‘The inspiring part is not where you succeed; it’s your willingness to try.’ – Sunny Stroeer
Formerly a 9-to-5 strategy consultant, Sunny turned her back on a high-flying career and huge salary shortly after turning 30, and has been living in an Astrovan to explore the world full-time ever since.
Sidetracked: No doubt you’ve been asked this many times before, but was there a catalyst moment when you decided to turn your back on your career? What led up to it? And how did it lead you to go to the extent of ‘giving up material possessions’ as well?
Sunny: There were many moments that made me think that my career wasn’t going to be one for the ages, but the defining moment came on the heels of a particularly tough project – think several 100-hour weeks, not counting the weekends, because I was always in the mountains on Saturdays and Sundays! – back to back, and an abusive client on top of it. My team and I pulled off the impossible and delivered the project with great results, but after I closed out the big final meeting with my client’s senior executive team I found myself standing in the boardroom by the floor-to-ceiling windows, crying uncontrollably. The project was considered a great success for and by everyone (including my team, even though they worked themselves to death!), but for me it came at an immeasurable personal cost. I promised myself: never again. Less than a year later I was homeless and unemployed – deliberately and happily so.
Vanlife, or turning my back on material possessions, was not something I had planned on. I just knew that I wanted to give myself a break from the rat race and recharge by spending as much time as I could in those places that I love the most: the mountains and deserts of the American West. All my disposable income had gone towards six-figure student loans and weekend trips to the backcountry. With limited savings, the easiest and most logical way of making that happen was to sell everything I owned and find a cheap van to move into – a practice that has a long tradition in the US rock-climbing and mountain-lover community.
You were ill with a respiratory infection in January 2017 and yet still managed to set the female speed record on Aconcagua. Was there a moment you felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Strangely enough I never considered giving up. I probably should have; I became dangerously sick on the descent from the summit right after I broke the record. Not being able to breathe at 6,500m is terrifying. I had put so much work and preparation in to this speed ascent, I knew the mountain so well and had been climbing so strongly even with my respiratory infection – I was just too curious to see what I could do. Quitting never crossed my mind.
On having an all-female team on Aconcagua, you said this: ‘I climbed Aconcagua solo and unsupported in 2014, and I was shocked how few women were there. The women who were around all seemed to either be with boyfriends or in guided parties – it didn’t sit right with me. I decided then and there that I wanted to make a difference.’ What about the world right now makes this attitude important?
I don’t think that there is anything about the world right now that makes it particularly important – but that having women be equal partners to men is always important. I believe that situations where women participate on equal footing with their male counterparts – be it in the boardroom, in school or in the home – produce better outcomes for everyone, men and women alike. I have seen first-hand how creating opportunities for women in the outdoors, particularly without the presence of dominant male figures, can contribute to a sense of confidence and empowerment that carries back into day-to-day life. That’s why I make it a point to lead at least one all-female expedition or backcountry trip each year.
Tell us about the importance of the San Miguel Rich List to you. What place does it have in our world at the moment?
I love the fact that the San Miguel Rich List focuses on experiences rather than material wealth – which is a choice that has shaped my life. I firmly believe that richness in today’s (developed) world is not about how to make more money and own more stuff. We know how to do that: work harder, study harder, hustle, work more jobs, sleep less. So instead of climbing the material ladder, richness in my mind is about the memories we make, the relationships we have, the moments we share. I love that San Miguel takes the time to celebrate living life deliberately and passionately – and to curate a collection of amazing individuals all of whom inspire me at the deepest level to continue going against the grain, to live true to my own passions, and to dare to defy conventional definitions of what it means to live a successful life. The Rich List is a powerful statement proving that it is OK to march to the beat of your own drum.