Climbing Mt. McKinley and Rules for Life

Howdy Rourke,

Here’s my Mt. McKinley story.

Please understand the reason I’ve sent it is NOT to impress you – -but instead to impress UPON you that with focus, determination and the willingness to do whatever it takes…what at first seems impossible—can indeed be accomplished.

I took on the challenge of climbing one of the tallest mountains on earth – – Alaska’s Mt. McKinley. I was 47 years old and had never climbed a mountain in my life.

The native Alaskans call Mt. McKinley “Denali” which means “The Great One.” At 20,320 feet Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America. And is arguably the coldest mountain on earth. Climbers that have climbed Mt. McKinley and have also climbed Mt. Everest all say that the weather conditions on Mt. McKinley are worse than the weather conditions on Mt. Everest. This is because Mt. McKinley is so close to the Arctic Circle. But Mt. Everest is at the same latitude as Jacksonville, Florida.

Plus, the climb on Mt. Everest starts at around 18,000 feet and the summit is a little over 29,000 feet. So it’s a climb of around 11,000 vertical feet. But, on Mt. McKinley the climb starts at about 7,800 feet. And the summit is a little over 20,000 feet. So, the climb is around 12,000 vertical feet. Or about 1,000 vertical feet more than on Mt. Everest.

Here’s a little perspective on just how high 20,320 feet is- – you can see the curvature of the earth.

Even though the vertical, white, icy slopes of Mt. McKinley were a long ways from the hot, flat and green surroundings of Florida where I make my home . . . my journey to the summit was actually very short.

It was only the distance between my ears.

It was my belief in myself. And the irrevocable commitment I made to myself to do “WHATEVER IT TAKES” to reach the summit. And once I made this commitment – -I never looked back.

Along with my physical training for Mt. McKinley, which included running 4 marathons; I also determined that I needed to train my mind. I knew there would come a point on the mountain where my physical strengths and the effort needed to keep climbing would meet. And from that point on I’d have to climb the rest of the way, not on strength of my body, but on the strength of my mind. The biggest mental challenge I had to overcome was to get out of my comfort zone. And climbing Mt. McKinley was as far out of my comfort zone as I could get because when I arrived at the base of Mt. McKinley, it was not only the first time I ever climbed a big mountain, it was the first time I’d EVER SEEN a big mountain. But, I didn’t let this little fact bother me. I’d made this commitment to myself to do “WHATEVER IT TAKES” to reach the summit.

And it took three years.

Yes, I had to go back to Alaska 3 times before I finally stood on the summit. My team leader said he’d known climbers to come back and try it twice. But, he never heard of anyone coming back three times. He said to me “Jim, your picture should be next to the definition of ‘demented’ in the dictionary.” I told him that I didn’t care if it took 3 times. 30 times. Or 300 times, I was going to make it.

When I finally did make it to the summit I found something most people never find—and that is the truth about them self. The truth I found was . . . when the dream is big enough . . . the facts don’t matter.

But here’s the crazy part – –

– -I had trained every day for three solid years to reach the summit.

So once I finally got there you’d think I’d spend a fair amount of time there, right?


It was the place I spent the least amount of time . . . only 15 minutes. The weather was closing in and we ( I was 1 of a team of 9 ) were facing 11 hours to get back to the safety of the high camp at 17,300 feet. Every inch of the return would be dangerous down climbing on rock hard, blue ice where at times the drop was 3,000 feet straight down on either side. This meant that every kick of my crampons, every swing of my ice ax demanded the mental focus of a surgeon doing a heart transplant because it’s on the way down from the summit where a lot of climbers lose their concentration and die. Plus I’d already been on the mountain for 28 days (total time it took was 31 days) so I was physically running on empty.

This in turn drove the relentless, numbing cold so deep into my body that my core temperature dropped below normal of 98.6 degrees to 97. Even though I had only stood on the summit for such a short time I knew that my life had change and from that time on I’d never be the same. So many people are afraid to live their dreams. And the fear of getting out of their comfort zone is the lock that keeps the door closed on their dreams. This is always made very clear to me when I’m speaking at personal growth workshops where I talk about the climb.

To dramatize to the audience just how much we’re all in our comfort zones I have them do this little experiment. Here, you do it too. – – hey, no one’s looking – – go ahead :>)

Here’s how it goes….

First, fold your arms in front of you like you would normally do whether it’s right over left or left over right.

Got ‘em folded?

Ok, now fold ‘em the opposite way so that the arm that was on top is now on the bottom and the arm that was on the bottom is now on top.

Feels really weird right?

That’s how much we’re in our comfort zones.

I tell the audience the reason I like mountaineering is because there’s nothing between you and the experience. It’s completely real.

There’s no time out.

There’s no half time.

There’s no safety net.

There’s no back door.

You either do it or you die. (During the 3 years I was struggling to make the summit 12 other climbers died.)

And without fail after I’ve finished my presentation people will come up to me and say things like: “Jim you’re so brave”. Or, “Jim you’re so courageous”. But, I tell them it has nothing to do with being either “brave” or “courageous.” I tell them that it’s all about being “fearless”. But, “fearless” as two words- – “Fear”  “Less”.  They need to “Fear”  “Less” and get out of their comfort zone.

Another thing I’ve found is that most people are stopped from reaching their dreams not because what they want to accomplish is so hard. It’s THE THOUGHT OF DOING IT. They just can’t “see” themselves doing it. They are literally stopped by their own thoughts. What I saw in my mind was me doing “WHATEVER IT TAKES” to get to the summit.

Passion comes from having a focus.

Focus comes from having a purpose.

Purpose comes from having made a commitment to do whatever it takes. 

What will you choose to commit to and do whatever it takes to finish?


[Note: Jim is one of my sponsors here at ModernSurvivalOnline. Check his website out – – Rourke]


Jim’s Rules of Mountaineering And Life

1.            Always look good.


2.            Never miss an opportunity.


The 2 rules below come from the biography of the Duke of Windsor describing how to survive the 1930’s London social scene, but I’ve found they are also very useful when trying to survive on a mountain and in life:

 1. Never miss an opportunity to relieve yourself.

2.   Never miss a chance to rest your feet.

3.            Do whatever it takes.

Before I climbed Mt. McKinley I pledged to myself that I would “Do whatever it takes’. Most people aren’t willing to make this deep of a commitment to achieve their dream. I didn’t make the summit the first year I tried. I didn’t make the summit the second year it tried. Finally, after three years of trying, I made the summit. There are a lucky few that succeed because they are destined to succeed. But others, like me, succeed because they are determined to succeed.

James Michener defined character as: “What you do on the third or fourth try.” Jim Huebner says: “Never start anything you’re unwilling to do whatever it takes to finish”.

4.           When the dream is big enough…the facts don’t matter. 

Challenge yourself.  Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Opportunity knocks equally as hard on everyone’s door. But, only a few will answer.

Yes, there’s risk. Yes it’s scary. And yes starting anything new is uncomfortable. Human nature being what it is – -given the choice – – most of us prefer to continue doing what we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done it. It feels good. And that’s why it’s called the “Comfort Zone.”

I climbed Mt. McKinley.  Lots of people could climb Mt. McKinley…but they don’t. The only difference between me and those who could’ve climb Mt McKinley but don’t  – – is simply that I got out of my comfort zone and did it.

The philosopher and poet Emerson wrote: “The wise man in a storm prays to God not for safety from danger, but for delivery from fear. It is the storm within that endangers him. Not the storm without”.

Jim Huebner says-  -Be fearless. But fearless as two words – -“fear”  “less”.  Fear less and get out of your comfort zone.

5.            Expect dead ends.

Any day you don’t challenge yourself is a day wasted. You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So, don’t worry about failure. Worry about the opportunities you miss when you don’t even try.

Having goals and plans are fine. But, life is a moving parade and things change. If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes then all the well-intentioned goals and plans are nothing more than finger drawings in the air.

Life is tough and setbacks are inevitable. In fact, at times life is a grind and it really sucks. But, suffering over them is optional.  If you see every setback as a stepping-stone then you won’t worry about failure. Failure is nothing but results…information… with which to try again.

6.            Never turn your back on your partner.

In mountaineering when you team-up with someone you don’t do it to get something from him or her. You do it to give something to them…your support.  With water at 211 degrees you can make a nice cup of tea. But, with water at 212 degrees you’ve got steam. And with steam you can push ships through the ocean, send a 100-car freight train down the tracks and launch airplanes off of aircraft carriers.

When you give someone your support you’re giving him or her that extra, missing one-degree of heat.

7.            Never look where you don’t want to go. 

Trust in what you love, continue to do it and it will take you where you want to go. To borrow from Samuel Johnson: “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance”.

8.            There’s always room on the rope for a person with honor.


Always do what you say you’re going to do.

In mountaineering the rope connects the climbers to one another. The rope is not just a physical link. The rope also links each climber in a much more powerful way- – by his or her word and honor. At the moment each climber hooks into the rope they are pledging to each other “You can trust me.” “I will do exactly what I say I’m going to do.” Not doing what you say you’re going to do is the unforgivable sin of mountaineering and of life.

9.  “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down.” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.”

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2 thoughts on “Climbing Mt. McKinley and Rules for Life”

  1. Jim, thank you so much for sharing this with me. I knew you were special since the first time I saw you, but I couldn’t have possibly imagined you would become one of my personal heroes. You rock!


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