By Christian Santelices
It was an audacious plan – to climb twenty of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, a list of the fifty best climbs based on aesthetics and history compiled by Allen Steck and Steve Roper. My good friend Hans Florine got a hold of the book and originally thought of climbing all fifty in fifty days. Hans had not read the book yet and so didn’t see routes like the Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan, a ridge of corniced snow and ice in the Yukon Territory first climbed in 1962. Since that time it has been ascended in its entirety only one other time. The first ascent took over thirty days.
As ambitious young climbers, we wanted to challenge ourselves and make a name for ourselves. Hans was already a world renowned speed climber, having won the World Speed Climbing Championships in Europe and holding speed records on El Capitan and Half-Dome. Nancy Feagin was one of America’s few who had scaled Half-Dome and El Capitan in single day efforts. Willie Benegas was one of the “Patagonian Brothers.” He and his twin brother Damian taught themselves to climb on the loose sedimentary rock near their home on the Argentine coast. Well known for their energy and enthusiasm, they inspired people with wild tales of “seat of the pants” mountaineering.
Then there was me. I had learned to climb from some of the foremost Yosemite climbers at the time, and was a collegiate rower. But to be invited by Hans for this challenge was a huge boost to my ego and budding climbing career. To that point in my short climbing career I had climbed in the Alps, on El Capitan, and some other sport climbing endeavors. But my name had not been established, and I sought sponsors and fame and glory as a climber. I saw this as my chance.
My ambition fueled my desire to train as hard for something as I’ve ever trained. I did not want to let my teammates down and not be able to complete any part of any ascent.
What ensued was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Thanks to all of our dedication to the idea, we became a strong team and moved smoothly through every ascent on our twenty-day tour through the Western United States.
Ambition can be a powerful tool to make dreams come true. Ambition can focus the mind toward completing difficult tasks, to seeking out the right connections to make something happen. But it can also be blinding when not coupled with humility. History is littered with characters who let their ambition cloud their judgment, seeking the rewards of power and fame without thinking of a thought to the collateral effects of their desires on other people.
My own experiences with blind ambition helped to steer me on a path of humility and reflection, allowing me to focus my ambition in ways that benefit my career, but also my family, friends and community. On a guided trip to the fairytale landscapes of Patagonia, I was the junior guide on a trip with a leading adventure travel company. My goal was to get a regular job with this company and show both the guides and the clients that I was the best guide around. My ambition fueled my desire to work hard, but to also show off for the clients and other guides. In a quiet taxi at the end of the trip, sitting with my two co-guides, I asked “so what did you guys think about the trip?” I was absolutely stunned when one of them said, “Well I thought it pretty much sucked. You were an asshole the whole time.” The other guide nodded in agreement.
In my quest to be the best, and show others how great I was, I managed to alienate my teammates, the guys that were supposed to be my allies. I think about that lesson often. Good leaders use their ambition to move the goals of their group forward, but use humility to temper their personal goals and be sure to take into consideration the goals and ambitions of those who are following. Those seeking to rise to the top through ambition would do well to remember that burning bridges along the way will ultimately lead to unkept promises, fewer friends, and an ultimately unsatisfying experience.