My daughter is turning 14 and the discussion of college has entered her thought process, and it is clear that like so many parents, I am lacking in my college funding over the years. You have kids, and before you blink, it’s there. So I told her that she needed to get great grades to hopefully get a scholarship, to which she replied, “you’ve spent my college funding traveling around the world climbing and skiing….” Who could argue with that! When I look back over the last 25 years, I honestly can’t recall every single expedition we’ve been on, but it’s a lot. For Steve, Jim, and myself, I recall in general terms. It used to be about 40 expeditions, then it morphed into over 40 expeditions, and it seems every time I try to make a list, it’s never right. I forget this one or that one; the combination of too much time at altitude and the years makes it difficult. But looking back, we’ve never missed at least one expedition to the greater ranges, AK/Canada, the Andes, or the Himalaya, with many years doing a couple of trips.
So I got to thinking about it, and when I extrapolate the cost of those trips, it amounts to a ton of fun…and a ton of money. I have been really fortunate to have studied hard myself, and created a small CPA practice in my “other life”, but using that same hat, the numbers don’t work. The trips amount to more than what I’ve made less what my cost of living amounts to. How the hell did I pull it off?!
The financial aspect of following my passion is basically broken out into different phases. This is where it gets interesting. I started looking at my career and passion by going to the start. When I graduated college, I was fortunate enough to have had my college paid for, and then to land a job with the world’s largest CPA firm, KPMG Peat Marwick. Digging out the scrap book, I kept my offer letter which offered me a staff audit position starting out at a whopping $21,500! KaaaaaCHING! My father was fortunate enough to have provided me with my education, something now I realize was actually like handing me a million dollar bill, but at the time, co signed on an auto loan to buy my first car, and sent me off with a US Savings bond face value $100 that my grandfather purchased the day I was born, and had matured to $800. I had no responsibility, found a cheap dump to live in, and for the first time I was living large!
About a month after I started “real life”, a buddy I grew up with who living in Seattle doing the same “work thing” called and said, let’s go climb Rainier. We’d formulated a passion for the climbing and skiing over the years growing up in Aspen, but I had no clue what to expect. Long story short, Rainier is significantly different on all levels than anything in Colorado, and Steve and I were hooked. That was what we were meant to be doing. The bug was planted, and before we were off the peak that day, and we hatched out a plan to head up to Denali.
We spent the next few years training, climbing and skiing, planning, but more importantly, saving every penny we could. After paying rent, and living expenses, not much was left over, but it was all put in a savings account. We eventually made our way up to Denali, which fueled passion for more peaks and trips. Eventually I changed jobs and became a national auditor for what today is Walmart. I traveled constantly around the country, at a time when United Airlines developed the perk of perks, Millage Plus! Back then, miles actually worked well, and after a year of traveling, I had accumulated enough miles to take my two brothers, and a couple of buddies up to AK a couple of times. We continued to save our pennies, and find ways to make it happen. We all still had no responsibilities outside of work, so when not at the office we were ridiculously focused on making the next trip happen.
Now back then in the late 80’s and early 90’s, climbing and skiing in the larger ranges was really an anomaly. No one was out there doing what we wanted to do. We tapped into Dad who was a ski rep to obtain the lightest skis in his line of Kastle or Hart or whatever brand he happened to be selling, obtained the only AT bindings that worked with climbing boots, Silvertta, and tried every kind of jerry rigging we could to make climbing boots ski better. Eventually ski boot companies started to make bibs and bobs of AT boots, and things slowly progressed. So along with this initial start of the ski industries play to create the specialized gear, we gradually increased our experience by simply saving pennies, and doing a trip as often as possible. Timing was perfect.
We were headed off for a big trip in the St Elias range and I thought what the heck. I called the regional North Face rep and my stories of what we were doing registered. Next thing I knew, boxes of clothing, sleeping bags, packs, ropes, hardware were arriving at my house. Gear was a massive expense and at the time we often joked that you could not walk into a gear store to buy anything without spending a hundred bucks. So the gear was a massive financial hit that allowed us to start looking towards further ranges. We had become some of the first generation of “sponsored athletes”. Laugh out loud…
Mentors who challenged us to go to AK for our trips had expanded their own careers towards the Andes, and stories of perfect Bolivian, Peru, and Ecuador weather, steep alpine snow routes, and multiple peaks in a single trip were enough to perk our desire to head south. The gear sponsorships allowed us to save that extra amount needed for the air flights to South America, and we found we could live for about $50 a week in any-town-South America where we could head out, climb a peak, come back for rest, and repeat. We learned to winter camp in AK, and really learned about altitude and how to alpine climb in the Andes. We welcomed the change in challenge from weather to altitude. We realized we had a propensity for altitude, we did extremely well, and our passion changed from climbing and skiing in general to skiing high peaks. The seeds for the Himalaya grew with each trip as our experience increased giving us confidence to slowly and naturally progress.
By 1997 we were headed to Pakistan of all places for an attempt at our first 8,000 meter peak, Broad Peak. The over-all cost of climbing in Asia is drastically more expensive than anywhere else, so the first hurdle was figuring out how to make it happen. I remember specifically talking to my father about my desire to attempt Everest and how that was never going to happen because I’d never be able to afford it. His advice, “just keep looking ahead, and time will allow you to figure it all out…..” I had no idea what he thought was going to happen, but Broad peak made it much more clear. First, work was going well. Our paychecks were slowly growing. But the sponsorships were pushed further as well. Not only were we able to obtain gear, we were able to get people to throw marketing money at the expeditions. At the nth hour, we were still short a significant amount of money and a golden angel appeared. I was at work and got a call from Ed Viesturs. Ed was starting out with his project to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks, and he and his partner were looking for an American permit to go to Broad Peak. He was fully sponsored and explained that he would be coming in from another big peak in Nepal, would be fully acclimated, and “would not get in our way……money was not an object” Bingo! Ed sent me a check, game on.
After Broad Peak, in 2000 we hatched out a plan to head to Shishapangma, and again, pay had gradually increased to allow us to hit South America a few times, and again, we were really scratching for the enormous funding needed for a Tibetan 8,000 meter peak permit. Sponsorship helped, I had been successful using photo sales from all my previous trips to add a good amount to the pot, but we found ourselves way short a year before the trip. Enter golden angel number two. I was at work and got a call from a new client who was in the film production business. He was looking for a film for a series he was producing for the Outdoor Life Network, and he inquired as to the possibility of joining us. “Money is not an object…”. Bingo on steroids!! Again, game on….
That trip was my introduction to the film game, and fueled my second passion, capturing high altitude skiing video. I worked my butt off learning the trade, and while I could not film anything else to save my life, I developed an eye for my film passion, shooting climbing and skiing above 7,000 meters. No one up to that point had ever been able to film this content, and only because I was able to keep up with the guys was I able to make a niche for myself. This translated to an ability to tap into corporate America and various other sources for almost complete funding of trips and related films. The rest is history.
For aspiring adventure seekers that don’t have deep pockets, I think it first boils down to a few things. First, if you are truly passionate, you will make sacrifices needed to follow your passion. I ate a ton of Ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during my first decade of “real life”. I found a big jar, and pocket change and whatever I had left after I paid my monthly bills went into that jar. I watched the level grow. That satisfaction translated to a larger balance in my “climbing fund” savings account. That took great discipline but was easy because I truly found my passion. Second, my dive into sponsorship was not concentrated on making a brand out of myself, but rather using my accounting hat to figure out the dollars and cents. Neither my partners nor I are very well known, but that was never important. It boiled down to the money. Along those same lines, gear is probably the greatest single cost of adventure. The more you get into the adventures, the better the gear needs to be. Take the gear. It’s way more affordable for the gear companies than writing checks, and the value may not be as great for your ego as a pay check, but it’s more valuable, and if you are successful with that gear, it often turns into a pay check later on. But put your ego in the back seat regarding sponsorships. Very few athletes ever make the grade for high level multi media, so if it happens, great, but if that’s your goal, you will overlook a lot of benefits that will make it all happen at lower levels of sponsorships. Frankly , we would receive gear and never hear back from the manufacturers. If that happens, be a good worker. Send photos, content, even if they never use it. Don’t be the lazy athlete that doesn’t try to reciprocate, and always be appreciative. We’ve been sponsored by Mammut for 15 years, and not once have they utilized our image or story, but they have never accused us of not being appreciative. We don’t abuse our sponsors, we use gear until it’s used up, and then we have an open door for whatever we need. And finally, and this is huge, don’t confuse your passion with having to give up everything to follow it. I could give you a list a mile long of people that traded a “real life” career for becoming a “professional skier”. The fact of the matter is that expeditions and adventure takes it out of you. Alone, it’s a grind. Add the pressure of having to find money just to live between trips, and that is a guarantee for a really short career. It’s too much. In short, get a freaking job. For those out in the world trying to make it as a pro, step back and think about this. I laugh at my initial salary of $21,500 for my first real-world job. Even today, how nice would it be to have $21,500 to fall back on? The argument I get from people about this is that unless I am free to climb and ski as much as possible, I can’t make it. My response is simple. After a major expedition, I need to go to work to recover. Recovery includes physical, mental, and financial. Go to work, rest, recover, and let the time away from your passion build into the energy you will need to plan, train, and execute the next great trip. Here I sit writing my story, and while I don’t know if it’s 40 expeditions or 50, what I do know without question is I seriously doubt I could have done any more than what I have in any other way short of becoming a professional guide. That’s not a bad profession, but you have to be careful in that when your passion becomes your job, things get sticky.
There are obviously more ways to the super market than one street, so the point is this. Distilled, whatever path you follow, be prepared to make the sacrifices. Keep pushing towards your passion, and one way or another, I guarantee, if it’s truly your passion, you will find it, and it will be worth it. Back to my latest adventure…..finding a way to put those kids into college. Do yourself a favor. Stay in school, get a job, and “keep looking ahead….the rest will fall into place”. I better get back to work! No, my ski career didn’t tap into my daughter’s college fund, but by keeping perspective on life, I have been fortunate to have been able to spend my life climbing and skiing, and also to be practical enough to realize the real world ain’t so bad either….