Your Next Climb: Make It Unforgettable

You know who climbs mountains for a living?  Oxygen deprived, pain seeking, always-learning, gritty, vagabond nutjobs who’ve lived the most interesting lives.  And it’s a good thing, too, because when you’ve hired one of them to guide your summit quest there are many, many hours available to hear their stories.

Mike, The American born, France raised, EMT and medical student with three Bachelor’s Degrees and one Master’s Degree, son of traveling magicians, certified heli-ski instructor, Army veteran with multiple combat tours – who happened to be our lead mountain climbing guide – turned to me through howling wind and shouted, “We’re at the limit.  Haven’t seen it like this up here in two years.  Your call.”  Though he may have been thinking it, he didn’t shout, “You’re an idiot” or, “I don’t think you should do this”, just the facts and a serene poker face revealing nothing about his own opinion.  In the moment, though, I very much wanted his opinion.  I wanted him to grab me by the shoulders and shake me and demand that we turn around and forever let a decision to forgo the summit be his, not mine.

Following weeks of training and planning and a cross continental journey, three friends and I were nearly atop Mount Shasta, a volcanic monstrosity that reaches over 14,000 snow-covered feet into the sky and is as alien to an East Coaster like me as the bottom of the ocean.  Mike, along with our other badass guide Chris (another former military, son-of-professional-kayakers, uber-fit billy goat), are professional alpinists who climb peaks like this all the time and after fighting our way over 99% of the way to the summit, the decision as to whether we take these final steps was up to us, not them.

How did my friends and I end up there, steps away from one of the nation’s highest mountain peaks?  In reality, the journey began thirty years ago when we were all college kids from various regions who stumbled upon a summer internship selling Yellow Pages (remember those?) door to door on 100% commission.

Since those pavement pounding days we’ve all gotten married, formed families, started and stopped and started again multiple careers, and scattered to far reaches of the country but we’ve always found unique ways to reconnect.  This most recent adventure, a triple dog dare to climb Mount Shasta, was the latest reunion and, much like selling Yellow Pages door to door, had me seriously questioning my life choices.  Our packs were heavy.  The air was thin.  The sun, reflecting so intensely off the pure white snow we had to cake even the insides of our nostrils with sunblock, seemed twice its normal size.  And the wind – oh, that incessant, angry, holy-crap-I-can’t-stand-up wind – kept throwing us to the ground like The Rock tossing a rag doll.  I’d never experienced anything like it; it felt like another planet and from the trek’s first step I’d been humbly learning I knew nothing about this wild, unpredictable mind warp called mountaineering.

When you envision a high intensity mountain climb what comes to mind?  If, like me, your exposure to the activity includes only a sprinkling of Hollywood films and Netflix documentaries, you might think of swinging ice picks, ropes, extreme cold, and mad scrambles over impossible peaks.  And while some of those ingredients are prevalent, I learned real-life mountaineering follows the same principles that drive success in most things.  For example:

Unless things go incredibly wrong, there are no sprints.
You wanna scale the highest mountains?  Follow this rhythm:  One-one thousand, STEP.  Two-one thousand, STEP…  From the time we left basecamp at 3am until the time we completed that day’s hike some fourteen hours later, it was like living a slow motion movie.  No sudden movements, no high heart rate surges, just a steady, methodical slog through mud, over rocks, up steep slopes, through knee deep snow, across glacier ice, and through that freakin’ wind until you reach your destination.
Funny, Mike and Chris had stories about younger, studlier hares speeding by on lower sections and invariably burning out (and sometimes lifeflighted) while the slow, steady tortoises keep on trudging. 
Takeaway:  Slow and steady may not make for the best movies or highlight reels but it’s the ultimate formula to reach the top.  Next time we’re tempted to procrastinate or jam twice the effort into half the time, remember to one-one thousand, STEP, two-one thousand STEP all your way to the finish line.

Single file, slow and steady. Funny how we’re surrounded by incredible scenery but we spent most of our time staring straight down at the ground in front of us.

We modern humans give ourselves too much credit.
Sure, we drive powerful SUV’s and design supercomputers and build fancy dwellings and sweat it out in fitness studios but stepping beyond the oxygen-rich, climate-controlled bubble of our normal lives (which, by the way, is only a few miles walk uphill!), is the ultimate reminder that Mother Nature sits atop the food chain, not we fragile humans.  The world is big, dangerous, and breathtakingly beautiful in ways we so easily forget enveloped in our manmade boxes.
Takeaway: Explore nature’s limits but recognize our limits.  If Mother Nature is telling you no, listen to her.

Buying stuff is such a waste vs. buying experiences.
A guided tour on Mount Shasta is not cheap but we’ve all blown money on “things” that cost way more and deliver almost nothing in return.  I can now say firsthand that marveling at the night sky at ten thousand feet and sipping melted snow from a basecamp teapot was more gratifying than any material possession I could have bought for even triple the price.
Takeaway:  Next time we’re tempted to buy a bigger TV or an overpriced pair of shoes or a new phone, take that money and invest it in a life adventure. 

The view from basecamp. Our guides taught us how to dig tent platforms into the snow that protected us from the wind. Not a difficult task but with the air so thin even a few minutes of digging left us out of breath.

America’s National Parks: Worth fighting for.
If you’ve not visited a National Park I hope you stop reading this blog right now and immediately book the trip.  (See?  We’re already spending that money earmarked for a new TV or new shoes in a better way!) 
First, their beauty is unparalleled.  Please do not misinterpret this as a political statement but any policymaker who proposes to shrink the budget or strip the natural resources of these wondrous regions is my sworn enemy and I hope yours, too.
Second, it’s the land of no liability waivers.  Why is it we need to sign a thousand word legal document to run a local 5K yet anyone can try to climb in a National Park to death defying heights with nary a “be careful” sign to warn us?  I have no idea why that is but I love how these sacred grounds leave it to you, the visitor, the decide for yourself instead of leaving it in the hands of a desk-anchored, risk averse lawyer.
Takeaways: First, visit and support your National Parks. 
Second, while you’re there, test your comfort zone without a helicopter parent – er, lawyer – telling you what you can and cannot do.  If you screw up it’s on you and you alone.  Refreshing, isn’t it?

Novel + Difficult = Memorable
Think back to a time you struggled mightily in a new environment to reach a goal that was important to you, a time you had to focus one hundred percent on the novel task at hand and it made you really, really uncomfortable.  Perhaps it was completing your first marathon?  Making it though boot camp?  Birthing a baby? (props to my wife, Jessica, for somehow pulling that off three drug-free times!)  This trip reminded me that in those moments, time slows.  Memories are branded into our minds with extreme color and become more unbelievable every time we revisit them.  Even though those experiences sometimes last only days or hours, the brain’s commitment to remembering and retelling those stories would take at least a year of Groundhog Day life to accumulate.
On this climb, for example, tiny moments I’ll remember forever include:
*The sound of the wind whipping around our tents at basecamp as we lay there wondering how our bodies would respond to the next day’s ascent,
*The look on our faces when we learned our friend’s oxygen levels dropped to the low eighties (he ended up being fine, thank God!),
*The smell of sulphur as we neared the summit of this volcanic mountain,
*The deep blue glacier ice sparkling under that brilliant sun,
*The Black Bear Diner pancakes we feasted on upon our return,
*The extra strength white sunblock smeared all over our faces, giving us the appearance of a clown-meets-snowman lovechild.
Takeaway: None of us will lay on our deathbeds reflecting back on the time we commuted to work, watched TV, or clicked through email.  Find challenging, uncomfortable goals to pursue and DO them.

Novel + Difficult = Brotherhood
I can only imagine the bonds military units form on the battlefield or that west-bound settlers formed over 150 years ago but as I learned on this sufferfest with Tom, Crawford, and Andy, we learn more about each other in those wild hours than we’d learn in years sitting around a bar or a conference table. 
Facing massive rejection together in our street-selling days, boating excursions gone wrong, saying goodbye together to a loved one who passed too soon, missing quotas, crushing quotas, overseas debacles, getting fired, getting promoted..  Together we’ve slogged through countless ups and downs that brought us closer.  There are people in my life with whom I’ve spent more time but few with whom I’ve done more living.
Takeaway:  Wanna build ironclad bonds with people you love and respect?  Go do something novel and difficult together.

Longtime friends Andy, Tom, and Crawford along with new friends (and world class mountaineers) Chris and Mike.

In the end, did we reach the summit?  Well…
The summit of our physical limits?  Yes. 
The summit of safety?  Yes, and then some. 
The summit of memories?  Absolutely.
The summit of friendship?  Definitely.

…And after all that, did we reach the summit of Mount Shasta?  It hardly matters 😊

See you at the top, kind reader!

See that rock behind us? That’s the very top. You might also notice there aren’t many places on that rock face to hold on if the wind blows you over. Should we climb it? Hmmm….
A few hours following our visit the winds reached 175 MPH.