This is a story about the miracle of challenging experiences and how my family showed leadership. (Spoiler: don’t worry, we were never in any real danger and nothing bad happened to us!)
My husband, twin 11-year-old girls and I recently spent a week in Estes Park, Colorado hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’d start off each day with a big cabin breakfast and hiking trail plan. Each day we’d encounter a completely different hiking experience, but we all agreed we were ready for a more challenging hike.
That evening, my husband read a description of the Chapin Pass and Chiquita Peak hike, making clear that while it was higher elevation and steeper, it was a scenic drive on a July-September-only road to the trailhead, and the hike to Chapin Pass was only a mile or so. While we could continue on, we’d likely not feel up to doing Chiquita Peak. My 11-year-olds and I were glad to have a plan, nothing sounded “red flaggy” to me (except the altitude) and so we quickly and gladly accepted the plan.
Allow me to back up to the week before the trip when I was packing. I hadn’t hiked in years and while I had a pair of hiking boots from 15 years ago for Lake Superior-area hiking, I found them uncomfortable and not really necessary. Frankly, I liked my Keens for hiking on the North Shore. I reasoned that certainly my running shoes would suffice, along with a few fleeces, technical shirts, comfortable pants, shorts and a hat.
Once we did our second day’s hike, it was clear the girls needed something more than the tennis shoes they wore through 5th grade, so we shopped for deals in Estes Park and found a couple of pairs of reasonably priced hiking shoes. I toyed with the idea of getting new hiking boots for myself, but didn’t want to spend the money. Buying the kids’ hiking footwear in Estes Park already felt as fiscally irresponsible as buying water at the airport, so I’d wait. I would soon regret this decision.
The hike started off as I’d been told and expected: steeper, rockier, less trail, more rocks and roots. It featured the typical twists and turns and felt like you were going straight up, but instead of the “here and there” of that quality from our previous more populated couple of hikes, it was constant on this one.
Soon into our adventure, we passed a couple — probably in their 50s — coming down the hill. For context (if you haven’t already inferred this), they were almost done with their hike. I’ve passed dozens of hikers with expressions ranging from giddy, “I’m so happy I’m going to say hi to every person I pass,” to the more focused, “I gotta watch where I’m walking, or I’d say hi” sideways glance. This couple looked positively exhausted, slow and a little beaten down. I kept reading their nonverbal signals. Not wanting to sound as chipper as I actually felt, I eked out a gentle, “Hello.” They returned the hello, slowly, slowly step by step, making their way down the steep hill. The trail had a switch back, so now we were about 10 feet apart but parallel. My husband asked them about their hike. The man replied, “Really. Windy. Only made it to Chapin Pass. Too old for Chiquita, but our son’s headed that way.” The woman looked at me and said, “It’s hard getting old! Can’t do what we used to!” Hard getting old? They’re not old! I just had this sinking feeling, like what the heck happened to these poor people? They had all the right clothes, hiking boots, even those fancy, retractable walking sticks. I must stop observing and keep hiking! How bad could it be?
Alas, my next observation is a dual one. Have you ever done 100 lunges or squats in a row, and the sides of your backside start to burn? By this point, I had that feeling, plus I could barely breathe and felt dizzy. The altitude was clearly getting to me, and to one daughter, and the other was mentioning she had a bit of a headache. Remembering the pace the two previous passersby had, I now realized why. I slowed way, way down. “One foot in front of the other, keep your balance, stay on the trail,” I repeated to myself.
We continued like this for some time, and the trail crawled toward the tree line but (thankfully) leveled off to a narrow, sandier form, running alongside the steep mountainside. We are probably at 10,000-11,000 feet right now, so still inching along because of the altitude, however it has become windier. “Well, it’s the mountains, of course it’s windy,” I thought.
Next, we came upon a woman we’d seen earlier on the open-only-July-September road, running. Yes, running up and down a mountain! I’d already given her Saint status for running on a road that well, let’s say about every 10 feet my stomach met my knees and I uttered, “Ohhhh sh—-“ not audibly enough for the children to hear, but enough to provide the satisfaction only “Oh sh—“ can provide looking straight down an 8000-foot cliff. And now she’s hiking! She was from Loveland, CO and going to attempt to do Chiquita Peak but her legs felt like rubber so wasn’t sure she’d make it. My husband made it clear we were only going to try for Chapin Pass. After a few more chit chats, off she went, bolting it seemed — rubbery legs and all — while we step by stepped along.
Since we’re not on such a steep grade anymore, I began to notice my visual surroundings. It was the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen in my life. And those candles you buy in gift stores during the winter in Minnesota to provide your holiday gatherings with the warm feelings of the forest? Right here — this is where the scent scientists get it. The colors exploded at the tree line! Red, purple, pink, white, and yellow wildflowers were everywhere, groundcover height. Not many trees, but the contrast of colors just looking ahead from top to bottom was almost unreal: brightest white, puffy clouds, crayon-intensity blue sky, gray, white, cream, bright green layered mountains, then the lush wildflower tundra in our immediate surroundings. Looked immediately in front and there was the thin, sandy, winding trail ahead of us. It was like a painting that should be in a museum.
Kid check – they’re plodding along OK in chipper fashion, save the headache one daughter had and the continued windedness from the other. No real complaints though – we were all on a mission to reach Chapin Pass. That said, my own mind wandered to the night before, hearing my husband say, “Easy one-mile in” and it’s feeling much more than that. I check my activity tracker.
To be clear, I’d be the first person to back down in any debate about an activity tracker’s GPS accuracy, but it’s usually close. It showed we’d been walking over two miles. I’m thinking, “Well, I see the trail ahead of me and see where it’s going so whatever.”
Now we’re in the great, wide open, scaling the side of a steep mountainside with what felt like 50-60 mph straight-line winds, but were more like 25-30 mph. sustained winds. The trail grew narrower and rockier, like piles of rocks you had to gingerly step on, but swiftly, lest the wind blow you sideways as you picked up your foot. We were used to and prepared for the temperature drop, but it just added to cup beginning to overflow to result in someone finally saying, “Are, we, almost, THERE??”
Luckily, the mountain seemed to deliver a respite right when we needed it, and along came a pair of friendly Marmots on the trail ahead. They’re playful little creatures, low to the ground, lumping along with human-like fingers. Mostly I’d say they look like beavers.They posed for many pictures as we inched along snapping, forgetting the wind, cold, unstable foothold and one-mile trail that would never end.
- a place or support for the feet; a place where a person may stand or walk securely.
- a secure position, especially a firm basis for further progress or development.
The narrow-side-of-the-mountain-trail eventually dumps us out to what is called a “saddle,” which is literally that, between two mountains. Now the wind has really picked up intensity, and we had fun with having to lean into the air and walk squat-like to move forward, like a zombie. Picture Michael Jackson in the Thriller video.
I’m someone that always looks ahead; my development is learning to appreciate the moment. So, after a minute or two of Thriller/zombie walking, I look up at the mountain, to what remains of half this hike. If anyone had uttered a word about turning back, I’d of eagerly yelped, “YES!” before he/she could finish the sentence. The opposite occurred. Eleven-year-old #2, energized by the saddle and fun wind optimistically thinks we can keep going, we can make up the mountain! OK then!
Reality set in further along, and I could almost see the trail grin as it drew us gradually back up again, but was slowly disappearing. Up, up, up. In physically challenging circumstances, you can kind of lose yourself. You have to dig deep and find things you don’t have to use day to day. The only comfort one may have in those circumstances is a raw sense of purpose. The vision of the trail leading to the top of the mountain and our daughter saying, “We can do this!” was my new purpose.
The mirage that is “The top of the mountain”
Being 11, the children didn’t have the years and years of “digging deep” like my husband and I have (sometimes I wonder if digging deep is just a nice way of saying stupidity). God bless ‘em it didn’t happen sooner, but the long stretch of non-conversation, just one foot in front of the other took a turn. “I’m so tired, are we almost there yet? How much farther?” And on and on. We kept stopping to rest and drink water. This isn’t quite the hiking definition of “scrambling” because we didn’t need our hands, but the path virtually disappeared into a big, vast pile of rocks to climb, and the elusive “top of the mountain” always just a ways up.
Angel from Loveland
I had observed that besides the first worn-out couple, the running woman and a guy in full hiking gear saying with a smile, “It’s REALLY windy up there!” we’d seen no one besides the Marmots. But, now we could see a few people at the top — that pesky, never-arriving top! Point being, there aren’t many people doing this hike. This reality provided both a feeling a pride, and uneasiness.
And then, we all start to fall apart. First, one kid lies down on the side of the sort-of trail, my other daughter joins her, my husband finds a big rock behind which to get us shelter from the wind, hails the children over and sits down. Me? I’ve dug deep several times already, I’ve already repeated a happy face in my head, “I always love a new challenge!” and repeatedly attempted to see the beauty and scenery. I could even see mountain ranges that are beyond the immediate mountain ranges. “Maybe that’s Utah?” I mused. However, I take the cues of my children and get shaken out of my positivity stupor and find myself feeling very cranky.
Maybe it’s an only child thing, but when I’m cranky, I don’t want to be around people, so once I see the kids have joined my husband behind the rock and are digging into our big sandwich, fruit and trail mix bag, I scramble up the hill further and find my own boulder shelter placed millions of years ago by heaven only knows. Predictably, that being in me I’d actively silenced the last few hours could no longer be contained and came bursting into my brain, “THAT’S IT! I’m DONE! This is FAR ENOUGH!” Right about then, my chipper, “It’s steeper but an easy mile in” husband climbs up and sits next to me. I attempt to nicely relay that it would not be a good idea for him to sit next to me right now. “Would you like a sandwich?” he asked. “Sure,” I reply. He delivers the sandwich and heads back down about 15 feet to his rock.
Then I hear voices down below, and glance over my shoulder: It’s the woman from Loveland descending! Because the wind was so strong and I was crouched down, I couldn’t hear much of their conversation as she approached my husband and the girls, but this I did hear, “Hey you guys are still going??? You’re almost to the top of Chiquita Peak! Chapin Pass is wayyyy down there!” Her finger indeed pointed “way down there.” Way down there before our collective meltdown. Way down there probably in Marmot territory. Way down there before the evil “I’m DONE!” person kicked out the, “I love a new challenge!” version of myself.
Well, that certainly explained things! We have since learned from a few locals that hikers always miss the turn off for the earlier, less-high Chapin Pass, and the guides don’t describe such. It’s a 1000-ft vertical to Chiquita and while the mirage was in full-force, to hear the Angel from Loveland relay we were almost there literally sent a jolt of adrenalin into our entire family. We all got up, had an exchange about continuing and with the kids’ cue to try and reach the top, we headed up. We got even more superhero adrenalin energy by the fact that we passed two more small groups descending and they were both from Minnesota. We Minnesotans are sure a hearty ilk! Onward and upward!
11-year-old leads the way
Later, my daughter commented that she learned from such a challenge how much positive talk you have to do with yourself to achieve a goal. She has great balance, is sure-footed and she blazed up the rest of the mountain, clearly determined and setting our final pace. She was first of the McLarens to summit Chiquita Peak. I think I was last! Previous hikers had built horseshoe-shaped rock shelters at the top to escape the wind and once nestled there as a family, it was downright pleasant at 13,069 feet.
Besides being surprised how much color and growth there is at such an altitude, there were two brand new feelings I’d never had before that were inspiring. It’s quite a thing to be 48 years old and have brand new feelings.
- Little old me standing on a rock, literally above all the mountains around me. Looking down on mountains provided a dually powerful and calming feeling. I can close my eyes and see it now. It makes me feel like I am more than I think I am. We are all capable of so much more. Standing here, above the mountains, I only want to do the impossible; I don’t want to hold myself back.
- We got here together, my family. We don’t give up. We got exactly what we needed when we needed it and something bigger wanted us to succeed, to have that experience and we collectively felt that drive to continue, to get to the top, while at the same time, each of us wanted to quit at various times. We stopped and rested as a team, took pictures of Marmots as a team, melted down as a team, got re-inspired by the Angel from Loveland as a team and enjoyed summiting as a team.
What goes up must come down
Despite my husband picking this hike on this day for the fact that there was absolutely no inclement weather predicted, we nonetheless didn’t want to spend a ton of time at the unpredictable top of the mountain. After about 15-20 minutes sitting, eating, meandering and picture taking we gathered our accomplished spirits and started heading down.
Remember me mentioning the personal importance to ensure my children had good hiking footwear but I would continue on with my running shoes; perhaps find an online deal once we got home? Well, I got a deal, all right. Within 10 feet of descending the steep grade of crumbly rocks, I knew that was a big mistake. All the challenges of getting up the mountain suddenly paled in comparison to the realization of the challenge I’d have going down the mountain. Side step, forward step, it didn’t matter. Every step I took either my tread slid my whole foot forward or the side of my foot pushed the top of my shoe over the sole of my shoe, the momentum of such force results in only one thing: one’s outward ankle bending out. Eleven-year-old #2 continued walking behind me. Later she confessed she felt bad for me and didn’t want me to be behind by myself.
I could easily skip this next part of the adventure but it was a turning point, and not a good one. If one can’t admit one’s mistakes what’s the point of this whole story?
Within just a few minutes of descending, my ankle had mildly turned a number of times, twice resulting in falling down. The second time I fell sideways, and then I snapped – Move over, evil “I’m DONE!” being, make way for, “I’ve Had It!”
“I’ve Had It” whacked my husband’s tree-branch walking stick down on a rock, and cracked it in half. More like it exploded. Mind you there are still 25-30 mph sustained winds and I just wanted out of there, so I got up and took off. Just took off. Like, not a jog but almost. Now, how is it that at one quarter of the speed I was slipping and falling all over the place and now I’m practically leaping down the loose-rock terrain? I gather myself somewhat and look behind to ensure my family isn’t trying to keep this pace. They weren’t, and so I continued on until the tree line emerged and the wind dissipated. I sat down and waited.
Each family member straggled in and sat down. I apologized for my outburst, conceded that yes, yes, perhaps you heard an unfavorable word in there somewhere about oh, when the stick cracked in half and went flying and relayed I just should have dug deep again and found some positive things to say, took deep breaths, something other than whacking my stick and taking off. The kids reassured me with stories of when they lost it, it’s OK, we understand. My husband carefully and with a painful smile uttered thankfulness I didn’t kill myself with such trail bounding. I agreed, poor example. And up and off we went.
The rest of the way down wrapped up toward a quite happy ending — lots of chatting, laughing about meltdowns, reveling in our accomplishment and more Marmots and now Elks to take pictures of. Other hikers only going to the tree line were fun to chat with. We ended the adventure with, “I can’t believe we did that!” The next day we returned to the outdoors shop, where the girls helped pick out a pair of new hiking boots for me.
What my family taught me about leadership
It is not a new notion that we are all “called” to do things in this life. Maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s several. What is crystal clear to me now is the fact that we are ALL called to lead. Right here, right now, in the smallest and biggest ways.
Leadership is not becoming some constantly changing “Top 10 qualities of a leader.” Leadership is about being the very best human being you can be, right now, in every moment. Also not surprisingly, challenges bring out our true nature, the ways in which we instinctively and uniquely lead, and it’s important to notice and encourage that in yourself and others. Conversely, challenges can also bring out the absolute worst in us (i.e. “Whack and run.”), and others have to pick up the slack, but strength is found in acknowledging and sharing failures.
Maybe you caught them along the way in the story, but here are the ways my family members led during our hike to Chapin Pass. I mean, Chiquita Peak:
- Lying down on the side of trail. She was the first of us to admit she was tired and that she wasn’t sure she could make it to the top. It is courageous and smart to ignore groupthink, prideful Tomfoolery to keep going. It’s because of her needed break we stopped to eat, and spoke with the Angel from Loveland.
- After satisfying this need to rest, and admitting her fear of not being able to make it to the top, she was the one that led us to the top.
- Instead of trying to be out front at any point during the hike, she perceived my need to be slower and always walked behind me. She led through caring and empathy.
- She carried hers and her sister’s backpack the entire way and never complained. She knew it would be too heavy for the other, who despite being five minutes older is seven inches shorter.
- She got energized and provided the necessary optimism at the saddle just when we all needed it. She helped us believe we could climb the mountain.
- Planning, knowledge, preparedness and pinch-hitting during meltdowns.
- Ahh, to be a guy off to do a challenging hike and have your two daughters lay down on the side of a trail and your wife fall over and whack your walking stick in half and take off! When we found ourselves truly challenged he was patient, understanding and let happen what needed to happen, but always expressed his belief we could do it. Good leaders set a vision, provide encouragement and let unfold what needs to unfold.
- Not much leadership! And the irony is I’m co-authoring a book, have a blog and have coached other leaders on this very topic! Maybe admitting my mistake with snapping to my kids and talking about it had leadership qualities. Perhaps continuing on despite my footwear issues and ensuring my mood bounced back quickly was leadery. But, my family members clearly outpaced my leadership actions! I was a poor example making sure my kids had hiking boots but not getting them myself – kind of that old airplane rule, “Put on your own oxygen mask before you help others.” And so, if I missed in terms of leadership on the hike, I certainly have a lot of lessons to apply in the future! For example:
- Set big goals – you can do more than you think! But rest if you need to.
- What goes up must come down, so be prepared.
- Put yourself in other people’s hiking shoes (no pun intended).
- Go on, share your failures! It’s fun and makes you stronger.
- Don’t give up!
And that is what I learned about my family at 13,069 feet. We don’t give up, and for that I am thankful.
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mount Chiquita 13069’
2069’ elevation gain