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Udall said mountain climbing has instilled an appetite for calculated, responsible risk.
“If you knew you could climb a mountain, you probably wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty, the challenge and the willingness to put it all on the line that draws a lot of people to climb mountains. That can also apply to a lot of other challenges in life, whether it’s running for office, starting a family, going to grad school or taking all of your cash and assets and starting a business. You don’t know if you’re going to be successful, but you want to see what you’re capable of.”
Udall found out his own capabilities in 1999, when he was the only member of his team to summit the third-highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. The team spent three months working its way up, and on the final day of the ascent, his partner fell ill.
“It was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever embraced,” he said. “I climbed from midnight until [2 a.m.] on the following day. It took me 26 hours to go that last 2,000 feet, which in Colorado would only take about three or four hours. Standing on that summit was the high point for me, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes you have to dig deeper to find that combination of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength, and during that particular expedition, I felt like I was running at a high level.”
Udall cites British climber George Mallory as an inspiration. When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, Mallory is alleged to have famously responded, “Because it’s there.”
“For me, climbing is a powerful insight into what’s rich and important about life,” Udall said. “It makes you realize that the rewards and successes don’t come without real focus and commitment and a willingness to take risks. You don’t climb mountains without a team, you don’t climb mountains without being fit, you don’t climb mountains without being prepared and you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain on accident — it has to be intentional.”
In addition to these life lessons, mountaineering has given Udall a perspective that he said helps him in Congress. He said climbing has made him familiar with his home state’s geography. From up high, he said he looks down on Colorado to see where communities and businesses are growing and where the valleys and plains remain. Udall said he keeps this image in his “mind’s eye” when he talks with constituents.
But that’s a long way from Washington.
“Climbing has worked for me in a number of ways on Capitol Hill,” Udall said. “I’m much more inclined to look at what people do, as opposed to what they say. Also, it’s about working together — we’re all on the rope together, and you don’t get to cut the rope if you’re not getting along with someone. It takes work, sacrifice, patience and acknowledging your own shortcomings.”
Udall’s climbing has taken him all over the world and even has shaped his foreign policy, as it did on a climbing trip to Tibet.