Updated: Jan 10, 2019
In the middle of the Andes, stands Cotopaxi. At nearly 20,000 feet, Cotopaxi is one of the world’s highest volcanoes and Ecuador’s second highest mountain. The first European to try to climb the mountain was the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1802. Von Humboldt only made it to about 15,000 feet claiming the summit of Cotopaxi was “unattainable.”
Two weeks ago, I helped a former smoker in his mid-40’s summit Cotopaxi in a ten-hour push. Seeing Ryan standing there, high above the Andean plateau, you would think he had always been a mountain climber. And yet, when I first worked with Ryan, he was terrified of heights. So terrified that when I tried to get him to rappel off Point Dume (which reaches a maximum height of 100 feet), Ryan got on his belly to better cling to the clifftop. He begged me not to make him rappel. He pleaded. He bargained. He even offered to run laps on the beach to get out of it. That was nearly 20 years ago. Thinking back on that moment, it’s obvious that at that point in his life Ryan could never have done what he did two weeks ago.
In our culture, athletic performance is strongly linked with youth in the minds of most people. The result is a creeping passivity about our health. Aging becomes something that we resign ourselves to. And yet, what I saw Ryan do two weeks ago on Cotopaxi is something I have seen time and time again at the Rewire Project. Older people doing what their younger selves never could have dreamed of doing. Athletic performance is mostly about self-mastery and that is something that more often than not gets stronger with age.
When Ryan was ten, he started swimming. By fifteen, he had won the biggest open water event in Trinidad. His family moved to Miami where he got hooked up with a swimming coach who set his sights on the Olympics. Now with the training he needed to flourish, Ryan steadily improved making the semi-finals in the Florida State championships. He learned to love the all-consuming devotion required to compete at the highest level. And then his Olympic dreams fell apart. When Ryan was 16 his parents divorced. With his whole world falling apart at home, he got mad and frustrated. And so, he took that Olympic-level discipline to a new sport: rebelling.
He stopped swimming. He started smoking. And he skipped school to go get into trouble. It was a typical sixteen-year-old’s response. No one knows what Ryan’s body was capable of at sixteen. Could he have gone all the way to the Olympics? Perhaps. But his mind didn’t have the maturity or the sense of security to be able to handle a suddenly changed home environment.
Seeing where Ryan was headed, his dad got him the heck out of Miami and took him back to Trinidad. There, Ryan discovered surfing and fell into a career as a helicopter pilot. Yes, the same guy who was on his belly because he was terrified of being on a 100-foot cliff is a pilot. It’s not heights that terrify Ryan. He can easily dangle from a winch off a helicopter. He is now a commercial airline pilot for Caribbean Airlines. It is being in a situation that you don’t entirely control. When you’re on a cliff, unanchored, the only thing to keep you safe is you. You have to have cultivated the confidence and self-mastery to handle that level of vulnerability.
In his book Natural-Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall tells the story of the heroes of Crete who fought off the NAZIs. But McDougall takes pains to clarify that what the Ancient Greeks meant by hero is not what many modern people in the West mean by hero. To the ancient Greeks, Achilles and Odysseus were heroes because they were so well prepared that you could put them into any situation and they could handle it. You had tested yourself so much that no matter what came your way you could handle it. That was the training and preparation I got as a Recon Marine. It was also the way that Val and I trained for adventure races. In 1999, Ryan was watching the Elf Authentic Adventure on TV. He saw that effortless comfort and he thought that what we were doing was easy. He has come to learn that we merely make it look easy by intelligent and dedicated preparation.
Climbing a mountain like Cotopaxi requires all the challenges of the big Himalayan mountains. You have to navigate glaciers and snow bridges. You are part of a rope team making you accountable not only for your own safety but that of the rest of the team. If you fall, you risk taking everyone on your rope team down with you. And you have to do it all with the air getting thinner and thinner and the environment getting colder and colder. That environmental insult is the toughest part of the climb. Your body is struggling to keep your extremities warm. Your fine-motor coordination has collapsed. And the atmosphere only has 40% as much air as it did at sea level. Ryan is now prepped for a world record attempt up Mt Kilimanjaro in January 2019 with The Rewire Project. This heroic effort is not simply an act of will. Rather, it is the result of careful preparation. Ryan has rewired his body to be ready whatever the world’s biggest mountains throw at him. IHT has given him the aerobic capacity to handle an atmosphere that thin. Cryotherapy and cold baths have rewired his circulatory systems to handle that kind of sustained cold with relative ease. And using Powerplate, EMS, Biodensity and MAT, Ryan has created a body that can perform efficiently even under the most challenging of environmental conditions.
As someone who served in the Recon Marines, I know what heroes look like. They look like Ryan Mendes. It’s folks who make the decision to show up day after day to rewire themselves into the kind of person they want to be.
If you want your ego stroked, then go get a membership at a local gym. If you want to be a hero, then we’ll see you at The Rewire Project in Santa Monica. It’s where we prepare you to handle whatever life throws at you.