Whatever it takes (to an extent)
April 2021. Mount Hood, Oregon – A midnight alarm stirs me from my bunk at the Timberline Lodge. There’s a wall of snow outside the window, making the wood-walled chalet especially dark. A prime setting for a Stephen King novel (and incidentally the exterior filming location of The Shining). I fumble for the sink, and when I turn on the light, I cringe—expecting to find REDRUM scrawled on the mirror. Not today, I think, staring at the glass of murder movies. Not today.
Throwing on layers and stepping into my double-boots, I force down a PB&J and leave the warmth of the lodge. By 1 AM, I’m at the trailhead of the climber’s route, ready to scramble over the twenty feet of snowpack for an alpine start. My adrenaline spikes, and I’m brimming with excitement. I’m only six hours from snagging my next summit. I’ve been planning this climb for months—training, prepping my gear, psyching myself up. And after a five-hour drive through rush-hour traffic earlier that day, I was ready.
But before my first step, I must be honest with myself: What are my goals?
The first is obvious: Stand on the summit of Mount Hood by 8 AM and take a picture holding my orange flag. The perfect goal: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound. But that isn’t the only goal. It isn’t even the most important.
The second goal seems redundant: Climb all fifty U.S. highpoints. Isn’t the first goal contained within the second? Hood is one of those fifty highpoints, right? As I stand there, poking my trekking poles at the wall of ice, I decide I’m going to walk back to this spot before noon. I’m not getting lost, I’m not falling into a crevasse, I’m not passing out in a fumarole, I’m not getting buried by an avalanche. I’m not getting carried out—I’m going to walk out. If I want to climb all fifty highpoints, I need to respect mountaineering’s first principle: Don’t plan for rescue. Be self-sufficient, be prepared, and don’t be stupid. Climbing Hood in April is risky, but solo climbing is downright dangerous.
There are three main conditions to consider on glaciated peaks: Terrain, weather, and visibility. If one is bad, continue with caution. If two are bad, call it quits. So, I set my guardrail: Halfway up, I would assess the conditions. If two were unmet, I’d turn back. Right now, the snowpack is firm and icy but well frozen-over, so the crevasse risk seems low. No precipitation. Light winds. I can even see the summit in the moonlight. Green on all fronts.
The door is open—Hood is ready to accept my summit bid. I love open doors, especially frigid icy ones like this. And I’m equally ready to shove it open. As wide as I need…without toppling the whole house.
In my childhood home, there was a door that led from the garage into the basement. As in many homes, this side door was used more often than the front—the entrance to lug in groceries, for customers to enter my mom’s hair business, the place to kick off muddy boots. But this door didn’t have a doorstop. One time, a cousin opened this door so aggressively that the handle smashed a hole through the wall. It’s a permanent reminder of the lasting damage that can come from short, hasty decisions. We all want to open doors with maximum clearance. But there’s a certain point where you ruin other things, such as the wall that supports it.
Summitting Hood is my door—the threshold to achieve success. But my second goal, climbing all fifty highpoints, is my doorstop. I can run at the door with everything I have, but if I pushed too far and there isn’t a doorstop, I could break a leg, at best. At worst…you get the idea.
Speaking of, did I mention I’m halfway up the Palmer snowfield; face numb against the blowing needles of snow? How quickly conditions can change—especially on volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest. Still energized by the caffeine of my midnight Red Bull and the excitement of being on the mountain—the solitude, the pristine whiteness of the snow, the satisfying slow burn in my calves—I plow forth. I’d climbed a bit over a mile in about a half-hour. My phone’s GPS shows a thousand feet of elevation gain. The metrics are solid.
The business world loves metrics, and—for better or worse—that mindset has certainly permeated my personal life. What’s measured, gets done. People’s salaries and livelihood depend on hitting them, so the system works. But it’s easy for metrics to become all-consuming, and often we over-index on them—measuring efficiency and accuracy and cost and speed and availability and so on—until they almost lose meaning. It’s too much for our simple brains (remember Seven Plus Or Minus Two?). Perhaps I’ve been too into the Star Wars animated series on Disney+, but I’ll repeat the Sith motto: There can be only two…A master and an apprentice. A door and a doorstop. What is the primary measure of success for a goal? And what is the backstop metric to ensure foundations aren’t compromised along the way?
Doorstops aren’t sexy. It’s much more tempting to adopt mantras like “whatever it takes” or “I’d give anything for X” or the murderous “I’d kill for Y!” But these mindsets are born out of mental fatigue. Perhaps inspired by the proliferation of metrics and general complexity of modern software, longing for simplicity has risen in tech companies. Organizations start to think: Instead of a million KPIs, what if we just had one? A golden goal, one metric to rule them all. With the growth of machine learning, many organizations devise ML-derived attributes. These metrics take in hundreds, if not thousands, of inputs and use a scientific model—such as linear regression or random forest—to find patterns that humans can’t process. While these metrics are usually very strong, they pay the price with explainability. A loss of clarity. Like the oxygen deprivation at altitude, a fog comes over the mind when faced with one incomprehensible metric, or one siloed goal. We lose sight of the bigger picture.
Until we bump against the doorstop.
REDRUM! REDRUM! The Shining kid’s squeaky voice echoes in my ears, snow piercing my face. Goggles frosted and cheeks burning from the ice, I crouch against a crag and turn my back to the wind. The weather has worsened—the snowfall is heavy, and the wind is steadily increasing to 20-30 mph. Visibility has withered away. The peak, let alone the next ten to twenty yards ahead of me, is completely obscured. My headlamp reveals little more than the blur of biting snow. Pulling on my parka and swapping my glacier goggles for ski goggles, I grumpily gnaw a Clif bar and accept reality. The summit isn’t going to happen. Hood isn’t going to REDRUM me. Not today.
I descend the mountain, unwinding the pointless progress I’ve made, and flop back in my bunk. It’s 4 AM. Melatonin duels with caffeine for control of my consciousness as I fume about my failure. As I drive home the next day, snow and rain whipping my windshield, I’m still upset at the wasted effort. I start to kick myself for not pushing through it. For not “toughing it out.”
I tap the brake and swerve onto the shoulder. Without warning, a car merges into my lane, leaving mere inches of clearance. Sure enough, five teenage heads bob in the windows. Smirking, I readjust and carry on. What was the old principle of teen driving? The available brainpower is divided by the number of passengers, or something like that? Two teens, half a brain. Five teens, a fifth of a brain. Maybe a similar principle could apply to climbing? With a partner, my appetite for risk is greater. Had I been with a buddy, perhaps I would have pushed further. Ignored the warning signs and kicked away the doorstop? Or maybe I’m just making excuses to pad my ego?
C’est la vie. Hood won this time. At least I got this stupid newsletter.
Emptying My Junk Drawer
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