High-Altitude Adventure and Leadership Lessons on Mt. Cotopaxi – Pt. 1

On March 1st, 2024, I set out to summit Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador. What unfolded on my journey was not what I had asked for, but it was the leadership lesson that I needed to learn at the time. Here is the first of my two-part series on what transpired and what I learned.

What Just Happened?

It’s dinner time at Hacienda el Porvenir outside Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador. I am sitting with three people I now consider close friends, climbing partners, and fellow travelers on the journey of a lifetime. We came here to challenge ourselves in a way that only adventure can and to bring out the best version of ourselves as individuals, business leaders, and humans. We are exhausted by the six-plus-month training journey for a high-altitude climb at more than 15,700 feet or 4,785 meters. We have been pushing ourselves physically and mentally, plus throwing in oxygen deprivation for good measure. We have collectively slept less than a whole night’s sleep for the last 24 hours as we ascended Volcan de Cotopaxi.

As we sat there nourishing our bodies from what had transpired over the previous 24 hours, my friend Alan asked me and our table, “How are you different from this trip?” After everything we have been through, we have obviously changed at this point. “How is this showing up for you?” During that moment, I felt exhaustion, pride, disappointment, frustration, relief, and confusion. My answer was that I was sure of something changing inside me, but I could not summon the answer. I needed more time to process all that had happened.  

The Call to Adventure

Early in 2023, I answered a call for high-altitude adventure and leadership lessons. I am the co-founder and guide of Conscious Leaders Quest, a leadership adventure and community, whose purpose is to challenge leaders to discover the best version of themselves so they can cultivate the same in the people they impact. I am building the very muscle that I am unlocking in those within our community. 

This time, it was Wayfinders Ecuador with a description that stated “This journey will ‘break you’,” and “You will have massive breakthroughs plus forge some of the deepest connections ever made, with an incredible group of humans embarking on an epic journey together.”

As I read that description, I said to myself, “Hell yes! I am in!”

It was a calling deep within me that I have learned to identify when I have an opportunity that scares and challenges me, as the idea of climbing Cotopaxi did. This was my chance to fully commit to training for a challenge that could be greater than my ability. There was no sitting on the sidelines. This journey would require me to dig deep and commit to a training plan.

The Work

I am so grateful for the fantastic team that helped me prepare and train for the challenge of my lifetime. My team consisted of Jon Rowley, founder of 2020 Fit in Prairie Village, Kansas. He did not hesitate to start me off with breath holds, sled pushes, and countless other exercises that would push my ability to perform under a limited amount of oxygen. He also insisted that I start taping my mouth at night, which I did under much duress. I am now a tried and true mouth taper who understands the health benefits of oxygenating our bodies through nostril breathing. 

During my training, I knew I would also be spending some time in Bozeman, Montana, so I included Paul Herberger, founder of Epic Fitness Center, to my team.  Paul is a retired professional big mountain skier. He also understood what I needed physically and mentally, as well as the potential toll oxygen deprivation could play in my attempt to summit Mt. Cotopaxi. 

There was still the big question of how it would feel to be at such a high altitude. The climb starts at 15,570 feet, which is higher than I had ever experienced. Through Wayfinders, we added my friend and fellow leadership guide, Anthony Lorubbio, founder of Recal Travel, as our high-altitude breathwork coach. My team was now complete.  

All I had to do was, well…the work.

Arrival and Acclimatization

After six months of intense preparation, it was time to board my flight to Quito, Ecuador. I arrived 10 days before our summit day to allow my body to acclimate. Quito sits at 9,350 feet above sea level. Altitude was a central concern and factor in our ability to ascend Mt. Cotopaxi, so we needed time for our red blood cells to multiply and for our bodies to acknowledge and respond to our request to prepare for life at higher altitudes.

Cotopaxi Is Looming in the Distance

After spending four days acclimating, we made our way from the capital city to our home base of Hacienda El Porvenir, which is close to 12,000 feet.

During our week at the hacienda, we were nurtured and nourished physically and mentally. All the while, Cotopaxi loomed large outside our windows, always in sight and mind—a constant reminder of what was to come. We tested our ability to be fully present with every experience that week, knowing Cotopaxi was calling.

Finally, summit day arrived. We received our gear, packed our bags and headed toward the ever-present volcano. Our bus took us as far as a parking lot at the base of what was called The Refugio. We hiked about an hour from the parking lot (14,740’) to the Refugio (15,750’), where we spent the afternoon preparing, acclimatizing, and eating. After dinner, it was lights out for four hours before the alarms went off. It was time. The journey to the summit would begin at 11:30 p.m. 

Will the Real Luis Fernando Step Forward?

After two hours of hiking, the dirt trail came to an end, and all that lay before us was the glacier. There had been some prep about “the glacier,” and yet as we approached the glistening white slab (which seemed to lack any signs of a hiking path), it loomed ahead of us like an ethereal spirit glowing by the light of our headlamps. 

We had a quick break while we attached crampons to our mountaineering boots and received brief instructions about using an ice axe! Out of nowhere, the name Luis Fernando (note: for the sake of this story, Luis Fernando is an alias to our guide’s actual name) was announced as the guide that would lead my climbing partner, Michael, and me up to the summit of Volcan de Cotopaxi.

I was excited to meet Luis Fernando. In my mind, he was a caring guide who would coach us and give us the confidence to make it to the summit, even if we had moments of doubt. This is not what happened! As we approached him, it felt very chaotic! He was trying to tie up to another climber not assigned to him, as if he wanted to take off and unleash his need to get up that mountain with whoever was standing closest to him.

He did not introduce himself, just asked us one question: “Do you have any mountaineering experience?” To which we both answered, “Absolutely none!” Using our eyes and body language to ask for mercy, guidance, and coaching, we embarked into the unknown world on the side of a volcano at over 16,000 feet. He said nothing and just proceeding to attach a rope to my harness directly tied to him and then tie Michael behind me.  

Then, like a flash, as if he was a reindeer and we were his sleigh, we took off up the volcano on a switchback course which required me to lean heavily into the upside of the mountain to keep from feeling like I might tumble down the other side. If one of us went down, it could likely take us all into imminent danger. There was no real briefing on this, and yet, it seemed reasonably clear that if someone started sliding, the other two must anchor themselves onto the glacier by penetrating the ice with their ice axe.

As we moved up the glacier, my goal was to keep a slow enough pace so my heart rate would not get too high and would give me the best chance to make it to the summit. The pace seemed slightly faster than comfortable as I followed step by step at a slight angle, plunging into the upside of the mountain with my left hand, then pivoting and using my right hand as we switched directions. This continued as I mostly looked down at the landscape before me.

Occasionally, I would look up and see the beauty of a white, snowy glacier unfolding in front of me like a three-dimensional greeting card slowly opening. There were cliffs, dramatic icicles, valleys, and giant chasms where the glacier had cracked and shifted. The site was as breathtaking as the altitude. It felt like a place where very few people on Earth had set foot.

Leadership Lessons With Every Step

After months of preparation, I was tethered to Luis Fernando, with Michael tethered to me as the three of us did a subtle dance requiring us to sync with each other completely. If there was too much slack, we could step on the rope and slice it with our crampons. If there was too much tension, Michael and I were pulled too fast or unable to move. We had these eloquent moments when we moved in unison, and it felt like a perfect leadership lesson.

The leader must lead by example with how they show up and how they move. If they move too fast, they pull their team, expending too much energy. If they don’t move fast enough, there is too much slack, which can create many dangerous scenarios. The team must somatically move together, aware of the subtle changes in the other’s movements to keep enough tension for each person to show up at their best.

Leadership Lesson #1:

Lead by Example—The leader must set the pace and tone, ensuring it’s right for the team. Too fast, and the leader exhausts the team; too slow, and the leader risks creating slack that could lead to dangerous situations.

When we look at the polarities of almost any situation, the most power comes from the tension in the middle. The place where two opposites connect with each other to form a perfect spot for transformation to happen.

As amazing as this adventure was—dancing between high-altitude and leadership lessons—the question in my mind was who is this Luis Fernando? Even now, as I look back on my experience, our experience, I cannot tell you what he looked like, as we never really saw him. This makes me wonder if he was even there. Why is Luis Fernando looming in my mind as the antagonist of my story?  

The majority of words that came out of Luis Fernando were telling us what we were doing wrong. Maybe it was just what I was doing wrong. As another group passed, their guide shouted, “Slow and steady gets you to the summit.” This made so much sense. It was not a race to the top; it was an endurance event. I asked if we could slow our pace, but my request was denied with exasperation and increasing tension in the rope separating Luis Fernando and myself. The tension was also building in me as I had forgotten that I do not thrive in a situation where my only feedback is what I am doing wrong. This also begs the question of how many times, as a young leader, I was perhaps Luis Fernando. Could he be my teacher?  Could it be the mountain? Could he be the reason I was called to high-altitude adventure—to endure the brutality on the mountain that was Luis Fernando for the sake of my own leadership lessons and transformation?

Leadership Lesson #2:

Adapt and Communicate—Leadership requires adaptability and clear communication, especially in challenging environments. Leaders must be open to feedback and willing to adjust strategies as needed.

There was a breaking point for me. I raised my voice and requested for him to stop telling us what we were doing wrong, but to instead teach us, guide us, and help us accomplish our goal. There was no discussion, no reply, and at that moment, I looked up to see one of the most magnificent sights ever. The shiny white cliffs, the narrow passage, and what looked like a super slide you might see at a carnival.  You know the one where they gave you a burlap sack to sit on as you slid down over all the ripples, enjoying every second of the experience until your feet hit the ground.

Except it was going straight up. We were practically on all fours when I slipped on the snow and ice. Yes, I slipped, and that seemed to be Luis Fernando’s breaking point. He stopped us, said I was unsafe to be on the mountain, and we had no choice but to go down. He said this was his call and it was for our own safety.

Shocked at how this was going to end, I looked back at my partner to apologize for creating a situation in which Luis Fernando felt his and our safety was at risk. Or, did he not want to be there? Maybe he didn’t desire a climb to the summit himself. Perhaps he had a loved one in need and wanted to get home. We will never know the answer, but it felt like he was looking for another place to be that night. Anywhere but on the side of that volcano.

Leadership Lesson #3:

Embrace the Tension—The most powerful transformations occur in tension between opposites. Leaders must navigate these tensions, finding the balance that allows for growth and progress.

Part two begins with “What goes up, must come down” and continues with more high-altitude adventure and leadership lessons on Cotopaxi. Stay tuned!

Share

Join our community

Hidden

Next Steps: Sync an Email Add-On

To get the most out of your form, we suggest that you sync this form with an email add-on. To learn more about your email add-on options, visit the following page (https://www.gravityforms.com/the-8-best-email-plugins-for-wordpress-in-2020/). Important: Delete this tip before you publish the form.
Name