A professional mountaineering guide, Luis has summited the top of the famed “Seven Summits” a cumulative 32 times, including being a six-time summiteer of Mt. Everest. He currently serves as the 1st State Director for the Outdoor Recreation Industry office for Colorado. Years ago, he spent a decade managing the leadership development school, Outward Bound Professional in Colorado. He also served as COO and Director of Operations for Adventure Consultants (AC), a highly respected New Zealand-based global expedition firm with a long and storied history of leading trips on Mt. Everest that was featured both in the book Into Thin Air and in the movie Everest. Luis has reported from Mt. Everest for ABC-TV News, and has filmed segments for National Geographic on Mt. Everest. Ultimately he believes, “If you really challenge yourself, you can truly change your world.”
Dave, Jeff, and Erik welcomed Luis to the No Barriers Podcast studio and it felt initially like a trip down memory lane. Jeff and Erik have known Luis since they were all young mountain climbers in their late 20’s. They have made films, went on great expeditions and shared countless experiences. Since those days all three have been on different trajectories all while still maintaining a connection to the outdoors where it all started. When Luis is asked if he expected to have gone from climbing to being in the world of business and politics he is adamant he never saw this path for himself.
In 2001 the team that would eventually summit Everest together and make history as the team that included the first blind person, Erik Weihenmayer, to ever reach the top. They were brought together, along with our Technical producer and expedition photographer, Didrik Johnck, by their team leader, Pasquale (PV) Scaturro. Luis talks about how people viewed this decision to take a blind guy up Everest as a “career-killer.” They assumed he wouldn’t make it and he’d be known as the guide who was responsible for his death. We know how this turned out though.
“We weren’t just going to climb Everest, we were going to shatter that belief in what we could actually get done.”
When Luis was young he actually was not athletic and was in fact, quite sickly. With severe asthma and allergies, he was confined to his house for most of his childhood and led a sedentary lifestyle. He lobbied his dad successfully to take him to Ecuador where he could acclimatize his lungs in the high altitude and help them heal – as he had read in an article about a successful mountaineer who had similar issues.
Luis recalls one of his first meetings with Erik before they climbed Everest on a local ice climbing day in Colorado where he overheard the film crew talking badly of Erik and his abilities and it just reminded him of being a young sickly kid who was also counted out.
“It was at that moment that I knew what we were about to do had very little to do with just climbing and a whole lot to do with breaking that perceived barrier of what you were capable of.”
After Everest was such a success Luis become high in demand. He remained committed to his goal of being a mountain guide and helping others reach their potential. He loved the concept of a Rope Team on a mountain. For him, expeditions are not just resume builders.
“For me, it wasn’t about returning to Everest or going on these big expeditions but helping other people understand what they were capable of.”
Our hosts reflect that wanting to guide and lead requires a special mentality and being of service. Luis ultimately translated his love of the climbing communities and his desire to recreate that special energy their Everest team had into becoming a professional guide.
When asked about the best moment in his guiding profession Luis surprises the hosts by saying it was their “failed” attempt at Ama Dablam when they were training for Mt. Everest. As a young, hard-charging team it was hard to let go of ego and make the tough decision to turn around when they realized that weather would make it impossible to summit. It’s moments like these that have informed Luis’ sense of right v. wrong on mountains and valuing real human lives over perceived triumphs.
“To make the decision to turn around because of objective hazard when we knew how that would translate and the hardship that would result….being a part of the process to pull the plug…with all that pressure and all that was on the line, to turn around – it didn’t matter, reputation doesn’t matter – I don’t work for you, I work for your family and will not make that phone call home.”
As for the low point in his career, it was a defining moment in 2006 on Mount Cho Oyu that changed the course of his life. Luis witnessed what he describes as a crime against humanity and ultimately had to make a hard decision to be truthful and let the world know what he witnessed, even if it cost him his professional goals.
But, from a lost job and even lost friendships, Luis found a new path in the adversity. He is now the first State Director of the Outdoor Recreation Industry office for Colorado. His office is responsible for over 5,000 CO jobs and they work with other governors to not just act as “tree-hugging hippies,” but to bring awareness that this industry makes a significant impact to the USA’s GDP and our economy. It seems like Luis has come full circle by doing work that matters and gives voice to the outdoor community.
“I wouldn’t be ready for this position if all of this hadn’t happened in my life.”
Each experience Luis has had has been a catalyst to a future experience that brings him closer to his mission. Turns out the Dalai Lama was right: ‘You don’t always choose your own path – the path chooses you.’
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Luis Benitez: It was a continuation of that process, helping people understand that they could do something that was filled with adversity and challenges but find a personal way to crack through. For me, it wasn’t about going back to Everest year over year or going to do these big expeditions, it was about helping other people understand what they were capable of.
Erik Weihenmayer: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers Life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process, this process of growth and change and transformation that we’re all a part of and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way like holes on a rock face that lead us forward and give us clues to why it’s so important we get there. In that unexplored terrain, between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.
Dave Shurna: Today we meet Luis Benitez, who currently serves as the first state director for the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office for the state of Colorado. Luis has summited the top of the famed Seven Summits, a total of 32 times including being a six-time summiteer of Mount Everest. Years ago, Benitez spent a decade managing the well-established leader development school Outward Bound Professional in Colorado. He has also served as the COO and director of operations for Adventure Consultants, a highly-respected, New Zealand-based, global expedition firm.
Dave Shurna: Benitez has recorded from Mount Everest for ABC TV News and has filmed segments for National Geographic on Mount Everest. What unites all of his work is a belief that if you really challenge yourself, you can truly change your world.
Dave Shurna: Welcome, everybody, to our No Barriers podcast. We’re really excited to have Luis Benitez with us today. We’ll be getting into his story in just a few minutes here. Before we dive in and meet our guest though, Jeff and Erik, you guys have been on many expeditions with the guest we’re going to have and in a movie together. Is that right? Were you guys part of a film? Is that right, Jeff?
Jeff Evans: We were. Matter of fact, probably a couple documentaries that followed some of our exploits together back when we were younger and more dashing.
Erik Weihenmayer: Oh, our guest is still dashing.
Jeff Evans: He’s still younger and dashing than all of us.
Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah.
Jeff Evans: Yes, it’s true. Yeah, we’ve had a lot of experiences with Luis and we’ve all kind of grown up together, so it’s going to be fun. I guess with no further ado, Luis Guillermo Benitez.
Luis Benitez: Oh, this is where I can talk now. Hi, everybody.
Jeff Evans: He’s in the house.
Luis Benitez: Hi. I’m just biting my tongue, waiting for the intro. Thanks, Jefe. Thanks, for that.
Erik Weihenmayer: I just want to prop you up a little bit, though. A couple stats.
Luis Benitez: Wow, I’m going to sit back for a second.
Jeff Evans: He does do that.
Erik Weihenmayer: Seven Summits climbs, 32 of them. Mount Everest, six times. Guiding it, over and over and over. I think this is a cursing-free podcast, but you’re kind of a bad-ass.
Luis Benitez: Thank you. Wow, that’s one of … I can count on both hands the number of compliments you’ve given me over 20 years and that’s a big one. Thanks, buddy.
Jeff Evans: That’s what good friends do. You don’t really compliment each other, but you know that it sits there. You know that there’s this brewing respect that we have for you and …
Luis Benitez: That’s true. We were talking before we started. It’s sort of this band of brothers that … I was a young, impressionable, 28-year-old when we went to Everest and I was 27 when we went to Ama Dablam, so we definitely have all kind of grown up together. Before the show started I said, “Well, as you two age and wander gracefully into the sunset, I will still be young and dashing.” I promise to take care of you guys.
Erik Weihenmayer: I can’t see you, but I hear you’re still handsome even though Jeff’s gray and I’m balding. And Dave, I think Dave’s still handsome though.
Dave Shurna: I still remain young.
Luis Benitez: Yeah.
Dave Shurna: Comparatively speaking to this group here. I think one of the things that’s going to be really interesting in today’s podcast, many of you guys have listened to other podcasts where we’ve met adventurers and we’ve met people who have done great things, but Luis has a really interesting combination of this adventure background but now is in business and politics and we’re going to talk today a little bit about how those things all relate together, how they all come together.
Dave Shurna: Maybe we could start though with some of the early days of expeditions and tell us a bit … Oh, Jeff really wants to jump in here.
Luis Benitez: I’m sitting back again for this one.
Jeff Evans: No, no, no. I was just thinking to myself, you were talking about you being 28 and young and impressionable. For any of us, if we were to roll back the tape, and if I would have told you that you would in 17 years from now be in the realm of state politics at a pretty high level and would have been representing an entire industry in the political sphere, maybe a couple of us may have believed it, but would you have believed that? Is this a trajectory that you thought …
Luis Benitez: Yeah, no way. I can remember all the conversations we had on that trip and none of them included anything of this magnitude I think for any of us. I could point to you. Would you have considered doing the medic work that you’ve done all over the world and on Everest? Erik, would you have considered helping to start No Barriers? I think all of us at that point were still trying to find our way.
Jeff Evans: We all like 20 bucks in our pocket.
Luis Benitez: Literally.
Jeff Evans: Yeah.
Luis Benitez: I came back from Everest and went back to work for Outward Bound and lived out of the back of a truck parked in the Leadville parking lot at Outward Bound’s base camp. I don’t think any of us would have anticipated-
Jeff Evans: Well, today’s question though, give us a little back story on sort of how we all came to be as one.
Luis Benitez: That’s good. Dietrich, the expedition photographer from our Everest trip in 2001 and I, we were the kids. We were sort of the outliers ’cause as you both know, Pasquale Scaturro, our expedition leader, you guys had all climbed together. You’d been on Denali. You had been on Kilimanjaro. You had done a bunch of other climbing together and Pasquale, the expedition leader, had, and Erik, correct me if I’m wrong, a couple of slots that he could fill and he knew Dietrich from a prior expedition in the Himalayas. I was truly the oddball outlier.
Luis Benitez: I had been to an expedition on this mountain called Gangapurna, which is in the Annapurna range in ’99 with a bunch of other Outward Bound instructors trying a new alpine route. First descent with a bunch of 20-something-year-olds from Colorado and we got out teeth kicked in. Our lead Sherpa had climbed with Pasquale on Everest and on Cho Oyu and said, “Oh, PV, he lives in Denver. You have to go back and bring him this present,” and he handed me a duffle bag of stuff to bring back to PV.
Luis Benitez: I showed up at PV’s door in his office downtown Denver and I said, “Pasang gave me all this stuff to bring back to you. What are you doing?” And, he said, “Oh, we’re getting together with this blind guy. We’re going to climb Everest. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to be great.” All I hear was Everest. I didn’t hear blind guy. I didn’t hear any of the other components and I literally told him, “I’m going to be showing up in your office once a week trying to figure out how to get onto that expedition.” I spent about a month lobbying and politicking PV.
Erik Weihenmayer: That was your first experience with politics.
Jeff Evans: In lobbying.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, pretty much. Now that I think about it, yeah. I think-
Erik Weihenmayer: Politicking to get on our expedition.
Jeff Evans: Deep in the pocket, bro.
Luis Benitez: I think PV just gave me the go-ahead ’cause he was tired of me showing up at his office begging for a spot on the trip.
Jeff Evans: Was it when you were on the flight over to Kathmandu that you realized it was a blind dude on your trip?
Luis Benitez: No, you know what? That’s funny you say that, Jeff, ’cause it … Can I call you Jefe on this trip?
Jeff Evans: No one else will know who it is. It doesn’t matter.
Luis Benitez: All right. When we were putting this together, a good friend of mine who had been a long-time guide said, “You realize that what you’re about to do is a career killer, right? Because you’re going to the Himalayas with a blind guy and you’re definitely going to get him killed. As the guide who intentionally took a blind guy to the Himalayas, who’s ever going to want to go climbing with you again because you’re going to kill him and you’re going to destroy your career. This a career-killing move.” There’s a reason why they’re bringing 27-year-olds on this expedition because no guide with a resume would touch this thing with a 10-foot pole.
Luis Benitez: I sat back and I’m like, “Well, no, no, no, no. Wait a minute. Chris Morris, Jeff Evans, these guys are all pro guides. They’re going.” I think that was really the first step of really understanding that we weren’t just going to climb Everest, we were going to shatter that belief in what we could actually get done.
Erik Weihenmayer: Luis, you weren’t always an athlete. I remember you telling us stories about when you were a kid. Didn’t you have asthma?
Luis Benitez: Yeah. No, I got lucky in a couple of different places, but I definitely was the boy in the bubble. I couldn’t really go outside much until I was about 10. The doctors told my parents very, very clearly, “Just be ready to have a kid that leads a sedentary lifestyle, can’t really go outside. His lungs just aren’t built for it.” I remember finding a National Geographic article about the first American trip on Everest with Jim Whittaker and that Jim had bad asthma and bad allergies as well and his folks made him swim in lakes up on Mount Rainier and just go hiking at high altitude in the alpine zone. That’s what he attributed helping with his asthma.
Luis Benitez: I remember bugging my parents so much about this that we started spending summers in Ecuador where my dad’s from, hanging out in the high alpine huts at 15, 16,000 feet and it was really an eye-opener for me. I wouldn’t point to just that for getting my lungs back to where they needed to be, but it definitely helped.
Jeff Evans: Well, do you feel like the fact that the medical community and the world kind of told you that were sort of “weak” and were going to live this sedentary life, do you feel like that propelled you in a way or do you feel like that just has always been this back story that you couldn’t really identify with?
Luis Benitez: No, I don’t know if we’ve ever … Ironic that a podcast gets us to this real moment. I don’t know if we ever talked about this, Erik, but when we first started talking … ‘Cause I remember you were doing some segment, some filming segment on ice climbing. Do you remember this, at Boulder Canyon? You were looking for a belayer?
Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah.
Luis Benitez: And, PV’s like, “You got to at least go hang out with this guy and see if you can work with somebody that’s blind. You can’t just pick up and go to Ama Dablam,” where we were going to go first. And, I remember going up and we were done filming and shooting and climbing for the day and the film crew was wrapping up and you were kind of off to the side. I didn’t know at that point that you had bat radar and could hear everything that was going on, but I remember the film crew kind of dissing on you a little bit like, “Junk show and whatever. Blind guy can walk and climb ice, big deal.”
Luis Benitez: I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly what it was like to be a sick little kid, having people around you that didn’t believe you were capable of doing anything and that you should just sit in a room and not be allowed to even try. It was at the moment that I really did, I knew that what we were about to do had very little to do with just climbing and a whole lot to do with breaking that perceived barrier of what you were capable of. Yeah, for me, it definitely turned into this journey of tell me I can’t do it and I’m going to find a way to figure it out.
Erik Weihenmayerr: In fact, you and I summited side-by-side Mount Everest.
Luis Benitez: Yeah.
Erik Weihenmayerr: I said, “You go first,” and you said, “No, you go first”
Luis Benitez: Yeah.
Erik Weihenmayer: I think that we said, “Okay, we’ll just go together.”
Luis Benitez: Yeah.
Erik Weihenmayer: Then, we stepped onto the summit together.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, that whole journey … When I think back to all of us and I clearly remember the sun coming up off the south summit and that storm that we had to live through in the middle of the night and watching Jeff bust trail and pull lines out at that elevation-
Jeff Evans: Along with Brad, yeah.
Luis Benitez: … thigh-deep snow along with Brad. We were all so motivated to do it together in a sport where it was every person for themselves. That still resonates for me to this day that you can do right and do good and be awesome all at the same time. Just the fact that you and I got to summit arm-in-arm, that was bi-product of being where we were in terms of the climbing order as that day progressed. That wasn’t a-
Jeff Evans: You were like little Hillary-Tenzing [crosstalk 00:13:42].
Erik Weihenmayer: We never said he summited first.
Luis Benitez: He shoved me out of the way and grabbed the rope and went to the top. No, it was really special.
Dave Shurna: You went on to have a part of your career really dedicated to this expeditionary lifestyle. One of my questions, as I look at that part of your life, is we have many guests on this show that talk about a point in their life when they on this transformative adventure experience that forever shifts how they see themselves and the world around them. Can you talk a little bit about in those years when you worked for various organizations, you did this kind of work, what you see as the value of these kinds of experiences for people?
Luis Benitez: Well, it’s getting back to Jeff’s earlier question, but that was the sum of my ambition. I just wanted to be a mountain guide and maybe own a guide service. No offense, Big E, but after we came back from Everest with 10 fingers and 10 toes and seem to be doing really reasonably well, everybody that wanted to go to Everest would call. The fat guy from Texas, “Well, if you can get that guy up there, you can sure as heck get me to the summit of Everest.”
Erik Weihenmayer: Open the floodgates.
Jeff Evans: No.
Luis Benitez: I think all of us that were guides, pro guides, on that trip … Jeff, I know you got some stories and Chris and everybody else, we just started getting calls. For me, I was looking to really professionalize what I was trying to do, the companies were also calling as well. I ended up working for one out of Seattle and then became the chief guide and director of operations for one out of New Zealand. I think it was just a continuation of that process, helping people understand that they could do something that was filled with adversity and challenges but find a personal way to crack through.
Luis Benitez: For me, it wasn’t about going back to Everest year over year, going to do these big expeditions, it was about helping other people understand what they were capable of. That took me a while to figure out that it was less about building the resume and more about the education aspect. [crosstalk 00:15:48].
Erik Weihenmayer: A lot of people don’t have the temperament for that though. They’re great climbers. You do amazingly well at altitude. You’re super strong, just a lot of compliments today.
Luis Benitez: I was like, “I can’t even handle all this.”
Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah, this is hard to handle, but some people just continue to climb but you really dedicated yourself to guiding. To really getting people to the summits of all kinds of mountains, that takes a special mentality and a special kind of service. Just one quick story, I remember, and we’ll get to this later, but I remember on one peak you turned a lady back. You did it with the most incredible grace and empathy that, honestly, I think I’ve ever seen in my life. So, how do you transform into that kind of service to others on mountains?
Luis Benitez: Are you talking about Ashley on Lobuche?
Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah, exactly.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, I’m going to flip it back and you guys and this may turn into a love fest, but that’s fine. Jeff, you found a way to bring your brilliance into the world by being a medic on top of loving, climbing the outdoors. Erik, No Barriers, and you still climb and boat and do all these amazing things. I still to this day can’t get over the collection of all of us on that trip and what we’ve been able to do.
Luis Benitez: You know, Erik, your dad says all the time whenever I talk to him by email, “We got to get some kind of a show. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but to revisit all of you guys and what you’re doing now and your trajectory over the … ” Maybe this is the show to do it. “And, the trajectory over the last 17, 18 years.” Because we’ve all found a way to be of service to our communities and to the cultures that we love through the medium of what we did together all those years ago.
Luis Benitez: For me, the education part came from starting with Outward Bound here in Colorado. I didn’t just become a guide for the love of technical climbing. I became a guide from the love of being an outdoor educator. For me, that’s a little bit of a different path to get to that end result.
Jeff Evans: In a way, there you go. That’s almost the answer to Erik’s question. You started as not some crazy, hard-charging climber, but somebody who had a passion for teaching and getting the best out of an individual with the background of the mountains. Does that sound right?
Luis Benitez: Yeah, I was a 98-pound weakling for most of my childhood. That even though I started to outgrow asthma 10, 11, 12 years old, I still wasn’t running marathons, joining the track team. I didn’t play football. I could barely throw a baseball or even shoot a basketball. Organized sports was sort of way outside the boundary of how I could interact and engage with people my own age, so got made fun of a lot. Got teased a lot.
Luis Benitez: When I discovered rock climbing at 14 and mountaineering at 15, that was it for me ’cause it really allowed me to understand that the capacity of what we were capable of and the connectivity of being a part of a rope team or having a belayer was groundbreaking for me. All that trust, all that love, and all that education boiled into these intense moments. I couldn’t get enough.
Erik Weihenmayer: What was your best guiding experience and what was your worst guiding experience?
Luis Benitez: Well, that’s a softball question. I mean, come on.
Erik Weihenmayer: Not the blind guy to the summit. Skip that, please.
Luis Benitez: Well, no. Well, no. I’m not going to talk about Everest. I’m going to talk about Ama Dablam the year before. I don’t know how many people know this that we went to Ama Dablam, which is a mountain just down valley from Everest, the year before Everest as a training trip. You thought the world was paying attention on Everest, people were really paying attention on Ama Dablam. It’s like, “Oh, blind guy’s going to the Himalayas. Let’s see. He’s definitely going to die, so let’s see what happens.”
Luis Benitez: With all that intensity and all that pressure and with a whole lot of testosterone … It was you could barely get anywhere near our team that year. We were all young and hard-charging and wanting to get it done. To make the decision to turn around because of objective hazard, when we knew how that was going to translate in the media and the climbing community. That it was going to be harder to find sponsors for Everest the next year, that turning back and being smart was going to make it even harder.
Luis Benitez: I was still pretty early in my career at that point and watching and being a part of that whole process to pull the plug … Even when you said at base camp, “You know what? I’m just going to hang out here. You guys go for it. Go ahead summit. The mountains all set up. You can keep going.” Even then, we said, “That’s not why we’re here. We’re done. We’re going home.” I had failed in the Himalayas the year before. I desperately wanted to get something on my resume that year to get my own professional track moving and it was the greatest lesson and the greatest guiding moment of my career.
Luis Benitez: With all that pressure, with all of those things on the line, for us to turn around … I reflected on that. There was one Everest trip where I turned everybody around just below the Hillary Step because the weather was coming in and it was looking pretty grim. I definitely reflected on that day. It didn’t matter. Media didn’t matter. Reputation didn’t matter ’cause at that point, I don’t work for you, I work for your family and I’m not about to make that phone call home. That trip in 2000, was probably the greatest guiding experience in my career.
Luis Benitez: The worst was in 2007 on Cho Oyu for the shooting, the shooting on the border.
Jeff Evans: I had a note to ask you about that. If you could give us sort of the synopsis of that because I feel like what I know of that experience for you, what was the overarching message there, was truth. That’s what I think about that. When I reflect on you and your history, I think about truth. Tell us what happened.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, I was definitely at the height of my career at that point. I was working for Adventure Consultants doing a job that I loved, getting to lead all the big trips and Cho Oyu is the sixth highest mountain in the world on the border between Tibet and Nepal. There’s a low pass right next to the mountain that Tibetan refugees use to leave Tibet, cross through Nepal, and get to Dharamshala, India where the Tibetan government in exile and the Dali Lama live.
Luis Benitez: You see refugees passing all the time when you’re in base camp and you know that that’s just a fact of life. You hear stories now … Today, ironically enough, current state on our border with Mexico, and it’s the same kind of stories. Families crossing, youth, adults, and you kind of know it and it’s a daily occurrence. When you’re in base camp, you see it and you don’t really think much of it.
Luis Benitez: We were getting ready for our summit push and I was in my tent, and I’ll never forget this, getting ready to kind of leave base camp and head up the mountain for a summit push and I hear what sounded like firecrackers outside. Our lead climbing Sherpa came in and said, “You have to come out. You have to see this soldier shooting. Soldier shooting.” You don’t expect to hear a sentence like that on a Himalayan peak.
Luis Benitez: I came outside the tent and all the climbers were piling out of their tents and looking over towards the pass and it’s about a quarter mile away at 18,000 feet, we saw refugees running uphill away from border patrol soldiers that had knelt down in the snow and were shooting indiscriminately towards the refugees. Realizing that we were witnessing a human rights incident of extreme magnitude and with other soldiers streaming into base camp, I told our clients since we were already walking out of base camp that morning, “Listen. Let’s head up the mountain. By the time we come down, the world’s going to know because this is clearly an international incident. It’s going on real-time. There’s a bunch of satellite phones in base camp. So, let’s just head up the mountain. When we come back down, we’re going to be in the middle of it but at least the world’s going to know what happened.”
Luis Benitez: We came back down a couple days later and I started asking other expedition leaders what was the reaction from global media, what had happened. Every single one of them to a person said, “We didn’t call it in. We don’t want to lose our permits. We don’t want to lose our access. Listen, we employ Tibetans. We’re helping here. It was a terrible tragedy, but don’t speak up. Don’t make waves.” That was incredibly hard for me because-
Jeff Evans: We’re you literally like, “Are you kidding?”
Luis Benitez: Yeah. Yeah, I was, but still, expedition leader representing a company talking to these other expedition leaders representing their own companies, I got the business side of it. I got the dollar and cents. I got the employing Tibetans part. What I didn’t get was the lack of moral compass. What I didn’t understand was how you could sit back as this multi-billion dollar economy that is the outdoor industry and allow something like this to happen and not speak up.
Luis Benitez: I got lucky. A friend of mine was at that point in his life and editor for an online adventure travel website, Explorer’s Web, and I emailed him and I said, “Listen. There’s a story that had happened here. You got to keep my name out of it. I’m still in Tibet. Nobody’s talking about it, but I’m going to write a story and you need to put it on the internet as is because it’s still happening real-time.” We had soldiers in base camp that were kind of guarding all the expeditions.
Luis Benitez: I did and they did and all Hell broke loose. The soldiers started confiscating satellite phones trying to figure out who broke the story. I won’t bore you with the whole escape from Tibet thing when I had to leave and get out separate from my clients to make sure that they were safe, but I got ostracized within the guiding community pretty quickly for making waves and speaking up. That was definitely the hardest guiding experience I ever had.
Erik Weihenmayer: Am I getting it wrong that they denied it, that soldiers … It was all denial, but then there was a video it turned out.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, so I had a Romanian cameraman on our team that had burned a hole in his tent and shot footage of the shooting and then ran to catch up with us and brought all the tapes up on the mountain so the soldiers couldn’t, when they were rooting around for camera gear and phone gear, couldn’t find anything. The story being spread by other guiding companies was that this was a prostitution smuggling ring, drug smuggling. They were right to shoot.
Luis Benitez: At this point, when we got back to Kathmandu, we heard the Chinese embassy was looking for us. My name had been dropped that this is the guy that broke the story. I checked into a … It’s all very weird to think about now. Checked into a hotel under an assumed name and didn’t want … I was headed to the airport the next morning, didn’t want to think anything more of it, didn’t know what I had just done and the phone rang. You guys will know this, and it was Liz Hawley.
Luis Benitez: Back story for the listeners, Liz Hawley is this Himalayan historian who … Rumored to work for the CIA in the 60s, knew where everybody was at any given time.
Jeff Evans: Edmund Hillary’s girlfriend.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, Sir Edmond Hillary’s girlfriend, all these wild stories about her. She would be the only person that would know where I was at that point. She said, “Don’t hang up. I know the rumors that are being spread about what you saw. Would you like to actually meet the refugees that made it to Kathmandu?” So, they sent an SUV and I drove on back streets to the refugee center and I got to meet all of these kids who were being sent by their parents for a Tibetan education-
Dave Shurna: In Nepal, right?
Luis Benitez: In India.
Dave Shurna: In India.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, and were kind of in transit in Kathmandu. After I had done the tour and I had met these kids who were shell shocked because they had watched some of their friends get shot and killed right in front of them, the director of this organization out of D.C. called the International Campaign for Tibet, the director said, “Luis, you’ve got a choice. You can get back in the SUV out the back door and go back to the hotel and go home and sort of stay quiet about it. You’ve done your part and we’re really grateful. We’ve got video footage, which is the first to witness crime against humanity out of Tibet in 50 years, so that’s great. Or, we’ve got reporters out the front gate and you can walk out the front gate and share the story and your life will definitely change.” I chose the front gate.
Erik Weihenmayer: How did it change? How did that affect you one, with the facts, but also physically, emotionally, and professionally?
Luis Benitez: I’d like to say it was just this easy, morally-driven, high road that led to Nirvana and nothing but good things, but it was incredibly hard. I had to step away from being a lead with Adventure Consultants, which basically translated to the loss of work because, at that level, all companies rely on each other. I get oxygen from you. You help transport my gear to base camp from your company. We’re all connected and I loved the company that I worked for I didn’t want them to have trouble continuing to do the work that they did just because of my political stance.
Luis Benitez: Came back to Colorado. Started working, being the director of Outward Bound Professional, which is Outward Bound programs but for executives. I thought if I was going to affect the moral compass of the industry and leadership for our economy, I had to be at a place where I was influencing what executives thought about how to not only make the world a better place but how to do the right thing.
Erik Weihenmayer: Instead of affecting just a few people on your team, when you’re guiding, you’re affecting hundreds if not thousands of people.
Luis Benitez: I’d made a decision to try to amplify what I could do. But, lost work. Lost a lot of friends in the process too who thought I should have kept my mouth shut. Then, an interesting thing happened, and this will take about 60 seconds and then we can go on. I split my time at that point between working for the International Campaign for Tibet out of D.C., running Outward Bound Professional here in Colorado, and doing a little bit of guiding in different places all over the world with clients that had become friends. I was getting ready to go back to Everest for what would be the last time there and the phone rang when I was in the garage packing.
Luis Benitez: This guy said, “Luis, my name is Lodi Gyari. I’m the Dali Lama’s special envoy out of Washington, DC. His Holiness has heard about the work that you’ve been doing with his people and he would like to meet you.” You guys know what it’s like packing for expedition when you’re in the garage. You’ve got music playing. I was stupid enough to say, “Gosh, Mr. Gyari, thank you for very much. I’m so flattered.”
Erik Weihenmayer: I thought you’d be like, “Is this Jeff? Is this Erik?” [crosstalk 00:30:38].
Luis Benitez: Well, that’s the first thought that crossed my mind like this definitely has to be Jeff or somebody else. But, I said, “No.” I said, “I’m busy I’m getting ready for Everest. If his Holiness is in Dharamsala in June, maybe I’ll stop by.” I hung up the phone and a good friend of mine saw me with my hands still on the phone because I couldn’t really … It wasn’t clicking what I had just did. I explained the story and he said, “Oh, my God. You’ve got to call him back.”
Luis Benitez: At that point, 2008, there was no caller ID. I didn’t know how to get a hold of him, private number when the phone range. Sixty seconds later and it was Kate, the director of International Campaign for Tibet and she said, “Luis, pop quiz. When the Dali Lama special envoy calls you and says that his Holiness wants to meet you, what do you say?” Of course, I backpedaled, apologized. What was supposed to be a 15-minute meet-and-greet with a roomful of all these other people, due to scheduling snafus and cancellations when I was in Dharamsala, it was his Holiness, me, a translator, and two people from ICT, from International Campaign for Tibet.
Luis Benitez: I had the audacity to lament the loss of my job through this whole thing. I said, “You know, I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost work. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a mountain guide and this is just completely … “
Jeff Evans: I bet he pulled out the deepest, most awesome Buddhist thing like, “Loss my friend is [crosstalk 00:31:51]-
Luis Benitez: I was expecting a-
Jeff Evans: We are searching for loss in our lives.
Luis Benitez: I was expecting a Yoda thing for sure, but instead, he laughed and he kind of … Yeah, pretty much.
Erik Weihenmayer: He’s just like us. He laughed at you.
Luis Benitez: Yeah. So, yeah, just like you guys.
Jeff Evans: Did he make fun of you too?
Luis Benitez: Yeah. Yes, he did. As a matter of fact, Jeff, yes he did. He said, “Yeah, you know, Luis, I’d like to be my people’s spiritual and temporal leader still living in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, but you can’t always get what you want,” is basically what he said. Then, what he said next changed-
Erik Weihenmayer: Ah, that’s so genius.
Luis Benitez: It just changed the trajectory of my life. He said, “Sometimes you don’t choose your path. Sometimes your path chooses you. Now, it’s up for you to decide what you want to be in the middle of all that.” That’s really where it ended.
Jeff Evans: We keep going back to these moments that were potentially the harbinger of your political career and this is another one, right? You really start thinking about the entire narrative of Luis. You see all these little pieces of truth and insight and failure and setbacks and developing into a voice that then sends you on this trajectory to where you are now trying to create impact and influence on a larger scale. So, tell us where you are now.
Luis Benitez: Current job is as a director for Outdoor Recreation Industry Office for the state of Colorado working for the governor. I get to oversee a $60 billion economy responsible for over 500,000 Colorado jobs and through collaborative efforts with other governors in other states, try to build a coalition with states that have a version of my office and help encourage states to create the office to do just that, to provide a little guidance for the moral compass, oversee this gigantic economy responsible for a lot of jobs that the difference being does incredible work not only for our natural resources but also for that inspiration for who we are and what we do as outdoor adventurers.
Luis Benitez: For your first question, Jeff, yeah, if you would have told me way back then that I’d be doing this work, I would have laughed. But if you break down all these pieces that we’ve been talking about today, I wouldn’t be ready for this job if all those things wouldn’t have happened.
Jeff Evans: Yeah.
Erik Weihenmayer: Kudos. I know not just you but your whole team and a lot of the industry brought the Outdoor Retailer Show to Colorado, which is gigantic, tons of business for Colorado. Sorry, Utah audience members.
Luis Benitez: Utah has my office as well. Tom Adams, the director’s a great guy. We talk about this a lot. We talk about their political stance on public lands is one of the biggest things that allowed them to look at us, but the difference is, and I think this is important, the things that they really landed on was the innovation and inspiration and thought leadership that we were willing to convene here in Colorado. That we may not have all the answers, we may not know the correct path, but we were willing to lean into difficult conversations when it mattered most, exactly like what we’re doing here.
Luis Benitez: To their feedback, they weren’t seeing that kind of forward thinking momentum in any of the other states that were being considered. Incentives are one thing, but one of the realities of them choosing us was that ethic.
Dave Shurna: It seems to me that a lot of your career, Luis, has been focused on things that really, really matter either to other individuals, bringing Erik up to the top of Everest, to the clients you serve, to the story you just told about Tibet. Tell us why this work that you’re doing right now matters so much.
Luis Benitez: Well, if you look at old pictures of Erik and Jeff and I and others on our team and climbing buddies and adventure buddies, I don’t think looking at some of these snapshots or even at us right now on the live feed, you’re responsible for a multi-billion dollar economy driving millions and millions of jobs. There’s no way! That’s the reality of how we’ve usually been seen or perceived up to this point. We’re part-time recreationalists. We don’t contribute to a community or a culture. We’re part-time guides be it on the river or in the mountains hunting or fishing. We don’t really do a whole lot, so the fact that we’re now speaking through an economic lens really validating who we are and the scale and scope of what we’re capable of …
Luis Benitez: You look at other economies in the United States like aerospace or agriculture or any of the other components that really drive our national footprint, we’re over two percent of the GDP for the United States. The Department of Commerce is actually counting outdoor recreation as our own silo for the first time last year. That reality shifts our dialogue both in D.C. and at the state level because, for the longest time, I think our conversation has been steeped in conversation and stewardship.
Luis Benitez: When the outdoor folks would show up to a conversation, it was always perceived that you were there to hug a tree, save a river, protect a little bird that needed saving, but for the first time, we’re showing up saying, “We are worth X-amount of dollars, Y-amount of jobs, and we’re not asking for permission anymore. We’re setting the stage and the tempo for the conversation around what our economy can and should be and we’re not just basing it in the economic standpoint and also looking at it from a leadership standpoint as well.” That’s why it’s so important.
Erik Weihenmayer: Blind fist bump.
Luis Benitez: Knuckles, knuckles baby.
Dave Shurna: What are the other states that have this department?
Luis Benitez: Right now there are eight full states.
Dave Shurna: Okay.
Luis Benitez: Let’s see. This is going to be a good test. Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Washington state, North Carolina, and Vermont. Michigan and Maine are coming online in January and then you have a couple of bills and legislation that’s out there right now for California, Arkansas, Kansas that are slowly coming online. When I say that we’re one of the few remaining, bipartisan economies in the United States, we really are. This has nothing to do with political stripe and everything to do with the correct protection, promotion, and preservation of the things we love.
Erik Weihenmayer: You’ve galvanized and helped given a voice to a lot of people that used to just be perceived maybe as environmentalists or hippies or mountain guides or whatever.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, but again, I keep throwing this back to you guys, but … I don’t know if two go through this but when you sit back at the end of the day and you look for peer leadership and mentorship and inspiration … Jeff, following you on Everest when you did that medical show … Erik, watching what you tried to do with No Barriers and the kids in Tibet, which still to me is an incredibly personal journey. We don’t take ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ or ‘you shouldn’t’ as an answer ever. I find that leadership to be prevalent in our industry.
Luis Benitez: When you really think about the next gen of political leadership for our state and for our country, if we could actually show up with a little bit of that inspiration and goal-setting and the opportunity to say, “Don’t tell us it can’t be done or it shouldn’t be done because we will find a way to make it reality.” We don’t have a lot of that right now and I think that’s something we can definitely provide.
Erik Weihenmayer: Some people go to the mountains to escape, but I’ve always thought one of the great importances of life is somehow figuring out how to take those experience in the mountains or the rivers or in the outdoors, beautiful places, and bring them back to our lives. Do you think you’re connecting those things in your life and how do you do it?
Luis Benitez: How the Hell do you two find time to go out and adventure these days? It’s the slow death, right? You represent and you stand for and you fight for all these things and then you try to desperately find time to go out and seek inspiration yourself and I’ve started to become more effective at mastering, I call it the mini moment. I catch a story on social media about anybody doing something outside that really gives me heart.
Luis Benitez: Being at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Denver three times a year, that’s 30,000 people in our ecosystem that show up with all of their own amazing stories. I definitely have gotten to a place where, yes, I need time on my own outside to recharge my batteries, but I also need those stories because I’ve become a collector of those stories. When people ask me why or to Dave, your point of why would it matter, part of my job is retelling those stories. This doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to all of us and that’s how I get inspiration.
Erik Weihenmayer: Well, it’s been a really exciting conversation about a diversity topics that really matter I think to our listeners.
Jeff Evans: And a little stroll down memory lane.
Erik Weihenmayer: Exactly.
Luis Benitez: You guys were really easy on me. I was expecting it to be a whole lot crazier, so thank you.
Jeff Evans: Mic’s going to get cut off here shortly.
Luis Benitez: Yeah, exactly.
Erik Weihenmayer: Thank you, Luis, so much for joining us and thank you for the incredible work that you’re doing right now for the state of Colorado and the nation. Really appreciate having you here.
Luis Benitez: A pleasure.
Jeff Evans: Awesome dude.
Erik Weihenmayer: Well, guys … Jeff, I see you ready. You’re ready.
Jeff Evans: Well, yeah, because once again, this is somebody that I’ve known for a long time and it takes these kinds of conversations sometimes where you’re not sitting in a tent or in an airplane or at a bar. You know, you learn these nuances of somebody that you thought you knew and then the truth is, I can start to out these little pieces of a puzzle together to create this man that when I met him, he was a boy and he’s turned into this amazing man.
Jeff Evans: Really, the take home, and I reflect on it as a parent too, is the same thing I tell my son is, “Try to figure out a way to take all the things that you’re good at and that inspire you, themes and behaviors that you put a lot of weight behind.” For Luis, it’s to seek, it’s truth, it’s voice, it’s commitment, and it’s being aware. He took all of these things and created this platform that benefits all of us. I think that’s an extraordinary skill to have.
Jeff Evans: I think for people that listen that are still trying to find that galvanizing place to go, the answer per Luis, is to really just maybe self-inventory. What is it that’s really important to you? What are you good at? It doesn’t matter what, just find it and then craft it and cultivate it and then eventually it will turn into something. I’m grateful for Luis.
Dave Shurna: He did turn into something.
Erik Weihenmayer: A kid with asthma, kind of feels shoved to the sidelines, becomes a mountain guide. Then, goes and does this courageous thing by calling out this bad thing that happened and the Dali Lama, I think, saying, “Hey, I wish I was still in Tibet. What you do with it is what’s important.” Yeah, when you look back at your life, it doesn’t really necessarily seem random. It seems like when you respond in that sort of alchemy way, one experience is a catalyst that leads you to another.
Erik Weihenmayer: Luis going back and becoming a leader at Outward Bound and then becoming a leader in Colorado, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to translate one experience of your life to the next and yet, you did a good job.
Dave Shurna: I think that that concept of you do not always get to choose your path, sometimes your path chooses you is such a powerful concept in our community at No Barriers. There’s so many folks who are on one trajectory towards the life they think they’re going to have and then something happens completely unexpected and sometimes it derails people, sometimes it propels them forward and being okay with where that path is leading even though you haven’t always chosen it. That really stood out for me.
Dave Shurna: Another great conversation. Thank you, everyone, for listening. If you’re wondering what you can do to support No Barriers, please like this podcast and share it with others. We do have an annual event every year that you can join us at, the No Barriers Summit. Our next one is coming up in Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2019. You can learn more at nobarriersusa.org.
Dave Shurna: Thank you, guys.
Erik Weihenmayer: Awesome, No Barriers.
Jeff Evans: See you next time.
Dave Shurna: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.
Dave Shurna: Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song which is called ‘Guidance’. The production team behind this podcast include producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Schaffer. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Jessie Singer and Tyler Kottman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jaime Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.