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Episode 12: Seeking Meaning & Truth — Talking to the Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry, Luis Benitez

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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————————— EPISODE TRANSCRIPT —————————–

 

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.

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