By Steve Lamb
Like many before him, Hugo, a project manager in Woodland Hills, California, went to the mountains seeking the things that have always drawn people to such heights — adventure, challenge, nature. And, like so many, he returned a changed man.
High in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, the view is a panorama of rocky peaks. Mt. Cucamonga, one of its highest, tops out at more 8,200 feet. It was a summit that Hugo, an avid hiker and a triathlete in training, sought to conquer as he worked toward his goal of climbing Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. On Easter weekend in 2017, he and a group of Northrop Grumman colleagues set out on the trail.
And then, as the group neared the summit, an accident.
In the thin air up around 8,000 feet, Hugo’s blood pressure dropped. He fell, tumbling down the mountain four hundred feet — the equivalent of nearly forty stories.
“I got that call,” said Dave, his manager. “‘Hugo’s had an accident.’ My job was to be a friend, not a boss.”
Hugo was rushed to the hospital. He awoke after five days to find family and friends at his bedside. He remembered nothing about the accident.
“I spent about three weeks in the hospital,” said Hugo. He had broken three vertebrae and was paralyzed from the chest down. Six months at rehab facilities followed.
Slowly, Hugo began to understand the extent of his injuries, but it wasn’t until he received his first wheelchair that it all sank in.
“At that moment, I understood what had really happened and what was coming to me. I started to realize what my life was going to be like. Emotionally, I was devastated,” he said.
Peaks and Valleys
In 2001, Hugo started at Northrop Grumman as a maintenance contractor. After five years, he was hired into the company as part of the Facilities team. He became involved with the facilities planning process, learning computer aided design and helping plot changes to the campus.
While his career was progressing, he noticed that his fitness level was not where he wanted it to be.
“It’s a blessing to me to know that I am useful, every day.”
— Hugo, Project Manager
He made a serious effort to get into shape, ultimately losing 40 pounds and setting an ambitious goal: completing a triathlon. He met colleagues, including Dave, who shared his interest in national parks and trail running. Before long, they were meeting up regularly to enjoy the outdoors. Some trips were full adventures, like the time they traveled to Yellowstone National Park for the Bison Double, a 5K run followed by a half marathon.
“He was in great shape,” said Dave. “I was not.”
A New Summit
“I was concerned about how people would respond to me after they heard about my accident,” said Hugo. “They were surprised to see me, but everybody embraced me. My confidence came back.”
Hugo’s supporters built ramps and helped set up his home for accessibility. Working with his care team, Northrop Grumman provided the technology and accommodations he needed to function effectively from home — long before remote work was commonplace.
“They are definitely my second family. They are so close to me,” said Hugo.
He started working part time, gradually moving to full-time hours and expanding his role. With his colleagues functioning as his eyes and ears on site, he began managing construction projects from start to finish.
It has been seven years since the accident. Hugo’s outlook has changed since that day on the mountain, but what motivates him is a constant.
“It’s a blessing to me to know that I am useful, every day,” he said.
Learn more about Hugo’s journey by watching his film, An Uncharted Path.
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