Last week, I did something I never thought I’d do: I climbed a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain with six friends.
It was challenging, rewarding, exhausting, exhilarating, and symbolic on so many levels. It really was an experience of a lifetime.
We all have mountains to climb.
Some of them are difficult, some are terrifying, some are intimidating. You may be staring up at the mountain of debt, addiction, despair, relationship trouble, career stagnation — whatever it is in your life that you see before you that looks to big to take on. I promise you it’s not.
What I learned on Mount Quandary applies to all of them, and I want to share those lessons with you.
Scared to start
I have for years avoided extended physical activity. My excuse has been concern about my heart. I have two heart conditions, both quite common as heart conditions go, and I have used them to bow out of or completely avoid things that might trigger discomfort.
My bicuspid aortic valve is among the most common congenital heart defects out there. Statistically, I’ll probably have to have heart surgery at some point to get it replaced, but according to all the imaging and doctors who have looked at that imaging, that surgery isn’t happening anytime soon.
I also have atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia that tends to flare up when I do vigorous exercise or cardio workouts. This is the condition I can actually feel, and it’s the one I’ve leaned on as an excuse for the seven years or so I’ve known about it. I have medication to take either before I do something that triggers it or after it has started. It puts my heart in rhythm and seems to work fine.
(There’s a surgery to fix this called an ablation, and I actually know about 10 people who have had it. It’s something I may do in the future, but it isn’t on the calendar now.)
Why am I telling you all about my stupid heart?
Because it has been my bullshit excuse for not stepping up and doing things that make me uncomfortable for years. It is the biggest physical “I can’t do that because …” card in my arsenal, and it has kept me from doing amazing things because I have convinced myself I would be putting myself in danger.
My doctors have never said I shouldn’t exercise.
They didn’t say I couldn’t do it.
Until I didn’t.
The morning of the climb
Mount Quandary is just outside the Colorado ski resort town of Breckenridge, a couple hours away from Denver. I was there spending a few amazing days with my brothers from the Dad Edge Alliance Elite Mastermind group. We wrapped up a six-month personal development mastermind in August, and this trip was the first time most of us had met in person.
Over that six months, we had gotten to know one another quite well. Getting together in person felt so natural and confirmed the trust we shared having learned and grown together over that time. We have all supported and encouraged one another along the way, and we all came out of that experience better because of it.
I woke up at 5:30 a.m. on climb day feeling sick.
I wasn’t nervous about the climb like I thought I would be. What I think happened was I spent too much time in the hot tub the night before, trying to ease up some sore arms from a workout earlier in the week where I did more than I should have. Rookie mistake.
The good news was my arms felt a lot better. The bad news was I think I flooded my body with all the toxins from the blood in those sore arms and didn’t drink enough water to flush them out before I went to bed.
Everyone got up and started eating a big breakfast to get ready for the climb. I went in the bathroom and vomited. Twice.
Some of the guys told me I could stay back if I didn’t feel well. Another told me he would turn back with me if I started and didn’t feel well enough to finish.
There were a lot of thoughts swirling in my head.
What if I go and drag everybody down? What if I have to puke again all through the climb? If I can’t eat and then start climbing a mountain what will my body do?
Then I had another set of thoughts.
How will I feel if I came all this way just to back out now? How will I feel when I see the pictures of all the guys at the summit and I’m not in them? What will I tell my wife when she asks how the climb went? What will I regret more, trying and failing or not trying at all?
It’s cliche, but I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “You came here to climb a mountain. Get dressed, pack your bag, and go climb the damn mountain.”
I did just that. I ate a banana, drank another bottle of water, put on my layers and got in the van.
I had more valid excuses as to why I shouldn’t or couldn’t do what I knew I needed to do. I chose to push on anyway.
Starting the journey to the top
The trailhead starts at 10,850 feet above sea level. Thankfully I already live at 4,400 feet, so I had that much more acclimation to altitude than my friends from sea level.
Early on, we were still stopping every 10-15 minutes to catch our breath and rest our legs. Quandary is considered an easier climb in the world of 14ers, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for a bunch of guys who don’t climb. It’s a tough task.
For the first two to three hours, each man naturally took the lead for some portion of the climb, pushing the others to keep moving forward. When someone needed to rest, we rested with them.
The beginning of the trail is through a nice wooded area. It’s a dirt path, well marked, a steady climb but not especially steep for the most part. There are natural breaks in the foliage to look out over beautiful vistas.
We often stopped to enjoy the world around us the higher we got.
And equally as important, we not only paused to gaze ahead at what was still to come, but turned around to also appreciate the progress we had made. When you’re tired, sore, out of breath and still looking at a big mountain ahead of you, it helps to reflect on how far you’ve come.
Funny enough, it’s easiest to see how far you’ve come just when the really hard part starts.
There’s a reason they call them the Rocky Mountains
Once we broke timberline, we still had something like 1,500 to 2,000 feet to climb and about half the 3.5 mile trail still to go, and it was all on big chunks of rock.
The climb also seemed to get steeper in this stretch, and because the air was growing thinner we found ourselves stopping more frequently to recover. Breaks were every four to five minutes now, although we tried to keep them brief. We recovered surprisingly quickly.
The hike was really starting to take its toll. We had been climbing about three hours when we reached a flat saddle area that, while still very rocky, was at least not a grueling uphill.
Along the way we actually had cell service. The guys would Facetime with their kids or wives at various points. One guy shot a video log of the journey to share with his sons. Dad Edge Alliance founder Larry Hagner went on Facebook Live in the group during parts of the climb to share the experience with others. All that got put on pause soon enough.
At this point we were approaching the final ascent, an unforgiving 1,000-foot incline at around a 35-degree slope (although it felt steeper).
This is where two guys who were in better shape decided they wanted to prove to themselves that they could make better time. They pushed themselves to higher speed and fewer breaks on the way to the top.
Five of us traveled more or less together, encouraging one another, pushing where necessary, and looking after everyone.
The final push
Beyond 13,000 feet, we were sucking air, our legs were screaming, and it was all we could do to pick up our feet and climb a couple dozen feet at a time.
My friend Casey was exhausted. He’s a big man, flew in from the Oregon coast, and had been pushing hard all day. Now, with another hour of climbing ahead of him, he was running on pure heart and stubbornness. Jason, Rashad and I weren’t much better. We all took about 25-30 steps at a time and then rested for 30-90 seconds just to have the energy to take the next 25-30 steps.
I admit, there were several times where I was stopped, sitting on a rock, looking up at the hundreds of feet of monotonous, excruciating climbing in front of me, and thought, “This is probably far enough. It’s way higher than I ever thought I’d get. Why not just stop now and head back down?”
Then I looked at Casey, still pushing along, head down, a picture of determination. I looked at Jason and Rashad, just a few feet ahead or behind at any given moment, still climbing, still right there with me. We all decided we were going to make it to the top of this mountain.
I thought again of looking at myself in the mirror that morning. The sickness had long since subsided. My heart hadn’t given me the least bit of trouble. I came here to climb the damn mountain. Stop looking for a way out and climb the damn mountain.
From that point on I was singularly focused. Pick up foot, put down foot, pick up other foot, put down other foot. Look ahead, pick your next resting spot, then get from here to there.
In that moment it wasn’t about how far I’d come or how far I had left to go. It was just about grinding out each little bit in front of me. It was feeling the burn, sucking wind, wondering how people thought it was fun or a good idea to climb these things, and then getting up and doing it anyway.
Reaching the summit
After four and a half hours of climbing, we finally reached the top!
I grabbed Casey in a hug. We had done it. All of us.
When I bought the plane ticket I wasn’t sure I would make it all the way up the mountain. When I woke up that morning I wasn’t sure I would even make it to the trail. Yet there I was, standing 14,265 feet atop the Earth, looking across the expanse of Colorado’s majestic wilderness.
It was an overwhelming feeling.
I considered this climb a referendum on my excuses. I had always told myself things like this were for other people. People in better shape, with normal hearts, outdoorsy types who liked getting out in nature. It wasn’t something I was going to do.
Now I could say for sure those limiting beliefs were all lies. I could do it. I did do it.
I can also say I would not have done it were it not for those six guys on the summit with me.
They gave me a reason to start climbing. They inspired me to keep climbing. And when I considered turning around, I felt an obligation to them to stick with it and see it out, if nothing else because I could also be their inspiration to keep going in that moment.
That’s the power of finding people to scale your mountains with. You need a tribe on whom to lean, and with which to grow, to struggle, to persevere, to inspire and be inspired by, and to celebrate.
What I’ve learned through this experience
I sat on that peak reflecting on other limiting beliefs I have. The kinds that can’t be tested on a mountain in Colorado but whose shadows in my mind stretch just as far as Mount Quandary’s.
I can create any excuse I want to justify why it’s easier not to do something that might be hard or makes me uncomfortable. I’m sure you can, too. We’re wired that way. To maintain the status quo. To welcome the devil we do know instead of the one we don’t.
Fear is not an excuse to not try. It is a prompt to ask better questions and find stronger answers.
Find people who will share your struggle, who will climb along with you, pushing you to new heights.
There will always be easy ways out. Don’t take them. You’ll regret it in the end.
We are capable of more than we often give ourselves credit for.
Joy is an emotion best shared with others who understand your circumstances.
I’m ready to find my next mountain to climb and my next set of excuses to bury. Because they’re all bullshit.
Just put one foot in front of the other…
See you at the top.
Great story! You captured the way it feels to climb at altitude just the way I remember it. That last 1000 feet of elevation is always at a glacial pace! My wife and I did one of those 14’rs in Colorado last year, I think it was Yale but I get all the collegiate peaks mixed up. We did not acclimate at all, took it on our second day out of 200 ft elevation Arkansas. We are both over 60 and it was a bear! We made it, I slipped at the very top on some loose scree and wrenched a knee which made the five mile hike out a pretty fierce experience but we finally crawled out, although I’m pretty sure we were the last people on the mountain. We are looking at Long’s Peak in the RMNP next year, it has a pretty scary, slip and you die section so we are still having to think that through. We are runners, so we have a slight advantage in endurance over most people our age, but altitude is a funny thing and it doesn’t necessarily respect your fitness level if you haven’t acclimated properly.
I was amazed at some of the people who were climbing. There was a woman who must have been in her 70s who summitted about an hour after us. She got up to the top and told me, “That was probably my last one of these. This is a young person’s game.” Man, serious respect to her for tackling that thing solo like that! If I had more of my brain working at the time I would have liked to hear her story.
I heard about Long’s Peak and the sketchy part. I don’t have the cojones to put my life at risk for a good view 🙂 There were some 20ish ladies going out and posing all graceful and whatnot on a big rock that was jutting out and we all had to look away. It was terrifying seeing that! Luckily no one fell and the rock held, but there are a handful of people every year who don’t live to see how that picture turned out.
I can’t imagine having to get down the mountain on a bum knee. I was worried about twisting an ankle or something. The rocks are just loose. I slid a couple times, but nothing too scary. And you’re right, altitude is the great equalizer.
Congrats on the climb! The parallels to life — one foot in front of the other — are simple yet profound. I agree that going on an adventure, like a climb, is a great way to get exercise and push past your comfort zone. I find that when I tie walking to a place, rather than just on the treadmill, it makes me want to do more. My husband and I have been visiting different parks and nature trails now that we both have flexible work schedules. We live in NYC, but there are a surprising number of beautiful parks and trails very close by, and even within the city limits!