What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals

‘There’s always going to be a reason not to do things. If you’re going to live life to the fullest, you have to push through.’
November 15, 2016

Brian Dickinson was roughly 1,000 feet from the top of the world when he almost turned around. Bathed in the soft glow of a full moon, he felt tired but peaceful. Each small step he took moved the mountaineer ever closer to the summit of Mount Everest, a prize now within reach.

But something was wrong with Pasang, Dickinson’s Sherpa guide and sole climbing partner for the last leg of the ascent. The young Nepalese guide had fallen behind on their trek from high camp (the last camping spot) to the Balcony, a resting place just above 27,500 feet. Sick from exhaustion and high altitude, Pasang vomited when he caught up with Dickinson. Pasang then tried to push ahead, up another 500 vertical feet of steep rock, before he finally reached his limit.

Pasang had to turn around, leaving Dickinson with a stark choice: Head for lower elevation with his partner or continue to the top alone. After some deliberation with his Sherpa, he chose the latter.

“In mountaineering, you live and die by decisions,” Dickinson told me as he recalled that moment from May 2011.

That choice would prove to be among the most fateful of his life. Soon after his solo summit of Everest, he went completely snow-blind, temporary blindness caused by exposure to ultraviolet light reflected off ice. Alone and unable to see, Dickinson was then forced to begin a harrowing, seven-hour descent from the highest point on earth back down to safety. In his 2014 memoir, Blind Descent, he credits the feat to his faith, thoughts of his family and years of training in extreme environments.

In some ways, getting off of Everest alive was only the beginning of a larger journey for the father of two and former Navy rescue swimmer. For the last five years, he has lived that one day over and over again during appearances and interviews sharing his story.

 

“There’s always going to be a reason not to do things. If you’re going to live life to the fullest, you have to push through.”

 

Through telling his tale of endurance and survival, he has found a way to help others find the ability to brave their own struggles.

Related: Courage: It’s the Secret to Getting Everything You Want in Life

“In a way, I’ve been given a gift,” he says as we settle into our camp for the evening, roughly 9,000 feet higher than where we started this Saturday morning in late July. A labyrinth of blue-hued hills and mountains spreads endlessly before us. To the south, Mount Hood’s spired peak towers above the Columbia River Gorge. The horseshoe shape of Mount St. Helen’s dominates the west.

Dickinson takes in the view with a slow, knowing nod. The two of us then attempt to find a comfortable place to sit and chat among the jumble of jagged rocks that surrounds our bright orange tent. High above the trees, the wind howls and spirals around us. Soon, my body begins to cool beneath the sticky, sweaty layers of clothing I still have on.

When I first contacted Dickinson, I asked if he might be open to doing an interview somewhere outdoorsy near his home in Washington.

He met my question with a long pause. After about 30 seconds, he responded. “You want to climb Mount Adams?”

At 12,276 feet, Adams is the third tallest peak in the Cascade Range—which stretches from British Columbia to Northern California—and only a two-hour drive from where I live in Portland, Oregon. Most make it to the top in two days, Dickinson explained. It’s a bit of a slog, including a final scramble up 3,000 vertical feet of snow in crampons—the metal spikes mountaineers wear on their boots for stability—to reach the summit. But overall, it’s considered a nontechnical climb. Although I have some experience climbing, I’m no expert.

I couldn’t say no.

***

A few weeks after our conversation, we met in Hood River, Oregon. Together we made the hourlong drive north into Washington and toward Adams’ popular southern trailhead, winding along rural highways and dirt roads. After several hours of hiking through dry pine forests, switchbacking up slopes of volcanic rock and trekking across a snowy plateau—all with our bulky backpacks—we reached a spot known as the Lunch Counter to spend the night.

That Dickinson was willing to spend a weekend marching up a 12,000-foot mountain with a total stranger offers a bit of insight into his character. For him, it’s a bit like asking an acquaintance out for a beer at the local watering hole. Only the views are much nicer. Our far-flung conversations touched on everything from family to favorite films (his is the Chevy Chase comedy, Fletch). Every once in a while, he’d halt his seemingly effortless stride to make sure I was drinking enough water.

Dickinson also enjoys the chance to meet other people on the trail. At one point, he struck up a conversation with a man and woman hiking toward the summit because they had an adorable husky puppy traveling with them in a backpack. Tickled, he took a photo of the couple and posted it to Twitter with the hashtag #AdamsHusky so they could find it online later.

What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals
COURTESY OF BRIAN DICKINSON

If Dickinson makes mountaineering look relaxed and easy, it’s because he’s had a bit of practice. Now 42, he’s taken countless steps outside of his comfort zone, a compulsion that invariably rubs off on those in his company. Knowing his limits, he makes a habit of plowing through them, within reason, and encourages others to do the same. For it is only there, beyond the ease of everyday life, that Dickinson believes one truly lives.

Related: Why Your Comfort Zone Is the Most Dangerous Place to Live

“Sometimes, you got to get out of your own way to make things happen,” he says.

It’s the type of ethos one might expect an X Games champion or budding celebrity to flippantly espouse. It feels sincere coming from a person who’s managed to summit some of the world’s highest peaks, pen a memoir, and crisscross the country giving talks, all while holding down a day job and making time with his family a priority. By day, Dickinson works as a systems engineer. He’s also a husband and a dad who makes the time to stay active in his church, coach both kids’ soccer teams, and go on family vacations.

For many in the professional world, finding the ideal work-life balance is an eternal, agonizing battle. Dickinson’s solution has been to flip the focus. Life comes first.

What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals
COURTESY OF SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH

“It seems that most people think their work defines them. A lot talk about doing things when they retire,” he says. “But retirement may never come. You could die before then.”

That’s one of the few risks he’d never take.

***

Raised in southern Oregon, Dickinson developed a love of the outdoors at an early age. He and his friends would scramble up peaks near his home in Rogue River, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. Perpetually active, Dickinson played soccer, golf and tennis, and ran cross-country growing up.

His boundless energy and sense of adventure meant that college wasn’t in the cards right after high school. Instead, Dickinson joined the Navy. He became an Aviation Rescue Swimmer, a post notorious for its punishing toll on the body and mind. He served two tours in the Middle East following the first Gulf War.

Jumping out of helicopters for a living was apparently not enough of a rush for Dickinson. In his downtime, he surfed. He snowboarded. He rappelled down the side of his apartment building for fun. He found ways to get his adrenaline fix.

“I had never known anyone like him before,” says JoAnna Dickinson, who met her future husband in 1995 while he was stationed in San Diego. “He’s a bit of an overachiever, to say the least.”

Joe Sutherland, a friend of Dickinson since the third grade, says his friend’s activities always tilted toward the extreme. “A lot of people grow out of that,” he says. “But Brian never did. His goals just got bigger.

What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals

After six years, Dickinson left the Navy. He and JoAnna later married and moved to Washington. They eventually put down roots 25 miles east of Seattle in Snoqualmie, a small town known for its dramatic waterfalls and access to smaller peaks and mountain passes. After earning an MBA from the University of Phoenix, Dickinson settled into a job as a systems engineer. JoAnna worked as a child and family counselor and raised their two children, Emily, now 12, and son Jordan, now 10. Life settled down for a bit.

Then Dickinson got the climbing bug. It was May 2008. All it took was a group expedition up Mount Rainier, the glacier-capped peak a few hours south of his home. At 14,411 feet, Rainier is the tallest mountain in the Cascades. After three days of howling winds, aching muscles and time spent honing his mountaineering skills, he was hopelessly hooked.

It didn’t take much time for Dickinson to begin picking off other peaks. That year, he trekked to the top of Mount Shasta (14,179 feet) in Northern California. Next came northern Washington’s Mount Baker (10,781 feet), which he snowboarded down. Later, he summited Oregon’s Mount Hood (11,249 feet).

Above the clouds, Dickinson felt strangely grounded, filled with a sense of self and purpose. He found the elements of danger and the unknown that accompanied each ascent alluring. There existed a camaraderie among fellow climbers that he hadn’t felt since being in the Navy. Dickinson was also drawn to the spiritual solitude he experienced on these trips into the vast wilderness.

Related: ‘Maybe the Only Way to Have an Answer to the Unknown Is to Face It Every So Often’

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Dickinson soon set his sights on climbing the highest peak on every continent, known in the mountaineering world as the Seven Summits. In 2009 he scaled Alaska’s Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). The next year he traveled to Tanzania and Russia to summit Mounts Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, respectively.

Everest would be next.

***

Less than three years after his first trip up Rainier, Dickinson was now eyeing a mountain more than twice its size. More than 200 people have died attempting to reach the highest point on earth. To train for Everest, Dickinson stuffed his backpack with used laundry-detergent dispensers full of water and climbed near his home. Often he was on the trail by 5 a.m. and done three hours later, so he wouldn’t cut into his work commitments or the time he wanted to spend with JoAnna and his children. On days he didn’t climb, Dickinson would run 6-plus miles outdoors or swim in lakes near his home.

To make the trek, Dickinson would need to take two months of unpaid leave from work—all of it spent without his family.

“Of course it was nerve-racking,” JoAnna tells me, recalling the conversations she and her husband had about the trip. In the end, she gave him her blessing. “My faith was the only thing that got me through it.”

The mental preparation proved to be more difficult for Dickinson. The anticipation of his journey and the realization of how much time he’d spend away from family began to build weeks in advance. On the day of his departure, he was a wreck. He wanted to back out.

But he didn’t.

“There’s always going to be a reason not to do things,” he says. “If you’re going to live life to the fullest, you have to push through.”

Related: 15 Qualities of Mentally Tough People

And push through he did. On to Everest base camp at 17,700 feet and across the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. Up the Geneva Spur and on to the so-called death zone, the lifeless moonscape above 26,000 feet, where the lack of air requires most to rely on the aid of supplemental oxygen.

It took Dickinson 45 days to reach Everest’s summit. Most complete the climb in around 40 to 60 days, depending on weather. He was exhausted, but exhilarated. The sweeping views felt surreal. After an hour on top of the world, he was ready to begin his long journey back home.

What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals
COURTESY OF SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH

That’s when everything turned completely white. Unbeknownst to Dickinson, a small crack that had formed in his goggles a few days prior had left his eyes overexposed to the sun’s UV rays.

“At that moment, I dropped down to one knee and grabbed the rope I was attached to,” he says. “I immediately knew I was snow-blind.”

Maneuvering along a fixed rope line, he began the descent through the death zone, each small step a plunge into the unknown. Dickinson lost one of his crampons during a tumble, but managed to recover it. Later, his oxygen mask malfunctioned, rendering him gasping for air.

 

He kept moving, his pauses measured by reciting the names of his loved ones: Emily, Jordan, JoAnna.

 

He kept moving, his pauses measured by reciting the names of his loved ones: Emily, Jordan, JoAnna.

It took Dickinson seven hours (instead of the normal two to three) to descend the 3,000 vertical feet to high camp, where Pasang and other climbers were stationed. It took more than six weeks for his vision to return in both eyes.

The trauma lingered for months. On some mornings, Dickinson would find himself crying uncontrollably in the shower. Other signs of PTSD-like symptoms, such as feeling socially isolated, were also hard for him to shake.

Even now, he speaks about his blind descent from Everest in a near whisper. His hushed tones remain measured and deliberate as he talks about the survivor’s guilt he still carries with him each day.

“Why me?” he asks. “Why am I alive when there are over 200 bodies on that mountain?”

To get through the shock he suffered above the death zone, Dickinson did the one thing he knew would bring him back from the brink: he climbed. A month after Everest, he was back on Rainier, a mountain he’s now summited more than a dozen times. He still had not regained normal vision in his left eye.

He also continued on his Seven Summits quest. On a beautiful, negative-70-degree day in November 2012, he reached the top of Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. Three months later, he bagged Aconcagua, Argentina’s daunting 22,838-foot peak. And in 2014, Dickinson and his two children summited Mount Kosciuszko in Australia together.

“The mountains are a calling to him,” Sutherland says. “They’re just part of his nature.”

***

We rose at 3 a.m. to prepare to climb Adams. The stars shimmered in a cloudless sky. Small gusts of wind shattered the sleepy silence. Dickinson stared off into the distance, contemplative and at ease.

“You ready?” he asked.

We set off for the summit. Soon we found a steady, simple rhythm. One foot in front of the other, up the reef of icy snow. Dickinson kept just a few paces ahead of me, making sure we rested regularly. Behind us a few headlamps worn by other climbers flickered.

The Pop-Tarts we had eaten for breakfast proved to be a sufficient source of fuel for the climb, which remained eerie in the quiet of the empty morning. I enjoyed the sound of our crampons slicing into the hardened snow and couldn’t help but run my tongue across my chapped lips. Thirsty, I tried not to think too much about water. Dickinson and I barely spoke. My lungs burned a little.

My mind occasionally wandered as we made the ascent. For the most part, I was in awe. But still, in that pre-dawn darkness, it was hard not to imagine Dickinson’s most chilling time on Everest. Alone and unseeing. The mountain, the moment, infinite.

What Climbing a Mountain Taught Me About Setting Big Goals
COURTESY OF SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH

“I wouldn’t have my worst enemy go through that,” he told me the night before. “I don’t know if I could survive that again. But if everything was the same, I’d probably make the same decision. In the end, it’s just a mountain.”

After we hiked for about 90 minutes, an orange glow began to emanate from the east. The sky was a blinding blue by the time we made it to the top of Adams just after 7 a.m. We stood there for several minutes, just the two of us. High above a tide of early-morning clouds. The distant peaks, including Rainier, like islands jutting out of a white sea.

Yes, they’re just mountains, I thought. But they’re so much more.

Related: 126 Ways to Be Extraordinary

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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