Fighting Gravity for 1 Million Feet

One million feet: 35 trips from sea level to the top of Everest. Fighting gravity to climb that many feet uphill in a year without any motorized assistance is incredible and badass.

Well, my friend Paul did it. Props, kudos, congrats, and a standing ovation, you beast!

On December 31, 2018, Paul wrapped up his year-long goal to log 1,000,000 vertical feet of human-powered ascending. To count, it had to be sweat, commitment and burrito-driven, all performed outdoors. No trainers or treadmills, no ski lifts, no shuttling, just old-fashioned oomph.

Paul’s words:
“The goal was based on a few principles…

  • We are capable of so much more than we think.
  • Spend time in the mountains with good people.
  • We all have life goals in work and life, often imposed by others with no understanding of the individual. This was 100% my goal. Something I knew I could do based on many years of testing the body and mind.
  • It sounded fun!
  • Experience the mountains through a variety of outdoor human-powered adventures while learning how to ski, evolve the mountain biking, rock climb more, and trail run some bigger routes.”

How Tough is 1 Million Feet?

For perspective, 1 million feet of vertical gain equals 3,140’/day (260 flights of stairs!) and 4+ hours with one rest day per week. You know those days when you wake up after a run or bike ride and take a rest day because your legs are tired? Nope. Get up, put on gear, and get out the door. My biggest year is 450,000′ of vertical, a piddly fart of an effort compared to 1,000,000′.

Factor in Paul’s job, injuries, sickness, our climbing trip to Red Rocks (bad for vert because climbing is slow) and what he was staring in the eye was one helluva challenge. I bet you’ve never thought this deeply about the nuances of vert accumulation. I hadn’t!

Since he’s a lunatic and wanted to make it harder, Paul focused on “interesting” vert. He wasn’t just logging big miles on a road bike, Everesting up and down the same climb. Gnarly mountain biking, big trail runs like the Enchantments Traverse, and backcountry skiing (
(hiking up a mountain on your skis before descending) in all kinds of conditions made the challenge even tougher.

His stats: 53% mountain biking, 23% backcountry skiing, 15% road biking, 7% trail running, and 2% rock climbing. Lots of classic cold and wet Pacific NW days riding muddy trails, skiing in stormy conditions at the crack of dawn (often when I slept in) and pushing to make a big goal happen.

Hanging with the Vert-Seeker

I logged many days and 80,000’ uphill with Paul during the challenge and witnessed his willpower and stoke levels fluctuate. The immensity of the goal was sometimes a yoke around his neck and also propelled him to complete tough objectives like running the 40-mile Timberline Trail.

That fire burns for adventure, but Paul can also go deep. Around a campfire in the North Cascades, we talked about creating our personal ideal lives. The next day, we pedaled and pushed through snow on a remote, beautiful ride. As a finale to eight days of outdoor adventure, we dunked in a snow-melt creek, Paul’s favorite post-activity refresher no matter HOW cold temps are.

I saw him depressed and angry about a tweaked knee from a climbing fall in Red Rocks, talked about relationships and the housing market for endless hours (yessss, sell that house and be free, man!) and coached him through (mostly) plant-powered efforts as he strove for the lowest possible inflammation levels during his challenge.

Emotions whipsawed. Hooting and hollering on trail descents, worrying about incoming storms on multi-pitch rock climbs, staring from the tops of mountains at distant vistas, assessing avalanches in the backcountry…

We humans experience a lot in the outdoors: raw emotion from weather, exposure, fear, exhaustion, beauty, friendship. There’s power in pushing physical limits and magic in the simplicity of man vs. gravity in a natural setting.

How the Challenge Affected Me

In the past few years, I haven’t undertaken challenges where finishing was in question. Even the Oregon Timber Trail, the hardest physical journey I’ve done, always felt achievable. Sure, I get tired, bonk, or feel bored and ready to be done, but even at my MOST tired (often with Paul!), I know a granola bar and one last hard push reaches the finish line.

Paul’s awesome effort reminds me that aiming for a goal where victory isn’t guaranteed is a primo way to feel alive. That and freezing lake dips!

Looking back, I suspect Paul will remember his 40th year on this planet more than others. Life isn’t just about fun, after all. From Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman: “Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire.”

To a satisfaction-building, admirable accomplishment, I say CHEERS. Well done, my friend.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, did Paul sleep in on January 1st and read a book all day on the couch? NAH. After 10 straight days skiing to finish off the challenge, he got up early on New Year’s day and headed out for some more backcountry turns in the snow.

Follow Paul on Instagram. I always enjoy his varied, creative, rambling stream-of-consciousness posts. Plus he’s always in beautiful areas sharing photos to make you dream! Here’s his summary post regarding the vert challenge.

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Quitting Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Start Again

Screaming Yellow Zonkers Smith Rock

Me high above the Crooked River at Smith Rock on the aptly-named “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.”

Have you ever quit something you used to love? A job? A relationship?

Well, four years ago, I quit rock climbing. It was no longer fun for me, so I stopped after a decade going at it.

At the time, I was also cranking on my fledgling business and every day was intense. Keeping climbing in the mix felt like tapping a dry reservoir, not a release of pent up energy.

Kicking back around the fire after a great day outside.

Kicking back around the fire after a great day outside.

Enter mountain biking. Instead of static, cautious moves on a rock wall, I spent hours pedaling through wild areas and ripping down rocky trails. I was a control freak in my business, but I could hit a flow state on a bike. I shelved my climbing gear and spun pedals, initially near home and then all over once we hit the road in 2013.

I still love biking, but a funny thing has happened since we landed back in Portland two weeks ago – I’m stoked to climb again. And now I have two things I previously lacked in Oregon, our Sprinter and a flexible schedule to explore my backyard.

To kick off our Pacific Northwest spring/summer stay, we landed and I quickly turned around to hit the road with my friend Martin. Bachelor trip! Chelsea waved sayonara and went back to back to relaxing at home, exactly where she wants to be right now.

Martin at the top of Smith Rock.

Martin at the top of a climb at Smith Rock.

For me, five days in Central Oregon followed. I’d forgotten the easy nonchalance of a bro trip, the swing of pushing hard physically and then sitting around a campfire trading stories. With the van as base camp, we launched into days rock climbing at Smith Rock and a “rest day” mountain biking in Bend.

After 2.5 years traveling, I’ve found that I’m definitely calmer and more centered now that work doesn’t dominate my mental space the way it used to. (Martin even noticed.) The angst I used to feel climbing a hard route is still there, but to a much lesser degree. It was actually fun to be on my edge, teetering on a cliff, not just a fear-soaked experience.

Nothing like a trad lead to keep the heart rate high. Here I am on Spiderman at Smith Rock.

Nothing like a trad lead to keep the heart rate high. Here I am on Spiderman at Smith Rock. (Photo: Martin Tull)

I attribute this to happiness via subtraction, as these days I’m rarely doing things I dislike. The result is that I don’t hit decision fatigue, mental exhaustion, or frustration as often. I’m still working on curbing my road rage though!

Realizing my head is stronger while tied into a climbing rope is one thing. Translating that into appreciating being home for awhile is another game entirely, and I’m trying to apply my feeling of contentment to the (relatively) stationary life.

Smith Rock in all it's glory

Smith Rock in all it’s glory. This place should be a national park!

After all, I can do all the things I enjoy here, even if it doesn’t carry the cool factor of traveling to new places. We both want to be in one place to just hang out and not constantly be exploring distant realms.

My goal is to appreciate the Pacific Northwest for all the excellent fun it offers, whether in or around Portland. It just takes a new head space. As travel writer Pico Iyer penned, “Going nowhere is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”


Ryan tightrope walks the ridge on Indian Point, a calf-buster hike east of Portland with killer views.

Ryan tightrope walks the ridge on Indian Point, a calf-buster hike east of Portland with killer views.

Control Freaks Never Prosper

Sunrise climb at Smith Rocks in Central Oregon.

Sunrise climb at Smith Rock in Central Oregon.

There’s a moment of truth in rock climbing and mountain biking where forward progress is the only option. Letting go of a solid climbing hold to make a move, fear swells in your throat until you reach a safer zone and breathe easier. Launching into a treacherous descent on the bike, you grip the handlebars in anticipation, then relax and go with the flow.

For me, these are two distinct types of fear, static and dynamic. Rock climbing is the former, an evaluative fear of leaving a position you know in a slow, calculated manner. Slow is good when you’re perched high above the ground on tiny footholds, fingers gripping a ledge, forearms filled with blood and thoughts of falling racing through your mind. Overgripping expends more energy and makes you fail faster.

On the other end, mountain biking is a dynamic fear where you rip around a corner, suspension jackhammering over rocks. Decision: weave left, right or try to jump the whole damn thing? One split second to decide how to navigate obstacles and then they’re behind you. Both these sports are certainly adrenalin-filled and intense, yet so different.

Climbing was my primary sport for 10 years, the thrill of conquering new routes crack in my veins. Chelsea grew to know terms like “redpoint” and “5.12b” like she was a climber herself. I dreamed about routes I’d climbed, retracing each move in my mind before I’d go back and repeat them in person, pushing myself. I loved it, and just writing this makes me smile thinking of climbing High Plains Drifter with my buddy Zack, views of the Columbia Gorge stretching out for miles behind me.

High above Banks Lake in NE Washington on a climb called "Fire Crotch." Because if you slip and fall, it's not good for things...

High above Banks Lake in NE Washington on a climb called “Fire Crotch.” Because if you slip and fall, it’s not good for things…

Fear of falling off a route is always present, even as merely a grain of doubt. There are a couple ways to go about it – believing you can’t make a move and giving up, or knowing the consequences and going for it, attempting to latch onto the next hold. Either way, if you fail there is brief moment where you’re in flight before the rope, bolts, quick draws and your climbing partner all work together to stop your fall. They are usually clean and smooth, yet falls are something that can be intimidating. Failure and its byproducts usually are!

For a long time, falling was something I would literally practice. Climb above my last protective bolt, let go and take a fall. Repeat. The idea was to disconnect the anticipation of falling and fear rather than dreading slipping off a move. Non-climbers will think I’m crazy, but every single book about mental training for climbing that I’ve ever read recommended this. And it works! You can literally train your mind not to fear the fall, and I was able to push my skills to new levels. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach at the start of every fall was never eliminated, but my nerves steeled against it.

When Fear Takes Over

In early 2012, a switch flipped inside me. I suddenly loathed the idea of falling. Even writing about falling, my palms are sweaty as if I’m approaching a tough section of a climb where I know falling is likely. I stopped dreaming about a successful ascent and dreaded the failure. It was no longer fun, yet I kept going to the gym or heading out to climb outside as part of my programming. “I’m pretty good at this, so I’ll continue.” I still enjoyed the social aspect of the gym and the puzzle-deciphering of climbing, but something was missing.

I frankly don’t know why my desire to climb disappeared so quickly. Initially, I thought I was just bored after doing it for a decade. I suspect it was deeper than that though. I think it was continuously pushing boundaries with my business at the time, every decision a difficult one that my success hinged upon. There’s a fear management reservoir in my body and mine was tapped out.

There are studies about our ability as humans to only make a certain amount of choices per day, even easy ones, and I think that applies to managing fear as well. Even free-solo climber Alex Honnold, whose abilities to curb fear are famous, ran out of his elixir halfway up free-soloing 2,000’ Half Dome in Yosemite. Watching the (recreated) moment on film, he freezes (2:20 in the film) with his back to the wall, a quarter mile of potential free fall below him, and then summons the courage to continue.

Since shelving my climbing rope, I’ve picked up mountain biking as my primary activity. Oddly enough, I’d abstained in past years because I considered it more dangerous than climbing. Something about ripping down a trail into the unknown made it seem more treacherous. Tougher to control my surroundings in a free-flowing trail ride than a static, move-by-move climb. (After wrecking numerous times following skilled friends down rocky trails, I know there is more risk of death with climbing, but more frequent injury with biking.) The learning curve is as steep as the slopes I rode, and bouncing off rocks happened a few times in the first year of riding.

Climbing trip to Lake Louise (Canada). Climber is Dan Suppnick.

Climbing trip to Lake Louise (Canada). Climber is Dan Suppnick.

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve over-gripped and tried to control my surroundings. Something in me craved routine and order, neither of which were prevalent in my family. (Something I’m grateful for now!) Playing Monopoly with me involved rolling the dice…and that’s all. I’d move the pieces, hand out money and cards and control it all. A small example of a reality resulting in not being vulnerable and truly trusting others to do their part. Self-sufficient and in control, always. Running the show solo has absolutely helped me with whatever successes I’ve achieved, yet the expression “your best is also your worse” is certainly accurate. My control freak side is both one of my greatest strengths and also my Achille’s Heal, depending on the situation.

Letting Go

What I find interesting is that my transition from the static fear of rock climbing to managing dynamic fear mountain biking coincided with breaking loose blockages in my work and physical life. In June 2012, I was square in the middle of business building and settling down in our lovely home, nesting away. Yet deep in my core was a strange unsettled feeling. I think it stemmed from a calcification of a reality I didn’t truly desire, the same way fear was beginning to freeze me on a climbing route. I was going through the motions in a framework I didn’t truly embrace. A good life, to be sure, yet one in which I felt stuck and unfulfilled.

While climbing, you can have all four appendages on the wall yet be totally out of balance. Picture your feet and hands off to the right, with your body leaning left. You’re straining to hold yourself in place, gripping holds with calloused fingertips. But what if you realigned things, moved a foot and hand left, and suddenly are able to rest easy, with 20% of the previous effort and a relaxed smile on your face.

At various points in my life, I’ve been the pumped out, a tired climber laboring to maintain my status quo, and it was more difficult that just letting go – except for the mental part. Even an incredibly uncomfortable position can seem safe sometimes. Think of a job you want to leave, yet the transition to a new career or working for yourself is scarier than being unhappy every day. I’ve been there, and the dislocation wasn’t easy. Yet my life is so much better for the fracturing, and I’m stronger knowing I can change paths again and will survive it.

Grinning during a 45-degree descent on Hi-Line trail in Sedona.

Grinning during a steep descent on Hi-Line trail in Sedona.

Control and letting others take the reins and lead is something with which I continue to struggle. However, right around when I stopped climbing and started mountain biking, it was as if a valve opened up inside me. This shift happened rather quickly. I certainly can’t give the credit to a switch from climbing to careening down trails, yet the parallel is interesting. In fall 2012, we took a six-week road trip through Colorado and northern California, testing the limits of my work. It forced me to hire another person, which I had been avoiding. Must…control…everything. That hire has changed the course of my business and led to others while allowing greater freedom, giving me the confidence to continue testing boundaries further.

I’m still scared of obstacles. This trail called life is full of rocks, drops, and sandy corners that leave me shaking my head after a wipeout. Yet I’m finding that moving past obstacles is considerably easier when I’m in motion, not stuck in a static position (be it physical, emotional, or intellectual). When I’m still, I over-analyze and “control” the future until it passes me by with a hot spray of dust in the face. The more I flex my dynamic fear muscle, the stronger it gets, and I think it helps me handle static fear as well (such as when I’m on an airplane on a bumpy takeoff) . I’m feeling more comfortable letting go of my status quo of the moment, knowing that I’ll be able to handle whatever comes my way. And though I’m not climbing now, I suspect that I’ll strap on climbing shoes again in this life and get back out there to test my limits.

Here’s to acknowledging your fears, whatever they are, and not letting them control you.


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Rappelling off a long climb at sunset in the City of Rocks.

Rappelling off a long climb at sunset in the City of Rocks.