Some reflections on a life of (mostly) failure, part II


I had originally intended to write the second part of this rumination tomorrow, but, after some distressed comments from my friends of Facebook, I decided I had better start writing this tonight.

So, one thing to consider when I refer to being a failure in life is the frame of reference in which I grew up. Now, before I say any of this, I just want to state that no one in my family has ever, ever made me feel like I needed to live up to anything they might have accomplished in life, and for that I am eternally grateful. Rather, I was always very keenly aware of my illustrious family members considerable and indeed, somewhat formidable accomplishments, and from a young age aspired to someday be considered an equal among them.

My grandfather was vice-president of NBC radio, he knew and had strong influence with Bing Crosby, he used to be the guy overseeing virtually every newspaper west of the Mississippi, he was a serious mover and shaker in some pretty powerful circles.

My father was acting in radio by the time he was five, he played one of the lead roles in One Man’s Family (Wiki Link:, he was a General’s aid in Korea, and witnessed events that led to the start of the Korean conflict, he used to live in Bel-air, owned a house on Malibu beach, and had such an amazing life that for most mere mortals, experiencing half of what he did would be considered a fabulously rich life, and that is no exaggeration.

My brother David has played a huge variety of roles in his decades of service to NASA, including being the head of Astrophysics, overseeing some incredibly important missions, and is currently Deputy Director of Flight Projects at NASA Langley Research Center.


Beyond even these examples, several more of my family members have also achieved notable success, but to be fair, not all of my siblings work for NASA either.

Having stated all this, I really have felt very supported by my family, it has always been my own desire to live up to the family name, to honor them with achievement, that has tortured me for so long. And, quite frankly, my ambition is greatly tempered with middle age, so to fail again at something so simple as getting a basic degree is the impetus behind these blogs.

Learning success through mountaineering

The year was 1998. I was twenty-seven, and I began the long hike to the top of Mt. Thielsen on a cool, late September day ( I was with my friend Mike, who, despite a fairly severe disability, had climbed the mountain multiple times. I am not sure why I decided to climb a mountain, I was not sure if I could make the summit or not, in fact I gave myself permission to fail in advance, knowing that the summit pinnacle was a genuine rock climb, and we were going without ropes.

Mike at that time was fighting a severely arthritic hip (which would be replaced a few years later with a titanium model), and the climb took much, much longer than it normally would, at one point Mike released me to get ahead of him since he could see that he was holding me back, so I arrived at the base of the eighty foot pinnacle on my own. Climbers were swarming up and down the wildly exposed summit blocks, and I watched for a while, getting some advice from some climbers belonging to a club before deciding to go for it. The deciding factor had been watching some much bigger, bulky guys climbing it unroped and the club climbers remarked that they were like mountain goats scampering up to the summit. Being a much smaller, leaner guy, more of a stereotypical rock climber than these behemoths climbing the summit easily, and seemingly without fear, my pride couldn’t take it.

I’m a mountain goat, I remember thinking, not those guys. Irrgardless, it spurred me on, and I began what would be a fateful undertaking for me, one that I had no idea would change my life so dramatically.

It seems funny to me now, after fourteen years of climbing, just how scary and seemingly vertical that last eighty feet on Thielsen appeared at the time. Every handhold was focused before me like nothing I had experienced before. Every handhold, every foothold, that was all I was aware of, my entire existence was reduced to the act of ascent, and more importantly, survival.

The traverse between Old Man and Old Woman rocks.

In no time at all, I was standing on one of the most exposed, hair-raising summits anywhere. In the intervening years I have climbed many mountains, including the majority of the Cascade volcanoes, and I can safely attest that there are not many summits that are that tiny and airy. Peering over the north face made me feel a crazy sense of vertigo, not surprisingly, since years later I dropped a stone down this face and it took 9 seconds to strike the glacier below. I spent ten or fifteen minutes on top, long enough to take in the views and develop some serious apprehension about climbing back down that final eighty feet.

Climbing up steep rock is an entirely different matter than climbing back down, as many, many climbers throughout history have discovered, many times fatally. Luckily I was able to very carefully pick my way back down, and it was sweet relief to get back down to the ledge known as ‘chicken point’. I had succeeded in climbing my first mountain on my first try, and waves of elation rolled over me as I waited for Mike, who arrived a few minutes after I safely got back down.

The rest of that climb is not important to this story, but what is important is how I felt afterwards. For a week, I remained in an intoxicated, delirious state. I had found my calling, and I knew it. Even though there would be no more opportunities to climb that year, I began researching and planning my next series of climbs that I wanted to undertake.

The next year I climbed Mt McLoughlin (, Diamond Peak (, Mt. Bailey (, and South Sister (

Since then, I have climbed many mountains and rocks, including classic North American peaks such as Mts. Hood, Adams, Shasta, Shuksan, and The Grand Teton, plus locally classic peaks such as North Sister, Three-Fingered Jack, Mt. Washington, Mt St. Helens, Mt. Lassen plus numerous others.

Myself on McKinley Rock

Over the past four years, I began rock-climbing as well, and after just a few years of regular cragging, I was offered the Intro to Rock Climbing teaching position at UCC, the local community college (, an opportunity I seized upon with great joy. I taught for about a year and a half, really enjoyed the actual teaching and the respect I felt in the position, but unfortunately several things conspired to cause me to resign. The first was my struggle with chronic pain. I really have had less and less of pain-free summers, and both summers I taught I had very serious issues with my shoulders and lower back, and at one point had to have my friend and volunteer assistant take over route-setting and rappelling duties, something I would never have done normally.

The other major issue that complicated my continuing as a teacher was the fact that for at least two weeks before each class began, and up until two weeks or so after the term had ended, I would barely sleep. I took my job seriously, perhaps too seriously, but the idea of having ten or twelve inexperienced students hanging off an eighty foot cliff provoked a feeling of terrifying anxiety that allowed me to sleep only three or four hours a night. Eventually, I decided that I really wasn’t the right person for the job, even though I did a pretty good job and even more importantly, did a safe job. Someone who didn’t have a semi-debilitating pain issue and who could more effectively manage the stress was required. A climber named Willie teaches it now, and he does a way better job than I ever could have. It was a relief to let go of that job.

I consider my time as a teacher as success, by the way.

Part III later…

The Grand Teton




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