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What a South American Mountain Taught Me About Life, Loss and Politics

Climbing one of the highest mountains in the world gives you a lot of time to reflect. Nathan Fletcher describes how his latest trek reshaped the way he views his mayoral loss and more.

Fuck this.

I am laying flat on my back in a small orange mountaineering tent, and I think I am going to die. My feet are sticking out the front flap. I didn’t have the energy to take off my boots. It is well below freezing, the winds are howling and the snow is blowing in through the tent opening. I can’t feel my fingers, am having trouble breathing and have a terrible headache. My whole body hurts and I lack the will to do anything but lie perfectly and miserably still. Worst of all: This is just the beginning.

I am in Argentina, near the Chilean border, about a week into an expedition to reach the summit of Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia. After Mount Everest, Aconcagua is the tallest of the “seven summits” — the highest climbs on each continent. But I am struggling to advance beyond base camp, which sits at just over 14,000 feet.

Depending on the route, climbing Aconcagua doesn’t require major skills. I have done more challenging and technical climbs, but this mountain is very high and intense storms can come out of nowhere. More than 100 climbers have died on Aconcagua. Only about 30 percent of those who get permits to climb actually make it to the summit.

♦♦♦

By the time I arrived in South America — let alone set foot on a mountain — I was already exhausted.

I’d just lost a grueling three-month campaign for mayor when a friend who is a climbing guide invited me to fill a last-minute opening. I didn’t train for this climb. I didn’t know I’d be here just a week earlier.

So when the violent winds, bitter cold and white-out conditions force all the climbers back to lower ground, all of those factors start to feel like good excuses. I think, “No one other than family knows I am here, so bailing out wouldn’t be so bad — just act like it didn’t happen.”

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

But as I contemplate giving up, I am reminded of a poem that has privately guided me for years.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole

Written in 1875, by William Earnest Henley, “Invictus” has comforted prisoners of war, motivated freedom fighters, rallied nations, inspired movies and even branded my local Crossfit gym.

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

I realized it was time to suck it up.
I resolved I would summit this mountain. I wasn’t going to let a little storm (or this really big one) stop me. No more complaining.

And this is about more than the mountain — it always is.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.

I have never been a complainer. But in the mayoral election, I sure thought about it.

In the course of the campaign, I was forced to acknowledge parts of my past and family life, times when “the fell clutch of circumstances” wasn’t so rosy. They were situations that toughened and certainly shaped me. But I never “winced or cried aloud.” That means I never talked about it — at all.

Climbing one of the highest mountains in the world gives you a lot of time to reflect. There is a great virtue in solitude, but in today’s world of constant 24/7 meetings, conference calls and of course Twitter, who has the time?

With the bulk of the storm past, we loaded up and re-started the trek. Hours of solitude, the comforting monotony of one strenuous step after another — it was really nice.

As I climbed, I reflected on the recent public display of my weaknesses and the analysis of every thing I could have ever done differently in life.

Despite all that had happened, my mind kept circling back to one thing.

When you are in public life, people want to know who you are and where you came from. For years, I boiled my complicated and painful childhood down to something easy to grasp. My dad was a factory worker who became a cop and my mom has dedicated her life to helping abused children and victims of domestic violence.

That is true. But my life doesn’t fit neatly into a 30-second sound bite. My “dad” is not my biological dad.

My biological father was an awful person. Years of my life when I was young were turbulent, chaotic and very violent. It was a living hell. I never talked about it because I didn’t want to complain or be seen as a victim, nor did I want to relive it. I had moved on.

So I avoided the topic entirely by substituting my “stepdad” for my “dad” and just staying away from situations that got too detailed. It worked for years.

I never anticipated this would ever become a political issue. It started with the local paper trying to get in a cheap shot and publicizing my mom’s divorce and custody records, calling into question the roles of my biological dad and stepdad. That set off a feeding frenzy that had reporters calling and visiting the homes of my mom, stepdad and any living relative they could find.

And when the story I had told for years didn’t sync with the drama that the media and opponents were creating, I was put in an awful position: Either tell the whole story, or risk people thinking I had misled them. So, my mom flew in and together we sat down for a very emotional television interview addressing everything.

I felt no relief in the interview. But after the story aired there was an immediate avalanche of calls, emails and Facebook messages — all amazingly positive and tremendously supportive. Most touching were messages from people who had been through similar circumstances. A college student told me he was now convinced he could accomplish anything — our stories were similar, and this one conversation validated my decision to address the issue directly. There was relief and acceptance. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the people who sought to make an issue of this are assholes. But in the end, they did me a favor.

Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed

A weight had been lifted, and a part of who I am was out. I could now see that a story I was reluctant to tell because I thought it represented weakness was actually one of survival, perseverance and tremendous strength.

♦♦♦

Climbing into Camp 1, I’m feeling better.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

Above basecamp there are three high camps marked by scattered tents, rocks stacked to block the wind and bags of trash lazy climbers are too weak to carry down the mountain. You methodically progress up the mountain from camp to camp. A couple days later, we made the move to Camp 2. The views only got better. One snow-covered peak after another, as far as you could see. Nighttime was absolute amazement: Southern Hemisphere stars without the distraction of any light or air pollution. I’ve never seen anything like it.

At Camp 2, we hit 18,000 feet and I felt even stronger. I passed our twice-a-day medical check with ease.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,

Moving from Camp 2 to Camp 3, my mind shifted from childhood to a more recent experience — war.

I left for this trip the day after Thanksgiving. It is a perfect day: no drama surrounding gifts, good food, it is perfectly acceptable to take a nap in the middle of the day and unlike Christmas, there is football on television. Growing up, the highlight of Thanksgiving was a family football contest with my cousins.

My younger brother and I were very close to our cousins, the Wise family. There were three brothers and one sister. The boys were the “Three Wise Men.” Jeremy was the oldest and the one I was closest with. Ben was next, and then Beau, the “baby.” We did what kids do — rode bikes, played games, camped, had sleepovers. As we got older, we did what older kids do — chased girls, drank beer, broke things — sometimes each other. I joined the military first, then Jeremy, then Ben, my brother and finally Beau. All five of us were in military service.

As we got older, we went through the things older kids go through—marriage, kids, and after Sept. 11 — combat deployments. When you fight in a war, you know people who died and you often see death directly. Given there were five of us who rotated multiple deployments each, I guess the odds weren’t in our favor. It was right after the holidays in 2009 when the call came. Jeremy was dead. A suicide bomber killed him.

Getting that call is hard to process. It has a jarring affect. I pulled the phone away from my ear and just stared at it. You don’t feel anything at first. Nothing. Everything moves really slow — like your brain is stuck in slow motion. Then you think maybe they got it wrong. War is confusing, first reports are usually wrong. But they don’t notify families if they aren’t sure. Anger, sadness and finally guilt — tremendous guilt. Survivor’s guilt is one of the least talked about but most profound emotions combat veterans deal with.

I left the Marine Corps in 2007, after 10 years of service, and immediately wanted to go back on active duty. Instead, I went to Virginia Beach to help make arrangements for the service and burial.

It was there, in a hotel room around 3 a.m. that I struggled to find words to comfort Ben. The service was just a few hours away, and Ben wasn’t sure what to say. I had no clue, but I suggested I Corinthians 16:13. “Be on your guard, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.” I left off verse 14, which says, “do everything in love.” I wasn’t feeling the whole love thing.

Ben did great at the memorial. The shy, sometimes awkward brother who had lived in the shadows of the older brothers stepped up. He was courageous, strong and stood firm.

I was proud of him. Jeremy was gone, but Ben would fill the void.

Two years later, Ben was dead. This time, it was a firefight with insurgents in Afghanistan. Imagine a mom getting the call that her second son had been killed. It didn’t seem right that fate could be so cruel to one family. I didn’t and still don’t understand how God’s grace and compassion could allow this to happen.

Over Veterans Day weekend, in the middle of the campaign and a month before I’d end up in Argentina, I left California to attend the dedication of a football stadium named in memory of Jeremy and Ben. I think about them every day, but the daily dull pain was amplified as I held Ben’s son, Luke. He is about the age of my boys. Now he was sitting in my lap as we watched college football and tried to act like everything was fine.

It wasn’t the memories of war that I struggled with — it was surviving.

Holding Luke, I committed to doing everything to ensure the families of those we lost are cared for. That started with spending time with Beau — the youngest and only surviving member of the Three Wise Men. Maybe there was something I could do to try and stop the list of casualties of war from growing. A recent study found we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide. Helping save one life would not bring my friends back, but it could help ensure that another family wouldn’t have to go through the same thing.

In addition to trying to help returning veterans, I knew I had to make sure that I never took for granted a single moment with my boys. What would Jeremy or Ben give for one more moment with their boys?

This all served to reinforce what a precious gift life really is. So many young Americans had their life taken from them, and I was sure I would not waste mine.

The morning after the mayoral election, I conceded the race, congratulated both winners and quoted the poet Virgil, who said, “Fortune favors the bold.”

I don’t want to say it was a relief because I did want to be the mayor and believe I would have done great things for the city. But there is an approach to life by those who have survived traumatic circumstances — childhood trauma, war or sometimes both, that invites risk. I had given it everything and come up a little short. No one died, and I could never be accused of sitting on the sidelines. If you never fail, you are living a cautious and unfulfilled life.

My childhood made me stronger, war couldn’t kill me and the pain of surviving hasn’t either. I had lost an election, but had publicly confronted a major part of my life and privately worked through the experience of combat and survivor’s guilt. I had also been set free from the expectations of political office.

Maybe it is the lack of oxygen, but standing at Camp 3 over 20,000 feet above sea level, things seem very clear. The peace I felt after the election makes a lot more sense.

And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

At Camp 3 or “High Camp” there is excitement but also nervousness. This is it. From here we go for the summit. At this altitude, you get one shot at the top.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

Photo courtesy of Nathan Fletcher

It is well below freezing, the winds are howling and the snow is blowing. But unlike a week earlier, I feel strong.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

It’s 4 a.m., I’m out of the tent and ready to go. It is cold. A few hours higher I’m watching a sunrise while climbing a glacier above the clouds.

Each step of this trip had put distance between myself and what I sought to get away from. But each step also prepared me to return: to a great job that gives me a platform to make a powerful impact globally, an amazing wife, two precious little boys, loyal friends and a lifetime of opportunity.

Sometimes what seem like setbacks in life are needed resets.

Sometimes it takes a few weeks on a mountain to see what really matters.

As I crested the final rock formations and stood atop the Andes, it was an emotional experience. I had made it. I had survived, overcome, grown stronger.

It always is about more than the mountain.

It is clear to me that:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Any mountaineer will tell you summiting is only half the climb. We made the summit on a beautiful morning and then descended into a storm.

I made it down, but the feeling in the tips of my fingers has not returned (making it harder than you think to type this). At basecamp, I caught a helicopter out to help ensure I made my son’s preschool Christmas show. The expedition weight thermals I wore for 16 days straight didn’t make it back from South America, but the two-week mountain man beard did (what can I say, my wife likes it).

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