Winter air pours across my exposed neck and face as I reach out to grasp the handle of a large timber-framed door. Slowly the door creaks open, leading inside a friendly mountain lodge. I move through a few more doors, and finally come to meet the team. It’s almost nine in the evening and the climb team is gathered inside the Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt. Hood, preparing for their first mountain climb. Some are huddled by a stone fireplace keeping warm, others are making final gear adjustments on the floor, and a few pace about, trying to relax before we set-trail. Nervous chatter fills this space. Anticipation, excitement, and fear are palpable between each “hello”.
A few large north-facing windows frame the moment best. I walk over and peer out. Mt. Hood stands tall and silent, covered in crystallized white ice and snow, somber and ready for our arrival. The mountain is slowly turning a deep blue and orange as the sun fades behind the hills. A beautiful and thrilling sight. I take a deep breath, a moment to calm and center myself. I check my watch, it’s now nine o’clock and time to go. Turning back, I cut through the team’s excited chatter, and announce, “Alright, it’s time”.
As if we are readying ourselves for battle, we make our final gear preparation, tightening our boots, securing our helmets, adjusting our packs and wielding our ice axes in hand. We are ready to climb. With five months of training behind us, now an entire mountain is looming overhead. For the next few hours we put it all on the line. A four mile trek, and six thousand feet of elevation gain up to the summit. A serious gut-check. An adventure, filled with perseverance, fear, and achievement. We gather for a final briefing, shout our team mantra “No Limits!”, and set up the snowy hill. No turning back now. Off we go into the darkness; one step up at a time.
One month ago, the climb team was on it’s way up the snowy slopes of Mt. Hood, testing it’s limits for the first time. Our team mantra since our first hike has been “no limits!”, a statement reminding ourselves that we can go farther and do more together. This mantra was put to the test on Mt. Hood. We met our limit that night. Only one program climber made it to the summit. As we sauntered back down the mountain, failure hung overhead and the team was at a crossroads.
“Will we go on? ‘No limits’, really? Can we actually go farther together?” Valid, unspoken questions standing in the face of a newly formed team.
As I look back on the Mt. Hood climb and our ascent upward, I’d like to share my reflections and the story that’s unraveling.
Each year we come to this point. A true test of “team”; a real moment of definition. Everyone reaches Mt. Hood, ready or not, and we climb. Not knowing what the mountain will give us or how the team will perform. And it seems that year after year this mountain becomes a turning point in the story; a real change of perspective.
This year was quite the gut check. To start, before we even arrived at Mt. Hood, two of our program climbers could not climb for a few personal reasons. Next, we climbed with a strong and constant thirty mile-an-hour wind, sucking the energy right out of us as we hiked. After seven hours of slow climbing, three climbers called it quits only five hundred feet from the summit. Exhausted and freezing, we were down to one program climber out of six. We reached the top through a near-vertical ice chute called “the Pearly Gates”. This was a tough climb.
For those that made it to the top, there was excitement and pride. For those that did not, disappointment and failure. If you do not climb Mt. Hood, you do not continue on. Summiting Mt. Hood is the prerequisite climb to our Mt. Rainier climb in August.
Failure is a part of life, but never easy. This makes life hard. The challenge of failure becomes less about the actual failure itself and more about how we choose to respond in the face of failure. With such little success after a first difficult climb what are we supposed to do next? How would we respond in the face a failure?
As a leader, I have made it very clear that both in climbing and in life, it’s not about the summit of a mountain, but the journey it takes to get there. Often we have no idea what life will give us or what will be around each bend. It’s important we are ready and well supported to take on the challenges that come our way. Sometimes we have to change our plans, adjust, and reset our perspective. We have to take a turn in the road.
For those climbers that did not summit Mt. Hood that night, that was supposed to be the end. After a few days of emails back and forth, we were reminded that “the team” itself was the most important part of the program. We shout “no limits!” before every workout or climb for a reason, and we were going to stick by this mantra. We were a team, summit or not. We were going to stick with it, train harder, and continue on together this year.
Mountains are not easy to climb, that’s why we climb them. They challenge us significantly in each faculty of our being. Since Mt. Hood each climber has reflected on their experience differently. But one underlying theme that’s risen is that we are a team, and we will continue on together. Many have mentioned that their perspective shifted days following that climb. They realized that the team and the relationships they formed are the most important part of this program. That together, with trust and hard work, they can do more together than apart. A turning point in the story; a real change of perspective.
Mt. Rainier comes in 54 days. And 54 days with more twists and turns in this story. But together, we are stronger. “No Limits!” remains our mantra, whether we fail or succeed, we continue forward.