My best lesson this year involved gorillas

There have been a variety of explosions in my personal life this year, which is how I ended up on an improbable wilderness trek in Uganda.

My best lesson this year involved gorillas

There have been a variety of explosions in my personal life this year, which is how I ended up on an improbable wilderness trek in Uganda.

For a founder and CEO whose product sells at REI, I am decidedly not outdoorsy. I’ve always avoided hiking and camping vacations when I have the opportunity to just lay on a beach with a good book or search for my next great meal. In the name of #personalgrowth, I decided to spend the last two weeks of August in pursuit of elusive wild animals.

The apex of my adventure was tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. An old-growth forest in southwestern Uganda, it runs along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.

A view of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

There are only 1,000 mountain gorillas left and about half of them are in Bwindi’s mountainous jungle. You have to get Mount Everest-style permits from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA); these contribute most of the funding for conservation and repopulation efforts. Today, the number of mountain gorillas is up from an all-time low of 800.

To say the hike is difficult is an understatement. The humidity is intense, and poisonous caterpillars, stinging nettles, and huge wasps are everywhere. The foliage is dense: without a machete, thorn-proof gloves, and a walking stick, you won’t get very far, much less find any gorillas. Bonus: the trek is mostly uphill. The incline is often so severe you must use all limbs to prevent rolling downslope. The altitude — up to 2,706 meters (8,878 feet) — adds to the intensity of what already is a tremendous physical effort. Within the first five minutes, I was panting and wondering what strange hell I’d voluntarily gotten myself into. My friend vomited from altitude sickness.

Four hours in, itchy, sweaty, and tired, we hadn’t yet encountered a single gorilla despite the trackers’ best efforts. To add insult to injury, a rainforest deluge started dumping on us, making it impossible to move for over an hour. I learned that even in an equatorial jungle, if you’re high enough up in the mountains, freak hailstorms are a thing. We huddled under a tree during the heaviest of the downpour, but I was nonetheless soaked down through my wool socks. I wondered about foot rot and recalled the final scene in one of my favorite films — Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God” — where the main character loses his mind on a barge full of monkeys deep in the jungle.

And then, in a miracle of self-therapy, I thought-stopped. Instead of imagining the worst or judging myself for how I was feeling, what if I just accepted the place and my experience of it?

Trapped under that tree, as hail turned back into rain, my nightmarish discomfort gave way to curiosity. I observed without judgment: the verdant forest, my clammy body, the smell of dirt (and dung), fresh cuts on my fingers, the birds starting up again.

As the weather cleared, we came upon a troop of about a dozen mountain gorillas. People think gorillas are territorial and violent, but after spending almost two hours with them in their natural habitat, I found them to be quite gentle. The silverback — a 250-kilogram (550-pound), 3-meter (10-foot) tall dominant male — made eye contact with me, assessing us as he napped and ate branch after branch of wet leaves. A female breastfed her baby beneath a thicket of ferns and vines and a young male stood on a ledge above us, hooting and pounding his chest, like a miniature King Kong.

The silverback mountain gorilla, looking into my eyes/iPhone

And then, just like that, our tightly-regulated time with the gorillas was up. The return hike was arguably harder than the way in because the rain had washed away what little grip we’d had to begin with. The slipping and sliding was compounded by sheer exhaustion, but I felt resilient and proud.

The physicality of my deep-jungle trek seemed to dissolve some of the emotional weight I tend to carry around with me. In accepting my situation, I gave myself space to experience and enjoy it. I’ve always been a what-happens-next and how-can-I-solve-this-problem kind of person. I know it is often helpful to think a few steps ahead and bias toward action (especially as a CEO), but the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute incessant aspect of a projecting mindset can be emotionally exhausting and prevents me from being present.

I'm back in the office and I hope some of that sticks with me. (I won’t wait seven years to take a two-week vacation again.)