When David Mauro, author of The Altitude Journals, was in his 40s, his life hit rock bottom. With nothing to lose, he left everything behind and set out on an epic adventure. For the next seven years. Dave trudged across glaciers, frozen wastelands and through dense, dangerous forest.
Though he’d never been a climber, he ended up standing at the summit of Mount Everest. In this episode, you’ll hear the exciting true stories of one man’s remarkable mid-life crisis. What happens when you go to the extreme to repair a shattered life?
Note: Throughout this interview, David will use explicit language to tell his raw story.
David Mauro: My marriage was over, I wasn’t being allowed to see my children. My brother died, my career was in trouble, and in an honest moment, I’d have to admit I was flirting with alcoholism.
This is one of those moments that’s a lot like being at the bottom of the barrel and looking up. Day by day, I would just sort of move around en route and come home and look at my clothing sort of stacked in orderly towers on the floor of my sister’s guest room, which is where I was living, and just have no idea what to do with myself or my life.
There was actually a moment where I was sitting on the edge of the bed in her guest room, and the guest room was used as overflow space for her daughter Brooke who had every American Doll in the collection.
And they’re all arranged on these orderly shelves and they’re all staring at me.
They just had what I perceived to be sad, judging expressions. At one point, I just shouted at them:
“I don’t need your fucking pity.”
I heard my sister drop something downstairs, and she told me later that they were washing dishes and her daughter’s eyes got about as big as a plate.
My sister just said, “Uncle Dave’s going through a tough time.”
I’m Not a Climber
David Mauro: I was completely out of ideas, and it just kind of paralyzed emotionally trying to figure out what would happen next. As the case may be, my 44thbirthday came three, four weeks into living with my sister, and a package arrived at the door.
It was a tubular shaped package and it was from Anchorage, Alaska, where my other sister Noelle lives with her husband Tai.
Tai at that time was a well accomplished mountain climber, and he had invited me several months earlier to join in a climb of Mount McKinley, now officially known as Denali.
“It’s the high point for North America, 20,320 feet, and it is a big, cold, moody son of a gun.”
I said, “Well, thanks for the invitation but I’m not a mountain climber so that just doesn’t sound like a good fit for me.”
I did think about it. I never seriously considered doing it, but I felt really good about myself that he thought enough of me to make the invitation. It was a one good thing I felt like I could hold on to in a moment where so much was being taken away from me.
Back to that tube that arrived, that package.
I opened up one end of it and turned it upside down and out falls two climbing poles and a note that says, “Happy birthday, super climber.”
In other words, your wife holding you back is not a problem anymore, so how about it?
The thing is, no part of me believed I could actually make it to the top at Denali. But I feel like in I’m at such a low place right now that failing couldn’t bother me much, you know? I’m already in the bottom of the barrel.
“A guy who’s got nothing left to lose, he’s actually a pretty dangerous guy.”
Probably in good ways and bad but because I had nothing left to lose, I decided I would do it, I would go.
That decision alone set my life on this crazy path that wasn’t just about Denali. It set me on a path that crossed over glaciers and through jungles and over volcanoes and I communed with penguins and elephants and gunrunners and cannibals.
Somewhere along the way, I learned to believe in myself again. But I learned a whole lot more than that, and that was the one decision that set it all in motion. I’m grateful. I am very, very grateful for that moment and for that invitation.
You Can’t Climb for the Summitz
Charlie Hoehn: Tell me what was the lesson or what were some of the things that you learned when you climbed Denali. Let’s start there.
David Mauro: Yeah. I went on the climb on Denali, and the first lesson I’d learned was that I knew nothing about mountain climbing.
I would way overdress and then I would overheat and just collapse. I would be too slow to get my stuff together in the morning, and everybody had have to wait for me. I would have my gloves off to fiddle with something at a time when you really don’t want to have your gloves off.
There were a lot of those sort of lessons, but to the philosophical side of things, one of the first important lessons that I learned came in a moment where we’d been snowed in, stormed in, on the side of the mountain and hadn’t really got any glimpse of the peak.
When the storm stopped and the clouds parted for just a moment, one of the guys in the team says, “There she is, boys.”
We all scrambled out of the tents and we kind of stood shoulder to shoulder, staring up at the top of Denali like kids looking into a Christmas tree.
For some reason, I thought to kind of step forward and look down the line at everybody’s faces. What I saw was elation, demoralized, elation, elation. That demoralized person like myself was another rookie on the team, the rest of the team was hardened veterans of climbing.
“We were there more or less for the human interest story.”
His name was Kirk, and Kirk quit the climb the very next day. Listening to him announce that he was quitting very tearfully, it became clear that what had happened was, he was crushed beneath the weight of his own dream.
It’s important to have a big goal, right? Certainly, we were on Denali to get to the summit. We all had that goal, but there’s a difference.
The people who are there just for the summit, they think about it all the time, and every time you think about that moment of being on the summit, it’s like taking an advance against the paycheck you haven’t finished earning.
Sooner or later, the time comes where there’s not enough pay left in the check to do the work that it takes to finish earning it, and you’re done.
“The climbers who think about the summit almost never reach it.”
I’ve seen this again and again in my climbing. People who physically were probably capable but mentally, they got crushed. The climbers who get to the summit are the climbers that view each day as a separate climb. That is all they’ll allow themselves to think about.
Yeah, the head walls coming up and if I’m struggling, this much on the approach, how am I ever going to get up the head wall? Nope. There will be plenty of time to worry about the head wall when I get to it. Right now, I’m just worried about the approach.
What’s more, your ability to climb today’s mountain is greatly dependent upon whether you found any joy climbing yesterday’s mountain.
Joy isn’t even optional if you’re going after a big mountain and it’s going to take weeks to climb it. You have got to find a piece of joy in every single day. There’s something funny about the way you live your life when that becomes mandatory.
There are very interesting shifts that occur and that’s part of what I carried with me after the Denali climb.
Joy in Your Armpits
Charlie Hoehn: How did you find your life started to shift when you were intentionally finding more joy?
David Mauro: Well, life felt much simpler all of a sudden and there was just more joy in all different parts of it. Let me give you an example.
At one point, this horrific storm comes in off the Bering Sea. Keep in mind Denali is just below the Arctic Circle, so it’s already a really cold place even during the warmest part of the year, which is May-June, that’s when you climb. You’ll see 35 below zero at times.
The storm, it just dumps and dumps snow on us, so each guy would take a two hour shift of digging the tents out, and it went on round the clock for three days.
I’d finished my shift, and it was about four in the morning, and I went and woke Tai my brother in law up. I was pretty hungry, so I was getting some water, some snow melted to rehydrate some mashed potatoes that I was going to take from a packet.
It also had these dehydrated chicken meat wafers, but you know, it had been a tough night, I wanted to dress up the meal a little bit. I dig around in my provisions and I find these little individual cheese pieces, individually wrapped cheddar cheese, but they’re frozen hard. I realized that in the time it’s going to take to thaw them, I’m just too hungry.
“There’s an answer here.”
While I’m waiting for the water to boil, if I put a cheese slice in each arm pit, they’ll thaw enough to be soft by the time the water’s boiling, and I can add the cheese to my chicken mashed potatoes and have myself a proper feast.
I did, that was my moment of joy that day.
Charlie Hoehn: Cheese in your armpits. Anybody can do that any day. And find so much joy.
David Mauro: That’s right. Joy is that available, it’s that abundant. It might not sound like cause for celebration but if you’re looking for something, suddenly it becomes a cause for celebration.
I found all kinds of causes for celebration. Some of them legitimately worth celebrating, but it’s so important to the mental game to do that and when I speak at corporate events and I get to this part of the story, I can see people kind of nodding.
It’s like “Yeah, you know, joy, that would be nice, that’s good.”
I say, “No. You’ve missed the point here, it’s not optional, okay? If you’re going after something big, whether it’s your goal for sales this quarter or climbing a mountain, you have to have joy, it is your first responsibility.”
Some people are uncomfortable with that. They’ve never really allowed joy to be a deliberate thing, but it empowers you in so many ways when it is.
No One Can Relate
David Mauro: There’s something about reaching the summit of a mountain where you run out of mountain. I mean, it sounds elementary, right? When you’re just focusing on one step after another and indeed, you’ve put months and months of training into it and sacrifice to finally just run out of mountain is an incredible experience.
I’ll talk a bit more about this on the Kilimanjaro climb but the joy you feel, it eclipses in a definition you may know of joy.I believe it passes over into love. The sensation I had every time I stood on a peak was just pure love passing through me, you know? I would just weep.
“The biggest, toughest guy just crumbles.”
But we had our moment and then came back down, and I worked my way back home. And for the first three or four days, I was just exuberant, I was just full of this energy and I was kind of like, the guy with the secret that he wants to tell, right?
I was just hoping I’d find an opening to say what I’d done and what this experience was like.
The experience amounted to conversational pepper spray. You know, if somebody who is talking about a great hike they just went on and I said, “Yeah, I just climbed Mount McKinley, the highest summit of north America.”
And then there’s also an element of doubt I think that they would have and it would sort of be like somebody saying, “You know, I went on this base mountain ride at Disneyland,” and you say, “Yeah, I’m an astronaut, I’ve been to outer space.”
“What I found was my experience was largely un-shareable.”
That was kind of disappointing to me, but more importantly, after that exuberance died down, this familiar nagging feeling came back to me. It was the same feeling I had sitting at my sister’s guest room.
I had to admit that, in spite of everything, I still didn’t believe in myself.
That was the big takeaway for me on that experience, was coming to understand that you don’t believe in yourself by climbing mountains, you believe in yourself when you deal with your problems.
I finally understood that. Yeah, I’d done this climb and I was grateful for the experience, but to repair my life, I was going to have to take a hard, honest look at my problems and start working on them and get them fixed.
That’s what Denali taught me.
Fixing the Real Problems
Charlie Hoehn: What were the problems that you really needed to sit down and fix?
David Mauro: You’re right. I mean, some were within my control, others were not. Obviously, my brother’s death was not, but I hadn’t grieved it properly.
When he died, I’ve always been the member of the family that makes the peace and greases the wheels and that sort of stuff while everybody else sort of spins out of control.
I fell into that role when my brother died. I was a guy that arranged for the service, I was the guy that negotiated who would get what of his possessions. I did all those things, but I never properly grieved his death. I needed to do that. And on the next mountain, I came up with a terrific way to do that. I’ll leave you with that teaser.
Other things were in my control, the divorce I was in the middle of, which was as acrimonious as any. I wouldn’t respond to my attorney, I wouldn’t respond to letters. I was in such a deep depression that I just did not care about anything, any how, any way.
“I needed to engage in the process.”
I did, I came back and I called my attorney, I said, “Okay, let’s meet, I’m ready to deal with this thing.” And then I finally saw my doctor to get some help with my depression which is a condition I struggled with my entire adult life.
He put me on a medication that made a big, big difference. He suggested I see a therapist also. I did, and it was the same therapist that my ex-wife and I had seen for marriage counseling.
Axel the Beta
Charlie Hoehn: So you were on Kilimanjaro next right?
David Mauro: Well so not long after Denali, one of the things I decide to fix in my life was just the loneliness and the sense of isolation, and I had a little bit of help.
My sister gave me a blue beta fish, those ones that live in a little bowl. But a fish is not great company. I named him Axel, and whenever I touch my finger to the bowl, he would attack it, and I love that about him. I love his attitude, and it got so that he would speak through me.
And always vulgar, profane language.
He hated televangelists, he hated my ex-wife, he hated politicians and he hated fin rot. Those were his four things.
“And he was always plotting to take over the world.”
So I would come home from work and he would say, “And how did our coup in Madagascar go?” And I would say, “It is ours.” And he would laugh until he snorted through his little fish nose, and so we had that kind of relationship, Axel and I did.
I decided I needed to take things a bit further, so I did something I thought I would never do. I did something only desperate people do.
I signed up for online dating.
A Bigger Fear
Charlie Hoehn: That’s how I met my wife, Dave.
David Mauro: Yeah, see? So you know, what I learned is that it is not just desperate people and in fact, it was a lot of fun and I eventually met the woman I am engaged to now.
We have been engaged now for five years, but we saw each other for three years before that. We are not going to actually marry. We decided engagement was the funnest part of our previous marriage experiences and so we are just going to stay with that.
At any rate, so I had met Lynne, and Lynne was so much more than I could have dared to hope for in dating. It became clear that we were just madly in love, but the problem was I couldn’t say it.
I feared intimacy on that level, and a lot of that came from my previous marriage. My wife couldn’t tell me she loved me, and in spite of that we were married 17 years. Can you imagine being married to someone who can’t say that?
And I don’t want to make her out to be the bad guy here because I certainly had my faults, and I think there’s a lot about her upbringing that contributed to that, but still, I had become very fearful of speaking the words myself.
Chasing a Dream
David Mauro: And so when Lynne finally told me that she loved me, she says, “It’s okay, you don’t have to say it back. I just want you to know how I feel.”
I think I said something like, “Thanks,” but I couldn’t bring myself to say it even though I knew I felt it. That night I had a dream.
I am standing in this grass savannah, and I feel something brush up next to me and I look down and it’s this huge male lion, who walks by me and then he turns and then starts walking away from me in the direction of Kilimanjaro.
That’s it and then the dream is over. And I had that dream night after night after night and the only thing that changed was I eventually started following him. I’d follow a little bit longer each night.
“I became obsessed with it.”
I thought, “What is it my dream world is trying to tell me here?”
Have you ever been at a traffic light and it’s red and the guy in front of you stopped, your stopped and then it turns green and he doesn’t move? That was me.
I was the guy who didn’t pull out when the light turned green because I was so distracted with these thoughts. I finally went to Lynne and I said, “Look, I don’t know why but I think I am supposed to go to Africa and climb Kilimanjaro.”
And because she shares much of the philosophy of life that is central to who I am, she said, “I think you should go then,” and so I did.
Listen to That Inner Voice
David Mauro: I had learned through years of performing improv how to quiet my mind and hear that creative voice and trust it.
It doesn’t have to make sense now, but it speaks so quietly that if you are wrapped up in your own head and thinking about how to insert yourself into a scene, you’re not going to hear it. So I’ve come to trust that voice on stage, which was the only place I felt good about myself during this period in my life.
I was glad for an 80 minute show where I got to be someone other than me. Because I didn’t like me, I didn’t like the life we had. Improv was my only refuge.
“I decided that I would live my life off stage the way I did on stage.”
I would just start listening for that voice and trusting what it said and acting on it. Listen, trust, act. And it was telling me to go to Africa and it didn’t made a lick of sense. And believe me, I had retired from mountain climbing.
I was glad to get to the top of Denali, but I thought that was really, really, really hard. And I am not going to do that again. So I got a tattoo of Denali on my leg. I said good enough, we’re done with that, I am moving on.
And I wasn’t moving on. So I signed with a company called Adventure Consultants that is based out in New Zealand, and they guide mountain climbs everywhere. They are just this amazing organization, and they slid me into a spot on a team that was going to attempt Kilimanjaro.
I flew there. It was a colorful experience because I first landed in Nairobi and this was right after the stolen elections there, so the civil war was going on and people are hacking each other up with machetes on the street. So the airport was on military lockdown and we were all in a room with an armed guard and there was a lot more adventure than I bargained for in this thing.
I was fortunate enough that our lead guide was an incredible man named Ondonje. And climbers will recognize that name. He was Rob Hall’s lead Sherpa in Into Thin Air. He was the last one to see Rob Hall alive and is credited with saving several lives that day when everything went bad.
But he was this gentle soul, this marvelous human being and we enjoyed spending time with him. When we were getting higher on the mountain, we were in full summit gear. We were in battle gear, and he’s got a light coat and tennis shoes on.
We would test our oxygen saturation level as we went higher with this little device and he would put up scores in the mid 90s, which was really robust while the rest of us put up readings that could start a shoving match between undertakers. So he was just super human and a great guy to be with.
With the Lions
David Mauro: One of the things that I did different on this climb was I brought some of my brother’s ashes with me. I decided this would be a good way to celebrate his life and create closure to my own grieving. And so when I got to the top of Kilimanjaro I released those ashes and it created closure to my own grieving.
It was just a marvelous moment. We arrived at the summit just before day break, and it was snowing on us. And we are standing on that white glacier. To the east in far side of Tanzania, this little orange slit appeared in the darkness.
The thing about standing in a continental high point is when day break arrives, for just a brief moment, you are the only thing that light touches and everything beneath you is in the dark and is asleep while you are illuminated standing there.
“The feeling is just indescribable.”
It’s as though you grab a high voltage line, but it’s not electricity. It’s love that flows through it, and it just surges through your body.
After the climb, I stuck around to go on Safari because you’ve got to do that if you’re going to go that far. I was the only one who stayed for Safari, so it was just me and my driver, Hafif in a Land Rover rumbling around Africa. We were way, way, way out in the Serengeti following the wildebeest migration, and there was this oasis he took me to.
It was a pool and lush trees around it and this whole pride of lions was laying there with their bellies bulging. They had already eaten for the day, so none of the other animals were afraid of them.
It was like the inside sleeve of children’s Bible, where all of God’s creatures are standing around in perfect harmony.
I thought this is the most beautiful and probably the most dangerous place I have ever seen and I thought, “There you go, that’s how it is in nature. Risk and return are always hand in hand.”
It’s not like that in the man-made world. The man-made world is designed so you could take without giving. We’ve got sidewalks and speed limit signs and rules and laws and all of these so you could experience beauty without personal risk.
And then it hit me that is why I have to go to Africa because I was trying to experience beauty, love without taking personal risk in my relationship.
“Then I realized that love is not of the man-made world.”
It’s of the natural world. We talk about it like it is something that we all figured out and made up, but it is part of the natural world. And because of that, I could only experience the fullness of love if I risk myself completely.
And then I thought about that lion dream, a lion is symbolic for courage, and that’s what I was lacking. That’s what my dream world was trying to tell me night after night after night after night.
It was one of those aha moments. I looked out at this big male lion lying there and I just said, “Thank you.” And I knew why I’d come.
Charlie Hoehn: I would be a fool to not ask about the cannibals, I think that you mentioned at the beginning. Is there any excitement there with that?
David Mauro: Oh yes, there was plenty of excitement. So that was in Papua New Guinea, and I went to Papua New Guinea to climb Carstensz Pyramid, which is considered the highest summit for Oceana, which includes Australia.
Papua New Guinea is perhaps the least tame place on earth. It’s comprised of many different tribes, all of which hate each other and eat each other and constantly raid each other’s villages and things.
And we had to cross through the separate territories of three different tribes, and one of those is the Dani Tribe. The week after we came back out of the jungle, the Indonesian Army went in and arrested 22 members of that tribe on charges of cannibalism.
The people that were charged did not deny their cannibalism and they didn’t see what was wrong with it.
“They’ve been doing this forever.”
It was chilling to realize that’s who was sleeping in the hut next to us the whole time.
We never saw them participate in any cannibalistic rituals or what have you, but to be certain, they were cannibals. I don’t know what their ultimate fate was in the disposition of things, but it was easy to see how that could be the case.
When we would cross into a tribal land, the cost of passage was that we had to hire at least 15 of their men as porters, whether we need them or not, we’ve got to hire them. But because these villages are raided so often, nobody wanted to leave their family behind.
So they would bring them. You would hire one male porter, but he would bring his wives, plural, his children, if his grandparents were mobile enough he would bring them too, and so we turned into an invasion force. 45 porters translated into something like 300 people. That was also part of the point.
There are bands of paramilitary also roaming the jungles of New Guinea still fighting for Papuan independence, and one of the ways they finance their operations is by jacking up climbing expeditions and taking their money. They would be foolish to attack a group of 300 people even if they are carrying spears.
We became a more protected target as we got larger, so on that climb our biggest risk was humans. I mean there’s a big risk at every climb. You never expect it to be humans, but that was certainly the case there.
Charlie Hoehn: I’d love for you to maybe give listeners a challenge, something they could do this week that can change their life?
David Mauro: This exercise works best by going into the silence, so find a quiet place and time and think about a big goal or a big challenge that you are facing.
Someone who hears this is fighting cancer right now. It’s statistically very probable. Somebody else has always wanted to start their own business, and so on.
“Think about that goal and break it down.”
Break it down into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces until they’re so ridiculously small that you say, “Yeah that I can do.” And only think about that one piece.
Big goals are important, but they have to be a radio that is set to a low volume in the other room, okay? You can’t burn yourself out on them.
Think about that goal and break it down and understand that all big mountains are really just a lot of little mountains, but you can only climb them one at a time.
And the next part of the challenge is you have to find joy each and every day during that climb. Even if you’ve got to make it up, even if you’ve got to delude yourself into thinking frozen cheese packets in your armpit are somehow joy.
Connect with David Mauro
Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners connect with you and follow you? You’re speaking at REI Stores all across North America, right?
David Mauro: Indeed, I have partnered with REI and I’m going to be speaking at all of their stores over the next two years. Much of the west coast is already booked. Listeners that want to follow in can go to my website, which is davidjmauro.com.
They will find a map on there and they can see where I am going to be. There is also a calendar listing where the different talks are and dates and times and that kind of thing.
The only thing about REI is that you have to go to that store’s site and reserve a seat. They don’t want to have overflow occupancy there. So if somebody wants to come hear me talk, and I’d love it if they did, we have a lot of fun at my talks, then yeah, just see when I am coming to the REI store near them.
Charlie Hoehn: Thank you for sharing your stories and your messages and I am really excited to see how your next adventure unfolds.
David Mauro: Well thank you. Thank you Charlie, and you are very welcome. Yeah, there will always be a next adventure and this is how I choose to live and I plan to write more books and have more adventures and I would love it if your listeners came along with me.