In May 2021, as a part of my quest to reach the 7 highest summits in every continent, and simply to be out in nature again, I flew to Alaska to climb Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
This was my first time spending more than 2 weeks in the wilderness since my polar expedition in Greenland in 2012.
That winter before the climb, I spent 3 months in Vermont training like a savage.
I dragged a sled through the snow for up to 9 hours a day on cross country skis. I took cold water dips into frozen rivers to test my spirit, and even got hypothermia once when I pushed the line a bit too far. I went for long runs in raging storms to practice being still in the face of chaos. During one such storm, a massive tree crashed onto the trail right in front of me. Had I been moving a minute faster, you would not be reading this today.
I hiked up many of the highest mountains in Vermont with an absurdly heavy pack loaded with weights. I slept in a high altitude tent every night. I punished myself with brutal workouts to build up my strength, not just my endurance.
By the time I set foot in Alaska, my body, mind and spirit were ready for “The Great One.”
But in the end, the mountain had other plans for us. My training prepared me well for the battle, but the mountain was always in charge of the outcome.
We completed the toughest part of the route, the section between camp 3 at 14,200 feet to high camp at 17,000 feet in windy conditions. That day was tough. That night, the storms did not let up. When we woke up the next morning, they continued beating down our tent. The weather report called for even stronger winds coming in that evening.
Along with many of the other teams on the mountain, we made the right call and decided to descend. It was too dangerous to make a summit push in those conditions. It is ALWAYS better to come back home to live to fight another day. The mountain will still be there in the future.
We did not make the summit. But I have no regrets. It was not through any human error. The mountain just did not open its doors to us that time. I am forever grateful for the experience though and have no doubt I will return at some point in the future.
I wrote this about the experience…
On our quest for self-discovery, nature is the ultimate playground.
On Denali, it was humbling to experience just how small we are. At the same time, we realized how powerful we can be in our ability to even enter into these worlds and face the brutality of nature’s fury.
We are powerless… And all-powerful. Nature, at once, exposes us to both these reality’s.
Nature is the greatest theater to witness all of life’s dualities coexisting as one…
One day we’re enduring a raging storm, the next we’re walking in tranquility toward a lunar eclipse. One moment, we stood face to face with a mighty avalanche, the next we sat in a gentle field of snow overlooking a perfectly still landscape.
Raw, destructive power and pure, harmless serenity all coexist as one…
The most beautiful part is that these dualities are not false constructs created with intent. Nature is pure. It doesn’t act out of malice or morality. It doesn’t choose love or hate. It plays no games and has no hidden agendas. It simply is.
What nature reveals to us is not governed by any ideological doctrine. It is just a reflection of the truth of what is. A truth I call the paradox of singular duality…
In life, there exist a series of seemingly opposing forces. Life and death, darkness and light, pain and pleasure, winning and losing, stillness and chaos, fear and love…
We as human beings create conceptual divides between each of these forces. We see these
contrasting polarities as opposites, often even as enemies of the other. When in fact they can, and must coexist. Hence the paradox.
What appears as two opposing, dualistic constructs are in fact one. They are elements within a singular whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In nature we bear witness to this truth. We get to see that all that is, including us, reside within one unified realm.
The purity of nature reveals the very essence of our human experience here on this planet.
Rabbi Steve Leder put it beautifully when he said…
“To be in nature is to surrender to our smallness, our stillness, our oneness with creation, becoming a part of something larger and more beautiful than our own immediate suffering… To see our pain in the grand sweep of nature is to know that we were neither singled out for suffering nor granted immunity from it—we are all merely and beautifully a part of the flowing rhythm that all things obey.”
These are the kinds of storms we faced on Denali…