It has now been a year since I embarked on a journey to reach a goal that changed my life. I climbed Mount Everest Basecamp for a vacation, a challenge, and left with newfound perspective. The following story recounts this trip.
First the back tires, then the front tires, then hard on the brakes. The engines never stopped. We were quickly marshalled off of the plane and onto the uneven path. I looked over my shoulder at the runway’s sudden beginning and calculated sloppily. It became obvious that we needed almost every inch of that blacktop and really could have used a few more.
Before long we were successfully herded and made to follow the guides and sherpas who had taken our baggage; “So, why Everest?” was a common refrain among the tourists and the travellers. The answers were synonymous. Many professionals were looking for a new way to fail. People, ambitious people at least, were looking for higher and higher peaks to climb. After a while some ran out of peaks in their offices or their homes so they turned to exotic locations and real mountains to replace the molehills of modernity. I am one of these people, and their explanation is my own.
I have been running a video production company called Cimaglia Productions since age 20, focusing exclusively on it since I was 25. Now almost 30 on my first real vacation, following sherpas to Mount Everest Base Camp with only a pad of paper to record my ideas and a satellite phone to communicate with the office for nearly three weeks. These are the only connections to my life in this wilderness. I can’t let either out of my hands for long. It’s not that I don’t want to step away for a bit, I just don’t know how else to live. That’s why I needed that phone and especially that pad of paper.
I spent seven months training my body to handle the extreme conditions of Mount Everest coupled with many more months of training my team to run my company without me; these precautions have prepared me to climb this mountain. Physically, I was ready to climb and mentally I could allow the company to run without me. But I needed those security blankets, my phone and paper-pad, more than my office needed me in my absence. I could mostly focus on my journey, my mountain, and let my mind work itself out as I walked, stopping sometimes to jot down ideas for myself or my company. But I could never let go entirely.
Climbing always up, though sometimes down for just a second or two—a little joke we had going with the mountain—we kept on our path. We came to gorges, and crossed them over narrow, swaying rope bridges with more air than wood for bottoms but adorned with versicolor player flags. I touched their rough linen as I passed them. A sherpa told me they blew prayers whichever way they’re blown. On the route to Mount Everest base camp it was frequently windy causing benedictions to have been rained down upon us. In stark juxtaposition to these flags stood silent towers of stone tenderly-stacked as unmoving memorials to those who had fallen on the mountain. Despite being continually crawled upon, it holds the power in any relationship. The mountain makes the men and women who climb it, molding those who succeeded, breaking those who did not, yet unchangeable no matter the results.
The expedition found themselves silently in thought more and more often the farther they walked. I can’t say with certainty for the whole group, but for myself, I was lost in thought—though I’m not sure if it could have been classified as meditation—trying to find myself without the company to define me. I had been entirely consumed by my company—personally and professionally—that I was having immense difficulty knowing who I was without it. To me, the questions “who are you?” and “what is your job?” were interchangeable; each time I relished answering, “CEO.” But on the mountain, there are no professions. There is only nature in all its terror and glory. Deep in thought, I walked slowly and sometimes steeply, but always up, to Mount Everest Base Camp.
At nights we stayed at places that could only be described as nondescript. Imperfect copies of platonic log cabins. Rustic, crafted from rough-hewn wood all knotted and streaked with grains. Bunks were low on the wall. A thin mattress jutted out covered by simple sheets and a warm blanket. They always had beautiful views, breathtaking cliffs or alpine slopes, out of smudged glass. Reflecting on what I had written during that day’s hike, I would flip through my notebook. Sometimes I would call my second in command back in Chicago to talk about business: new ideas needing research and vetting, or plans for the next step that needed preparation. Being able to approach my business from a new angle was refreshing. Discussing bigger-picture issues, things I could finally let myself consider because I could look beyond the minute and the mundane. The proof of this renewal is in the pen, or more precisely on the pad of paper, and I have the change in elevation—altitude and attitude—to thank for this process.
I came on this trip with an obvious but ultimately fleeting goal, and accomplished something else entirely. I came to reach base camp, to make the journey and to see myself do it. Instead, my greatest reward came from my own thoughts. Freed from the day-to-day vulgarities of running my business, given an immense amount of time to contemplate, and distracted by the overwhelming physical process of hiking, I was able to let my mind sit in stillness. Maybe vulgarity is too harsh, but there is truth to the phrase familiarity breeds contempt. I loved my work, having married myself to it a decade now, but like all powerful relationships, there is a risk of emotional or spiritual suffocation. The mountain allowed me to escape the superstructure of anxiety and pressure that builds up around such a powerful relationship, literally pushing me above the clouds and providing me with a new perspective for understanding and improving my role within the company.
With my feet constantly moving, my hand frequently writing, and my mind perpetually in motion, I made good time to base camp, arriving just as some severe air traffic disrupting weather rolled through. I coughed away a few miserable days before finally trekking back to my planned extraction point. Here, however, no extraction was forthcoming. Grounded, my cough continually worsened—eventually diagnosed as khumbu cough—with the weather day after day. Until, felicitously, I got out on a wing, my wits, and my amex. I finally evacuated the mountain via helicopter. I came back to Chicago not only with a great story, but with a new way of looking at my day-to-day life. I never left the mountain, I just took it with me.