The Adversity Advantage – Excerpt #4

The start of a new year is always a good time to reflect upon the past and to look forward to the future. It is a chance to rethink our attitudes and viewpoints. Rather than falling into predictable patterns and thinking the same old ways, we can make changes and try new approaches that will yield better results.

The following excerpt from Chapter One my book, The Adversity Advantage, provides a vivid example of why it is important to be willing to make changes from within. Indeed, while we plan ahead as best we can, it is wise to remain flexible in our thinking.

I have learned from experience that when we turn into the storm, the path will almost always get tougher, involve more pain, and take longer than we ever predicted. When it seems the hardest, it will be tremendously tempting to fall back into old habits—those defenses that have failed us time and time again.

Years ago, this happened to me on an attempt of Mt. Kenya, a 17,000-foot volcanic rock monolith, jutting vertically out of the East African plains. As always, my climbing partner, Charley Mace, and I prepared diligently, planning our climb for September, smack in the middle of the warm dry season. We ecstatically envisioned pulling our way up 3000 feet of finger-width cracks in sunny equatorial Africa, wearing sticky rubber climbing shoes, a helmet, t-shirt and shorts, in other words, climbers’ heaven.

But after a three-day approach in the completely unexpected pouring rain, Charley looked up at the face and was silent for a long time before saying, “E, it’s totally different from the pictures. It looks more like a peak in Alaska. The face is covered in snow and ice.” His voice revealed astonishment and disappointment. I turned to our local guide. “I thought this was the dry season.”

“It is,” he insisted, “but with global warming, everything is changing—snowing during dry season—drought during rainy season. The farmers don’t even know when to plant their crops anymore.”

So our expectations for a quick and pleasant rock climb were dashed. Instead, we waited out a week of relentless snowfall, while the face remained shrouded in mist, hoping the conditions would improve. When it didn't, we sat down to have a frank discussion about our options. The ascent would now become a lot tougher than we had hoped. To have a chance to summit, we'd need to abandon our plan for a fast one-day ascent. It would now take us at least two days. Rather than scurrying up with minimal gear, we would need to schlep heavier packs crammed with stoves, sleeping bags and a tent, and spend a night squeezed on to an uncomfortable ledge halfway up the face. We'd also need to be more painstakingly methodical as we placed our boots on ledges covered with ice and jammed our hands in cracks choked with snow. Sections that were easy when dry would require a lot more effort.

By the end of our conversation, Charley and I were reeling under all the new realities. The idea of totally changing our plan, our approach, and our expectations, was way too overwhelming. Maybe the face wouldn't be as difficult as we thought. Maybe we'd climb faster than anticipated. Maybe we'd get a perfect, bluebird day. Wasn't it supposed to be the dry season? In the end, despite all the game-changing facts thrown in our faces, I found myself packing for a one-day attempt.

So when the night sky actually appeared clear, we left at 3:00 AM and committed to an all-out push. We tried to feel positive and optimistic. I remember actually thinking, with a little luck, we might just make it. However, it's not often adversity throws you a bone.

About half way up, the face began to change. As predicted, the cracks were choked with ice, and the lower angled faces were totally covered in snow, slowing us down to a crawl. It shouldn't have been a surprise when, about noontime, it started snowing and hailing.

We tried to hang tough, putting in unbelievable effort to keep going, but two hours later, the snow melting on the face and pouring icy water into our upturned sleeves, we were exhausted and getting cold fast. We knew we were beaten. Shivering, we made the long, demoralizing rappel down to camp and called off the climb. The good news is that the next year, we came back and reached the summit under almost identical conditions.

Looking back, what defeated us on our first attempt wasn’t the mountain. It was that we couldn't summon the resolve to take on the kind of climb that was required. The mountain wasn’t going to change. The changes had to come from within us.

Since then, I've learned a valuable lesson: It's not enough to face the facts. We need to act on them and to follow them where they lead us. By stepping into adversity, I've gained a whole new understanding. From the moment I begin the ascent, I know that if I fully take on the challenge, I grow and deepen as a person, but it's hardly ever an easy climb.

I hope you find these excerpts useful. Of course, it would be great if you would buy my book too!

Have a wonderful and happy new year!