It’s January 1st, 2016. We have just spent 4 nights in the sleepy ski town of Penitentes, Argentina and we reach the trailhead of Aconcagua Provincial Park with no clue as to what lies ahead, although we know it’ll be an adventure.
We have been planning for months and finally the time has come to test our plan, our bodies and our minds.
The mental test for me was a concern, as I live with schizophrenia (a main symptom of which is psychosis) and to my knowledge, I would become the first person living with the illness to summit Aconcagua - South America’s highest mountain.
Climbing Aconcagua for me ties into a multi-year project called MINDvsMOUNTAIN which I launched to use mountain climbing to help open up the dialogue around mental health.
My plan is to become the first person in history living with schizophrenia to summit Mt Everest - a dream that came to me in 2007 soon after my suicide attempt, hospitalization and diagnosis.
When I shared my dream with the people around me at the time, they gently encouraged me to focus on more ‘realistic’ goals like getting back to school and learning how to drive and read a newspaper article again.
But they never discouraged me from pursuing the dream and never told me it wasn’t a valid one even though I had never hiked, backpacked, mountaineered or rock climbed at this point.
The next few years were focused on recovery and my mental health, and my overall health had slipped up.
I picked up some fun habits like smoking, eating fast food daily and not exercising enough. I ended up gaining around 50lbs due to this lifestyle, but the Everest dream wouldn’t go away.
It kept coming back into my mind with absolute clarity as something I needed to do.
I needed something to pull me forward, out of my struggle and into wellness.
I needed something to inspire myself, in the hopes that I might inspire others.
I needed something to show people that mental illness is no longer a life sentence.
I needed proof that mental illness or not, we can pursue and live our wildest dreams.
Everest, was my wild dream.
I can still remember the exact moment I realized Everest might actually be possible.
By 2013, I had gotten into hiking, backpacking, trail running and mountaineering and my next test was in front of me.
Climb Mt Rainier (14,400 ft) and then attempt to complete my first ultra marathon (50km) 2 weeks later.
To my complete surprise, I did both, and realized that physically Everest might actually be possible.
At this point I began telling a couple of key friends and mentors about my Everest intentions, and again, to my surprise, they supported the idea.
So on September 25, 2015, I launched MINDvsMOUNTAIN publicly and shared my intentions at a launch event with my family, closest friends, mentors and supporters.
The plan was to climb South America’s highest mountain - Aconcagua (22, 838 ft) - which would prepare me for North America’s highest mountain - Denali (20, 310 ft) - which would prepare me for Everest.
In January of this year (2016), I joined Rob Brusse to dance with Aconcagua. Rob is one of the co-foudners of Mountain Equipment Co-op and has a lifetime of mountaineering experience and somehow agreed to climb with me.
We stumbled across what locals were telling us was the worse weather year on the mountain in 30+ years with strong storms of wind and cold and snow.
It was common to see summit temperatures hovering around -35C to -40C.
Too cold for summiting.
A ton of guided groups were heading up the mountain on their summit pushes, and turning back due to the cold.
The fact that we were climbing un-guided made it more difficult on us, but also gave us the flexibility to wait for a weather window should one appear.
The first few days at basecamp were spend hanging out, waiting out the stormy weather. We couldn’t even have our fly on our tent as the one night we had it on, it got ripped off.
Then, from ~Jan 6-14 we did 3 separate climbs to higher camps to acclimatize and carry gear to position ourselves for a summit push.
We identified a possible weather window Jan 17-18 and since we were running out of time, we thought we’d give it a shot.
Permits in Aconcagua Park last 20 days and cost around $1000 (CAN), and if you aren’t out of the park by the 20th day, they’ll charge you for another one.
After a gruelling day carrying ~70lbs+ from 18,000-20,000 ft, we found ourselves at high camp on the night of Jan 17th.
We would have one shot at the summit the next day before having to head out.
We woke up around 4:00am, and set off around 7:00am.
The conditions were exceptional. Low winds, clear blue sky and not too cold.
We were making good time and feeling good, but even though we were getting closer, I still had doubts as to whether we’d make it.
Altitude sickness can strike you down at any moment with no notice and I feared that happening.
Even when we were just an hour from the summit, I still had uncertainty.
But at one point, a guy coming down from the summit and let us know we were 15 mins from the top.
That’s the point I realized we were going to make it.
Approaching the summit was an emotional experience, thinking about how many people helped me get there. Thinking about how it shouldn’t be possible, but there I was. Thinking about how fortunate I’d been to get support, recover and have this powerful experience.
Standing on the summit was a dream fulfilled and a boost of confidence to keep moving towards my ultimate dream.
And that’s what I want to see more youth - mental illness or not - do.
Make your dreams your top priorities and pursue them with everything you’ve got.
That’s what my coach Bo Eason taught me which led to me committing fully to my Everest dream.
That’s something we can all do, but too often do not.
Dreams are one of the most un-tapped resources of our world and too many of us let them lie dormant within.
Let’s not do that. Let’s buck that trend. Let’s be different. Let’s live it up.
If you’re in Vancouver, I invite you to join me for the next MINDvsMOUNTAIN event April 17th at The Juice Truck Storefront where Rob and I will share a slideshow on our Aconcagua climb and I’ll make a public announcement on the next steps of the plan.
You can grab a ticket ($5) here.
Thanks for caring. Thanks for contributing to the mental health conversation and thanks for being you.
Go live your dreams and let me know how it goes!!