work journal

Learning strategy on El Cap

July 10, 2023

The first time I climbed El Capitan, a 3,000-foot rock wall in Yosemite, my partner Ashley and I spent 5.5 days on a route called The Nose, which goes right up the center of the wall. We brought too much water (10 gallons!), and our bags were so heavy, we nearly crushed ourselves hauling them up. Near the top, we ran out of food.

But we did it.

That was 2006, and I went on to climb El Cap a total of five times before 2010. Those dates might look like ancient history, yet that period defined so much of who I am and the work I love today.

Strategy is key on big walls. And sometimes you have to experiment before you get it right.

My second time up, my partner Pat and I took too little water (5 gallons for 5 days in the blazing sun!). In the middle of that route, called The Zodiac, I took a 30-foot lead fall and then a 40-footer right after, flinging into space. Falling is part of climbing, especially when you’re climbing near your limit. Unhurt, but jacked with adrenaline, doubt and thirst, I went back up and finished the pitch.

For my third route up the big stone, another partner and I went without overnight gear on a steeply overhanging climb called “Tangerine Trip.” Unburdened by weight, we climbed to the top in under 24 hours, where we promptly got lost in the manzanita bushes and laid down for the night without sleeping bags. I stayed up all night to tend our little fire, then dozed off, waking with a start when Nate’s shirt sleeve caught flame at 6 am.

“Nate! It’s your turn to watch the fire so I can sleep,” I told him.

A November storm rolled in when I was four days up my fourth route, a long, wild journey called Mescalito. My partner, a former Special Forces member, led the last few hundred feet to the top in the pouring rain, completely in his element.

Number five was a pure pleasure climb with two dear girlfriends. Although… we chose to bring a portalege only designed to sleep two, so one person wound up sitting all night.

Up on the wall, it’s you and your partners, the gear you brought, and your problem-solving skills. There you are, until you figure it out.

Climbing requires deep trust and teamwork, plus smart planning, creativity, disciplined practice and hard work. A keen eye for risk, a dose of humility, and some high-energy stoke don’t hurt, either.

Now, I bring all these things to work with me every day, where I get to help awesome long-term partners I admire navigate challenges and strengthen their double or triple bottom line with tools like brand strategy, systems thinking, workshop facilitation and storytelling.

Climbing still fuels the fire, and I hope my clients feel the benefit.

How about you? Which early experiences inform the way you work today?


p.s. I was supposed to be on my only climbing vacation sans children of the year, but I’m in quarantine so am writing about climbing instead.

p.p.s. All photos from The Nose.

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