I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility…Really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man.

–John Ruskin

April: 2007

There is a sign on the trail to Mount Everest that sums up the guts of this book:

Wealth lost, nothing is lost.
Health lost, something is lost.
But character lost, everything is lost.

The first photo I took on my soul-altering journey through the Everest region of Nepal with Tim and Pasang Bombu Sherpa was of that sign explaining the difference between where I live and where the Sherpa people live. The Sherpa are working hard, helping others as best they can, and enjoying life, despite the fact that most own almost nothing and live in stone huts with no electricity, no plumbing, and no clean water. Meanwhile, Americans, who have everything money can buy, are building bigger sports stadiums and setting new records for anti-depressant prescriptions. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to grasp that in my country you could flip that sign about character upside down and describe the basic premise upon which our value system is now built: Wealth lost! EVERYTHING LOST!! Character lost, nothing lost.
After three days on the trail to Mt. Everest in the company of the humble and gracious Sherpa porters and guides, I was overwhelmed by how good it felt to be treated with trust. The Sherpa are legendary role models of strength, courage, work ethic, hospitality, and generosity. There was no fear in our camp. There was no intimidation being used to motivate. There was kindness, grace, and humor.
The Sherpa treat all people with dignity and respect. They make those around them better, and because they are a team, a tribe, a nation within a small nation, they are united in their approach. To disgrace one is to disgrace all. To lie to one, is to lie to all. There is great pride in the family because the family is the retirement plan. The parents don’t go off to nursing homes to die. They die at home with their children. Young children watch the cycle of life and know they must be good to their family less there be nothing for them in the end. The government will not help them. There are no handouts. There is no assistance coming from abroad. It is up to the family, the father, and the son to provide and make sure their kids have a better future. Yes, the country I come from has the greatest arsenal of weapons and wealth on earth to protect and coddle its own, but what are we teaching our kids about character? And if we dive deeper, where are the Sherpa amongst us who can show our kids what a man of virtue looks like?

* * * *

It was while staring up at an 18,000 foot pass, deep in the Everest region of Nepal, five days and four nights into that twenty-day, ball-buster, once-in-a-lifetime trek, with my head pounding, and my mouth so dry from fear I could hardly spit, that I figured out what makes the Sherpa guides the most amazing coaches in the world. We had spent a sleepless night at 15,700 feet and the throb between my eyes felt like a chisel was being driven through my skull. In the morning, it hurt so bad to blink that I kept my eyes wide open while the little brown Sherpas dressed in hand-me-down clothes packed up our tents and enough supplies to feed a small army. Those slight framed men, with vibrant eyes and toothy grins, stuffed eighty pound loads on their heads and backs and merrily began to head up Renga La pass–another 2,600 feet above our camp.
Though I have climbed mountains my whole life, I was scared. Not scared that I would die, but scared I wouldn’t be able to acclimate to the thin air after only five days on the trail. I had all those shaky feelings I used to get when I was way in over my head: the self-doubts, insecurities, and shame that comes from not being good enough; the fear of letting your team down, or being found out you’re ‘all talk and no show.’
Meanwhile, the Sherpa were smiling and laughing as they prepared for the ascent like kids at a park getting ready to play a soft ball game.
Our Sherpa Sirdar (expedition leader) named, Mingma, came by. I asked him softly, “Mingma, do you think I can do it?” I was pointing up at Renga La pass and trying to keep the lump in my throat quiet. He looked at me, glanced up at the pass to make sure the hike was what I was worried about, then looked back and said sincerely and confidently, “Yes.”
My eyes were still glued on the imposing wall above.
Sensing I wasn’t fully convinced, he smiled and said, “You…high pass… no problem.”
With Mingma’s voice in my head, I focused on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. I pushed myself as hard as I could go, but did so with the knowledge there was a team of Sherpa just behind to pack me like a sack of spuds should I falter. Three hours later I crested my first 18,000 foot pass and sat down alone to stare in awe at Everest and the roof of the world. Like any great coach, the Sherpa believed in me, trusted me, had faith in me; and because he did, I had to prove him right.