Apr 4, 2019

People You Meet Along the Way: Next Stop - Nepal: Destination Unknown....

You're off to great places,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting, 
So... get on your way..!
-Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You'll Go

A few final thoughts as I drag two heavy bags out the door for a long journey to Nepal. I’m feeling a wide range of emotions from apprehension and nervousness, to that insatiable adrenaline rush you get when you stand on the cusp of the unknown and prepare to leap. 

Preparing to leap. The biggest challenge with this expedition - like so many decisions in life (e.g. changing roles at work, moving to countries, moving homes, starting and ending relationships), has been making the decision to ‘go for it’ – to upset the controlled routine of a comfortable home, a steady job doing work I enjoy, a living a simple life at a manageable pace…  So why change? Why upset the proverbial ‘apple cart’? when a life of predictability and comfort is so much easier...

I wish that I had the answer but I don’t. When my head questions the ‘why’, my heart pulls me forward and I’ve never regretted succumbing to the pull. 

Succumbing to the pull hasn’t always been easy or straightforward but it’s always brought me contentment and ultimately happiness as a result – although not always in ways that I’d anticipated. But this is the thrill of life, and in living beyond our comfort zones… life tests and rewards in many different ways, each test and reward bringing us closer to our true selves. 

Life truly is a ‘journey’. The person I am today – right here, right now – is the patchwork of decisions and choices that I’ve made along the way. Through these decisions and choices I’ve discovered freedom and joy in movement, in meeting new people, in finding comfort in discomfort. I’ve fed a thirst for learning – learning from others, from my environment, and in some cases, learning from myself. I’ve learned not to judge myself too harshly when things don’t go as expected. I’ve learned that taking time out to ‘sit still’, and just ‘be’ is perhaps the easiest way to move in the ebb and flow of life. 

To just “be”. I think this is why I keep coming back to Nepal. My first visit was 20 years ago on a trek of the Annapurna Circuit. From that first visit and every visit since, I’ve been gently reminded to ‘just be’. This happens the second you step off the plane, go through the character-building initiation of Immigration and Passport Control, and experience the sheer chaos of baggage reclaim. Eventually you’re spat out the other end of the process and you’re picked up and whisked away to your guest house wiping the sweat off your brow.  Letting go is the theme – the more you try to make sense of the chaos the more lost and frustrated you become. Trust the natural flow. Go with the flow… and have no expectations. It comes more easily now both in Nepal and closer to home.
This first journey also unlocked a passion for movement, for listening, and learning. I experienced firsthand the power of mother nature and the selfless kindness of strangers. It prompted a continuous journey of reflection on what I could give back to the world in some small way. These themes have continued to be an integral part of my life and form the basis for the way that I have chosen to live. I am grateful for all those who keep me true to this and are there 'in my basecamp'.

This isn’t to say that I can’t find a sense of fulfillment in other places – there are days where a margarita on a beach on a Caribbean island would be a preferable option. But for whatever reason – perhaps it is the sheer ‘in your face’ contrast – the beauty, the chaos, the noise, the silence, the nature, the filth, that the lessons just seem more ‘gentle’ here through their extremes.

Stepping out of a comfort zone, following through on a ‘calling’ and sense of purpose – this is often more daunting than the mountains we find ourselves on. But the fulfillment is in the journey – the lessons learned and the people we meet along the way, and the place that we leave in the world as a result. 

“Give me a rich and satisfying life means one full of contrast. Give me sleep ins and soft rains, coffee shops and conversation but also adrenaline and adventure and drunken bellows to the stars. I am determined to embrace this extraordinary life for all it has to offer.” – Beau Taplin


Where one journey ends, another begins…

Some people have asked what I’ll be doing over the next 7 weeks

I’ll spend the first few days in Kathmandu, slowly integrating into the pace that is Nepal at The Terrace, my ‘home away from home’. Gear organization, grocery shopping, catching up with friends and enjoying a pizza or two will be high on the priority list. 

The runway at Kathmandu airport is under construction so rather than fly to Lukla, our entry-point into the Himalayas, we head overland to the tiny airport of Ramchap. There’s never a dull moment in Nepal especially when it comes to bureaucracy and logistics so I have no doubt there will be a few surprises waiting for us there.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks my climbing partner Mal and I will make our way up into the Khumbu and acclimatize before attempting to climb a 6100m mountain called Kyajo Ri, in alpine style and via the Mende route.

Following the climb, I’ll walk across to the small mountain village of Phortse where I'll help put the finishing touches on the Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC) in preparation for its Grand Opening in early June.

Next stop - Nepal!

“So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life's A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid, you'll move mountains.” 
- Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go!

Mar 14, 2019

"Tell me a little about yourself..."

Tell me a little about yourself...” I’m speaking on a Panel this weekend to an audience of university students and this is the opening question. It’s straightforward yet I’m struggling to answer it…

What labels do I use to define myself? Labels defined by my career, my hobbies, my relationship-status, where I was born, what I studied in university? What’s on my business card or what’s not on my business card? How do I reflect that I’m multi-faceted and unique with an alchemy of experiences underpinned by values that have influenced the decisions I’ve made in life…?

Are the labels I use truly representative in defining 'me'? Defining myself as a ‘consultant’ feels incomplete… as does ‘climber’ or ‘adventurer’. ‘Daughter, sister’ too one-sided. ‘Lover of life’ too ambiguous… ‘mover and shaker’ too brassy and bold. 'Introverted' too misconstrued… So who am I really? 

Until I stopped to truly consider this question, I was surprised at how quick I'd previously been to strip out the ‘true essence’ of who I am.… 

So who am I? 

What my business card says. I'm employed by a global professional services firm. I have nearly two decades of experience as a Change Management and Communications specialist and have spent most of my career working in financial services.  Rolling up my sleeves to work with organisations to improve the experience of their people by helping to manage the impacts of change - technology changes, regulatory changes, role changes etc. -  is what I love most about my job. I’ve had the opportunity to do this in South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cyprus, Switzerland, Netherlands, UK and Canada. I enjoy the diversity of the job, the people I meet, and the fact that every single day I learn something new.

What my business card doesn’t say. I'm a sister. I’m the eldest of four, but definitely not the wisest... I have four nieces and two nephews. I’m not married and I don’t have children. I'm a daughter to my parents who live near Ridgetown and the farm where I grew up. I’m a first-generation Dutch-Canadian and my first language is Dutch. And yes, I like pannekoeken, drop en gezelligheid - sometimes at the same time. I can't cook but I make a mean margarita.

I’m curious. I’m a problem solver, adventurer, facilitator, lover of nature. I love wild places and wide open spaces. I'm humbled by the sheer power and beauty of Mother Nature every single day. The mountains and the sea are where I go to lose myself and find myself at the same time.

Empathy motivates and drives a huge part of my life - from mentoring teams at work, organizing expeditions, to supporting charities in Nepal or closer to home here in Canada. I do my best to live with and be led by an open heart - I don't always get it right but I try. 

When I was 7 years old my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Havens, said that I was 'conscientious'. I had to look the word up in a dictionary at the time. I'm sensitive and feel things deeply, and I always try to understand what other people are going through. The way I fit this into my work and life is by listening more and talking less, paying more attention to the people around me, and trying to understand things from their perspective. 

I value trust, honesty, authenticity. I am grateful for the people and opportunities in my life that reinforce this.

I’m inspired by movement and change. This has led me to explore new places and experience new cultures. I love sharing these experiences with others - although I really enjoy being 'on my own' too. I’ve climbed some of the highest mountains in the world. I’ve been on over 25 expeditions over the past decade and over 15 months of my life have been spent walking up big hills to enjoy the views from above 5,000m/16,500ft. I’ve cycled across Canada and across Tanzania, dragon boat raced down the Thames with the future Queen of England, and white water rafted throughout Nepal. 

In the words of the philosopher Crazy Frog (circa 2005), "I like to 'move it, move it". For me it's about passion and purpose. For Crazy Frog it was more about record sales. 

Combining my interest in people and ‘what makes them tick’, a love for the outdoors, and passion for “giving back” I'm committed to raising money and awareness for causes focused on health, the environment, and education. I’ve done this through an intentional cross-over of all that’s implied by what’s on my business card and what I love to do beyond it. This has been the highlight of my life. It’s where my purpose and passion have come together.

So who am I?

I’m still not sure I have the answer - and maybe there isn't one... and maybe that's the answer in itself.

Tell me a little about yourself?

Mar 8, 2019

The People You Meet Along The Way: Celebrating the Women of the World - International Womens Day 2019

Travel isn’t simply about movement from one place to the next. It’s deeper and broader. In travel, there are lessons to be learned from those who forge their lives in the hustle and bustle of the city, in dusty villages, along rolling hillsides and in the shadows of soaring mountain peaks. 

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women - while also making a call to action for accelerating gender balance. In celebrating I reflect on gender balance in the context of my travels and the women and men who have made deep impressions on me. Impressions which challenge the stereotypes. Impressions of women at the front. Impressions of women leading, providing and working as equals alongside their male counterparts. Impressions of women, driving change and creating opportunities for women today and for future generations.

Strength and resilience in the Himalayas…

I remember my first trip to the Himalayas over two decades ago. I was welcomed with warm smiles and hot tea into Guest Houses across Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan by kind, strong, and confident women – ‘didis’, mothers, sisters, aunties, grandmothers. Not only were these women business savvy proprietresses, they were the heads of the family - running the household, raising children, managing finances, tending to the gardens and crops. 

Let me introduce the humble Ang Domi Sherpa. She lives a quiet life in the small village of Thame, Nepal. Whilst her husband spends seasons guiding on Everest, Ang Domi raises the family, runs a busy tea-house, and follows her passion for training for the Everest Marathon - she's completed it multiple times including in 2015 when she ran it and raised funds to help rebuild Thame village after it was destroyed in the Nepal earthquake. The 42km race, one of the toughest in the world, starts at Everest Base Camp (5,364m) and ends at Namche Bazaar (3,440m). It was humbling listening to Ang Domi's story - even more so as she sheepishly and somewhat apologetically explained the reason behind one of her ‘slower’ paces - she was pregnant at the time.

Similarly, I reflect on a cup of tea shared with a group of the local women in a small village of Gairung, Nepal following the devastating earthquakes of 2015. Nearly all the homes in the village were destroyed and many men, women and children were injured or lost their lives. I listened as the women quietly told their stories, the depth of their emotions shared through facial expressions, intonations, hand gestures, tears and smiles. Despite not ‘understanding’ the language the lessons and learnings were clear. These women were pillars resilience reflected by the way they pulled together the courage and strength to organise grassroots relief efforts and rebuild their lives, their families and their communities - while their husbands worked on construction projects abroad to generate an income to support the family. 

Business acumen and tenacity in South East Asia…

The women of the markets in countries throughout South East Asia also left an early impression. I think back to the steamy and crowded Chatuchak market in Thailand. The commercial prowess of the women running their busy market stalls laden with stacks of produce, fresh fish and meats would give most business programs a run for their money. I received firsthand lessons in marketing, haggling and client service as I observed the women as they interacted with their eager customers. I watched inspired as they confidently and gracefully beheaded, gutted and wrapped fresh fish with a wink and a smile. 

Culture, celebration and family in Peru…

I think back to an expedition in Peru and the women who celebrated with us upon our return from the dizzying heights of Alpamayo. Local women prepared a celebratory feast and invited us into their homes to experience the richness of the Peruvian culture and cuisine. With great fanfare of music and celebration in their colourful layered skirts, we dined and danced together enjoying a delicious dish of ‘pachamanca’  - potatoes, corn and meat buried and cooked in an underground ‘oven’ of hot stones. Not only was it a celebration of our safe return from the mountains, it was a celebration in and of itself, a source of fertility and life. 

Confidence and capability in the Alps…

A reflection on impressions and inspiration moves next to the women – the guides, the coaches, the mentors, the friends - I’ve shared a rope with in my ‘mountain playground’ of the Chamonix Valley. I’m grateful for their lessons about movement in the mountains and in life more broadly. These women ‘get’ it and they ‘get’ me. The insecurities and vulnerability I feel around harder skills – technical ability, capability, and strength, as well as the softer lessons in purpose, passion and values. I have tremendous gratitude for their listening ears, the firmness of their instruction and gentleness of their advice. I would not be the person I am today – on and off the mountain – without their friendship, support and guidance. 

Discipline, commitment courage and creativity in Alaska… 

There are the women who not only inspire us on our journeys but also physically take us there. A highlight of an expedition to Denali, Alaska was being flown into basecamp by pilot Leighan Falley.  The short film, “Denali’s Raven” provides a glimpse into her life as a pilot, skier, alpinist and mother as she soars above the glaciers and peaks of the Alaska Range with her daughter Skye strapped into the backseat of her de Havilland Beaver. Her story and lesson is one of balance, of discipline, commitment, courage and creativity - a love for the dramatic Alaskan landscape, a need to supplement her career as a mountain guide, and her role as a wife and mother. 

Somewhat awe-struck I stepped into the plane as she shared with me an insight about her experiences in a predominately male dominated industry – “It’s not hard being a female pilot in Alaska, but that’s also the wonderful thing about aviation. The airplane, the mountains, and the weather—they don’t know you’re a woman…” A lesson extending to mountaineering as well.

The people you meet along the way….

There are the women travelers I’ve met along the way. Solo travellers, families, women traveling with their sisters, daughters, aunts, lovers… Some traveling on a holiday, some traveling to raise money for a charity, some simply traveling for the sake of travel. Confident, curious, kind, inspiring women everywhere. These are the women you meet in the coffee shops, in the guest houses, the airports, the visa queues, along the trails, on the summits and on the long journeys home... From these women I learn the importance of listening, sharing and kindness. Everyone has a story and a lesson and there is always a learning.

International Women’s Day 2019...

Today as we celebrate International Women’s Day I’m grateful for all those women and men who continue to challenge perceptions and inspire us to look beyond perceived boundaries. I’ve highlighted a few examples from my travels - but this summary is neither comprehensive nor geographically representative. 

I’m also inspired closer to home by the many women and men in my life – the friends, family, colleagues, mentors, coaches and role models - who are examples for me and many others in environments far removed from adventures in the mountains. 

As my friend the inspiring Shalena Poffenberger recently reflected in her travel blog, Longitudianal Shift. “Women are the ropes that hold communities together. They’ve spun the thread, weaved the cloth, and transformed it into something unbreakable. That’s what a woman is. She is the background, the foreground and the connector. We women work together, we work against each other, and we work on behalf of one another. But all day long, we are working for something.” 

We have much to celebrate today but there is still a long way to go to achieve a world where gender balance is the norm – but until then let us continue to work toward this goal and recognise the women and men around the world who move the dial and are examples to us all. 

Mar 5, 2019

The People You Meet Along The Way: Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans...

Life, they say, is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. I don’t know about you, but it feels like everyone’s ‘busy’ making plans these days. I’ve recently even caught myself hopping on the ‘I’m so busy’ band wagon wondering how I'm going to fit everything on my 'to-do' list into a day. 

There’s a popular meme that goes, ‘You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé.’ Whether you like Beyoncé or not, what the core message boils down to is that we all get the same amount of time - not the same circumstances or level of assistance - but we all get the same 1,440 minutes every single day. The difference between your life, or mine, or Beyoncé’s is defined by what we choose to do with those minutes. It’s up to us to carve out the time to make our own ‘bootylicious’ stuff happen. This involves honing in on why, what and where our priorities are, focusing on planning and time management, and building our 1,440 minutes around that.

I can almost hear parents around the world groaning that I’m venturing to write a blog about “planning” and “time management” in the same breathe as a reference to a Beyoncé meme - particularly as I think back to my youth and the herculean level of planning that my parents deployed in managing our family. Growing up, life was meticulously broken down into an orchestrated time-boxed schedule of school drop-offs, pick-ups, piano, ballet, gymnastics, badminton, soccer, grocery shopping, full-time jobs, after-school jobs etc. D-Day did not receive the level of planning as was scratched onto the calendar hanging in our family kitchen.  To all you parents out there (especially you Mom) – chapeau. I have no idea how you do it.

I don’t have to worry about school drop-offs and pick-ups but I do have a full time job, and live a life directed by commitments, choices and decisions – some of these are mine, some are not. I’ve spent nearly two decades shaping a career as a consultant harmonized with an inherent sense of wanderlust and sprinkled with a touch of “fear of missing out”. Like you parents out there, I’m learning – through trial and error – the art of multi-tasking, learning when to say ‘yes’, when to say ‘no’, and smiling bravely through the realisation that there are 24 hours in the day and I've planned for 30. These are the ‘not so bootylicious’ evenings that I’m in the gym after a long day in the office, gasping for breath on a treadmill while reading emails and deciding what to reheat in the microwave for my 11pm dinner.

Here’s a recent example. In April I’m traveling to Nepal to climb a 6100m / 20295ft mountain and volunteer for a charity to help put the finishing touches on the building of a local climbing school. As I’ve spent the past few months diligently planning and managing the activities around the trip, I can’t help but reflect on my first visit to Nepal about 20 years ago. I packed a ‘you only live once’ mentality along with a small backpack, begged and borrowed for the flight ticket, kissed my parents good-bye and off I went. How things have changed. 

Now that I’m older and ‘busier’ with commitments involving suitcases with wheels more so than backpacks, it’s more a case of making choices about what I truly want to do and why. I consider how I can carve a chunk of time to do it, and then come up with a plan that fits into that time slot that doesn’t compromise my objectives or the intimacy of the experience. This means bypassing the all-inclusive margarita-themed holidays to Punta Cana and focusing instead on preparing for the adventure I’m saying ‘yes’ to.  Sounds simple right? Ha.

I’ve wanted to go on this trip Nepal for a number of years but other priorities moved it to the back-burner. This year I spent time speaking to family, friends and colleagues to figure out how to prioritise the time out to plan the trip and set the wheels in motion make it happen. 

Managing work, personal commitments, relationships, fitness, finances, and taking time out for myself - there are a lot of 'moving parts' and it's been easy to become overwhelmed. As tempting as it is, I’m not going to give you the “sunshine and unicorns” version of this story. I have been overwhelmed. Crippling anxiety, moments of defiance and stubbornness that exacerbate every negative Taurean trait running through my body. Questions like, “Have I made the right choices?” “How can I make the time?” These are the moments that challenge me, that I learn from and that keep me true to my purpose and passion-led ambitions. 

But here’s the harsh reality. There is no simple solution to making more time. I can’t solve your lack-of-time conundrum – it’s entirely down to you. But I might get you excited enough to resolve to solve it yourself. To set your plan in action and kick-start the conversations with the people in your life – your family, your colleagues, yourself – about how it might be possible to pause the racing rhythm of life for long enough to plan do something different and memorable that satisfies and rewards in equal measure.

For your treadmill reading pleasure, here are four quick reflections from my own experiences in deciding what stays on the calendar and what goes… and how to manage all the bootylicious stuff that happens in-between.

Discipline: Be disciplined in your focus on attaining your goal.

A focus on the end goal is a bit like having a personal GPS. Once you type your destination into a GPS, it cleverly spits out step- by-step details in how to get there. If only there was a GPS of life – but that would take out the adventure wouldn’t it?  I’ve learned to manage goals by breaking key activities and events down into priorities: What needs to be done today? What can wait until tomorrow? What can wait until next week? A therapeutic 15 minutes is spent every morning prioritizing so I know what’s on my plate for the day ahead. There are plenty of apps (e.g. Toggl, Workflow, Shift, RescueTime) that can help with this if lists aren’t your forte. I keep it simple and use the ‘Notes’ app on my phone and a good old-fashioned pen and moleskin notebook. My recommendation – find a simple solution that works best for you and stick with it.

Before every expedition, I spend time thinking about my end-goal and the detailed activities and steps (real and proverbial) required to achieve it. “Is it the summit? Is it to raise money for a particular charity? Is it to improve my skills and fitness? Is it to experience a new part of the world?” I write down the activities required to achieve the goals in a step-by-step list. As a highly skilled procrastinator I’ve found that without this rigor and focus I’m easily distracted and diverted - the dishes in the sink, the floor that needs vacuuming or the trip to the grocery store that just can’t wait. Just as road congestion and construction requires the GPS to recalibrate, I’ve learned that my daily ‘to do’ list helps me to keep sight of goals and focused on the steps to get there irrespective of the detours that pop up along the way.

Commitment: Don’t give up when you’re forced beyond your comfort zone or when setbacks or disappointments happen.

There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when it's convenient. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.” A great quote by author Ken Blanchard.  

If I was only ‘interested’ in climbing mountains (assuming this was my goal), I’d deprioritize training, planning, and expedition preparations, only focusing on climbing when it was convenient. I’d give up on the goal with my first shiver in the freezing temperatures or the first rain on a training run. Commitment to a project like climbing a mountain means that even when exhausted from a long day of work, I still go to the gym for the days training or I continue with my run despite torrential rain. It might not be the most productive training session of all the time but it’ll do wonders in keeping me relentlessly focused on my end goal - even when things get uncomfortable.

Those people who are successful in the mountains – and in life more broadly – are those who are unrelenting in the pursuit of their goal. Sure they experience setbacks and failures like everyone else, but what sets these people apart is their ability to get back on track and learn from their mistakes. Success and commitment to achieving a goal is about the ability to do this time and time again.

An example is the incredible story of the 69-year old Chinese double amputee Xia Boyu. Last year Mr. Xia summited Mount Everest on his fifth attempt. In 1975, his team were trapped in a storm near the summit. He lent a teammate his sleeping bag and subsequently suffered severe frostbite, losing both his feet. 1996, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and, after recovering from cancer, he attempted to summit Everest three more times…. In 2014, the climbing season was cancelled due to an avalanche on Everest. His attempt in 2015 was called off after the Nepal earthquake. Then in 2016, Mr. Xia's dream seemed within reach - the team was just 300ft from the summit when a blizzard forced him to turn back… Then last year in May of 2018, on his fifth attempt, Mr. Xia achieved his dream of reaching the highest point on earth and becoming the second double amputee to ever do so. It’s an incredible example commitment and the relentless pursuit of a goal.

Courage:  Learn to say ‘no’.

Learning to say ‘no’ takes courage. Saying no is one the most challenging things I’ve had to learn in harmonizing a career and personal ambitions outside of work. Over the past few years, I realized that my people pleasing tendencies were creating stresses and inefficiencies which were impacting my work, personal life and the enjoyment of time spent outdoors. Thanks to some great coaches and simple exercises in knowing when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no,’ I've begun to preserve my most valuable resource – time – while growing personally and professionally. By saying ‘no’ to some things, I’ve realized that I’m actually saying ‘yes’ to other things – for example, a step toward a professional or mountaineering goal. Saying ‘no’ to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill these commitments.

There are literally thousands of articles and books written on different ways to say ‘no’ and offering tips and tricks to help convert your ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. A few highlights include:
  • Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply can’t do it. And be upfront in sharing that – don’t wait until the last minute.
  • Know your priorities. If you do have some extra time, ask yourself whether this new commitment is how you want to spend that time? If it’s not, then say ‘no’. Pretending you can do everything in equal measure creates artificial pressure and ignores the pleasure of impassioned action and discipline. There’s a lot to be learned from giving some things up and giving your all to what you love.
  • Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying ‘no’ as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word – it’s actually quite empowering.

Creativity: Look for ways to overlap things.

Asking for the time off to climb Everest was a nerve-wracking experience. I’d already considered all of the reasons why my boss might say ‘no’ and hadn’t considered why he might say ‘yes’. As it turned out, he was an ‘arm-chair adventurer’ and connected with the vision behind my request. We spent the rest of the meeting discussing the leadership qualities of adventurers like Shackleton and how these qualities aren’t dissimilar to those we see exemplified by some leaders in business today. We talked about discipline, commitment and courage inside and outside of the office. My boss suggested that I present at a team meeting on ‘leadership lessons learned’ following my expedition. I obliged and a few months later  was amazed at how much I’d learned from my experiences - the preparation, expedition logistics, and the challenges we faced individually and as a team.

I started building a portfolio of ‘lessons learned’ on a range of topics including team building, objective setting, risk management, decision making, communications, reframing success, and leadership. Rather than seeing the time-off work as a ‘career limiting’ move, it became ‘career enhancing’, gave me confidence, independence and purpose. It tapped into my love of story-telling, adventure and problem solving - and I became a more authentic, effective consultant as a result.

A few years later I organised a trek of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to support one of our firm’s Foundation charities and as a continuation of my goal to creatively harmonize my personal and professional interests. The expedition raised $40,000 to support a charity funding critical research into issues impacting the health and wellbeing of women and babies. The news of our success spread across the firm. Today, five years, later I’ve organised multiple Kilimanjaro treks and have also added Everest Base Camp to the charity challenge portfolio. We’ve raised nearly $400,000 for our Foundation charities, are on-track for another $150,000 this year and have a waiting list booking into 2021. Equally importantly, over 100 colleagues have become friends, have learned about fundraising and have experienced a great adventure together, forging friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. A bit of creativity and a passion for bringing colleagues together to learn from each other in an environment far removed from the office has been more fulfilling than I ever dreamed possible.

Choices and priorities - one month to go…

Over the past few weeks I've consciously reminded myself to breathe – to inhale, exhale, repeat - revisit the to-do-list, re-baseline dates, re-prioritise and let my body catch up with my brain. I’ve focused on deciding what things on my list relate directly to achieving my goals and which are just ‘nice to haves’. I’ve realised that this discipline and rigor are critical in this so that I don't find myself on a mountain without a sleeping bag or return from an expedition without a job.

One of my most valuable learnings has been the appreciation that everything I do – every choice I make, every activity I prioritise - has a cost and consequences. I'm learning that life isn’t ever going to be perfect. I’m never going to be entirely ready, there is never an entirely ideal time, not every problem can be completely resolved and fear and anxiety never entirely leave. But it’s down to me – to you – to make the choices on how to live a life fulfilled. Inevitably, I’ll still find myself having those not so bootylicious OMG moments, reading emails on the treadmill and reheating microwave dinners at 11pm… But thinking back to our well-used family calendar, the sooner I make peace with this basic fact, the better I’ll be at making decisions that work for me. It’s entirely down to me to build the life I want to live today. And that’s an incredibly empowering realisation.

Feb 26, 2019

SPRING 2019 CLIMBING PLANS: A Tale of Two Mountains...

Mountains. Looking back on journeys to these wild places and looking ahead to those to come, I wonder why I'm drawn to their rocky, snowy slopes and why I consciously succumb into their folds. Is it the unharnessed, unpredictable wildness of these places in a world that feels increasingly 'pre-meditated, staged and controlled'? Is it the people I meet along the way – their hardy, weather-beaten faces etched with signs of a life lived raw and rugged, welcoming me into their private sanctuaries and personal narratives? Or is it the ego that pulls me higher and higher? Would I still climb if there was not that 'lure' to share the triumphs and tribulations - for whatever reason or purpose?

I’ve realized there’s no simple answer - yet this hasn’t stopped the search for an altruistic justification between ‘purpose’, ‘passion’ and ‘ego’. For me, these questions are the kindling to self-awareness and reflection – the physical mountains providing the spark for the fire. 

It’s the entirety of the journey to these wild places that fuel me. The lure of the unknown, of possibility, of growth, adventure, the intimacy of experience, the connection to nature and the people I meet along the way. These journeys provide me with perspective. I’m reminded that I’m small, insignificant and vulnerable. My ego crumbles, and my perspective expands. Living completely in the moment, the borders between myself and my surroundings appear to dissolve; I feel sunsets instead of simply seeing them. On these journeys, an unexplainable peace fills me - elusive, indefinable. And I recognize how I fit into the world. 

I look forward to returning to the Himalayas this spring. An alignment of passion, purpose and circumstance has helped shape the bones of journey that brings together those elements that drive me to pursue a life that challenges and rewards in equal measure. 

Namaste Nepal – it’s time for our journey to continue once again…

Chapter I: Ego and Passion

Kyajo Ri…

In the Khumbu Himal, running just north of the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, is a long line of peaks continuing all the way to Cho Oyu on the Nepalese-Tibetan border. With the Thame valley to the west and the Gokyo valley to the east, Kyajo Ri, at 6186 meters (20,295 feet) is the highest summit on the southern part of this ridge. It’s the highest peak in the immediate vicinity and doesn’t take a broad stretch of the imagination to recognize the potential for unparalleled views of the Himalayan panorama from its snowy triangular summit.

Kyajo Ri was opened to climbing by the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism, in 2002 and the first (official) ascent was made that year by a French/British team. They approached from the village of Machermo, traversed the Kyajo Glacier and climbed via the Southwest Ridge. Whilst the mountain is now climbed regularly both commercially and in alpine style via several different routes, it remains a relatively quiet objective with only a few teams found on its flanks each season. It remains overshadowed by the more popular commercial peaks of Ama Dablam and Island Peak. 

Not an unfamiliar face…

I was on Kyajo Ri in the Autumn of 2011 climbing in alpine style with American-Italian alpinist Fabrizio Zangrelli. It was a training expedition focused on honing my mountaineering skills and building confidence and agility in the mountains. Kyajo Ri was an excellent peak to help meet these objectives. It’s a technical mountain without being extreme – the route free of fixed rope and anchors and retains its pristine wild condition. Fabrizio and I climbed from the ‘Machermo side’ via the southwest ridge but did not summit, turning back at Camp 2 due to unstable “sugar snow” conditions. The decision was prudent. We woke the following morning to the ominous beat of rescue-helicopter blades cutting the air and learned that the small Russian team ahead of us had tragically fallen from the ridge and lost their lives. Our descent and retreat to the comforts of Machermo was inevitable and we trekked across the Khumbu for a quick ascent of Island Peak to make the most of our acclimated bodies, soak-up the beautiful views, burn-off calories from bottomless plates of momos and the enjoy company of the local people and trekkers passing through the region.

This April I return to Kyajo Ri, climbing alpine style from the ‘Mende side’ and in the company of New Zealand based IFMGA / NZMGA mountain and ski guide, Mal Haskins. I met Mal in the dust of the relief efforts of the 2015 earthquake and we’ve since kept in touch sharing climbing projects and objectives. Earlier this year I mentioned my desire to return to Nepal to climb a ‘non-8000er and non-uber commercial’ mountain with the caveat that it had to be ‘interesting and fun’. His suggestion of Kyajo Ri ticked all the boxes.  

Background and context…

My most recent journey to Nepal and into the mountains of the Khumbu was in the Spring of 2017 – a trip driven largely by a desire to overcome ‘mental barriers’ which had emerged following my experiences in the 2015 earthquake. Balanced between moving from the UK to Canada, working with several not-for-profit organizations, climbing Lobuche Peak, and spending time with the High Altitude Worker Teams as they prepared Everest Base Camp for the climbing season, it was one of the most personally fulfilling trips I’ve ever had. I returned to sea level revived, humbled and fully in-tune with a sense of purpose. Whilst my love for Nepal had never subsided in the aftermath of the earthquake, my confidence certainly had and I was overcome with a sense of relief that the mountains and their people that I’d felt such a connection to, again felt like home. With my ego back in check and purpose aligned, I knew that my narrative with the country was far from over.

In the Autumn of 2018 my social media feeds were inundated with the inevitable post-monsoon Himalayan ‘mountain porn’. I found myself looking east once again. 

I look forward to returning to Nepal this Spring and have been going through the all-too familiar motions in trying to strike a precarious balance between preparing for an expedition and meeting the professional commitments of a full time job in an industry far removed from the mountains. With discipline, commitment, courage and creativity things are falling into place – and with an early April departure, the countdown is now well and truly on. 

Chapter II: Passion and Purpose

The Khumbu Climbing Centre

High in the Himalaya and deep in the heart of the Khumbu valley just off beaten track to Everest, there’s a quiet pastoral village called Phortse perched at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) among the clouds, overlooked by the iconic west face Ama Dablam, and in the shadow of the holy peak, Khumbilia. 

In October 2012 our expedition climbing team spent a few days in Phortse enroute to climb Ama Dablam. Trekking uphill into Phortse in the warm afternoon sunshine from the gaping gorge of the Dud Kosi river, we were treated with our first glimpse of the terraced fields, yak dung drying in the sun, humble stone houses, a rolling birch forest, grazing yak and seemingly endless views of the Khumbu. As someone living in the cacophonic chaos of a modern western city, the gentle and spiritual nature of the village felt surreal and perfectly idyllic. 

Walking into Phortse, the characteristic ‘tap-tap-tap’ of masons at work and the faint rumble of a drill broke through the air, mixed with the grunts of the yaks roaming in the terraced fields. The orchestra of the Khumbu. The source of the sound was a group of local and western builders and masons led by Tim Harrington. They were thoroughly absorbed in their trade huddled over a large plank of wood laid on an impressive foundation of a building in early stages of construction. It was my first view of the Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC)

Given my penchant for outdoor building projects, (thanks Dad!) my imagination was captured and I felt a hankering to roll-up my sleeves and get involved.  We spent a thoroughly enjoyable few days at the KCC enjoying the company of the builders and lodge guests, learning about the ups and downs of carrying out an ambitious project in the heart of the Khumbu. A labor of love in all respects.

History: Building and fostering a responsible climbing community in the heart of the Khumbu 

On a visit to Phortse in Nepal 2002, Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband Conrad Anker were struck by how much the Sherpa guiding community craved a chance to develop better technical skills, both for professional advancement and, to put it bluntly, avoid getting killed. 

Statistics showed that a staggering one third of all deaths on Everest were Sherpa and few had the skills that would help to keep them and their clients safe in the mountains. Under the vision and leadership of Jennie and Conrad and with the support of a broader community who recognized the importance of keeping people safe in the mountains, The Khumbu Climbing Center was launched in 2003. Its mission: to increase the safety margin of Nepali climbers and high-altitude workers by encouraging responsible climbing practices in a supportive and community-based program. The goal was not only to teach technical hard skills, but also to promote climbing for fun.

Since its inception, it’s become a successful vocational program for indigenous people and has served nearly one-thousand Nepali men and women. Each winter technical climbing skills are taught along with English language, mountain safety, rescue, and wilderness first aid. In its early stages, instructors were qualified western climbers and guides who had experience in the Himalaya. Today, most of the teachers are Nepali but the KCC continue to have a small Western team travel to Centre each season. An inspiring example of how a project has directly empowered a local community with benefits realised by people around the world.

"Bricks and mortar”

The bricks and mortar of the KCC structure has come a long way since my first visit in 2012. Over an eight month work season beginning in March, the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (ALCF) has paid more than 6,000 person days of local labour in 2016, employed as many as 50 Nepalis at once, more than doubling completion progress. This model of leveraging local labour and building expertise, supported by design and building professionals, has paid off. The building has created good, well-paying jobs for Nepalis and is nearly ready for completion and its Grand Opening in June 2019.

The KCC headquarters will house technical climbing gear, educational materials, indoor and outdoor training walls. Flexible space provides classrooms for training, and a community meeting place for the local people of Phortse and nearby villages. A new medical clinic, library, and caretaker's quarters will support both the KCC and the village. All aspects of the KCC building will provide the capacity to generate income for the KCC programs – and associated opportunities – to continue to thrive and expand.

When passion and purpose collide

Beyond the enjoyable few days spent watching the painstaking foundations being laid for the KCC back in 2012, I’ve directly benefited from the teachings of the Khumbu Climbing Centre. As a non-independent commercial climber who’s come to Nepal on expedition for over 15 years, I’ve consistently relied on the support (technical climbing skills, mountain safety and rescue) and provided by many High Altitude workers for expeditions including Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Shishapangma and Ama Dablam – to name a few. Without the support and leadership of these people, the expeditions would not have been as successful – and in some cases, impossible. I’ve also seen the rescue-skills deployed firsthand as High Altitude Workers and Sherpa have selflessly risked their lives to help others. Similarly, and perhaps most poignantly, I have a number of Sherpa friends who have participated in the programme offered by the KCC and have benefited from a steady income for themselves and their families by safely leading individuals and teams on expeditions both in the Himalaya and beyond.

With the KCC nearing completion in advance of its Grand Opening in early June, I have the opportunity to contribute to the finishing touches on this tremendously worthwhile project. It’s absolutely humbling to be part of and I’m so grateful to Jenni, Conrad, Bud and the KCC Team for the opportunity to ‘give back’ and in a small way be of service to a community that has, for so long, selflessly and humbly been of service to me.

Ego, Passion, Purpose… & Gratitude:

Mountains have been a major theme throughout my life and in venturing onto their slopes and deep into their valleys, I’ve learned that these mountain journeys are as much about climbing as they are about leaning into the unknown, being comfortably uncomfortable, about growth and moving toward people and moments you can’t predict the outcome of. My goal isn’t to climb the highest mountains, scale the most difficult routes or climb in the purest form. I’m not changing the world on a grand scale with my actions. I’m not climbing for the ‘epic’. 

What I am doing however is following a passion for learning, listening and in a small way giving back. Staying true to this purpose has been ambitious and challenging and has stretched me more than any adventure I’ve ever been on. I’m grateful for those who help me on this journey. Some of these people have dazzled with their genius and art; others have shared insights on how to live. Others have devoted their life to helping others. Some have conquered mountains while others have built business empires. Some are great artists while others have entertained with their brilliant musical talents. 

One thing that all of these people have in common is that they've gently shaped the moments that make up the journey – both on and off the trail. Without the tremendous support of these people life would not be nearly as fascinating and mountains would be significantly higher.