What’s the Opposite of “Success”? Sorry, Merriam Webster: It’s Actually Not “Failure.” The very last peak on my Seven Second Summit roster is Mount Logan in Canada. After Denali, it’s the second-highest mountain in North America and a fitting place to end the journey that has taken me around the world. My goal is to reach the summit and cement my place as the first female to ever complete the Seven Seconds.
Twenty days before heading up to Canada, a friend and I decided to do an acclimatization climb (to get my body ready for such a demanding altitude) on Bolivia’s Nevado Sajama, which has a challenging 20,000+ peak. We arrived in great spirits, determined to enjoy the time together and take in all the stunning scenery (including the llamas roaming around!). While I knew Nevado Sajama wouldn’t necessarily be a walk in the park, I’ve also climbed much more difficult mountains, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about reaching the top. Given the title of this article, you might have a hunch about where this is going…
We did not summit.
It was way too windy, and we made the decision to retreat. It’s always difficult to turn around on a mountain, particularly because of the immense effort (and money) required to even get there in the first place. There was also the possibility that a consequence of failing to summit Nevado Sajama could have been a hit to my confidence for Logan. What if the weather ends up being bad there too? Will I be sufficiently prepared if I’m not able to climb in Bolivia? Mountain climbing is as much – if not more – a mental game as it is a physical one, and those nagging thoughts that come in can be a recipe for disaster.
Rather than focusing on what we hadn’t been able to accomplish, I started researching alternative adventures. There’s a mountain called Huayna Potosí, just a few hours away from where we were, and we decided to give it a go even though we only had one day left on the trip rather than the two it normally takes to climb. It took a hefty dose of determination and teamwork, but we reached the summit in the early hours of the morning. And guess what? We were greeted with the most magnificent sunrise – which we wouldn’t have been able to see had we stuck with Nevado Sajama.
Excavate the lessons.
When I first attempted to summit K2 – one of the most notoriously difficult and dangerous mountains in the world – I reached a point at which it became necessary to make a difficult decision. My heart was screaming at me to keep going, but my head asked me to consider how many red lights I had already blown past. If it were a “normal mountain,” would I continue? Definitely not. I had already made so many exceptions in my desperation to reach the top. When I returned home, I analyzed the experience.
Where did things break down? Were there moments where I wasn’t listening to myself or others? Did I misjudge the conditions? Was I ill-prepared physically or mentally? That failure has gone on to inform the journey of all the summits I have achieved since. It has made me a better, smarter, and savvier climber. Failure is a necessary ingredient of success and improvement. If we didn’t trip or fall sometimes, we would never learn where we need to grow.
Remember that other people don’t actually care.
I’ll never forget a moment I had in Nepal while in the process of climbing Ama Dablam. Wanting to help out with the evening food preparation, I asked the sherpas if I could make the bread. It went… not great. In contrast to their beautiful roti, mine were creased and pretty sad looking. Within seconds, I had created a whole narrative about how the rest of our group would miss out on that piece of the meal because I hadn’t just left it to the experts. And then we won’t be able to climb if we’re hungry, and everyone will hate me, and they’ll probably talk about me behind my back, and… needless to say, none of that happened. Each of us cares way more about our perceived failures than anyone else does. After all, they’re probably focusing on their own!
Keep your eye on the ultimate prize.
I recently had a conversation with my friend Dr. Elizabeth Kostal, who is gearing up to be the first person to climb Mount Everest with a pacemaker. She had just returned from a training climb in Ecuador that didn’t go as she had hoped. Rather than letting herself fixate on the disappointment of failing to summit, she reframed it. Did she want to summit the mountain in Ecuador on the first try, or would she rather take the data back to the team and make adjustments so she could have a successful climb when it came time for Everest? Always remember to zoom out a little and remember what you’re working toward.
Be kind to yourself. Imagine you break a bone. Would you start hitting it relentlessly and yelling, “Come on! Work!” Of course not. You’d put it in a cast and give it some extra TLC. After it fully healed, it would be even stronger in that spot than before it was broken. Do the same thing in moments of failure. Be kind to yourself. Invite rest. Know that you won’t break into that spot again because you’ve learned how to avoid it. Failure is part of growth.
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