The Pain Cave

In high-altitude climbing, there’s an ominous phrase you will hear frequently: the pain cave. Today, I want to teach you to find your way out of the pain cave.

It doesn’t matter when or why, but the reality of high mountain climbing is that you will spend a good deal of time in this very dark and lonely place.

When I climbed Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, I was extremely fit and quite frankly thought I was indestructible. The climb starts by flying to the base of the mountain, landing on a large glacier, then slowly climbing up the glacier. The glacier is riddled with crevasses that are often hidden by snow, so you have to be ultra-careful and follow your guide’s instructions to the letter.

After a very tough climb, I was proud to successfully summit. I knew, however, that meant very little as most deaths and injuries occur during descent. As we were coming down on this climb, I was roped to two other climbers as a safety measure. This is in case one of us falls into a crevasse.

I was roped to two other climbers as a safety measure. This is in case one of us falls into a crevasse.

I was following behind (and roped to) a climber named Steve, while a climber named Glenn was roped to me. Everyone carried ice axes because the first thing you’re taught is if one of your roped team falls into a crevasse, you are immediately to fall on your ice-axe, plunging it as deeply as you can, into the ice.

We had been trudging down the glacier for several hours in a brutal snowstorm, mindlessly placing one crampon-armed boot in front of the other, lost in our own thoughts. For the most part, Steve was doing a good job following the exact route the guide was using, but at one point he deviated ever so slightly and stepped on what he thought was hard snow. It was, in fact, a snow bridge covering a huge crevasse.

Steve instantly dropped straight into the crevasse, disappearing from sight as the rope slithered taut against the edge of the crevasse. Instinctively we fell on our ice-axes, digging them deeply into the ice, desperate to keep Steve from falling further into the gaping, dangerous chasm. I was amazed at how our training had kicked in, despite literally having to jump onto our ice-axes.

We had halted Steve’s fall and in moments, the rest of the team had gathered around us, secured the line and eventually our guide and others helped pull him out. Steve was bruised up, but relatively unscathed for which we were all extremely grateful.

I was not so fortunate.

As I stood up, I grimaced from the sharp, searing pain in my side. I had broken two ribs falling on the axe. I recount a lot more of this story in my book, but basically I was in agony from the broken ribs, and to make it worse I had caught a cold on the climb.

If you’ve ever hurt your ribs, you know that every time I sneezed or coughed, my ribs erupted in agony. I was thousands of feet up on a harsh, hostile mountain, dragging a sled with a broken rib, and I am not exaggerating when I say I would have been completely happy to lie down on the snow, curl up in a ball, and just go to sleep, content to never wake up. I was in one of the deepest, darkest pain caves I had ever experienced.

I am not exaggerating when I say I would have been completely happy to lie down on the snow, curl up in a ball, and just go to sleep, content to never wake up.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, pain sapped what little energy reserves I had. I was ready to quit. I wanted to quit. I just wanted it all to be over. The darkness of the pain cave had overwhelmed me and I did not know how to get out of it. Spending time in the pain cave doesn’t happen only on high mountains. I think we both know it definitely happens in the corporate world.

Everyone’s pain cave is different in terms of intensity and duration, but regardless, at one point or another, we all get there. But something that might have saved my life on Denali, and has helped me immeasurably in the corporate world, was another simple question the guide asked when I told him I couldn’t go on. As a leader, whenever you or your employees enter that pain cave, ask the question, “Are you hurt? Or are you just hurting?”

If I was truly hurt, to the point that I couldn’t physically go on, the guide would have had to request a rescue helicopter to make a risky attempt up the mountain to get me off. The danger to both myself and the helicopter pilot would be life-threatening, but if I was truly hurt, it would be necessary under the circumstances.

If, however, I was “hurting” from the broken ribs—which, make no mistake, was a cold, dark trip deep down into the pain cave—but able to keep going if I could somehow dig deep enough into my mental fortitude, then, my sage guide advised, I should keep going.
I knew despite being deep in the pain cave, I could keep going. So that is what I did. Slowly, painfully, methodically, I continued down the mountain to a very welcome waiting plane that flew me off the mountain, to a hospital.

To this day, whenever I face an extremely difficult situation at work or in my personal life, I always think back to my guide’s words on the mountain. Then I ask myself, “Are you hurt? Or just hurting?” Then I act accordingly.