School of Rock: Big Wall Lessons for Business Leaders

On June 16, 2016, Brad Gobright stood on the summit of Yosemite’s iconic 3,000-foot El Capitan…for the third time in less than 24 hours.   If – as many say -- Yosemite is the cathedral of rock climbing then El Cap is its massive and imposing altar.  

Gobright and his climbing partner, Scott Bennett, accomplished the feat by scaling three different routes in succession:  Zodiac, The Nose, and Lurking Fear.  Climbing (and descending) thousands of vertical feet requires incredible technical skill, fitness, ability to focus for long periods, mental strength, months of preparation…and flashlights.   

The pair began climbing the first route, Zodiac, around 2pm, topped out, and then arrived back at the bottom around 10pm.  Just in time to start another route that goes right up the middle of El Cap, called The Nose.  Climbing can be an intimidating adventure in the best conditions so what’s it like in the dark?  “It’s pretty cool,” Gobright said. “You’re really just looking at stuff five feet in front of you that gets lit by your headlamp.  It’s kind of the same focus as during the day but with different light.”  For many climbing El Cap, a trip takes days and so Gobright and Bennett passed some sleeping climbers on the route.  “They were pretty surprised to see us going by.” 

They finished the third route after a 23 hour marathon on the granite.  Only two other climbing pairs had ever linked three routes on El Cap in 24 hours.  A big deal, absolutely. A big party after, well no.  “By the time we finished, I’d been awake for 37 hours so we didn’t have much of a celebration.” 

Gobright started climbing at a rock gym in Orange County, California.  “I was 7 or 8 and my parents would take me and belay but they weren’t climbers.” Turns out, he had to learn mostly through firsthand experience.  “I didn’t know anyone who would climb.  In high school, one of my wrestling teammates was interested too but we had to learn on our own.”  Those days weren’t without risk.  “Without anyone to show me how, learning was a pretty dangerous process and my closest calls probably came in those years.” 

By age 20, Gobright was done with the OC and moved to Yosemite. “I got a job at the Ahwahnee and would work enough to be able to climb all the time.”  Fueled by sprinkled donuts and whatever food he could get his hands on, he spent plenty of days on the rock.  Pretty quickly, he was earning a reputation not only for his nutritional habits but also for his extraordinary climbing ability.  

Along with epic speed climbing like his triple on El Cap, Gobright is known for astounding feats in free solo climbing…as in, without a rope.  His first big wall rope-less climb was Yosemite’s 800-foot Rostrum route.  Since then, he’s free soloed routes around Yosemite, Colorado, and British Columbia among others.   

Gobright is a frequent climbing partner of Alex Honnold who just set a new standard in free solo with his ascent of El Cap’s Free Rider on June 3.  That feat set the climbing world ablaze, again, and burnished Honnold’s reputation as one of the greatest rock climbers ever.  Gobright’s following amongst core climbers is right up there too.  According to filmmaker and professional climber Cedar Wright, “the only other guy soloing like him (Gobright) in the US is Honnold.” 

Gobright’s ropeless ascent of the Hairstyles and Attitudes route in Colorado’s El Dorado Canyon was the sort of achievement that triggers both fear and mad respect.  Wright, who profiled the climber in Safety Third at Telluride MountainFilm, was there to capture the action:  “It’s by far the raddest and scariest thing I’ve ever shot.” 

Why would anyone take so much risk?  “I just love to climb,” Gobright said.  “With free solo, you can do it quickly. You don’t need a partner or gear.  It’s a huge mental challenge. I have to prepare well and get to a point where I’m 100% confident about each move that the route takes.”  Confidence comes from practice.  “Before I take on a route free solo, I’m climbing it many times and rehearsing each move.  I try to get to know every square inch of the rock.”

In so many sports, achievement is driven in part by competitive spirit and ego. “For me, I get inspired by other climbers so I don’t really feel pressure to compete with them,” Gobright said.  “Besides, ego is dangerous. If you climb to feed your ego, you probably won’t prepare very well and you’ll get up high on a route and freak out because you’re not ready.  Humility is mandatory.” 

What about dealing with fear?  “When I’m climbing, I’m not thinking about falling. It’s not that I don’t feel fear, it’s more like I manage it by being prepared for each climb,” he said, “Then once I start, I’m confident because of my preparation but also aware of my limits so I’m not going to do things that are beyond myself.” 

OK, then.  Does the height have any effect?  “When you’re climbing, you start at the bottom and the exposure builds gradually.  Since I’m kind of in a bubble of focus, I don’t really get vertigo.  It’s different when I’m rehearsing a section high on a route and drop in from the top. Looking out over the edge from above, I feel the height a lot more.” 

Gobright’s unique combination of technical skill, awareness, worth ethic, and humility have powered him to the top of routes that most wouldn’t attempt with or without a rope.  Then again, few people have such a single-minded devotion to their craft.   That’s why his climbing achievements have earned him relationships with brands like Gramicci, Blue Water Ropes, Metolius Climbing, Evolv USA, Zeal Optics, Friction Labs, and others. 

So what can regular people learn from this rock star?  Quite a bit, actually.  Many of the habits Gobright and other successful climbers practice are also relevant to daily life.  Here are just a few to consider:

  1. Plan your route but be adaptable.  “All of these dangerous climbs and my best accomplishments have only come after huge preparation and rehearsal,” he said. “Because of that, I’m also prepared to roll with whatever comes up.” 
  2. Persistence pays. A day’s success can actually take months to pull off. “The three routes on El Cap took me about four months to plan,” Gobright said.  “Now I’m focusing on breaking the speed record on The Nose and have been planning that one for the past 18 months.”
  3. Break big projects into manageable pieces and prioritize.  There’s a climbing adage that holds true in life.  “How do you climb a mountain?  One pitch (rope length) at a time.”  That also means focusing on one mountain and pursuing things that fit within your capability. 
  4. Find partners you can trust who share your vision.  “Finding the right partner is huge for any success,” according to Gobright. “In climbing, I look for someone who is capable – technically, physically, and mentally.  I also look for someone I can trust under pressure because our lives are in each other’s hands.  And I need someone who really wants to do the project as much as I do because things are always going to get tough at some point.”  
  5. Understand how to tap the power of now, being in the moment.  “Climbing requires total concentration and focus. Sure, you can lean back and take a break sometimes but when you really want to make progress, you have to be able to lock in.” 
  6. Be confident but stay humble. “Confidence comes from being prepared. It’s a long process and I get into the details like the order of gear on my climbing belt based on how I’ll use it on the route.  But even knowing that I’m ready, I’m still humble enough to respect the demands of the route and the risk. And I recognize my own limits.” 
  7. Take time to enjoy the process…not just the view at the top.  “When I’m climbing, I’m always super focused.  Now and then though, I’ll stop on a ledge, look out over the Valley, and take it all in:  the view, the grind, and all the work it took to get there. It’s all part of the experience and why I climb.” 

While few of us would ever dare to try the stuff that Brad Gobright does, we stand a good chance of scaling our own personal El Capitans by applying some of his techniques. 

Top photo by Cheyne Lempe

Mike Irwin is an advisor, mentor, operator, and strategist.  Drawing from his past as a start-up co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse background to help companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up.  He serves as an advisor, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors.   He’s also a community volunteer, youth sports coach, author, cyclist, and marathoner. Follow him at BottleRocketAdvisors.com, get in touch at mike@bottlerocketadvisors.com or connect on LinkedIn.