Scaling the Unscalable: What’s Your El Capitan?

On Wednesday, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson completed their grueling 19-day climb to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. And I was mesmerized. But why?

Photo via PDPhoto.org
Photo via PDPhoto.org

I’m as uninterested in summiting sheer granite cliffs as in having another root canal. Yet why was I so engaged, cheering the news that these two men had against all odds become the first to free climb the 3,000-foot vertical face of the Dawn Wall, dubbed one of the hardest climbing challenges in the world?

I mean, I could barely stand to look at their bleeding, skinned-up hands or wrap my head around the thought of 19 days without a shower. I definitely didn’t want to know their often-reported bathroom details—though that had to be yet one more example of how much easier it is to be a man than a woman in this world.

(Incidentally, the first woman to scale El Capitan via a different route called The Nose was Beverly Johnson in the 1970s—you knew I had to look that up. She was also the first person to cross the Straits of Magellan solo in a kayak.)

My newfound fascination could be because sports professions have been on my mind since meeting U.S. Bouldering Team member and professional rock climber (who knew there could be such a career?) Sierra Blair-Coyle at the Play Hockey Like a Girl event cosponsored by the Arizona Coyotes hockey team and Take The Lead.

It could also be that January 15th, the day Caldwell and Jorgenson ascended El Capitan’s peak, is also Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. King clearly couldn’t have advanced civil rights as he did if he hadn’t been courageous enough to embrace a challenge many believed impossible to achieve—and that many more wanted to make impossible to achieve. The symbolic juxtaposition of those social and physical feats moves me deeply.

Many things may seem like unscalable walls. In the world of business and technology, Steve Jobs was frequently told his ideas were impossible. Yet he made the impossible possible, and today you can’t pry me away from my iPhone.

Moreover, the feats that seem insurmountable are not always giant events or social movements. For example, today I will call a prospective donor whom I dread having to ask for a contribution to Take The Lead. She’s very tough to get. Yet I know that if she does give, she will be a linchpin for others who look to her for leadership in deciding what to support. The churning in my stomach signals it feels like an impossible task, though the only exertion required is picking up the phone.

The truth is, I get off on doing things that others tell me can’t be done, especially big things.

The Daily Beast headline describing Caldwell’s and Jorgenson’s climb says it best: “Unscalable Wall Scaled.” There is something incredibly adrenaline-pumping, soul-gratifying, and super inspiring about knowing that the impossible has indeed been accomplished by a human being; that someone has mustered his or her skills, resources, and intentions to go above the norm.

I am reminded of a wonderful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about people who scale the unscalable. It inspires me every time I read it:

Again and again in history
Some people wake up.
They have no ground in the crowd
And move to broader, deeper laws.
They carry strange customs with them
And demand room for bold and audacious action.
The future speaks ruthlessly through them.
They change the world.

Some consider reaching gender parity in leadership by 2025 unattainable. So many have tried, yet the dial is still moving so slowly that estimates for reaching this goal range from 60 to 500 years. The World Economic Forum projects it will take us 81 years.

People often tell me parity is impossible—and always will be. But it’s because they’ve never seen it.

I say we can do it, and we have to do it by 2025. You see, I’ve been working for women’s equality most of my adult life, and I can’t live another 81 or even 60 years, as much as I might like to. I so passionately want to see leadership parity for women that it’s worth the scars, the tears, the risk of failing, and the pain of being told “no” until they say “yes.” Which is exactly what will happen. Bank on it.

So, that’s my El Capitan. What’s yours?

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Leave a Reply