The Effect of Pushing Boundaries (on Mount Tunari)
Over the weekend, I watched the 2015 movie Everest. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater. It might have made me think twice about pushing boundaries and summiting Mount Tunari at 16,502 in Bolivia (1,000 feet lower than Everest base camp). I grew up hiking and climbing. I think I spent more summer nights as a child in a tent than a bed. In college, I helped lead groups on “experiential education” trips: hiking, climbing and kayaking for students and alumni alike.
So when my church introduced a mission trip to Bolivia, I was all in.
The objective was to take orphan boys on an “adventure therapy” mountain trek. I didn’t know any details, plus my Spanish was rusty. But I did know two things: first, that I was called to go on this trip and second, that 16,502 feet is really high. As a child, my father used to tell my sister and me about his friends who lost fingers and noses through frostbite at high altitudes. SPOILER ALERT- you get to see this, along with all of the terrible things high altitude can do to you, firsthand when watching Everest. Again, I’m glad I saw the movie post-trek.
My childhood experience at the peak of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a mere 12,000 feet, showed me the power of high altitudes; they can leave you breathless with a terrible, nauseating headache. But I wanted to lead these boys up a mountain and show them the beauty of being outdoors, the experience of pushing boundaries. I had wonderful visions of us beside our tents staring up into the starry sky, with a clear view of the Milky Way in the back country of Bolivia.
Now that I am back at sea level it is funny to reflect on how unprepared I was for the journey, and how many times in life our expectations and reality of a situation can be staggeringly dissimilar. To get to Mount Tunari we had to fly to Bogota and then La Paz before jumping on a smaller plane to Cochabamba. Walking through the La Paz airport was a reality check: At 13,323’, it is the highest airport in the world and my first glimpse at what real altitude was all about.
One feels out of breath simply sitting at that altitude. I tried to stay as hydrated as possible, drinking the local coca tea and water, but the severity of the altitude is unavoidable for a newcomer. I started to realize that leading these boys would be a challenge beyond my wildest imagination. We still had another 4,000+ feet to go and I was already struggling.
Not only did I have to get myself up Tunari, but I was supposed to be there to support the chicos (little boys) up the mountain. Once we arrived at the orphanage, we took some time to acclimate to our surroundings. At that point, we were only at 11,000 feet, and I still found myself panting heavily while playing soccer in the yard or monkey-in-the-middle with the chicos. These boys were from the Andes; they didn’t need to acclimate.
The boys’ 10-year-old bodies allowed them all of the energy in the world, and their Bolivian lungs were made for high altitude. I soon questioned who would be leading whom on this trip as boys ran circles around me.
The first two days of hiking were incredibly challenging.
The wind was strong, the temperatures were fierce, and the air was thin. Our packs were heavy and every step was difficult. Most of the gringos and several chicos were quite sick the first night. While the boys were prepared for the altitude, most of them had never experienced freezing temperatures or been in snow. They have grown up surrounded by the Andes, but had never attempted climbing them.
The newness of the trek offered us great opportunities to talk about experiencing something that once might have felt intangible or foreign, and how these encounters help us grow, progress and ultimately introduce us to a fuller life. That first night, the stars were everything that I imagined. The freezing temperatures didn’t deter us from gazing at the Milky Way in clear view.
Finally, the day of the summit was upon us. We had enjoyed a great night together beforehand, and everyone was as ready as they could be for the long day ahead of us. We knew we had to make it up to the top by 2 pm or we wouldn’t make it back down before nightfall. That morning I remember going to filter water at a stream and struggling to hike back up the small incline to the tent.
I didn’t know how I would make it. But I knew if I didn’t try, I would be back in my safety zone.
Our group talked a lot about pushing our limits and how facing our fears opened up a world of possibilities and opportunities.
It was time to practice what we preached. The summit took a long time—three miles straight uphill, the longest three miles of my life—but we all made it with the exception of one boy who made the conscious decision to not attempt the summit.
Being up on the mountain together was an amazing feeling. Experiencing it with a group of boys who had every reason in the world to give up, fall back, and stop caring made it that much sweeter. As I reflect back with air in my lungs again, there are three main themes that we talked about and I think can relate to everyone, regardless of your elevation:
- Actual Risk vs. Perceived Risk: Most of our day-to-day fears are perceived risks that we can all overcome.
- Kids are fearless because they don’t know to be afraid. As adults, we are often frozen by the fear of failing. We are scared that we can’t do something so we don’t even try. So many people want to be successful, want to start their own company or go to grad school or go for the promotion, but they are scared they will fail so they don’t even try.
- We talked about this on the mountain—what is a real risk? Frostbite, not having your harness properly fastened, dehydration. Those were real risks. The perceived risks were the ones we told ourselves we needed to fear.
- By pushing our limits, we learn that there were never really any to begin with: What if we lived as though we are truly limitless?
- My personal limit was summiting anything over 12,000 feet. (Or so I thought.) I stood on top of a mountain at 16,502 feet and realized that I didn’t actually have a limit. So many boys were scared of the cold, scared of the heights, but they pushed on and now set their limits higher than they imagined. Next year we will push those new limits. We set our own limits in our everyday lives, but why? It’s important to stop and think about what we could accomplish without them.
- We can travel further and accomplish more than we could ever imagine in this life, but sometimes that means taking the journey one step at a time.
- If it wasn’t for baby steps, I never would have made it up the mountain. Standing at the base of an extreme incline without much air in my lungs, it seemed unfathomable to make it to the top. But I truly took it one step at a time. We all did. We were forced to count our steps, starting off at 50 steps before a break ending at just 15 before we had to stop and catch our breath. Each set of 15 steps led to another 15 steps and all of those steps led us to the top of a mountain.
- Do you want to start your own company? You will become paralyzed if you think about everything you need to accomplish this dream. But what if you focused on the first step? Once you finish the first step, look at the next step. And all of a sudden, step by step, you will realize that your dreams—your summit—are closer than you think.
So go climb your mountain. Start pushing boundaries. Realize your dreams and gaze at your own constellation in the sky. One step at a time.