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15 May

Mark Carr - Lessons From the Climb - Part 3/4

Hi Everyone! Welcome back to another installment in the Climbing and leadership series. Today I want to talk about how to find your way out of the pain cave. In high altitude climbing there’s an ominous phrase that your will hear frequently - called the pain cave.

It doesn’t matter when or why, but the reality of high mountain climbing is that you will spend time in this very dark and lonely place.

The first time I climbed Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska I was 23 years old and thought I was indestructible. The climb starts by flying onto a large glacier, landing on the glacier, and then slowly climbing up it. The glacier is riddled with crevasses that are oftentimes hidden by snow, so you have to be ultra-careful and follow your guide’s instructions to the letter. On this climb, I was roped to 2 other climbers as a safety measure in case one of us falls into a crevasse, which is exactly what happened. I was following behind a climber named Steve, roped to him, and another climber named Austin was roped to me. We were carrying ice axes and were all taught that if one of us falls into a crevasse we were immediately to fall on our ice axes digging it in as deeply as we could into the ice. We had been trudging up the glacier for a few hours in a snowstorm, mindlessly placing one crampon armed boot in front of the other, lost in our own thoughts. For the most part, Steve was doing a good job following the exact route the guide was using but at one point he deviated a little bit and stepped on what he thought was hard snow, but was actually a snow bridge over a crevasses and ended up falling into the crevasse. Austin and I immediately fell on our ice axes to and dug in to keep him from falling deeper into the gaping chasm. We were able to halt his fall and eventually the guide and others helped to pull him out. I ended up with severely bruised ribs from falling on the axe, but was just grateful that Steve was ok.

The climb proceeded and after a few days, I had definitely entered the pain cave. I was struggling from the numbing cold and altitude. I had a cold, and every time I sneezed or coughed, my ribs erupted in agony. My body felt like someone had taken a hammer to it. Everything hurt and when a blizzard hit with us entrenched at 17,000 feet (about 3,000 feet below the summit), I had had it. Despite all my training and desire to reach the summit, I was ready to quit. The darkness of the pain cave had overwhelmed me and I did not know how to get out of it.

Spending time in the pain cave isn’t just for climbing high mountains. It definitely happens in the corporate world. Everyone’s pain cave is different in terms of intensity and duration, but was isn’t different is that we all get there. But something that really helped me on Denali and has helped me in the corporate world also was a simple question that the guide asked me when I told him that I was thinking about quitting. He asked me “If I was hurt, or just hurting”. If I was truly hurt, meaning severely injured in some way, than I should immediately go down and get off the mountain, but if I was hurting, then I should dig deep and focus on what I want. I began to think, and I reminded myself of the reason I was doing this, and how good I would feel if I reached the summit, and I also thought about the fact I may never get an extraordinary opportunity like this again. I realized that I was hurting, not hurt, and I decided to stick it out, and ultimately reached the summit when the weather miraculously cleared for about a 17 hour window.

As a leader, whenever you or your employees enter that pain cave, ask yourself “are you hurt, or are you just hurting”!