There were no signs of human life on this mountain, except for two slow steams of breath appearing and vanishing, appearing and vanishing, appearing and vanishing, leaving the mountain feeling desolate and isolated for a few moments until another pair of breaths arrived.
Storm clouds formed at a distance, continuously rolling in and out. At an altitude of just over 19,000 feet, these clouds were common. The odd quietness of having the whole summit to the two mountaineers was broken by the crackling of the snow beneath their feet and the hissing of the ice as they trudged their way up the slope.
Knee deep in ice and fresh snow, and tied to his guide 30 feet in front of him, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey felt the weight of survival on his mind. His eyes dimmed and his pupils widened as the light faded from the sky, trying to increase his visibility as much as he could. His headlamp helped, and good thing it did because just ahead was yet another ledge.
About two boots wide, blocks of ice to his right and a steep slope to his left with nowhere to go except forward, Bailey remembers this being the first time in his adult life that he felt scared. He realized he was just a speck of dust on this massive mountain.
This was Cotopaxi, the second highest peak in Ecuador and the first mountain he ever summited in 2022. Cotopaxi is just the beginning for him. Bailey just finished hiking his second mountain, Mt. Aconcagua, in January.
“I remember getting to the top and just being, like, ‘why am I so tired?’ I was shot,” he says in an interview with The Coronado News.
Bailey, a tall and lean 36-year-old with a shaved head, is not on the peak of a snowy mountain in Ecuador anymore.
On this wet, early January morning, he’s in his mayoral chair in his office at Coronado City Hall, idly playing with a fidget toy in his hands.
He clicks it every few moments.
“MAYOR” is labeled outside his door, and he glances at his phone every time the screen lights up. When his blue eyes pull away, he seems to stare off miles into the distance as if he’s back reliving those fearful moments on Cotopaxi – even though he’s only looking at his desk, and his desk is less than a foot away from him.
“It didn’t occur to me until, like, a day or two later when I was reflecting back on it, that the reason I was so tired wasn’t because of the physical challenges, it was because of all the other environmental conditions that I wasn’t accustomed to,” he says.
Between making sure he or his guide weren’t plummeting into crevasses that lined the mountain and sliding past ledges a foot wide, he said his fear took a toll on him mentally and wore him down – manifesting in his physical weariness.
Bailey, first elected as Coronado mayor in 2016 at the age of 30 (making him the youngest ever to hold the post in the city’s history), isn’t a stranger to physical challenges.
Growing up in San Diego, he played baseball and basketball making it on the varsity teams in high school and in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo he ran his very first marathon. Several years later, he ran his first ultramarathon, runs that are classified as at least 100 miles long. And, he’s run four of them ever since.
“That was also a real humbling experience,” said Bailey, describing the first ultramarathon he had run.
Those six days of ultramarathoning consisted of 120 miles of trail running over the Colorado Rockies. Bailey had never run on a trail before this, much less roughly the distance from Coronado to Los Angeles.
This was something in common with Cotopaxi being the first mountain he had accomplished: a heightened sense of ability or knowledge, he thinks, tentatively, that was quickly humbled by the reality of pushing his body and his mind to places they had never been before.
Mt. Aconcagua was his next challenge.
But this time, Bailey says he’s ready for the mental game he has to play in order to summit 23,000 feet, the highest peak in the Americas.
“It’s an absolute mental grind.”Mayor Richard Bailey
“It’s an absolute mental grind. The weather conditions are pretty rough,” he says.
Around 3,500 people attempt to hike this mountain every year but only about 60% of them make it to the top, according to a travel group known as Kandoo Adventures. The tallest mountain outside of Asia, Bailey believes that Aconcagua will most likely test his mental capabilities more so than his physical capabilities.
Now that this mountain is accomplished, the next is Mt. Everest in May; a typically two-month long hike that involves extensive training, altitude adjustments and climbing an elevation of 29,000 feet. “That’s the thing about mountaineering, it’s not fun in the moment – at all,” Bailey says with a small dry laugh. “A lot of people do it because it’s that sense of accomplishment, and that whole idea of not conquering the mountain but conquering yourself to get there.”
Being the mayor of Coronado and an athlete, Bailey feels all those things, but they are brief. He says he wants to live in pursuit of these traits, because as the old saying goes, all glory is fleeting.
Whether it’s a yearning for self fulfillment by pushing himself to do something he’s never done before, or fulfillment coming from being mayor and being able to benefit the community, Bailey says that the greatest fulfillment does come from helping others.
And also, maybe, hiking Mt. Everest.
“I think [fulfillment] is about, I think it’s a combination of finding your own personal limits and then applying your own skill sets to be in service to others. But if you don’t feel personally fulfilled, it’s really hard to be of service to others for very long,” he says, nodding slowly.