Being BOLD: Taking Professional Development to New Heights

 March 28, 2018

Norman Pelak and his BOLD rope team

At 1 a.m. in early January 2014 I found myself some 16,000 feet above sea level on the side of an Ecuadorean volcano. I paused to catch my breath, gazing at strings of lights spread out along the mountain, the slope so steep that they seemed to float directly above and below me. Though my eyes were fixed on the lights, which belonged to other climbers, my body was attached in a more literal sense to the rest of my rope team—two friends from Duke and our guide. I was already exhilarated and exhausted and we had only reached the beginning of the glacier…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was in Ecuador with BOLD (Building Outdoor Leaders at Duke), a grad student club dedicated to honing outdoor leadership skills by undertaking treks and high-altitude climbs around the world. BOLD was founded in 2010 by MEM/MBA student Andrew Dietrich and classmates from the Fuqua School of Business, but the group has since attracted students from across Duke and organized numerous expeditions all over the Americas, from Canada to Chile.

My journey to Ecuador began in Durham, where BOLD organizes weekly workouts, outdoor skills training sessions, and socials (BOLDcials) during the fall semester. An overnight camping and hiking trip to the mountains of western North Carolina provided an outdoor challenge and further opportunity to get to know the rest of the group. Later in the semester, I applied for a spot on a team undertaking one of the major “Keystone” expeditions, which occur over winter break. Many BOLD trips focus on high-altitude climbing, but in recent years some have been built around trekking, skiing, and kayaking. Prior to the trip, my team worked together to organize travel logistics, learn outdoor leadership skills, and prepare ourselves physically and mentally for our expedition.

We also had a lot of fun! A conversation with anyone who has been involved in BOLD inevitably turns to the friends and memories they made. Assaad Mraad, a current BOLD fellow and Nicolas School PhD student, says that “some of the first friends I made here [after coming from Lebanon] were from BOLD, and really helped me to integrate…BOLD helped me hit the ground running.” Current co-president and Fuqua student Carolina Pardo emphasizes that the group is open to everyone: “Don’t be intimidated. Come to one of the trips—you don’t have to have all the gear, you don’t have to have certain skills…you just have to have a good attitude and want to connect to people.”

By bringing together students from diverse schools and backgrounds, BOLD provides an excellent networking opportunity. For example, a large contingent of its membership are Fuqua students, who have typically worked for several years prior to coming to Duke. Weston Ross, a Pratt PhD candidate and former president of BOLD, found this to be a huge advantage: “Hanging out with [MBA students] a few hours a week—it totally changed the way I thought about business, bringing a product to market, consulting, product development…it opened up the idea that maybe I could have a more business-oriented perspective when I left grad school.” Other BOLDers echoed this sentiment, in addition to mentioning that their experiences in BOLD frequently came up during job interviews.

The focal point of BOLD is, of course, the Keystone trip. Back in Ecuador, my rope team made it to the summit of the Cotopaxi volcano (elev. 19,347’) after 6 hours of slow glacier travel. It was my first mountaineering experience, and I was hooked.

My description of BOLD wouldn’t be complete, though, if I didn’t include what happened after we stumbled down to base camp. Some of our team had to turn back before summiting, but when they came out to celebrate they were so happy for us that you would never have known that we didn’t all make it to the top—reaching the top isn’t the only marker of success in mountaineering. We’d all supported each other throughout, put everything we had into the climb, and made it down safely.

It wasn’t just our success they were celebrating, it was theirs too—the whole team’s. That’s what being BOLD is all about!


Norman Pelak
Norman Pelak

Ph.D. candidate, Environmental Engineering

Norman Pelak is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Engineering, where he studies the optimal management of nitrogen cycles in agricultural ecosystems. He is a two-time BOLD participant (Ecuador 2013/14 and Argentina 2014/15) and in his free time he enjoys reading and daydreaming about all the mountains he’s going to climb after he finishes grad school.