These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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April 19 2010 7:15 AM

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These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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By the end of July 2009, the rain had been so bad they were 38 tours behind where the company had been the year before and tens of thousands of dollars behind where they needed to be to break even. They were carrying the rent and the salaries of their eight guides and were only paying themselves $300 every two weeks. The Weather Channel is their home page. "Every day I would come in and see seven of the same icon: rain," remembers Pete.

Pete and Eli weren't just worried about paying their bills. They were also going stir crazy. The office is on the second floor of a storefront on Main Street in Bar Harbor. Pete would look out at the tourists walking below and talk to himself. Why weren't people coming in, he'd ask the window. Eli took up bowhunting to relieve his claustrophobia.

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They were gripped. It wasn't the same as on the mountain. They wouldn't die if the climbing company failed. But their fear of a bad outcome was higher than it was when they climbed. Their amazing powers of risk bearing were not working in the office. In control on the wall, they felt out of control in the office.

On a climb, the rules of the game are limited and clear. "There's not much margin for error in what we do," says Eli. "If you mess up what you do, you don't do it anymore because you're dead." A business involves many more variables. You can be affected by everything from an OPEC meeting to hotel prices. "Climbing simplifies your life," says Eli. "You eat when you're hungry. You sleep when you're tired, and during the daylight hours you climb. All your energy and all your partner's energy is put toward one specific goal."

Without control, risk-takers get bored, a particularly acute sensation for them. The calm that serves them on an expedition turns against them in a static situation, such as, say, a rainbound office. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, who has studied the sensation-seeking that underlies high-risk behavior, has found that risk-takers have an almost physical aversion to "low-sensation situations." In some cases, this leads to drug abuse; in others, it leads to risk-takers making friends with people who act outrageously to keep exciting their senses.

It also makes them impulsive. In college Eli took up competitive kickboxing to fill the hours he couldn't climb. Pete, who refers to himself regularly as "an ornery Mainer" dropped out of college after two years (he finished up later) and won't order something off a menu that someone else with him has already ordered. (I discovered this when we did a sandwich ordering do-si-do at our first meeting.)

In August, the weather improved in Acadia and the boredom was replaced with intense activity. Once Pete and Eli felt they were regaining control, the mood started to lift. The fear and frustration turned into active energy.

The business started to become like an expedition, ordering their lives the way a climb might. Time disappeared the same way it did for them on climbs. Says Eli, "Every job I've ever had, you look at the clock. Time meant something. Being an owner, time means nothing. I would be at the office for 14 hours and look up and think 'OK, that just happened.' I never thought I'd work for so many hours and not care."

They started talking in climbing shorthand around the office. "Do you have the schununu," Pete asks. This is a made-up word that means "anything in the immediate vicinity that I might need that you know I need." This could be a hot dog or an ice pick, but Eli knows what his partner is talking about.

As the clients streamed in, the two men traded shifts just as they trade lead climbing, working in the office for two days and guiding clients for two. They started at 6 in the morning and closed the office at nearly 10 p.m. By the end of the season in mid-October, they had worked 89 days out of 90.

When the season ends in Bar Harbor, the town contracts until spring. Pete and Eli packed away the equipment and hibernated the office. They closed their books for the year with a small profit. It was such a surprise, they didn't quite know what to do with the money. "We were wondering if we should pay ourselves a little," said Pete, as if the idea of working for personal gain had just dawned on them. The only Atlantic Climbing School obligation remaining was an end-of-the-year business trip. It would take place on the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a nice vacation from that three month period when everything had felt so risky.

Read John Dickerson's interview with Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt. Read the other entries in this series, on entrepreneurs Redbeacon, the band Girlyman, and Marine Gen. James Mattis.

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