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Adventure of a Lifetime – The Ampersand September 2020

August 31, 2020

Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage,

that they force us to think.”

– Jawaharlal Nehru

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

 

On the morning of Sunday August 16th, and shortly after dropping two of my kids, Sammy (16) and Chloe (19), at the trailhead of Heiko’s Trail for their Fernie summer bucket list two night back-country adventure, I returned to the cabin, a.k.a. Pekarsky & Co. Global HQ, and started writing the September 1 Ampersand.

 

Battling a severe case of mid-summer writer’s block, I made it this far before retreating to the couch for a nap:

 

As summer fades, fall approaches like a hard conversation.

 

Summer has felt like a great night’s sleep. The fatigue and fear of spring interrupted by a solid 8 hours, or 8 weeks as it were. It felt to me at least – conceding that relative to most, I write from a place of great privilege – that we all worked extra hard at not working extra hard this summer. We’ve not only come to accept our current predicament, but I dare say we collectively did our very best to make the very best of it.

 

But, with the return of fall comes the return to school and to work and to the new new normal. Though the chaos of the world is impossible to ignore and the uncertainty of what lies ahead weighs on us, summer – particularly this summer – has offered for most of us the rare opportunity to recharge, recalibrate, reprioritize and rethink a lot of stuff.

 

I then found this quote which I pasted at the bottom of the preceding 156 words thinking it would be a nice segue at some point into a description of all the innovative and exciting pivots and plans we have undertaken during our 8 week respite, moves designed to transform us from plumbers to window washers (working title for October Ampersand), that will set us up for continued success on the back side of this pandemic:

 

Many a false step was made by standing still.”

– Tim Ferriss

 

That quote would turn out to be rather prescient.  But that’s as far as I got.

 

The plan was to read a bit, grab a nap and then peck out 1000 more words and be done.  I lay there, seeking a suitable metaphor that would capture the gist of the piece – navigating and pivoting in a COVID era of crisis.  Eyes heavy, reading an article on Emergence Leadership “…emergence leaders are better prepared to take on disruption…” when something terribly disruptive, actually terrifying, happened.  With one ‘ping’ on my phone, I no longer grasped for a metaphorical figure of speech to apply, for the moment was no longer metaphorical, but entirely literal. And in the ensuing five hours I would pivot from the pivot I had planned to pen and instead live a real-life metaphor, as if in some house of mirrors, I’d never imagined writing about.

 

A ping from the InReach device we’d given the kids, a satellite text-enabled communication tool to be used only in case of emergency, rather cryptically letting me know that Chloe had fallen and hurt her foot and could we (my wife and I) please come help. Now.

 

A bit of background.  Sammy and Chloe are both experienced hikers and outdoorspeople; Chloe in particular. In 2018 she canoed 40 days down the Mackenzie River and has led several back country hiking expeditions as a counsellor at Camp Chief Hector. Her younger brother, 16, is strong like a bull and carries himself with the poise and maturity of a true leader, an emergent one, rather than an emergence one, perhaps. And though even a cursory review of the Tourism Fernie description of the hike – a double black diamond, extremely difficult 24km grunt over two mountain passes – would normally give pause, we weren’t worried. They were responsible, prepared and had done the hike before; sections of it many times, including the section where the fall took place. Quite arguably, the worst possible section of the entire expedition to endure such a tumble.

 

As with life pre-COVID, that ‘ping’ radically changed the day’s events. Prior to the ping, the cadence of that Sunday afternoon was like so many before it. After the ping, it was a heart-pounding series of events, not dissimilar to those which followed exactly five months earlier when, to use an over-used and now entirely inappropriate metaphor, the world fell off a cliff.

 

Just as the mid-March COVID ping jarringly forced us to spring into crisis mode, so too did the events of August 16th.  First thing was not to panic, but to think. We called our neighbour, let him know what happened and asked if he could bring his Jeep to the trailhead, saving us the added 3km walk to a more accessible logging road where I dropped the kids about three hours earlier. Of course he could because that’s what neighbours do – especially this neighbour — in times of crisis. Knowing we’d be out of cell range we gave him a very rough approximation of when we should be back at the bottom, assuming a safe retrieval and descent and all other things being equal, which they were not.  The COVID allegory? Don’t let your pride get in the way. Ask for help. I seem to recall a wise man, or at least a grey haired one, giving similar advice in the earliest days of COVID.

 

There were other very hurried but measured decisions that needed to be made before we started the 40 minute journey up the logging road to the steep trail head. Notify others, pack appropriate provisions, gas up the car, fill up water bottles, make a plan to pick up our third kid at the golf course. Darned third children! We planned with purpose and urgency. While there was worry, there was no panic. My wife and I were a team in this endeavour, privately proportionately concerned by what lay ahead but laser focused on the here and now, taking the steps in this moment that wouldn’t make the situation worse down the road.

 

Eerily similar to the decisive steps we took at the firm in the days that followed the mid-March shutdown. Taking immediate steps to preserve cash, transition to a remote work environment, reduce expenses, investigate government programs, reach out to clients, candidates and suppliers to offer, and to accept, help. Again, those steps we took early on, laser focused in that moment, served us well in the long months ahead as we cautiously stepped our way along an uncertain path, ‘bum-scooching’ our way to quarter end, then year-end and now, two months into fiscal ’21, bumped and bruised, a bit scratched and occasionally scared, but still in one piece.

 

And so as we ascended the steep climb, we found ourselves in the April of our journey. Head down, one foot before the other, isolated and contemplating all the things that could go wrong, how we were going to get out and how did we get here in the first place.  Ah, ‘How did we get here?’ is a question we’ve all been asking these days isn’t it?  We received infrequent word from descending hikers we passed as to the kids’ whereabouts and condition. In the eyes of each passerby was reflected a mix of relief to know the parents were on the way up, mixed with palpable concern about how exactly we were going to descend down a steep trail, with ladders, drop-offs, fallen logs and slippery switch-backs with the injured kid they’d seen, that we hadn’t yet reached.  With each hurried step we took up (for we’d done that section of the hike to a lookout called Bisaro Cave many times), I supressed the image of our return voyage. Only once during the climb up was I overheard to have said, ‘there’s no way we’re making it down this mountain with an injured kid,’ which, I should point out, is exactly one more time than I’ve ever expressed a similar sentiment about the prospects of our firm surviving the current journey we’re on.

 

Of the many quirky family customs we have, one of the more useful is a call and answer refrain loosely resembling the chorus of Coldplay’s, rather appropriately named song, Adventure of a Lifetime. When skiing in the trees or just singing in the car, one of us sings Woo Hoo and the other repeats, a key or two lower, Woo Hoo.  At my earliest opportunity, still a couple kilometers from where they were supposed to be and despite the din of the waterfall I normally notice, I yelled my first of many Woo Hoo’s, this one punctuated, I expect, with more of a question mark than exclamation point. Nothing.  Again.  Nothing. A few minutes later, another one, this time echoed back and we knew we were close.

 

Again we passed more hikers descending. This time, a group of typically fit Fernie moms and their fit young kids. One of the moms told me she gave Chloe some Advil, speculated it was a metatarsal fracture of the left foot and wished us well. In life, as in business, in times of crisis you need to count on the kindness of your community; a community often comprised of complete strangers.  As our firm has navigated these last several months, it has done so on the strength of our relationships, the deep reservoir of goodwill and good karma accumulated over years of doing the right thing for friends and strangers alike.

 

The journey down was precarious. The neighbour with the Jeep who I’d asked to come to the trailhead, predictably, did more than that. Soon after receiving my text, he picked up my third kid at the golf course, brought him home, then raced up the mountain, parked at the trailhead and hoofed it up the mountain himself. No small feat for a big man. With each of the two kids hauling a 50 pound pack, the added muscle came in handy. Sammy, an unsung hero in this drama, stayed steady, calm and appropriately humorous throughout.  Though, for I am a dad joke Black Belt, nothing topped my response to Sammy on the way down when, thinking about what lay ahead, he asked me “how the hell are we going to get her across the [narrow, sketchy] bridge near the bottom?”  “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”  Right?!

 

Another COVID allegory?  Why didn’t we call Search and Rescue? Firstly, because Chloe is tough, proud and stubborn. Secondly, because we were concerned about being a drag on the system; what if someone, somewhere was in more dire straits than us? And isn’t that just the winning formula to see us all through to the other side of our current predicament? A blend of toughness and stubbornness tempered with a selflessness and caring for others; keeping them safe by the actions we take individually?

 

The next day I received a text from the mom on the trail who had the wherewithal to ask the kids for my cell number. Here’s our exchange:

 

 

Neighbour helping neighbour; stranger helping stranger. In business as in life.

 

Chloe’s now on the mend, as is the business. Uncertainty and recovery lie ahead. A few final summer adventures have been shelved or postponed, like countless other pursuits in the COVID era. But as with so many facets of life during this pandemic, it’s all about perspective. It’s all about what might have been and what could have happened. Though we tend to dwell only the good things we’re missing out on, I submit that we may wish to save a thought for how much worse things could have been.

 

 

Did COVID prepare me for the events of the day or did the events of the day prepare me for what lies ahead?

 

The answer is yes.

 

Regards,

Adam