This past weekend I climbed Mt. Stratton 17 times to get to a total of 29,029 feet of accumulated elevation, the height of Mt. Everest.
“What, LGO, that’s crazy! How did I not even know you were doing this? I’d think you’d be posting about training and preparation and such…”
Don’t be offended; I told very few people about it in advance. I didn’t post about it at all. And I didn’t really train or prepare for it. Frankly, I felt the whole thing kind of silly. I know people who have climbed actual Everest, after all, and this felt a little like, well, a privileged, weekend warrior, fashion-fitness boondoggle where difficult conditions are simulated to make you feel like a tough guy in the midst of a whole lot of glamping creature comforts.
So, yeah, I was wrong about all of that. (And, I definitely should have trained.)
Here’s what it actually was: ice and snow and mud and slime and wind and guts and grit and tenacity and hot spots and blisters and joy and community and exhaustion and determination and community and love. It was highs, it was lows, it was rapid-fire whiplash between the two with every single slogging uphill step. It was physically challenging, but that paled in comparison to the mental and emotional flaying.
The Navy Seals have a saying when they clear a room: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
About two-thirds of the way up the first ascent, I had a technical problem with one of my poles and pulled a random stranger aside to ask for help. His name was Monty and he was climbing with friends from Texas who carried the ashes of one of their brethren, with the intention of spreading them at the top when they finished. We got to talking and then two guys who were walking behind us joined into our conversation. Shawn, who served in the US Army in Iraq, was in from Pennsylvania and doing this hike to raise money for veterans. Matt from New York was doing 17 hikes to raise money for a foundation in honor of Harris, a dear family friend who died at age 17 from cancer. (Hot tip: links below if you’d like to throw a few bucks their way.) At the aid station at the top of the mountain, we grabbed a few Stroop Waffles, and tried to eat them on the gondola down for fast fuel. We realized with the 25-degree summit conditions, they were frozen hard, so we put them in our pockets for the next ascent, figuring they’d warm up. And, #teampocketwaffles was born.
We spent the next 16 hours pushing and pulling each other up the mountain that first day. Leave no Pocket Waffle on the field! Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Manage to climb four, then do four more, then change into dry socks. Strap on a headlamp and get in two more in the dark before taking a 30-minute break for dinner, and commit to two more, when most people had packed it in for the day, in the pitch dark and ice and winds before a hot bath and four-hour nap. Sets of four. Be where your feet are: just one climb, four times, three times over. Lather, rinse, repeat, and start again bright and early the next morning for four more — the last lap is free (at least emotionally)! — to complete the full seventeen ascents each in under an hour, and finish by the time the bar opened.
Of the 235 participants, 69% finished. A good number of participants were former professional NFL players, Navy Seals, world record holders for casual things like running across the Sahara or solo on-foot expeditions across Antarctica, or just, you know, those little ultra races like Last Man Standing or Leadville. But there was also a woman with a prosthetic leg and a man who weighed about 400lbs whose goal was to make it to the top of the mountain once (and he did, even though it took him the whole of the first day).
So, here’s what I learned: we all have our own Everest.
Yes, I know someone who climbed actual Everest (twice!). But there was someone whose goal was to conquer this mountain just one time. I’m guessing those efforts took just as much out of each of them.
Some people finished fast, climbing straight into the night and finishing before sunrise. Some people finished with five minutes left on the 36-hour clock. Some people set out with plans to climb the elevation of Kosciusko, or Vinson, or Kilimanjaro, or Denali, or Aconcagua. Or Everest. And each gave everything they had.
Everyone had their own goals, their own plan, their own demons, their own Everest.
Today, you probably woke up with a dream, a plan, a demon, an Everest. That unshakeable goal that you respect so much that you dare not even say it out loud. Maybe you think it’s silly? But it’s not.
The hardest thing about doing this hard thing wasn’t the hard. It was the do. One foot in front of the other, sets of four, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
So, are you ready to climb your Everest today?
P.S. If anything I say ever inspires you to do something great and find more within yourself, I encourage you to support Matt’s and Shawn’s fundraising efforts in honor of that, because they encouraged me all weekend to do something great and find more within myself. Here are the links:
The Gary Sinise Foundation, to honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, and their families in need.
Hope and Heroes Foundation, in honor of Harris.