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Mark Udall: What I’ve Learned

Mark Udall, 64, mountaineer and U.S. and senator. Eldorado Springs, Colorado.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 222 (November 2014). 


Udall on the <em>Cassin Ridge</em>
Udall on the Cassin Ridge. Photo: Mark Udall Family Collection.

I’ve climbed Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, the Cassin Ridge on Denali, Aconcagua via the Messner, and made it 26,000 feet up the White Limbo on Everest before a storm forced us to turn back. And I just met one of my biggest climbing goals this August—summiting Dallas Peak with my wife, Maggie—[to finish] the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, “the Colorado Centennials.”

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My greatest climbing challenge also brought the greatest reward. Our journey up Kangchenjunga took three months, and I was the only member of our team to reach the summit. Those final 2,000 feet took me 26 hours, alone and without rest. Reaching the summit was a high point, in every sense of the word.

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The outdoors has played a central role in shaping how I see the world, and a lot of that is thanks to my mother. She was a member of the NRA, a sharpshooter, a pilot, an angler and an equestrian. She was a native Coloradan and the one who lit the spark.

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As a younger man, I lived and worked in the mountains as the head of Colorado Outward Bound. That job—running a non-profit business that taught leadership and risk-taking—showed me a thing or two about the importance of innovation, entrepreneurship and teamwork.

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My priorities in the senate start and end with protecting Coloradans’ special way of life. That includes safeguarding our wilderness. We don’t inherit these special places from our parents, we borrow them from our children. That focus on our future is also why I have championed fiscal responsibility, a tough, but smart, national security policy, and zealously guarded our privacy rights.

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Making progress in Congress is a lot like climbing a 14er. Balance is key. For example, we can’t spend our way to prosperity, but we can’t cut our way there either. It’s also essential to keep your eye on the summit, not on scoring political points. You can’t schmooze your way up a mountain. It’s what you do that creates results. Persistence pays off—when your team or the nation’s security is on the line, giving up isn’t an option.

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Politics is a contact sport. No matter how good you are, you’re still going to get hit. It helps to have a great sense of humor and perspective. Climbing helps me maintain that perspective.

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At Outward Bound, on the side of a mountain or in Congress, I learned that the three rules of mountaineering apply: It’s always farther than it looks, it’s always harder than it looks and it’s always taller than it looks.

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Who you bring with you to face these challenges is just as important as what—your experiences and skills. Working and recreating in Colorado’s scenic backcountry have shown me how the best leaders build teams that reflect their purpose and round out their own experiences. The strongest leaders build diverse organizations that debate ideas and ultimately come to better solutions.

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No one party or perspective has a monopoly on good ideas. And no one person has all the answers. True leadership is a team sport, and the best leaders are talented listeners.

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When you all work together, you don’t cut one another loose just because it’s difficult or someone is having a bad day. The same ought to be true in Washington.

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The lessons Mother Nature has taught me on the mountain have resonated with me in Congress and on the campaign trail. First: You don’t climb a mountain by accident. You must prepare and plan ahead. You also have to expect the unexpected.

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Second, you have to be both fiercely individualistic with your skill, preparation and fitness, but equally willing to harness that individualistic drive to the team goal. This is especially true in the Senate, where bipartisanship is the name of the game for getting things done.

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You have to be a generalist in life and equipped to climb on all surfaces, read people, navigate routes, cook a passable meal, fix broken gear and be a team player, to boot.

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There will be hardship along the path to success. To make it through the challenges that are sure to come in finding a job, learning your passion and implementing your plan, you must be willing to see the virtue in facing adversity.

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If all politicians climbed mountains, Washington might be better at moving our country forward.


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