Living & Leading at Elevation

images-6Can you go and grow too far, too high, and too fast as an organization? What does it mean to live and lead at elevation in the realtionships that matter most? Let me tell you a story…

We had been steadily hiking for about three hours, gaining elevation with every step from roughly 10,000 to over 12,000 feet. The views had been amazing and we were now gazing down on the Upper Colony Lake basin, still encompassed by the towering peaks of three “fourteeners…” Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle and Mt. Humboldt (see photo). A fourteener is mountaineering lingo for the 72 mountains in excess of 14,000 feet in North America. Not quite Everest or Denali, but far from your local state park stroll. To give perspective, we were above the tree line and several small ice fields are below our level on the opposite slope. We had been planning for months and would soon have completed the first of what we hoped would be many fourteeners to come.

The truth was that my heart was beating out of my chest and I couldn’t catch my breath. My head had been pounding for over an hour already and, if I lifted my head from the rocky trail too quickly, I saw “stars.” I was also in denial. I knew what I was experiencing was classic elevation sickness. My body had not had time to adapt to the elevation difference between the Bluegrass of Kentucky and the mountains of Colorado. I had been way too eager, insisting that we should “go for it” the day after getting to Grandpa’s Mountain, itself at a little over 8,000 feet. In short, I overestimated my ability and, worst of all, underestimated the mountain. Never underestimate the mountain.

It was a gorgeous day, sunny and almost 70 degrees. Then, in minutes, dark clouds rolling over themselves and folding over the mountains let loose a volley of lightening that seemed to land all around us. The thunder was deafening as it echoed off the massive granite formations. Then it began to rain. Briefly. The momentary pause would have been welcomed if it hadn’t been so ominous, giving way to marble-sized hail. The temperature plummeted 20 degrees faster than anything I had experienced, and I grew up in Ohio. Welcome to the the Sangre de Christo high country.

IMG_7325We were exposed on the side of Mt. Humboldt in an area known as the switchbacks. Before the hail started we could see still see our campsite (see picture left), albeit a speck, and we knew we had to get low, fast. We scrambled to put on our rain gear and lift our packs over our heads to take the brunt of the intensive pounding. Ironically, it was a distraction from my throbbing head. Eventually we made it down to our soggy site, about the time the sky cleared and sun came back out… birds chirping and marmots scrambling among the rocks and brush, oblivious to it all. We were as exhausted as we were stunned at our ill-fated first attempt.

Do we stop and camp out for the night? Maybe take the 3 hour hike back to the old Jeep? Honestly, this sounded good. Still, we had started very early and it was only around noon, though it seemed much later. My son asked if I wanted to press on. He could tell I was in rough shape. We would still have to face the switchbacks, the steep ridge, the false summit, the saddle and then, the summit. Over 2,300 feet of hard hiking and technical scrambling to “bag the peak” and enjoy the view dared us to try. I insisted we could do it, praying to God for strength under my breath. We checked our gear, ate a power bar, hydrated and hit the trail.

Only half-way up the switchbacks I had already had to stop twice. My legs were so heavy and the 35 pound pack weighed on me like a ton of bricks. I was now experiencing “tunnel vision,” that dark “closing in” sense and very real lack of sight. “Am I having a heart attack? Maybe a stroke?” I remember thinking to myself, “If I don’t stop, Andrew will be left alone and they will have to call in a rescue helicopter to lift me out of here… how embarrassing.” Not that he wouldn’t be okay. At a fit 24 years old, he was in much better shape than me. I just hated the thought of letting him down. Still, I had already pressed on far beyond the bounds of common sense for an out of shape 47-year-old.

He now insisted with genuine concern and stated the obvious… “Dad, you don’t look very good. We better stop.” I gave up and gave in to the better part of valor… well after wisdom’s first calls. My symptoms lessened as we rested at the campsite for a while, packed up and began the hike down and out. My headache persisted but my energy increased and my pack seemed lighter as we decreased elevation. The sometimes bone-jarring four-wheel drive (more of a crawl) the rest of the way down was going to prove a welcomed respite. Little was said until we found ourselves back in town, debriefing at our favorite watering hole. A hard and humbling lesson learned.

Elevation matters in life, leadership and relationships. You can go higher, faster, you just can’t do it healthier. Only time at elevation will work it’s wonder as everyone and everything adjusts to each new, subtantial gain. What does this look like? How do you keep from getting a case of elevation sicknesss as a lead team, organization or family? Check out Living and Leading at Elevation Part 2 coming soon!

 

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