Thursday, February 19, 2015

Seek The Fear. Then Pocket It.

I’ve always looked a little kooky at snowboarders as a group.
“Yeah, that’s cute… you in your baggy snowpants and flannel shirt scraping down the mountain and flattening out the bumps that us skiers worked so hard to carve out”. 
Snowboarding has always seemed like a little brother sport to skiing in my eyes. That being said, many of my close friends were/are knuckle draggers as well as my wife of almost 12 years.

But the thought of me, with 35 years of skiing under my belt, strapping into a board and sliding sideways down a mountain was as conceivable as me driving a pink Prius around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Not happening.

Then, last weekend, my 9 year old asked to take snowboarding lessons while in Steamboat. Then that same 9 year old asked me if I was scared to learn how to snowboard.
Dude called me out.
Cool your jets, punk. It’s on.

And before I knew it I was strapped into a board and sliding sideways down the bunny hill right beside him. 24 hours later I was “carving” down a steep slope next to my wife with a big fat grin on my face… all the while trying to contain the fear that was trying to bubble over with each toe-side turn.

Turns out, going toe-side and heel-side (carving from front to back) are pretty sketchy maneuvers when you’re not accustomed to doing so. I suppose it comes from the inert fear of slamming your fragile little noggin down on the hardpacked snow at a high rate of speed.  At first, each turn leaves you feeling exposed. But as with all things… it progressively gets easier. Every time you succeed at a turn you get more and more comfortable with it.

That is, until you catch an edge… and before you can even let out a pathetic, high pitched “Oh, shit”, your ass and back of your head slam into the snow simultaneously causing a resounding shock through your entire body.

Then the fear sets in so that you don’t go and do the same thing again.
Don’t go and do the same thing that just catapulted you into the snow again.
What… are you an idiot?

And thus I was reacquainted with my old friend fear or, as my amigos down south say, “El miedo”.

Fear is an evolutionary response to a threat.
Fear is designed to keep you alive. Epinephrine is injected into your body in large volumes when you’re stressed or fearful. Too much of it is unhealthy. Extended exposure to epi or cortisol is bad for your kidneys, your skin, your hair, and your emotional happy factor.

However, small doses are good. That noteworthy metal-like taste in your mouth just as you commit to a scary action… it reminds you that you are in fact very much alive.

Scary shit has been happening to us as a species for thousands of years. Historically it revolved around being chased and eaten by a saber tooth tiger or perhaps a few thousand generations later, it was running from a pillaging Norseman that was chasing you down with a bludgeoning hammer.

Nowadays… it’s less consequential.

Maybe it’s the threat of your boss firing you from your unsatisfying but necessary job. Or perhaps it’s receiving a $200 speeding ticket for going 55 in a 54 (thanks Jay Z).

Our moments of fear are cordoned off these days. We have to go seek out fear in our sterile society. We pursue activities like BASE jumping, mountain climbing, dirt biking and skydiving to get those archaic moments of true fear. To get flooded with epinephrine and cortisol. Then go home and relax on the couch with a beer in hand.

In my 20s and half of my 30s I sought out every opportunity I could find to get scared on rock faces and mountains all over the world. Fear was my friend. It was a drug and I was addicted. I used to love those idiots from the early 2000s with their “NO FEAR” stickers on the back of their jacked up F-150s. I would always think, “I’ll show you fear, dumbass.”

Then a wife comes along and it changes a slight shade.
Then a kid comes along and whoa Nelly… shit gets put on lock down. For no other reason than “I don’t want my kid to grow up without his daddy.”

As we get older the safety cocoon gets softer and pillowier. It’s easier to accept comfort and complacency. Why mess with comfort? Why risk my life? Why risk a broken bone? Takes 5 times as long to heal as it did when I was in my 20s. Even when it does, the arthritis will be a bitch. Not to mention… my achin back.

It’s easy to feel fear and back down. Our ancestors relied on that reaction to sustain our species. But now we live in a time when fear is designed and once we find it, we have to suppress it. Ironic for sure.

I made a conscious decision when I turned 40 to fight complacency tooth and nail. Even though I knew I would never climb the same scary shit I did 15 years ago, it was up to me if I wanted to keep my instincts sharp and stay emotionally engaged with my environment. I would have to redefine the pursuits that would keep me challenged and excited. Part of that equation was to feel scared when doing an activity.

For me it came down to picking up a new sport every few years.

Five years ago it was kitesurfing.
Talk about fear.
After a half dozen hours of lessons I decided to save money and just figure it out on my own in the dark depths of the Sea of Cortez. I remember physically trembling those first few times out solo.
At first I was holding on tight. Scared of getting hucked around by the kite. Scared of getting dragged under water. Scared of getting chomped on by a sea critter.

Then I let go. I quit holding on so tightly. I embraced the movement and pocketed the fear.

Once the fear was released the joy filled its place.

Five years later… kitesurfing is my absolute favorite activity on the planet.

This year, it’s snowboarding.
I noticed clearly this past weekend that when I held back due to fear, I would promptly be thrown forward or backward. Quickly. Painfully.

I realized after my first bumpy run (read ‘crash filled’), that in order to make these turns, I had to let it rip. I found myself sitting at the top of the run saying out loud, “Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid. Go hard in to the turn. Commit to the heel-side turn.” Once I embraced that, I was off. Carving. Cruising. Fast.

Not to say I didn’t fall and bust my ass a few more times. But I felt the motion and I was hooked.

Clearly there are unhealthy versions of fear. The hours you lay awake in bed worrying about this thing or that. The things that you can’t control. Those issues that seem monumental at 3:00am but are more manageable when you are up on your feet with a cup of coffee in your hand. Fear based culture is disseminated 24hrs a day by mainstream media. Sociopolitical behavior is controlled by the fear mongers  on CNN and Fox News. This is unhealthy fear.

Healthy fear is based on courage. And courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing that thing that scares you the most. Having courage to risk failure. Being courageous enough to fall down. Hard. And then get back up. Stretching yourself whenever you get the chance. Not necessarily with X Games sporting pursuits. It doesn’t have to be kitesurfing and snowboarding. It’s whatever you want it to be. But it has to scare you. Expose you. It has to contain doubt and a sense of the unknown. This is healthy fear.

Fear needs to be healthy. It’s primal. It’s one of the missing pieces of our primitive make-up.
See if you can remember the last time you were feeling absolute fear. That your life or limb was in ‘perceived’ danger. For most of us, it’s been awhile.

Go find that fear. Learn a new sport. Take a chance. Go toe-side. Get spooked a bit. Then pocket the fear.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Pledging Forward

Time to wax poetic about a new year, the passing of time and a new pledge…

I continue to find it fascinating how time actually accelerates as we age.  It just seems as though each year goes by faster than the previous… which flies right in the face of the laws of astrophysics as the Earth's rotation is actually slowing slightly with time. Atomic clocks show that a modern day is longer by about 1.7 milliseconds than a century ago.

What the cosmic hell? I was sure we were moving faster.

Perhaps it’s the markers in our lives that give us temporal reference:

Our kids…  
watching my son grow what appears to be about an inch every week or so gives me pause. As does his burgeoning wit and maturity. It seems his comedic timing becomes more polished everyday. Last week I was cleaning up a poopy diaper, this week I’m belly laughing at his humor-injected diatribe on what gauge gun is most appropriate to take down a “2,000 lb buck”.

Our pets…
watching my old pal Tucker struggle through the doggy realization that he can’t even walk a mile without a struggle anymore. Just a couple of years ago he was charging in the backcountry with me through deep powder. Now he finds it tough to slog his back end up the stairs. One day in the not so distant future he will be gone. And I/we will be heartbroken.  My 13 years with him a fleeting memory.

Our seasons…
Wait, we’re already half way through winter? It seems as though yesterday we were looking for relief from the 95* blazing sun and this morning I’m scraping ice off my windshield. Tomorrow it will be Spring and then Summer will be next week. Can you say Fast Times at Lifetime High?

Our calendars…
Perhaps its because as we age our responsibilities increase and our calendars fill up like your belly on Thanksgiving Day.  Hustle and bustle creates a fast forward environment… always planning and shuffling to and from the next event.

Time hovers over all of us, imposing its will.

If you distil down all that we know as a species… time is actually one of the only constants in life. It goes on, with or without us. No matter your religious or political sways, time plods along; the seconds consistently ticking by while the rest of the universe dances on the ebb and flow of chaos and order.

There is no way to stop time or even pause it. But perhaps there are a few ways to combat the perceived perception of this fleeting journey…

Time to be more engaged in life with the people you value. Make time for these people. Go on dates with your spouse. Go camping with your kids. Less television and video games. More meals together. More road trips. More adventures together.

Time to step away from social media and the narcissism of the gratuitous “look at me” selfie. We know how cool your life is. Go live it.

Time to cull the toxic people from your environment. We all have at least 1 or 2. They pull at your bandwidth. They take you away from the things that are precious. Time is too precious for that.

Time to sit less and stand more. Be outside more than inside. If it’s cold… put more clothes on. Run through the trees and tromp through the creeks.

Time to seek out new adventure. Use your passport. Eat weird food. Pick up a new sport. Take on a new hobby.

The dusty old New Year resolution is so 20th century. It’s time to make a pledge. This is a promise to you. You are accountable for your pledge and seeing it through.

My pledge(s):

I pledge to be a better human. A better spouse. A better father. A better son. A better brother. A better teammate.
I pledge to try 6 things that scare the shit out of me.
I pledge to attempt at least 6 things this year that will most likely end in failure.

All of us at No Barriers have agreed to take the pledge.  It’s your turn…

Once we appreciate the value of time we are better equipped to manage it.
Time will pass by this year just as fast as it did last year…but I pledge to be more proactive in how I live in it.

“Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”
                                                                                    -Bonnie Raitt

Friday, September 19, 2014

It's Not About The Mountain

Typically when a team arrives on top of a well-earned mountain summit, the moment is met with a loud chorus of yee-haws, high fives and bear hugs. I’ve been a part of many of those scenes on summits all over the world over the past 20 years.

Not this time…

The 2014 Soldiers to Summits capstone expedition culminated last week with a summit of Mt Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. At 14,505ft, it stands as the highest point in the contiguous United States. When I first accepted the role as the expedition leader for this years capstone trip, I have to admit that I was a little uninspired with the choice of Whitney. Clearly it doesn’t carry the allure or prestige of a Himalayan peak or the exotic nature of a mountain down in the Andes. However our main sponsor, Wells Fargo, had requested in their support of the expedition that we keep our training and peak objective within the borders of the lower 48 states.  

You bet… we can do that.

In preparation for our final expedition in the Sierras, the team came together for two separate training exercises in the Rockies of Colorado. It quickly became very clear to me and my leadership team that this year’s group of injured veterans was remarkable. We had selected well. Each of them embodied the characteristics that we strive to recruit for each of our S2S experiences… maturity, a willingness to grow and heal as well as a solid, collaborative energy. More so than any of the past iterations of S2S, this team was ready to charge forward with solid intent.

We came together as a team during our trainings… we came together as a family while we were trekking towards Whitney.

The week we spent together deep in the Sierra backcountry gave us the opportunity to embrace the mountains and each other…  learning, growing and healing along the way. The mountains don’t always give us what we want but they always give us what we need.

As the morning of September 11th dawned, all twenty of us stepped on to the summit of Whitney just as the nautical twilight was starting to cast its glow over the horizon. We took those final steps and gazed east, watching the day dawn over a country that is still hurting from those devastating events 13 years earlier. We paused to remember those that were lost both on that day and as a result of conflicts that sprang from the events of 9/11. In fact, the vast majority of the men and women on this trip had enlisted or were brought back in to active duty as a result of that horrific day…. their lives changed forever.

I’ve been on bigger and bolder mountains. I’ve been on tougher and colder mountains. But I have never been as proud as I was that morning standing on top of that mountain with those men and women. Quietly. Solemnly.
We hugged each other… one by one. Very few words spoken. Many subtle smiles exchanged with a knowing glance. We knew why we were there. We were there to remember. To honor. To heal.

Because it’s not about the mountain. It’s about the people.

Climb High

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Will The Real Civilized Culture Please Stand Up

Just returning from a month of globetrotting to various remote corners of the world, mixing mostly work with a little bit of play. I’m grateful to all of the good people that I was fortunate enough to share time with scampering around some wonderfully inspiring alpine settings.  I never tire of witnessing my clients/friends embrace the beauty and challenge of movement through mountainous terrain and interfacing with the hardy local folks.

This month was truly another wonderful collection of vivid memories and images of local villages and homes speckled on the flanks of mountains and hills on 2 different continents. The simple life that appears before us as we tramp through some of the more secluded regions seems so rudimentary to most of us… with their lack of running water, cell phones and grocery stores. It’s easy to look across the valley at one of the thatch roofed homes with sheep and goats milling about and feel a bit of despondency for the inhabitants at how tough their life must be.  

“It must be so hard to live in such a primal way. Bless their hearts.”

And then, if you’re lucky, you have a face-to-face encounter with one of the locals. You see the wide smiles and note the sense of comfort in their eyes. You feel that they need very little to be happy. Food, shelter and family. Undoubtedly they experience pain and sorrow due to disease, crop failure and lack of health care, but they exude this sense of being satisfied with what they have in front of them.

On the second leg of my work month I was in Peru with a wonderful group of Gold Star women ( that are the living, breathing definition of resiliency. Recounting the characteristics of these amazing women and their fortitude is another story entirely.  One of these women has been sponsoring a Peruvian child for several years and decided she would try to meet the child and his family while visiting the Cusco region on our adventure. After many phone calls and much effort from her and the sponsor agency, the meeting was arranged. The rest of the group was invited to watch and listen in as the meeting took place. At one point during the meeting it was conveyed to our group that this was the first time this family had left their hillside village. The first time they had been transported by vehicle. The first time any of them had ever been inside a building or seen Americans (or white people for that matter). This beautiful family of 5 handled this “strange” encounter with dignity and calmness. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must have been to have a group of 12 Americans sitting across from them in a hotel lobby, smiling and asking questions about their lives. The children walked 3 miles each way to school everyday… rain, snow or sun. They lived modestly and trusted that the earth and Pachamama would provide all they needed to survive.  These families value the opportunity to go to school and aren’t afraid to work for it while we complain if the bus is late to pick up our kids or our plane is delayed an hour (try walking from LA to Chicago the next time your plane is late).

Unbeknownst to them, the world went on bustling and careening around them.

On this same Peruvian trip I was required to medically evac one of the participants from 13,500 ft due to a very significant medical event. After a fairly touch and go 24 hours, complete with early morning horseback rides and hospital visits, I finally tucked her into a hotel room in Cusco and retreated to my own room for some much needed rest. Not sure why, but I was inclined to turn on CNN just to see what was happening in the world.

Innocence is best served in the dark.

“500 Palestinians are now confirmed dead in Gaza”
“Israeli soldier taken hostage and tortured”
“50 combatants killed while battling over an airstrip in Tripoli, Lybia”
“Ukrainians place blame of downed commercial airliner squarely on Russia”
“Another commercial airplane disappears over Algiers”
“Female correspondent sexually assaulted by mob”

The news cycle played out. Then as it began to repeat… I had had enough. It was all just vitriolic pain.  Every word contentious and coming from a place of anger and hate. Our “civilized” world was in complete disarray with no end in sight.

I reflected back to that sweet, wonderfully naïve Quechan family that would not even be able to relate to all the pain that their fellow humans were inflicting on each other. They were, at that moment, just lying down with the sunset, awaiting another day of planting, harvesting and grazing. Nothing more.

As these travesties against humanity take place, these families go about their business just as they have for thousands of years, oblivious to the pain, sorrow and violence that is taking place around the world.

I’m not suggesting that western society should disavow our technology and cultural advancements and resort to a more “underdeveloped” way of life … nor am I suggesting that I would trade my comfy life with my campesino friends. I would simply ask each of us, me included, to reflect on the simple nature of life and how we can become more civil with each other.  Our needs are fundamental… food, water, shelter and love. If we could live more simply and allow others to achieve their basic needs, the world be a much more “civilized” place.

Climb High