Wet Underwear and Leadership


They were saturated down to their underwear and the temperature was below freezing. It was midnight near 11,000 feet elevation on the upper headwall of Fitz Roy, and they were “venturing (up) into this waterfall,” said Tommy Caldwell. “The rope was frozen solid, all my cams (safety gear) wouldn’t work anymore (frozen by water), and I was wondering what we were doing up here.” All they had to look forward to after finishing that night’s climb was a small freeze-dried pasta meal, sharing a sleeping bag, and resting a few hours upon that frozen rope with their packs for padding.

The climbing team of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold were in a tight spot, to say the least. And they still had three days of a never-before-climbed labyrinth of rock to complete the 5km ridge-line with over 13,000 feet of vertical gain that comprises the Fitz Traverse route.

Many leadership principles can be gleaned from their epic journey:

  1. Morale matters: “You have to keep morale high when you are suffering,” said Tommy Caldwell.
  2. Embrace the unknown: “We were casting adrift in an ocean of rock,” said Alex Honnold.
  3. Have the right partner(s): “As long as one person can float the team at certain points, it works out,” said Tommy Caldwell.
  4. Pain is part of the process: “(The climb was) a test in pain tolerance,” said Tommy Caldwell.
  5. Keep moving despite weakness: “(All of our gear is thrashed and) my spirits are broken too, I’m pretty sure,” said Alex Honnold.
  6. Be resourceful: “Alex thinks stirring frozen polenta with my broken sunglasses is gross, but I don’t know. I feel like licking frozen condensation off the inside of the tent is even grosser,” said Tommy Caldwell.
  7. Rest is needed to complete audacious goals: “Maybe in a year I can motivate to do something like this again,” said Alex Honnold.
  8. Leverage your strengths: “…these are the two most capable rock climbers in the world at the moment,” said Rolando Garibotti (Patagonia climbing legend). “With their level of skill, they can more than make up for all their little missteps in terms of logistical preparation and equipment.”

The Fitz Roy mountain was named after an English naval explorer who charted much of the Patagonian coast between Chile and Argentina in the 1800’s. He too survived hardships to complete a journey, and I imagine many of these principles guided him as well.

So where do you find yourself in your leadership? What epic journey are you living, or wishing to begin? Do you have the right partner(s)?

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