This post is part of a series that summarize interviews I’ve done with rock climbers who are also leaders in some aspect of their life. I’ve long been a believer that beyond being a fun and challenging pursuit, rock climbing teaches us many lessons about leading ourselves and leading others. My goal in doing these interviews is to learn what other leaders have experienced to deepen my understanding of the transformative power that climbing can have on us. I plan on launching a podcast tiled The Climb with the full interviews, so stay tuned.
A few months ago, I sent an email to the people on my email list asking how rock climbing has changed their life. One email I received opened and closed with the following sentence.
“Once I was a fat guy that saw a climber and became inspired. I set out with impossible intentions to someday climb mountains. I PROVED THE IMPOSSIBLE!”
It came from Dan Marti, and I was intrigued. After exchanging a few more emails, I decided that I wanted to share his inspiring story. The following is an excerpt from our interview.
Don: So why don't you bring us back and tell us a little bit about before that day when you saw the climber that inspired you. Where were you at and what was going on?
Dan: Well, I just moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I was about 380 pounds, and basically a walking train wreck. I wasn't at all physically fit, nor mentally fit at that point of time in my life. I had just moved back from Texas. I worked in construction in my father's construction company. With a job like that, with your father's company, you can be pretty slack, because it's not like I was going to get fired.
I never worked out. I had never really been an athlete, never participated in any sports.
On top of that, I was in a car wreck and hurt my knee. After that I really couldn't do much. I drank way too much. I ate crappy food.
Don: So, it sounds like you weren't in a good spot and yet one day you saw a climber, and it had an impact on you. Tell us about what happened.
Dan: I actually moved to Custer, South Dakota. I got a job with the state working with adjudicated youth. I moved into a house and the very first person I met was a guy named Matt Mieczkowski. He was a rock climbing guide in the Tetons of Wyoming. I met him the very first day I moved in, and turns out that we ended up working at the same place.
When I started working, I would randomly see Matt at work and saw pictures on his desk of him rock climbing, and the guy seemed so physically strong and mentally sound. I remember thinking, rock climbers must be the toughest mentally and physically strong people in the world. And me being overweight and mentally in shambles, I was like, I want to be like that. I want to be one of those guys.
Don: I think that maybe makes you a little different than most people. I think a lot of people would think that climbing was really cool, but could never really imagine doing it.
There must have been an activating moment when you decided that you really could climb and you took some action.
Dan: I had another friend that opened up a gym and he started training people. He was really stoked about training people, so I started training with him and getting stronger.
I trained and pushed myself because my friends were stoked to see me get in better shape. Two years down the road I was able to get out and rock-climb. But I think the turning point was when I did my first pull-up. I was like, I think I got a shot at this. Having been over 300 pounds, I honestly never thought I'd ever be able to do a pull-up.
Don: It sounds like some chance meetings with people changed your life.
Dan: I can say that there are three people that changed my life, and I met them all within the same three months period. And that would be Matt Mieczkowski, my friend Ryan Brodrick at the gym in South Dakota who, and Kasey Kendrick, my buddy that let me stay at his place in Custer.
So, yeah, hands down, three people I met within 3 months of each other, completely by chance, changed my life.
Don: That's something for all of us to think about because we could be that person to someone, right?
Dan: Yeah, we never know who you'll inspire.
Don: I was at a class last week, and somebody had a really cool quote that said, “big doors swing on small hinges.
Meaning that small things can lead to big changes.
So, you were inspired. Tell us the transformation that happened, and what it meant for you from a psychological standpoint. How did it change your life?
Dan: I wouldn't even say climbing changed my life. I would say it actually gave me a life, because I don't really think what I was living at that time would be considered much of a life.
Losing the weight and getting stronger spilled over to success in other parts of my life. I got promoted at work to being a wellness instructor, and I worked with adjudicated youth in the court system. I got to take them outside and run through the Black Hills and do all sorts of fun outdoor activities.
Then I got put into a leadership role, and that's when my confidence and mental ability really started to take off. I became mentally stronger.
I learned to push past all sorts of obstacles. I did a lot of things that I had never thought I could do. I ran a half marathon. What 400-pound guy would ever run a half-marathon someday?
Don: Wow, Dan. This story gets more interesting the more we talk.
So, you were inspired by climbing. You were working out. It really gave you a start, but then it had a significant impact on your career.
Dan: Absolutely. I would not have got that promotion, if the supervisors didn't see me work hard, didn't see me train, didn't see me make that effort.
Don: Wow, that's really amazing, how it just snowballed your confidence.
Dan: Yeah, like I said, climbing gave me a life.
Don: So, you said you came across Vertical Mind. Tell me a little bit about how you came to discover the book.
Dan: I ran across Vertical Mind at a little climbing shop in South Dakota. I bought the book, and I actually started using the steps, learning about developing scripts and actually practicing it. And I was amazed, like, wow, this really works. This is easy. You just have to do it.
Don: I really like that. One of my favorite sayings when I give talks is that, success rewards action.
Don: We can read all we want. When you decide to take some action, that’s when magic happens. When you actually take action, it can change things dramatically.
This is a great example.
Then what happened?
Dan: I think you refer to it as fear of failure in your book, but it was so hard for me to go climb with a lot of locals because they're such a small community and all better climbers than me.
I was scared that, if I screwed up and didn’t climb well, I would never get invited to go climb with them again. I was terrified that I might not get up a route. And that I wouldn't have climbing partners again.
Don: So, what happened?
Dan: I started climbing with my friend Matt Mieczkowski, but I only climbed with him once, because he had a wife and kids and was a very busy guy.
So, I went and bought Craig Luebben's Mastering the Basics and $600 worth of climbing gear, and convinced a couple of my friends to go out climbing with me.
I only climbed that once with Matt, so the next time I climbed was my first lead climb.
Don: Wow. That's taking action.
Dan: I also climbed with a lot of people that were passing through town and were on the Partner Search list at the local climbing shop. I did that for years before I ever climbed with a local.
The first time I climbed with a local, he led this 5.9 off-width that I was terrified I would not make it up. But, I tried. And tried. It took me about 45 minutes, but I did eventually get up it.
He was impressed by my effort because that took serious heart and effort.
After that, he pretty much called me every time he wanted to go climb. So, I had my first regular climbing partner.
Don: So, rather than thinking less of you for struggling, it had the opposite effect.
So, after I started having regular climbing partners, I started pushing myself by climbing with people not as skillful as myself. This made me stronger and more confident in my abilities.
About that time, I got another promotion at work and a really cool opportunity emerged. The superintendent for the state department where I worked was an old-school climber, and one day he came up to Matt Mieczkowski and me and asked us to write a climbing program to integrate into our corrective thinking curriculum.
For us, this was huge. It took us about two and a half years to get it approved. But we would eventually take adjudicated youth out climbing, and tie it into our corrective thinking program, which was a really cool experience.
The kids loved it, and we loved doing it.
Don: What a fantastic thread, from you being inspired by Matt, and then having other people supporting you, giving you those life clues of where you needed to go.
And now you're providing similar opportunities to others.
Dan: Yeah, it was a really great experience. I worked there and did that for eight and a half years, Don.
Don: So have you seen some transformations in some of the kids that went through that program?
Dan: Oh, yeah. Huge. Just three weeks ago, I was back home in Nebraska visiting my parents, and I ran into a kid that was in my program. He had been in a lot of trouble, much due to bad parenting. He was so stoked to see me, and all he could talk about was the off-trail runs we did, and going out rock climbing with Matt and I. And hands down he told me it changed his life. He's doing great now.
Don: That's fantastic. Getting to be that person in somebody else's life. It's pretty powerful.
Dan: Yeah. And I run into those kids here and there. And I've never had one of those kids be a jerk or say he hated what happened or we were jerks to him.
All of them had a positive experience.
Don: How about your favorite motivational or leadership quote?
Dan: I have two that I really like. One is, “prove the impossible.” That was by Dave Tate in his book, Under the Bar.
And the other one was inscribed by my friend Matt Mieczkowski in a copy of the book The Freedom of the Hills that he gave me when he moved to Pennsylvania. It said, “when in doubt, climb higher.”
Don: So, looking back on your journey, what was the biggest lesson you learned?
Dan: The biggest thing I learned was how to get organized and manage my time.
Once I had structure in my life, all my goals just seemed to get done.
Don: If you came across someone who was considering climbing, but they had some fear, or they were scared. What would you say to them?
Dan: I would tell them that being scared of climbing is a natural fear. Fear of falling is a real thing. I would tell them that we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones to become better people, whether it's in climbing or anything else. So why not tie into a rope and see where it'll take you.
Don: There are probably some people who are going to read this post or hear the podcast, who may be thinking, yeah, somebody else can make big changes in their lives. Maybe I can.
What would you say to that person?
Dan: I would say, go for it. Do it. 100%.
And I'm big on giving back. People took care of me. Three people changed my life.
If there's anyone out there who needs help with their own transformation, I’ll go out of my way to help them.
Don: Alright, so... if you're out there and you're reading this or listening to this, and you're saying, gosh, I'm in this bad place. You've got an offer from Dan.
And Dan, how can people reach out to you?
Dan: firstname.lastname@example.org. I will hands down go down the extra mile for anyone who contacts me.
Don: That's very gracious, Dan.
And I'm going to double down on that offer. Anybody who wants support in taking on that big adventure in their life, I'm there too. And I think, if you're reading this, you know how to get a hold of me, email@example.com.
Don: Dan, I think you're a great example of how we are just one or two people away from achieving whatever we want in life. Three people changed your life.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely. Like we touched on earlier, you never know what's going to inspire somebody. It could be something little, just like it was for me. Just meeting Matt and hearing stories about climbing, that changed my life.
Don: And I guess for the listeners, a call to action is, if you know of someone in your life that you believe has more in them, be that person.
Big doors swing from small hinges.
Dan, thanks for sharing your story. I think it will inspire people into action.