Ten steps, rest. Ten more steps, rest. He was almost to the summit, and Richard Bailey was summoning all his grit to make it. Just ten more steps. And then ten more.
“Quitting was off the table,” Bailey, Coronado’s mayor, said. “Once you adopt that mentality, you know you’re going to summit – it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how.”
Last month, Bailey summited Mount Aconcagua, a 22,837-foot Argentine behemoth nicknamed “the mountain of death.” It’s the world’s tallest peak outside the Himalayas, and the climb marked Bailey’s last in a series of summits to prepare him for his ultimate goal: Mount Everest. He leaves for Nepal in late April.
Back to the summit, though: It took all Bailey’s tenacity to conquer Aconcagua, and when he did, he spent only a few minutes reveling in the accomplishment.
“I was pretty loopy by the time I got to the summit, but that’s just the name of the game,” he said. He spent fewer than three minutes at the top and then headed to lower elevation; he had begun to develop high altitude pulmonary edema and needed to descend.
It’s an interest not all will understand, but it tracks with Bailey’s competitive spirit and need to strive. “I felt a sense of pride, of course,” Bailey said of his latest summit. “You’ve proven to yourself you can conquer your fears, you can conquer your exhaustion, and you can conquer every challenge.”
Bailey’s been dreaming of climbing Mount Everest since he was eight years old, when his mother took him to see “Everest” at an IMAX theater. It was always in the back of his mind, but then, two years ago, he realized that if he didn’t act, it would remain a fanciful ambition. He booked a trip to Nepal and made the trek to Mount Everest Base Camp – an arduous, multi-day journey in itself. He wanted to see the summit and test whether he still felt that childhood pull. For something this ambitious, passion is must, he said.
“What really appealed to me about it was developing the mental grit necessary to get through those elements while also performing physically,” Bailey said. “It was a new level of challenge I had not previously encountered. As someone who likes to push himself to the limit, that was appealing.”
Convinced, he contacted some expedition companies while still in Nepal. The first was cavalier: Just show up, we’ll teach you all you need to know, they said. Bailey made some more calls, and settled on a company that wouldn’t accept him as a client until he completed a training course and summited a series of peaks of increasing intensity.
“It felt like how things should be done,” Bailey said. “I wanted to do it right.” He flew home and began his training, learning more with each summit.
One lesson came from Mount Shasta. He was baking under a hot sun in a thin atmosphere, creeping slowly up the glacier side of the mountain with crampons and an ice ax. He was bonking out, a mountaineering term for the plummet in stamina when a climber’s muscles are depleted of energy.
A cynical thought came: “I can’t do this.” But he pushed the thought away and his body forward. “There’s peace of mind in learning how to get comfortable with suffering because you know which types of headaches to be fearful of and which are just annoying.”
Shasta taught him to trust his body – and to adequately nourish and hydrate it.
Another lesson came in Ecuador. Always competitive, Bailey was trying to race up Mount Cotopaxi, standing just short of 20,000 feet.
“Richard,” his guide said. “You’ll never conquer the mountain; you’ll only conquer yourself.”
Cotopaxi taught him patience.
These climbs culminated in Bailey’s two-week trip to Argentina to face Aconcagua. Climbers take time to climatize, or adjust to the altitude, before attempting a summit. Over the course of several days, while hauling gear to base camps, they prepared for what would be a 21-hour ascent.
They left at 1 am, the snow up to their knees, the wind unforgiving. Everything was frozen – even Bailey’s eyebrows. A couple of people from his 16-person team lost chunks of their ears to frostbite, and that day, a man from another team fell and had to have his leg amputated. This was his hardest climb, but building on past experience, he made it. And soon, he’ll apply lessons from Aconcagua to Everest.
Mountaineering isn’t a vacuum to Bailey, however. He applies the lessons from the mountain to every aspect of his life.
“With everything, from my professional to personal life, when I have a goal, I have the mindset that quitting is off the table,” Bailey said. “Failing is off the table. It’s really powerful: It pushes you to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals.”