High-Altitude Adventure and Leadership Lessons on Mt. Cotopaxi – Pt. 2

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. Here is the second in my two-part series on what transpired and what I learned.

You can find part one here.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Neither Michael nor I said anything, and we did not fight him. Now I wonder if I should have pushed back. “I will do better. Believe in me. Coach me. We can make it.” I didn’t, as I was partly relieved, partly stunned, and then quickly felt the vertical pull of the mountain as we turned to make our way down. There was a two-minute lesson on how to plant our feet wide apart this time and plug them into the glacier to descend the volcano safely.

I flashed back to my training at home, when my trainer said, “Everyone trains to go up, but don’t forget that you have to come down as well!” He said this as he made me walk backwards on a treadmill! I remembered this as I felt those foreign muscles engage. My rented mountaineering boots suddenly felt too big. My feet slid side to side and then forward as my toes hit the front of the boots.

We made our way down the glacier, at times moving in unison as we got the hang of the descent. Meanwhile, Luis Fernando played music on his phone. In true form, he worked alone like the jackal that he was. He didn’t ask for our input—about what music we might like to hear during our descent, our walk of shame, or the end of our dream to summit Mt Cotopaxi. Or, was this like plant medicine where you ask for what you want and ultimately get what you need. As I looked up at the moon, barely visible behind the clouds, it became clear that what I needed to bring my lesson full circle started playing. Filling the night was Lionel Richie singing “Endless Love”! Not really the song I would have picked while on a volcano, at the Equator, as close as I would come to the top of the world.

We stopped at the same spot as on the way up, took off our crampons, adjusted our clothing, and started down the bare soil, free of all that tethered us to each other and the glacier. The ground of the volcano was gravel and sandy at the same time. As I stepped, the soil would move, slide, and feel wobbly underneath my tired legs. I also felt somewhat drunk as it was approaching 6 a.m. and we had not slept. The altitude and anxiety decreased while we inched closer to our base camp, The Refugio.

Leadership Lesson #4:

Accountability and Self-reflection—Leaders must look inward to understand how their actions, energy, and attitudes impact those around them and the outcomes of their endeavors. It’s about owning your role in every situation and asking how to show up differently to foster a better result.

In true Luis Fernando style, he appeared to be almost running down the mountain. Since we no longer had any time constraints, we did not follow at his pace (and he didn’t wait for us). We took our time, allowing me to stay very present with how that pre-dawn sky looked from about 16,000 feet. As we slowly made our way in the dark, in the distance you could see his headlamp bobbing down the mountain. Visible, then fading, and finally disappearing out of sight. We laughed and joked, embracing the feeling of confusion at what had happened. How could a guide, who was paid to lead us, just leave us in the dark to find our own way down a mountain? Looking back, I am glad he did because the quiet of the night and pre-dawn brought a humbling presence—in a way that Lionel Richie never could!

As we approached The Refugio, we could see a lone headlamp just outside the entrance. We also realized we were approaching on a different path than the one we had left on with our group six and a half hours ago minus one day. We walked toward the bright light, which we assumed was Luis Fernando filling his need to ensure we arrived safely. I can only imagine the risk to his guiding reputation if we had wandered off a cliff in the dark of night. Not a good look on one’s resume!

When we arrived back at The Refugio, no words were exchanged with Luis Fernando, not even a glance or nod in the dark. We never laid eyes on him again, and if we were asked to pick him out of a lineup, well, we would fail. To this day, I have no idea what he looked like. But I do recall the brutality of that voice looming over me and reminding me of all the things I did wrong that night.

Leadership Lesson #5:

Transformation Through Challenge—Transformative leadership is about shedding limiting beliefs, ego, and an outcome-over-process mindset to embrace growth, interconnectedness, and a focus on the journey. Leaders must be willing to confront and let go of parts of themselves that hinder progress to evolve continually.

Abundance

I have been on my own leadership journey to discover the best version of myself for the last seven years. I’ve been working to shed ancestral and childhood trauma and peel away the layers of a leader who had long ago needed and prided himself on controlling everything around him.  

During this journey, I learned to lean into the world’s abundance and lock into what works well to nourish and refuel my purpose-driven existence. I needed a reminder that the world can be brutal to some. My work is guiding leaders to become the best version of themselves, so they in turn can lead businesses where they can and will cultivate the same in those they impact. When we decide to journey within ourselves to discover our best version then we can impact leaders like Luis Fernando. In fact, we can rid the world of leaders who are not coaching, guiding, and bringing out the best in those they impact.

If I am not the problem, there is no solution.

Instead of blaming Luis Fernando for not summiting, I wonder how I could have shown up differently to create a different outcome. Was I scared? Anxious? Questioning my ability to summit that volcano? YES, YES, and YES. Maybe my energy and fear overwhelmed Luis Fernando. Perhaps this scared him to the point he was unsure if he could keep us safe as we ascended to steeper terrain, where there was less room for error, with crevasses and fissures that could swallow us whole.

There is no doubt in my mind that much of the Luis Fernando I write about was made up or created by me. Perhaps part of Luis Fernando was still living inside me, and I needed to face that part of myself to continue on my healing journey and find the best version of myself.  

There was a time when it would have been hard for me to live with the defeat of not accomplishing a goal that I had spent months training to accomplish. This version of me can feel disappointment, maybe even a bit of shame and frustration while also having gratitude for the experience. It may be that Luis Fernando gave us a much more important outcome and lesson than bragging rights and a photo opp on top of the volcano. Plus, there will be many more mountains to climb. It is the journey of a lifetime.

Gratitude

Michael Bungay Stanier, I am so grateful for sharing that crazy overnight journey with you. As my son texted me the morning of our climb, “Dad, don’t forget that it is about the journey and not the destination!” I have much love, appreciation, and admiration for who you are in the world and how you show up for others. Thank you for being a great climbing partner and friend.

Our connection to the mountain was the real reward of the journey.  

Leadership Lesson #6:

Be Grateful and Have Fun—Recognizing and appreciating each person’s contribution to a collective effort fosters a positive and supportive environment. Don’t forget to remind your body and face they are having fun. You are fine, even when things feel tough and exhausting, so remember to smile.

I Am Different

Coming back to Alan’s question: “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?”

For me to become the best version of myself and celebrate the future version of me, I ask, “What has to die for something new to be born?” During the journey, on this mountain, I lost more of my ego, maybe a good chunk. I lost a sense of myself as an individual, reinforcing how connected we are to each other and nature. I lost and buried the need for outcomes over process.

Leaving these things on the mountain created a lighter version of myself. I am more agile, connected, and energetically in tune with what is happening around me. I am more forgiving and grateful for lessons that come my way—that I asked for but didn’t actually want! I am the best version of myself (but then it’s the journey of a lifetime, so if I am lucky and keep doing my work, another version will come along soon!)

Six Leadership Lessons

Here is a summary of my 6 leadership lessons from my high-altitude adventure:

Leadership Lesson #1: Lead by Example

The leader must set the pace and tone, ensuring it’s suitable 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.

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.

Leadership Lesson #3—Embrace the Tension

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

Leadership Lesson #4—Accountability and Self-reflection

Leaders must look inward to understand how their actions, energy, and attitudes impact those around them and the outcomes of their endeavors. It’s about owning your role in every situation and asking how to show up differently to foster a better result.

Leadership Lesson #5—Transformation Through Challenge

Transformative leadership is about shedding limiting beliefs, ego, and an outcome-over-process mindset to embrace growth, interconnectedness, and a focus on the journey. Leaders must be willing to confront and let go of parts of themselves that hinder progress to evolve continually.

Leadership Lesson #6—Be Grateful and Have Fun

Recognizing and appreciating each person’s contribution to a collective effort fosters a positive and supportive environment. Don’t forget to remind your body and face they are having fun. You are fine even when things feel tough and exhausting, so remember to smile.

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