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Lessons from Failure

September 22, 2020

Photo: Colin Rex

The Golden State Skyline is a human-powered, self-supported linkup of all fifteen 14,000’ peaks in California, stretching from Mt. Shasta in the Cascades to Mt. Langley, the southern tip of the Sierra. Along with my friends Jonny Morsicato and Charlie Firer, followed by film crew Colin Rex and Nick Smillie, I set off to complete the Golden State Skyline on August 14. Our planned route covered 800 miles by bike, 100 miles on foot, and 100,000 feet of vertical gain, including technical difficulties up to 5.9. But life had other plans…

We encountered, in no particular order: record high temperatures (Death Valley recorded the world’s highest-ever temp on day 3), highway-blocking wildfires, COVID closures of gas stations and restaurants, and a LOT of flat tires. Before pulling the plug, we climbed Mt. Shasta at sunrise, watching the shadow of the mountain cast across the Golden state, we biked nearly 500 miles over 4 days. We slept under ash rain, battled storms without tents and rain gear, and had the adventure of a lifetime. In our attempt to set a new Fastest Known Time on the linkup, we failed pretty majestically. But we did take away some lasting lessons from our failure:

Trust the Process

Photo: Colin Rex

You can spend months, even years planning an adventure like this. But once the trip kicks off, most factors are out of your control. I’ve learned, mostly the hard way, to attach my joy and growth to the process, not the outcome - the outcome is never guaranteed, but the process is totally under your control. More importantly, the process is nearly invisible. There was no glory in the 7-month training block leading up to the attempt. You have to love it, and you have to be motivated by something greater than validation. How you get through the process is arguably more important than the result.

Embrace Joy

Photo: Colin Rex

On a trip of this magnitude, you’re bound to hit low points, barriers that drain morale. But for all the lows, there are equally powerful highs, moments when you feel impossibly alive and free - when you know you’re doing exactly what you're supposed to do. You can’t let these slip, for the sake of morale, and for the sake of your growth. You can find joy in the lows, too, once you get over yourself and realize that your life is nothing less than a miracle, and that your ability to suffer willingly is an absolute privilege. On so many moments throughout the attempt, I was struck by the absurdity and beauty of it all, gazing out across the ranges of my home state, pedaling through triple-digit temperatures, and sleeping on the dirt. What a life!

Stay Humble

Photo: Colin Rex

We were halfway up White Mountain Peak when we decided to bail on the attempt. Many factors played into our failure, and one of them was that we were simply getting crushed. Of course, we knew going in that we would suffer. But we had crossed the threshold from type 2 fun (painful, but fun in retrospect) to pure misery. We had started Golden State Skyline in the best shape of our lives - fired up, prepared, and ready to go. Yet, we ultimately didn’t stand a chance in the face of the uncontrollable adversity thrown at us by Mother Nature. I’ve never been humbled like this before - giving everything I had, and still coming up short. For me, it was a powerful lesson, and a reminder that in the scope of the world, we are so very small.

Redemption is Powerful

Photo: Connor Koch

We spent nearly a year scouting the terrain for our linkup, and showed up in the Sierra with a full mountain toolkit, having each climbed around the world, at high altitude, in adverse conditions, for years. Sometimes, that didn’t matter - on our scouting mission into the Palisades, we still got schooled. This traverse links up five 14,000 ft. peaks in one big push, climbing across exposed and technical granite on one of the highest ridgelines in the country. The sun set as we summited the 4th peak of the day, forcing us to downclimb an icy couloir in the dark with one ice axe each. We didn’t even finish the traverse, sleeping at the base of the glacier after an 18-hour day.

After we bailed on the Golden State Skyline, we didn’t rest too long. With a break in the smoke, we were drawn, almost magnetically, back to the Palisades. We moved across the dark, cold granite with purpose, climbing the impossibly tiny summits of Thunderbolt and Starlight, across the rugged ridge to North Palisade and Polemonium, staring out at Mt. Sill, our fifth 14er of the day, with daylight remaining. Nearing the finish, the terrain opened up, angle lessening as we romped across the 3rd class blocks to the summit, dropping our packs a few hundred feet below and relishing the weightlessness, the joy beyond joy of pure movement in the mountains.

The descent from Sill was loose and dangerous, vertical dirt interspersed with microwave-sized rocks, and some firm snow thrown in for good measure. Carefully, we navigated through the minefield, arriving at the safety of the lower glacier in high spirits - the end was in sight. As it always does, the sun began to dip below the horizon, casting that familiar hazy palette across the range, the snow, the smiling faces of my friends. We picked up a trail and turned on zombie mode for the long hike out as darkness enveloped us again.

About Connor Koch
I’m an alpinist and writer based in Mammoth Lakes, CA. I’m fortunate to pursue a life of intense experience in the mountains, often with my best friends. I like high elevation running, technical climbing, windy bike rides, and strong coffee through it all.

Follow Connor's adventures + photos @conkoch
Follow the Coyote Collective @thecoyotecollective

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