I arrived to Quito for a Leadership Venture that promised to be mind-blowing. Our first test was hiking Pichincha, a 15,500 feet active stratovolcano that wraps around Quito’s easternmost area. We struggled. We walked for 7 hours and rock climbed through the famous “ventana de la muerte” (window of death – picture below). There was no visibility because of a storm that made the guides wonder if we should head back, but we luckily managed to summit. I will never forget the face of a friend (I now feel free to call ALL my teammates friends) at the ventana, who was terrified of heights. It was stunning to watch him cruise through the rocks and overcome his panic. At that moment, I thought, this is precisely what Wharton is about: getting out of your comfort zone, feeling comfortable being uncomfortable and helping others navigate their stretch experience.
The ultimate test was to summit Cotopaxi. Since the hike began at 10 PM, we “slept” from 3-7 PM that day. I barely slept; my mind was on the climb and how to get to the top before 9 AM. After 9 AM, all groups needed to head back regardless of where they were. After 12 hours of hiking and barely any sleep, avalanche threats, the sun, and your own body are all working against you mentally and physically. Most climbing accidents occur on the descent and happen suddenly, progress quickly, and are over soon. A stone falls, a piece pulls, a leg is broken.
Less than halfway up, a teammate falls to her knees and starts crying. She thinks she will not make it. I took most of her weight off her back and stuffed it into mine. We told her it was going to be tough and encouraged her to continue. If it was over for her, it was over for us, and she knew it (we were tied by ropes!). She set her internal reset button, gathered strength from nowhere and kept climbing, one foot after the other. She entered into a flow state which made her emotionally stronger. We came across slushy snow which made us sink up to our knees, demanding a very delicate weight transfer. At -10 degrees Fahrenheit, it was bitterly cold; our hands would freeze if we stopped moving them. Strong gusts of wind coupled with pitch darkness meant that we had to use our axes and headlights to their max. At around 7am, my water froze. I was thirsty but didn’t care. We persevered, knowing that with each step we were making progress. We were not going to surrender to our extreme emotional and physical fatigue. The lack of air at 19,000 feet and the resulting severe headache—I took 12 pills of Ibuprofen—were not going to be obstacles. My team summited at 8:17 AM, after 10 hours and 17 minutes of hiking. We gathered in a speechless hug I will never forget. I wanted to cry. As the sun rose, we were rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding peaks and the crater of the ice-rimmed volcano.
Cotopaxi taught me the value of teamwork, collaboration, determination, perseverance, passion, and courage. Nobody can summit such a mountain alone. Indeed, our teams were attached by ropes! You need to make fast and accurate decisions and subordinate your own self-interest to the collective objective. Leaders are required to ignore their private advantage. To stop thinking about yourself is always a challenge. In addition to leading, we need to learn how to listen and follow, too. On such a technical climb as Cotopaxi, the only way to make vertical progress is to follow the first person in the rope team. The moment we apply all of these lessons, we’ll find ourselves not on one but on many summits.