The thought of telling everyone that I did not successfully summit Ojos del Salado (Ojos), the tallest, active volcano in the world, scared me immensely. But, the more I thought about it, that is really what bothered me most, the judgement that would be passed at my failure. The more I thought, the more I realized, it didn’t actually bother me that I didn’t summit. I made the choice to turn back at 6,500 meters (21,325 feet), the highest I have ever climbed to because I was having to stop and catch my breath after every 5 to 10 steps I took. It was a good decision for me to turn back when I did because I had almost no energy to get back down even from that point. I had to stop continuously to rest. Even if I did make it to the summit at 6,893 meters (22,614 feet), I don’t know how I would have ever made it back down to base camp the same day at 5,255 m (17,240 ft).
Climbing that high on my own two feet was a success for me. I was also able to successfully summit my first 6,000 meter peak, Volcano San Francisco (6,018 m = 19,744 ft) which was an acclimatization hike before Ojos. I also felt good about that. However, even though I was happy about summiting my first 6,000 meter peak and reaching an elevation of 6,500 meters on Ojos, I will not pretend that either was a particularly enjoyable experience. I struggled with the altitude every day during the acclimatization process and we did our summit push one day early because of weather conditions, so it is not surprising I had trouble on summit day. I was also struggling with my chronic back issues. Breaking down camp and setting it back up multiple times during the climb, quite frankly, sucked. This process really caused a flare up of my back pain, which became worse the night before our summit attempt where I carried an approximately 35 lb pack up to high camp. I also became frustrated multiple times each day just fighting with the zippers on my tent to get them open and closed. All of the dust makes it impossible to keep the zipper tracks clear of debris. After 12 days of this, I felt that being trapped in a blistering hot tent, as you struggle frantically to open the zipper so you can get a breath of fresh air, could be used as an effective form of mental torture.
I was overwhelmed by the extreme heat from the desert and the huge gusts of wind that covered my body and all open orifices with a coating of dust. This left me always feeling gritty sand in my mouth, blowing out all sorts of nasty stuff from my nose every day and a nagging cough that began on summit day, as my body tried to expel all of the dust I had been inhaling for days. All these things just exacerbated the stress my body was feeling from the altitude, which ultimately led to the culmination of an unsuccessful summit attempt.
After my failed summit attempt on Ojos, I was provided with the option to climb another 6,000 meter peak on our reserve day. But I chose not to. Part of it was because of my back, but part of it was just because I knew it wouldn’t be enjoyable. It would be another volcano, with no path. Just traipsing our way up a mound of rocks and dust, hoping that you didn’t roll your ankle on one of the millions of little wobbly rocks, that I not-so-fondly refer to as ankle-busters. Dust flying up in the air with every step and being blown around further by the strong gusts of wind that we had no protection from besides the layers of clothes we had on us. Being roasted to death because we would have to be covered head to toe to protect ourselves from the sun, while at the same time being bombarded by huge gusts of wind that would just cover us in additional layers of dust. I felt that was a huge step for me to say, “No, I’m not going to climb that mountain because it offers me a ‘do-over’.” I don’t need to prove anything to myself or anyone else. I knew I would not find climb enjoyable, so I wasn’t going to do it just to prove that I am capable of climbing high mountains to someone else.
Please don’t get me wrong, the whole climb was not horrible. I got to soak in the hot springs at Laguna Verde, which provided me with a little slice of heaven in the harsh desert. I got to see wild vicuñas and guanacos (both belong to the same family as camels, just like alpacas), foxes, and flamingos. I was shocked to see any form of life in such a barren desert. I did enjoy some spectacular views, including a rainbow like I have never seen before as we were leaving Ojos base camp on New Year’s Day. These will be my most treasured moments from my 12 days in the Atacama desert and I am so grateful for each and every one of these experiences.
I have been doing some soul searching for some time on my mountaineering goals. Much of this reflection started during my 33-day trip to Russia this past summer. Traveling East to West through this amazing country was the most spectacular experience of my life, to date, and the climb of Mount Elbrus was not even close to being my favorite part of the trip. If I’m honest, it was actually one of the least favorite parts of my trip. I was just afraid to tell the world that because that climb was my main mission for traveling to Russia in the first place. Then, I take this trip to Chile, where the best parts for me were, again, outside of the climb. This trip really solidified for me that I want to climb mountains and do treks that are known for being beautiful and enjoyable, not just because they are on a list of impressive mountains to climb.
I’ve been asking myself honestly, do I really want to spend two months climbing Mount Everest? Do I really want carry a 50 lb pack and drag a 50 lb sled up and down Mount Denali? Do I really want to set up and break down camp most days on Denali? Do I want to spend a small fortune to put myself through all of these hardships, just to prove that I can do hard things? The answer is a resounding NO to each of these questions. I already know I can make it through hard things (read my story here). I know that I am much happier sleeping in a bed and being able to shower and shave. I know I can have significantly more experiences by spending less money on shorter climbs and traveling to even more countries and doing even more while I am there.
I truly feel that the universe put the other two climbers in my group with me for a reason. Chie and Pedro, who I am very happy to report, were both able to summit Ojos del Salado, even though I had to turn back. Chie is an attorney from Japan that has already completed the 7 summits, the highest point on each continent, and is now working on the second 7 summits, the second highest point on each continent. I feel the universe put her in my path, so I could really learn what it is like to climb the 7 summits. Pedro is an economist from Portugal, who has traveled to more countries than any person I have ever met before. I feel the universe put him in my path at the same time of Chie’s so I could have solidified on one hand for me that the 7 summits are not actually something I want to pursue, while on the other hand solidify for me that there are so many other countries to visit and treks I can do that can be even more magical than the 7 summits. Pedro inspired me with stories of exotic adventures around the world and he provided me with numerous examples of some of the most magical places on Earth that I should visit.
I think it is important to be flexible with our goals. A couple of my big ones have been to be on Mount Everest on my 40th birthday and to finish the 7 summits. It’s not that I am completely giving up on my plans to climb these mountains, it’s just that I am realizing that it’s traveling through different countries and experiencing different places, people, food, etc. that I love most about my adventures abroad. It’s not actually the mountains that I climb that I love the most.
I am also not giving up on hiking and climbing altogether. I will still continue to plan at least two major international trips each year. I am just going to focus on climbing mountains because they are known for being beautiful, not because there are a bunch of people chasing to the top of it to place a check mark on a sheet of paper. I am also not poo-pooing on people who are into peakbagging because I have enjoyed my fair share of it. I am just ready to move on and do treks through some of the most remarkable places on Earth. I want to trek through the mountains of Fiji, Scotland, Peru, Jamaica, Vietnam, and New Zealand, just because I hear they are stunning places to trek through.
I also want to open up my trips to new adventures that I’ve always dreamed of like scuba diving. My favorite experience during my trip to Russia was paragliding, which has always been on my bucket list. I want to do more of those things. I only have so much time and financial resources for traveling every year. If I keep dedicating these resources to climbs with ever-increasing expense and duration, I will not have as many of these resources available for other mind-blowing experiences. Taking the 7 summits off from my bucket list takes a lot of financial pressure off from me. Just climbing these 7 mountains alone would cost me around $200,000 and that is if I am successful on the first shot on each one. $200,000 can surely buy me a lot more than just 7 adventures.
I think declaring your goals to the world is important to create accountability for yourself, but you have to also know it is ok to change paths if the path you are on no longer works for you. You aren’t stuck to that path because you said that is what you wanted initially. I have changed paths many times in my life and each time it has proved to be for the best. The key is that I didn’t remain stagnant after I shifted paths, I moved onto an even more exciting and fulfilling path.
I also think it is important to distinguish between giving up on a goal because it’s hard versus giving up on a goal because it not actually giving you the happiness you were looking to achieve from it. I now know that if I were to continue to pursue these really long expeditions, I wouldn’t be doing it because I actually wanted to. I would be doing it to save face and not let people think I am backing down from my goal because it is hard. I am just altering my course to put me on a much more enjoyable path. I truly believe that we can design our life but we have to regularly check in with ourselves to see if the path we are on is still the one we want to be on. That’s why checking in with our goals on a regular basis is so important. To make alterations, if necessary.
My experience on Ojos was so significant to me that I included it in my book, Transformation After Trauma: Embracing Post-Traumatic Growth. Sign up here to begin reading the Introduction and Chapter 1 for free!