Dec 30, 2010

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!

Dec 30, 2010

Support Matt—vote now, vote often!

Mike Moniz, CEO of Circadence, was a major sponsor of our Soldiers to the Summit Expedition. His son, Matt, is a nominee for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. This summer, at age 12, with his dad, Matt climbed to the highest peak in all 50 states, including formidable and dangerous Mt. McKinley/Denali (20,320′) — in just 43 days. Matt is also well on his way to climbing the Seven Summits, with Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua already added to his Denali feat.

Please vote for Matt. Promise: It takes less than a minute. And you can vote every day until January 15. Last year it took about 10,000 votes to win.

You can read more about Matt here and here. He’s a great kid who is well grounded and sincere.

Dec 23, 2010

Seasons Greetings!

As the end of the year approaches, I look back on a 2010 that was exhausting, but exciting and fulfilling too. I had many highlights but the absolute apex was my Soldiers to the Summit Expedition in October. I was recently combing through and found two letters, one from the mother of our soldier teammate, Mat Nyman, and the second from Brian Smith, who leads 3DATS, one of our sponsors. It’s a satisfying feeling to know this climb made a difference in both of their lives.

Below are reprinted both letters:

I am speaking as a mother to one of your climbers (Matt Nyman) and also as a friend to other mothers of wounded soldiers. I don’t know if you will ever understand the profound effect you have had on not only your climbers lives, but to those around them.

I can’t imagine what it is like to be able to summit the mountains, when these young men and women have been forever changed by each of their injuries. The gift you have given each of the climbers, and their family and friends cannot be measured in dollars, nor can it ever be repaid.

Each of these courageous soldiers have pushed both their minds and their bodies to places I am sure they thought they would never again be able to go. I know this is just the first in many new and life changing experiences for each of them. You all will have so many new doors open to you simply because you have a new sense of self confidence, and your experience is something not only to be proud of, but that others will look to you as a role model.

To the climbers that put on this expedition, may God continue to watch over you and bless you for what you have done for each of these young men and women. For you to come back to each of these soldiers, and see what they continue to do with their lives would be great.

To all of the sponsors of this climb, I want to say thank you. When deciding how to allocate future funds for causes that come your way, I hope you continue to support this cause. It has such a profound and life changing effect on not just the climbers but also their friends and families. Kudos to you for giving to such a good cause. You could be proud to have any one of these young men and women represent your company.

Sometimes donors wonder if the money that they gave to a cause is being used well, and if it really helped or made a difference. Let me say that I have never seen a cause for the wounded warriors that 100% helps each of them and others around them. I will make sure to purchase from when I can from each sponsor.


I’ve donated to many charities over the years, everything from St. Jude’s to Paws with a Cause, but I’ve never felt that my charity has had as meaningful and worthwhile an impact as the one made for this expedition. As a fellow soldier, I am humbled by what all these soldier climbers have gone through and the drive that they have shown. The impact that the expedition has made on the soldiers is very obvious, and it would be obvious to anyone that has followed the expedition at all. Hopefully all the soldiers know that many others (sponsors, support personnel, friends, and family) have also been impacted in no small way as well.

The precision displayed in the planning and execution of this entire expedition appears (at least from my perspective) as simply amazing, and fittingly similar to a well-executed military maneuver. My hats off to all of the admin and support personnel that pulled this off and got the soldiers safely up and down the mountain.

I’m sure many of the other sponsors feel the same way.

—Brian Smith
CGschool / MAJ U.S. Army

I wish you a wonderful holiday season! This is a time to count our many blessings—despite the challenges we all experience.


PS in case you missed it, this Veteran’s Day video tribute from our climb is also relevant for the holidays.

Dec 17, 2010

BrainPort wins major grant

For a couple of years now, I have been testing an exciting technology called BrainPort, which helps blind people “see” via a camera and a device that translates images into sensations on the tongue. It’s pretty amazing stuff!

The video below shows me using the first generation of BrainPort. This past spring, the BBC filmed me climbing Castelton Tower in Utah while I was testing the second generation device. That episode hasn’t aired yet so you’ll have to wait to see the spectacular footage. This technology has the potential to have a major impact on the lives of the blind people but it is still in the investigational stage and is not available yet.

Recently, Wicab, the company that is developing BrainPort, won a $3.2 million grant from the Defense Medical Research and Development Program. This will allow them to develop a third generation BrainPort, which I will demonstrate this summer at the No Barriers Summit. Wicab is also hoping to win a grant from so they can make the BrainPort a commercial reality that is available to blind people everywhere.

Dec 17, 2010

Full Scholarships to Cambodia

Students, would you like to visit Cambodia for 18-days next summer…for free?! If you are in high school and between 15 and 17 years, you can apply for a fully-funded cross-cultural exchange program that is operated by one of my favorite organizations, Global Explorers.

The American Youth Leadership Program is working with the US State Department and the AFAR Foundation to create this exciting opportunity. If you are selected, you will spend three days in Washington DC before flying to Phnom Penh. Once in Cambodia, you will explore this beautiful country and participate in leadership and service projects. In addition, you will learn about global citizenship and share your experiences upon your return.

The deadline for applications is January 28, 2011 and the competition will be strong. So go visit the Global Explorers web site and get started now!

Dec 9, 2010

Farewell to Willa, Hello to Uri

Many don’t know that at the beginning of last summer, my family and I had to say goodbye to Willa, my guide dog of eight years. Willa was a gentle little lady, beautiful and dainty, and incredibly smart. However, she was actually a “reject.” She had gone to a blind guy, who didn’t have very good mobility skills, and Willa would take advantage of him—when he wasn’t paying attention at the grocery store, she’d lead him to the dog food aisle. When he’d command her to lead him to the front exit, she’d take him around in a big circle right back to the dog food isle. He ultimately gave her back to the guide dog school, Fidelco, and she sat in the kennel depressed and, I heard, even got a little overweight. Poor Willa was eating to cope with her loss.

The trainer told me that you had to be on your toes with Willa. What an understatement! At first she would play little tricks like gently veering me off the bike path and, before I realized it, stop at a fence, nose-to-nose with another dog she was dying to meet. Another time, Ellie and I were in a theater and while I remained blissfully unaware, Willa did a sneaky Army-crawl on her belly, under seats, about five rows up; she was lying contentedly under another couple’s feet happily eating their popcorn. At moments like this, I liked to tease Willa I was her last hope. “If it doesn’t work out with me,” I’d tell her, “it’s the tennis-string factory for you.”

Besides being sneaky, she was at first a little tentative too; scared to make a decision and possibly make a mistake. She needed a lot of coaxing and patience, the latter I don’t have a lot of. It also seemed like guiding was the last thing Willa wanted to be doing. When we’d walk through the airport, hurrying to catch a flight, she’d strain her head left and right, back and forth, catching good sniffs from McDonalds. Often, she’d sidetrack towards a restaurant and before I noticed, lay her head on a chair as if to say, “Why don’t you just chill out and take a rest, while I sit here under you and nibble the hamburger bits off the floor.” My solution was making her walk as fast as she could, veering around throngs of slow pokes with their rolling bags, while continually encouraging her with soft words like, “Good girl…keep it going…come on. You can do it.”

I knew I needed to challenge her in a way in which she’d never again have the luxury of boredom or distraction. By pushing her in a positive way, she slowly began to mature.

The day I knew Willa was good came after a movie in the mall. It was dark and Ellie struggled to find our car in the massive sea of a parking lot. Willa weaved and bobbed around thirty cars and finally pointed her nose right to our Highlander. I think she even yawned, as if to say, “and that wasn’t even hard.” At that point, Willa had no more excuses. I knew she was in the genius range for dogs, and maybe even humans. Reminder—Ellie, my human wife, couldn’t find the car.

By the time she was five-years-old, Willa was a seasoned pro. In fact, I took for granted that Willa would step off the airport train, automatically find the escalator, and then cruise right to the moving sidewalk towards my gate; or after dinner on the road, locate my exact hotel room, pointing her nose to the door handle, and the next morning, find the front revolving door in the lobby. Willa travelled so many air miles that she had her own 1K frequent flyer card—unofficial of course. And when I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room totally disoriented, it felt good to know that Willa’s wet nose and panting breath would be the first touch against my hand.

At only ten years old, this always-healthy pup got cancer and the tumor grew massive. After fighting the disease for months, one day, she was very listless and could hardly get up. We knew it was the time to put her down and called the vet who came over to our house, rather than us going to a clinic. I figured if it were me, I’d want to be surrounded by family in a place I loved. As we waited, we fed her all the things she could never eat due to her working-dog status, like bacon and cheese mixed with peanut butter. Then we placed her on her blanket near the railing in the living room where Willa had spent hundreds of hours as the kids drew artwork and built puzzles. Arjun, age 7, and Emma, age 9, made the courageous decision to be there during the procedure. They gently held her paws as she lost consciousness. I thought it was important for them to see this: death coming way too soon but an inevitable part of life, and although it was important for them to be there, that day forced them to grow up a little faster.

Despite her strange little quirks—like collecting Emma’s stuffed animals, Arjun’s socks, and my underwear into a slobbery pile whenever we left her home alone for a couple hours—Willa was a loyal and faithful friend. Few can understand the independence and freedom a guide dog gives a blind person like me who travels around on planes, trains, and automobiles. Willa gave me the world. What do you even say in response to that kind of gift? After her death, I couldn’t contemplate the idea of a new guide for a while. I needed some time to pass before I could begin to look forward.

Well, after seven months, that new day has finally arrived, and I think I’m ready. My new black and tan shepherd, Uri, (named after a Russian cosmonaut, or short for Eureka, or University of Rhode Island—take your pick) arrived yesterday. Within a few hours he was already rolling over on his back, big paws fluttering in the air and tail thumping the floor. The trainer told me that as a puppy in the kennel, Uri would pick up a leaf (one of a thousand leaves in the yard) and prance around with it in his mouth as if to say to all the other dogs, “This is the special leaf. Try to get it,” while they followed behind trying to steal it away. So it seems as though Uri’s personality is as distinct as all my other three guides, the only clear similarity being their stinky breath.

I’ll write more about Uri after we survive our ten days of training together. And, I promise, I won’t send him back to Fidelco.

Dec 3, 2010

1st International Blind Climbing Comp

This weekend, my friend Koichiro Kobayashi (better known as Koba) will be running the 1st International Blind Climbing Competition, which is being held in the Chiba Prefecture (about 30 minutes from downtown Tokyo). This is a major event that is sponsored by the Japanese Mountaineering Association. I was invited to compete but regrettably I had a scheduling conflict. I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2005 with Koba, and was actually part of his wedding ceremony at the base of the mountain.
As best man, I was dressed in traditional Massai warrior robe and huge thick staff, apparently for killing lions.
Blind climbing comps have been held in Japan and Russia for the past five years, which has given them time to work out all the details. Competitors must be at least 16 years old and capable of climbing 5.10 at a minimum. They are divided into three classes: B1 is totally blind (that would be me), B2 has very slight vision, and B3 has significantly impaired vision. Climbers in the B2 class can compete in B1 if they wear an eye mask.

The first day of the comp is what climbers call the “On-Sight,” which presents some problems when you are blind. In this case, I think They should call it the “non-sight.” As with standard climbing comps, the competitors enter an isolation zone. One hour before their climb, the climbers are given a 3-D route description–this is a sheet of paper with the hold locations marked by raised relief–so they can “see” the climb. Then the climbers have 10 minutes to lead the route (starting from the ground, they clip the rope into carabiners as they get higher). The person who gets the highest wins. If there is a tie on height, then the fastest time wins.

The second day of the comp measures physical climbing ability. Climbers are given 15 minutes to “work” a route on a top-rope; practicing the moves and getting verbal help from a coach. When it is their turn to compete, they have 10 minutes and can again get instructions from their coach. The rankings of the comp are based on both days.

As I mentioned, Koba is leading this effort. He started climbing at age 16 and was very active leading outdoor trips. When he was 28, Koba was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which is a progressive disease that impairs vision and results in blindness. That hasn’t slowed him down though. He has started a non-profit called Monkey Magic (friends used to tease that he climbed as fast as a monkey) that helps people with disabilities access the outdoors through sports like climbing.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t make it to Japan for this event. But the 2nd International Blind Competition is scheduled for July in Italy and I hope to make that one. And I can’t help but wonder how guys like Chris Sharma and Daniel Woods would do playing by our rules. Maybe I should invite them to compete next year, with blindfolds of course.

Nov 26, 2010

Book Release – The Summit

My friend and guide, Eric Alexander, has just released his own book. Entitled The Summit: Faith Beyond Everest’s Death Zone, this is his account of our famous climb, as well as our ascents of Elbrus and Kosciusko. Eric was also with me on Ama Dablam and Alpamayo. In addition, he has lead other disabled climber up other summits (including Denali, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro) and he teaches disabled skiing at Vail. He also directs Adventures Beyond Limits, an organization that educates and encourages youth with disabilities in the outdoors.

His book is available directly from the publisher.

Nov 26, 2010

Expedition News

Our Soldiers To The Summit expedition is continuing to attract media attention around the nation. In the Phoenix newspaper, Dan Sidles and Kevin Cherilla were featured in a big article. And recently Chad Butrick and I were guests on the morning show of our NBC television station in Denver (click the link for an article and video of our appearance).

Nov 25, 2010

The Adversity Advantage – Excerpt #3

Here in the United States, we are celebrating Thanksgiving. This is our annual day to take stock and acknowledge all of our blessings. Even when there is adversity in your life, no matter how great, there is always something for which we can give thanks.

This excerpt from my book, The Adversity Advantage, drives that point home. It definitely makes us thankful for all the ways we can influence our lives and futures.

In my opinion, there is no better example of thriving through adversity than the survival story of my hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton. While the story has been told many times, as a popular way to teach leadership and teamwork, I have always looked at the story differently.

To me, the hardships and suffering Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance faced when they became stranded near Antarctica, defy comprehension. For nearly two years, and through the most brutal conditions known to man, Shackleton doggedly hung on to a belief that he could influence his situation, and by doing so, kept his men motivated, confident, and, most importantly, alive.

Shackleton’s original goal was to become the first to make a full traverse of Antarctica. He left the island of South Georgia in early December of 1914, passed the South Sandwich Islands and plowed through a thousand miles of ice-encrusted waters. A month into the voyage, however, the Endurance experienced an unexpected deep-freeze, and became lodged in a polar ice pack. They were just one day from their destination at Vahsel Bay on the Antarctic continent. Still, Shackleton and his crew were stranded more than twelve hundred miles from the closest settlement, and they had only each other to rely on for survival.

In the months that followed, they could do little to improve their situation; they could only wait until the spring thaw. Several times, they thought they’d be set free, only to have their hopes dashed. For ten months, the moving ice dragged their ship until it was ultimately crushed. They salvaged only enough items necessary for survival, plus a banjo and personal journals for the twenty-seven members of the crew. Although they spent five more months camped on the moving ice in flimsy tents and had to ration their meager food, they remained optimistic and energetic. Often, they played soccer, performed music and danced on the empty ice flows.

Finally, as the ice began to break, the crew set sail in three small lifeboats with the hope of coming into contact with the whaling ships along the northern tip of the continent. Instead, the currents took them to Elephant Island, a barren and isolated land, raked by intense storms. With no hope of rescue and knowing his men couldn’t survive for long, Shackleton took five men and sailed 800 miles in a 22-foot wooden lifeboat, over the open ocean and through the roughest weather on Earth. Seventeen days later, they miraculously reached the island of South Georgia where they had begun.

Coming ashore, they were struck with a final terrible blow. They had landed on the opposite, uninhabited side of the island. To reach the one settlement, they would have to trek a week over rugged, glaciated mountains with no climbing equipment, a journey considered impossible even with the best gear of the day. For most people, this final obstacle alone would have been enough to bring defeat, but to Shackleton, it was simply another adversity he had to attack. Starving, frost bitten, and wearing rags, Shackleton and two of his men reached the tiny whaling station, and 22 months afterstarting their voyage, Shackleton returned in person for his men left behind on Elephant Island. The crew was emaciated but, amazingly, all were alive. Shackleton hadn’t lost a single man.

What seems the most remarkable to me is that throughout the two-year ordeal, although the adversity must have felt massive and the endurance never-ending, Shackleton and his men never gave up control over their destiny. They continued to demonstrate intense loyalty to each other and responsibility for keeping the team alive. A crewmember, Frank Hurley, later wrote, “I always found Shackleton rising to his best and inspiring confidence when things were at their blackest.”

In my opinion, although Shackleton failed at his original objective, he succeeded at something even more unimaginable. In the face of unbelievably low odds, he infused in his men the belief that they had the capacity to prevail. As Shackleton put it, “By endurance, we conquer.”

If Shackleton’s crew had so much power to affect the course of their lives under such dire conditions, it begs the question, How much control do we have over our affairs in our everyday lives, and how much of that power do we choose to assert or relinquish? Too many people go through life like a pinball, constantly being directed by circumstances and events, but never forging a deliberate path through the perils.

Every time I face a challenge on the mountain and in life, I’ve learned that by focusing on what I can influence, taking action to make the best of tough situations, working to minimize the potential downside as well as maximize the upside, and working relentlessly to get through the suffering, I have the ability to shatter my own perceptions of what’s possible.