the kid who was always picked last for dodge ball!  However, over time as I slowly built my experience, trained and ventured into bigger and bigger mountains, the most serious of which was the 5th highest mountain in the world, Makalu, in Nepal.

One of these lessons has been the importance of self-care.  First, the concept of self-care assumes that you have a certain level of self-awareness.  If you are out of touch with your body, or with your needs, it will be difficult to focus on self-care.  Mountaineering forces you to become very self-aware.  We preach eating before we get hungry, drinking before we get thirsty, and layering or delayering to regulate our body temperature.  Getting any one of these simple things wrong can cost you a summit or in the worst case in extreme environments, it can cost you your life.  Failing to regulate your blood sugar through food can cause you to “bonk” and not have the energy to make it to your destination.  Dehydration can accelerate or exacerbate Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms.  Either getting cold or getting sweaty can be a precursor to hypothermia as water pulls heat away from the body.

Even on mountains where supplemental oxygen is not required, we joke about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”  So much in mountaineering and in life is about team work. And women especially often fret about being a burden and will sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the group to avoid feeling like or being seen as a burden.

A 13 year old reminds me about the importance of self-care…

One such example occurred on a GirlVentures course I was guiding this summer.  GirlVentures is a inspirational non-profit that focuses on providing transformative experiences for adolescent girls through leadership, communication, and technical skill development in the outdoors.  This particular course was a 14-day backpack that included an ascent of an 11,000ft mountain called Mt Shinn, a technical canyoneering descent, rock climbing and rappelling.  Each girl gets the chance to try out a different role each day (leader of the day, cook, gear goddess, navigator) and on the day that we were ascending Mt Shinn, “Cindy” was the navigator.

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Mt Shinn’s approach is a difficult cross-country approach and the climbing, while easy second and third class, needed a great deal of attention.  To lessen Cindy’s stress of being navigator for the day, I gave her the instructions of being very aware of her surroundings during the approach.  We repeatedly turned around and looked behind us to see how we would figure out how to retrace our steps back to camp.  She seemed anxious but was taking it all in.

The climb was very challenging for Cindy who, like several of the girls, has a healthy fear of heights.  Cindy worked through each of the scrambling sections and areas with a sense of exposure with the help of the instructors and her fellow participants.  It’s a stressful thing to face your fear of heights at that stage, but Cindy seemed to be coping well.

Climbing Mt Shinn

Climbing Mt Shinn

On the way back down, we turned the leadership over to the two “leaders of the day” and to Cindy as navigator.  We hike towards the back to provide a controlled environment where the girls have a chance to experience decision making in the wilderness, communicate with each other, and start the long process of finding their leadership styles.

Cindy did seemed stressed that she felt getting the entire tired and hungry group back to camp was on her shoulders.  I began hiking closer to her and giving her tips along the way when we would see landmarks we noted on the way up.  She was very focused and seemed to be doing a great job.  We got back to camp with little delay and everyone began to focus on self-care – hydrating, resting, changing into fresh layers.

Soon one of the instructors ran over to me to ask for help with Cindy.  Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what.  Cindy was cold, shivering, and was breathing rapidly.  We performed a full assessment, helped Cindy find her dry layers to change into, and continued to encourage her to eat and drink to recover from the day.  Her respiration and pulse were high, but her oxygen saturation was also high.  Hypothermia is typically indicated with a low pulse rate, and altitude sickness would usually be indicated by a low oxygen saturation rate.  We were perplexed, especially as Cindy’s respiration would get back in control when we would doing relaxing guided imagery or controlled breathing with her.  I began to suspect that Cindy was actually experiencing anxiety likely caused by initially getting cold, having low blood sugar, and being overwhelmed by this new uncomfortable physical experience.

One of the instructors and I stayed with Cindy through the night, calming her down when she woke up in a panic.  All of her vitals began to return to normal as she realized she was going to be all right.  I told Cindy what my theory was and she confided that she had felt so much stress and pressure from the challenge of navigating the group back to camp, that she hiked much faster than she had energy for and didn’t stop to eat, drink, or change her layers.  She arrived into camp physically and mentally exhausted and never uttered a peep until her anxiety was well on its way.

Put on your own oxygen mask first!

Cindy’s primary concern was that I would tell someone about the trouble she caused that night and that it might make her ineligible for the next level of leadership training.  Cindy and I had a long talk about what it means to be a leader and be in a position with responsibility to others.

First, you must take care of yourself and communicate your needs. Just because you are in charge of leading a group does not mean you are a superwoman and no longer have basic needs.  Stop the group, stop what you are doing, and tell them what you need and then do it without apology.

Second, you are serving as a role model for others to take care of themselves.  How many mothers do you know that run themselves ragged taking care of others but then tell their daughters how important it is to take care of themselves?

Third, Cindy DID become a burden on the group that night.  Two out of four instructors had to provide their undivided attention on one person, taking them away from the other ten girls.  It likely would have taken less than 15 minutes to take a break during the descent to eat some more food, drink some water, throw on a warmer layer and admit that she wanted more help with the return navigation.

Cindy seemed to digest all of this feedback, but we also encouraged her to share her experience with the rest of the group and ask for help learning this life skill.  The group was AWESOME.  Instead of being annoyed with Cindy for having shown vulnerability and having a tough time, they rallied around her and over the coming days when we did difficult things like the Helms Creek descent, they kept asking her how she was doing, when was the last time she ate, etc etc.  She would giggle each time but seemed to appreciate the well meaning reminders.

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Moms, don’t forget you are a role model for self-care!

I mentioned that mothers are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to self-care.  Just a couple of months ago, I ran a custom backpack for a girlfriend of mine from business school.  “Kristy” is your typical overachiever and right after getting her MBA she completed an Iron Man – she’s a tough cookie!!!  Fast forward 10 years and Kristy is now the mother of two kids who returned to work two years ago and is killing herself to prove she is still a competitive professional.  She’s gained weight, doesn’t have time to train, and wanted a goal that would inspire her…hence, the idea for a backpacking trip that would culminate in the non-technical ascent of one of California’s “14ers”, Mt Langley.  [A “14er” is a mountain above 14,000ft in elevation.]

It’s a beautiful area, but Kristy had not been able to make time to train, and she suffered on the way up to our camping spot at 11,000ft under the weight of a full backpack for the first time.  We went slowly and she struggled to control her competitive self which said “Go faster!” but then her fitness would say “Go slower!”  We worked hard on finding a comfortable pace, but it seemed like she had a lot of trouble with self-awareness and kept apologizing, illuminating the fear of being a burden.

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

I convinced her we should go as far as she could could go – no pressure!  We set off Saturday morning to the flanks of Mt Langley and a very slow and measured pace.  Slow and steady wins the race!  I would say, listening to her breath to try to gauge the pace right.  If she was ever in front of me, she would keep pushing a bit faster and faster until she had to stop to catch her breath.  I shared with her my theory that after being a mother for so many years and putting others’ needs before her own, she may have lost the art of self-awareness.  Surely she had needed to hone her self-awareness when training for and completing an Iron Man, but that was years ago.  Could she remember how to tap back into her own needs?  She cocked her head, thought about it, and agreed there could be some basis to that theory.

I decided to take over the pacing and keep encouraging her up to the top of Mt Langley at a super slow pace.  I would point out when we would get passed by someone (usually a guy) going faster but then we’d pass him as he had to stop and catch his breath.  One of those guys turned around because he was feeling altitude sickness.  Kristy and I continued on at our nearly agonizingly slow pace, but we made it to the top!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Kristy since then has made comments about how I can get anyone to the top of a mountain, but it really comes from years of experience in self-awareness and how the body reacts to physical activity at altitude.  Kristy was mentally tough and really listened – she had faith that if she kept putting one foot in front of the other, she would get there and she did it.  It was really hard for her, but listening to her body and finding a pace that would not burn her out or bring on altitude sickness was the key to achieve this major milestone.

The next time you are racing toward some goal, whatever it may be – personal, professional, physical, intellectually, don’t forget to take a moment to think about what you need to nourish and care for yourself.  You’ll be more likely to reach your final destination and feel good about it!

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

If you are interested in seeing the live version of this talk presented in Bend, OR at the SeriousSuccess Motivational Series for Women, check out the YouTube video below:

Why Women?

Last week, an audience member asked me a question that really made me pause during my Achieving Peak Performance talk at a Haas Alumni Network (Berkeley) event, “Why did you chose to focus on women?” I’ve been pondering ever since – how to express this in a way that is understandable and doesn’t make men feel excluded?  Be forewarned that I make lots of generalizations about each sex below which are based on my personal experience and opinions.


All of the lessons and stories I tell during this talk are relevant to both genders – importance of setting big, achievable goals, preparation, hiring the experts for topics outside your core competency, picking good partners, persevering through difficult times/milestones – but they seem to resonate more with women.  This is why I have a version of the talk called “Women on Top” for female audiences.


Toward the end, I usually reveal that it was the aggregation of my experiences in the mountains that helped me build the confidence to face my own biggest fear in risking financial insecurity to follow my passion.  I’m now running Call of the Wild Adventures full time and working hard to make it a sustainable business.  Many well meaning folks will state that I need to run co-ed trips in order to increase my profitability.  But answering the question of “Why women?” also tells the story of the decision to focus on all female trips and provide a presentation that’s targeted solely toward women.


The author attempting to impart wisdom from the mountains to urban professionals

The author attempting to impart wisdom from the mountains to urban professionals


There are TONS of co-ed adventure travel outfitters out there competing on price in a low margin business.  It’s a sexy product, but the reality of running such a business and trying to live off of it is in stark contrast to the glamorous impression.  If prices are low or suppressed by competition, then you must run a high volume of trips in order to generate sufficient gross margins to cover overhead.  In the case of the Call of the Wild, it has been a one woman show for 35 years.  I  aim to change that and increase our client base enough to support a higher volume of trips, but until then, it’s not feasible in terms of either my personal bandwidth to successfully manage a higher volume.  Additionally, I could be spreading the same client base across a higher number of trips.

Instead, I’m choosing to continue to run a set number of high quality trips while working hard to increase the client base through marketing and relationship building.  Further, there are so few women-only outfitters i n the market that I can use this aspect as a clear competitive differentiator.  Anecdotally, women’s adventure travel is supposed to be on the rise.  Hopefully, that is true, though hard data is not readily available.
Women ranging from 37-74 years old on a trek through the Everest region of Nepal

Women ranging from 37-74 years old on a Call of the Wild trek through the Everest region of Nepal

Every trip amazes me how women from diverse backgrounds – age, fitness, income, race, sexuality, marital/child status – can come together and bond so quickly.  Many of these women have experienced a major life change – empty nest, divorced or widowed, retired – and are seeking the camaraderie of other women during a time of transition.  Last year,  one woman on a backpacking trip had been recently widowed, and she and her husband used to backpack together in this particular region.  We held the space for her to chose to talk about the experience or not, but one thing is for sure, if she had broken down and cried, she would have been in a supportive environment within a circle of women.  Imagine if she was the only woman on a co-ed trip and broke down…surely the experience would be radically different!  She held it together and had a relaxing, enjoyable trip, partly, I believe, because she had the opportunity to express herself freely if she needed to.
Two women having a quiet moment on Pfieffer Beach in Big Sur

Two women having a quiet moment on Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, CA

Adventure travel often includes stretching yourself.  Why else would you want the safety and comfort of guides?  Handling intimidating logistics, managing safety of a risk activity, going higher/further/harder/more remote…
When I first started mountaineering, I went on a lot of guided trips and was nearly always the only female in a group of 8-12 males.  Fortunately, I don’t find this situation intimidating and I was able to disarm the men enough that they didn’t feel like they had to be on their best behavior around me.  However, not all women feel the same way when they are vastly outnumbered in an environment that is physically challenging, and they may self-select out of those situations all together.

I was also very conscientious about the fact that I was a woman – if I had a bad day or lagged behind, was it because I was the woman in the group or was I just another climber having a bad day?  As a result, I trained my ass off before every climb just to make sure I could at least keep up (sometimes a difficult proposition for someone who is 5’1″ climbing with people who are 6’4″, regardless of gender) partly out of paranoia.  

It was similar when I was working in the male-dominated investment world – I felt I had to be that much more prepared/knowledgeable/certified/thorough.  If I ever made a mistake, it could be perceived that it was because I’m a woman.  This pressure can be instantly alleviated in an all female environment.
Gals who made it to Dewey Point, a 7 mile round trip snowshoe above 8,000ft with rewarding views of Yosemite in winter glory

Gals who made it to Dewey Point, a 7 mile round trip snowshoe above 8,000ft with rewarding views of Yosemite in winter glory

Guys get the need for a guys night out, golf weekend, trip to Laguna Seca, whatever.  It’s nice to hang out with your gender, let your guard down, and maybe even bitch about the opposite sex.  Gals need the same thing!  

I bristle when people joke that I “discriminate against men” by offering female only trips.  I believe that discrimination is a situation where you hold someone back from achieving their personal or professional goals and satisfaction based on something they can’t help, like their gender.  Men have plenty of other options for adventure travel, and more chances than not, they will show up and find mostly male participants and male guides.  It’s a wonderful thing for women to show up to a trip and find all female participants AND female guides.  It reinforces the concept that women can be competent leaders in environments that require physical strength, solid decision making, and survival skills.


By the way, I run custom trips, gentlemen.  So any trip you see that you like, I can run it for you as well!  AND we can provide female guides so that you can feel what it’s like to be led by them.  I’d be curious to see what you think is similar and different about female leadership in the backcountry.
Instructors for the GirlVentures Transitions Course feeling right at home on the summit of Mt Shinn

Instructors for the GirlVentures Transitions Course feeling right at home on the summit of Mt Shinn, John Muir Wilderness, CA

Finally, and most importantly, when I left the corporate world last year, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do that would have a positive impact on the world.  When I was leading trips for the Sierra Club Snowcamping section, I would observe the progression of all the participants.  Many men would come in with a high degree of confidence despite an awareness that they lacked the technical skills.  Generally speaking, the women would come in wondering if they could hack it at all – could they handle the cold, carry the heavy pack, keep up with the group, and avoid becoming a burden?


At the end of each annual training series, it seemed that the men had acquired the skills and increased their confidence to handle similar situations in the future, while the women had been TRANSFORMED!  They would be surprised at what they could do physically and how much mental strength they had to get through some of the uncomfortable aspects of snowcamping and backpacking in the winter environment.  

As one gal on a ziplining adventure I organized last month stated so well, “Man, nothing I face in the office is going to seem scary any more after facing my fears here.”
Jessica says nothing will be scary at the office after facing her fear of ziplining

Jessica says nothing will be scary at the office after facing her fear of ziplining

At the end of the snowcamping training series, we would discuss all the participants and see who we wanted to invite back as assistant leaders based on their technical competence, risk management, and most importantly, leadership and communication skills.  We often leaned toward asking female participants back due to excellent leadership potential and ability to empathize with the participants.

The guys would nearly always say, “That’s awesome!  I totally want to be an assistant leader!”, and the women would usually say something like, “Really? Me?  What do you see in me?  I’m not sure if I really have the skills to accept the responsibility.”  It was eerily similar to my experience in Corporate America where, for a variety of reasons including corporate culture and societal norms, women would doubt themselves and hold back asking for a new job or promotion until they are 110% sure they can do the job.

The author cramming outdoor leadership concepts before a trip...

The author cramming outdoor leadership concepts before a trip…

My goal is to impact just one woman on each trip to go back to their daily lives and feel more empowered to face the challenges that come her way and take more risk that can lead to great reward.  🙂  That’s why I have chosen to focus on women.  How am I doing so far, ladies?