I met a guy who had recently climbed Mount Everest. In our conversation I learned that he actually reached the summit on his second attempt, having failed on his first attempt a few years earlier.
On his first attempt he could actually see the summit only a couple of hundred feet ahead of him. But he ran out of fixed rope. Despite being so close to his goal he had to make a decision. Does he risk the attempt given the very high chances that he could die and never see his young son and wife again? Or does he go back down and try again in the future.
In the face of summit fever, that feeling of going for the summit at all costs, he calmly made the decision to go back down, and live to try another day.
It was a fascinating story and lesson that could be applied to life and business. What other lessons can be understood through the experience of mountain climbing?
The majesty of the mountains is truly breathtaking and exhilarating. From the first time I went to Colorado and saw the Front Range, I developed a level of awe and respect for these natural wonders. And I had a growing desire to climb, or at least attempt to climb these peaks.
I have had the opportunity to climb 11 mountains. I know several people who have done much more, and with much greater difficulty. I’ve read dozens of books on mountain climbing and learned from the experiences of others.
Here is my collected set of thoughts on the lessons, learnings and philosophies that mountain climbing can provide to anyone. Most importantly these mountain climbing lessons can be applied to virtually any aspect of your personal and professional lives.
1. Live to Fight Another Day; Don’t Die on the Hill
The true story in our introduction is a great lesson. You may have long held goals, and you may be within short reach of those goals. But if there is an extraordinary chance that you will fail if you push towards the goal at that time, it can be better to fall back, regroup, and try again later.
My friend did exactly that. On his second attempt he brought LOTS of extra rope, ensuring that would not be an issue. He trained harder and more intensely now knowing exactly what was in front of him. And he was significantly more prepared for his second attempt, making success an inevitability. He didn’t give up.
I faced a somewhat similar experience, but on a far less severe scale. On my 10th ascent of a peak in Colorado I was suddenly aware of thunder in the distance. I could tell that it was getting closer. I decided to start sprinting up the side of the mountain and I could see the peak ahead. But the thunder was getting closer, lightning was visible nearby, and the mountain was becoming covered with storm clouds.
Even though I was minutes from the summit I did not want to die on the mountain. I turned around and took shelter on a mountain side mine shaft. When there was a slight opening in the weather I quickly headed down the mountain and abandoned the attempt. It was a lesson in knowing when to fall back. Many months later my experience and perspective enabled me to successfully ascend Mount Kilimanjaro.
2. Training and Experience are Invaluable
For many people when you see the majesty of the mountains it is at once breathtaking, awe inspiring and motivating. You may just want to start climbing right then and there.
The reality is much different. Even for simpler, non-technical mountain ascents a level of preparation, training, and experience is required. On Mount Kilimanjaro for instance, considered one of the easier climbs of the 7 Summits (the highest peaks on each continent) a lot of highly skilled individuals and athletes have not been able to successfully reach the top. According to Wikipedia the success rate on ascending Mount Kilimanjaro is only 65%.
The reasons why people don’t reach the summit vary. It could be weather conditions, illness, high altitude sickness, injury or anything else. Because there are so many variables that can conspire against you, it is absolutely essential to prepare to the greatest degree possible, to train to a level beyond what you should need to reach the top, and to gain as much experience as possible.
When I started climbing in Colorado I chose to climb mountains with increasing levels of difficulty. I started with a very simple climb. My next ascent was a little more difficult and longer, and subsequent climbs had greater degrees of complexity and difficulty. Throughout it all I adjusted my equipment, my training, and my preparation to ensure I was ready for the next challenge.
This plan continued as I attempted Mount Kilimanjaro. I was sure that I had prepared beyond what was necessary. The only big variable for me was how I would be at such a high altitude (Mount Kilimanjaro is over 19,000′ whereas the Colorado peaks are over 14,000′ high). Interestingly my preparation was well worth it and I was fine at the higher altitude. Amazingly my guide, who had ascended Kilimanjaro hundreds of times, got altitude sickness on summit day. It goes to show you that you must be prepared for any eventuality.
3. Visualization – The “Top of the Mountain” Approach
The company I was working for had hired a Change Management consultant to help change the company culture and position us for making transformational changes and move beyond our mediocre ways. One of the techniques that the consultant taught us was the “Top of the Mountain” approach.
If you are standing at the start of the trail at the bottom of most mountains, you can not see the route to the top. The path winds and turns, the terrain changes, the vegetation differs, and the challenges unfold along your way. Many of these challenges can be overwhelming, confusing and daunting. You can’t see the top and you can’t see the accomplishment of your goal.
The “Top of the Mountain” visualization technique asks you to approach your task from a different perspective. Imagine that you are already standing on the summit. You have achieved your goal. Now you can stand there and look back down on the path you just took to reach the top. You can see what it took to take that last step, and the one before that, the one before that, and so on.
You can see what it took to take each step and to overcome each of the challenges you met along the way. As such you can prepare in advance how you will tackle those tasks, and for those challenges you couldn’t see, how you can prepare mentally and physically to meet those head on.
It’s an approach that athletes use all the time. Imagine you have won the Gold medal, won the trophy, or beat your own personal best record. Now imagine all of the work necessary to get you to that point. You will have created a roadmap to ensure you have the best possible chances of success.
4. It Takes Teamwork
Even for “individual athletes”, achieving their best results requires teamwork. Coaches, trainers, friends, family, supporters and even competitors are all a part of the team that gets you ready to reach your goals.
Climbing a mountain requires teamwork of all kinds. On Mount Kilimanjaro I had a guide and porters as my support team. Even though I was climbing on my own there were lots of other people around supporting me, and the hundreds of others climbing on any given day. The support of family, the people who helped me in getting my equipment, and those who helped with my training, were all a part of the collective team that made reaching my goal possible.
Anyone, however extraneous, who has some part in your preparation, training and activity, is really an invaluable part of your team.
5. Goal Setting and Achievement
George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and he responded with the memorable line, “Because it’s there!” Whatever your motivation you need to set a goal and go for it. Setting a goal, like reaching a mountain summit, becomes the focal point for all of your energy, attention and focus.
Setting an extraordinary goal also facilitates your thinking out of the box as you need to come up with new and creative ways to realize that achievement. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two of the first climbers to attempt climbing Everest in the 1920’s, did not have much precedent to lean on to inform their attempt. They had to find new routes, work with new equipment (eg. oxygen), and meet challenges no one had ever seen. In the end they were viewed as high on the mountain as anyone before them, but they lost their lives in the attempt.
I was asked to lead a project requiring the achievement of historic results in inventory performance for the company. It was a task many of my predecessors had attempted with little to no success. We accepted the challenge and took it as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how we would approach and tackle the task at hand. In short, we went from worst in the industry to the best in the industry in inventory performance in 9 months, first by setting a goal and then by changing all paradigms about how to tackle such a challenge and achieve breakthrough results.
6. A Test in Perseverance and Trust
Climbing a mountain is exhausting, both physically and mentally. On the day I summited Mount Kilimanjaro I started at 1:00am, reached the summit at 12:00pm, and descended to the camp site by 7:00pm. I had never been so exhausted in my entire life.
It would have been easy to give up. With 700 vertical feet of the summit we hit a section where the snow was so deep that it was almost impossible to pass. Several other people who were ascending at the same time turned around and went back down the mountain. For my part I did not come all this way to get so close to my goal only to give up and go home. My guide suggested an alternate route which I immediately took and 45 minutes later I was on top of the mountain.
To me it was a lesson in perseverance and trust. Again it would be so easy to give up, especially when you are so tired and spent. The hard think to do is to persist and persevere. As the saying goes “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Don’t give up!
7. Methodical Pacing
Attempting any challenge requires a methodical pace and structure. Most people cannot just run up the side of a mountain. Slow and steady wins the race. You need to go at a methodical, steady, and sustainable pace. You are running a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s ok to stop and catch your breath before you move on. This allows you to gather your thoughts, re-energize, regain your composure and build your resolve.
8. Real Time Problem Solving and Quick Thinking
Even if you have used the “Top of the Mountain” visualization approach, even if you are prepared to the ultimate degree, and even if you have great resolve and determination, you will inevitably be faced with challenges that you did not expect. In these situations you need to be able to think on your feet and solve the problem in real time.
Mountaineers face this reality all of the time. Avalanches, rock falls, shifting glaciers, broken ropes, equipment failures, and dramatic shifts in the weather all create circumstances in which the climber must think quick, take action, and mobilize. Failure to respond can truly mean death in extreme circumstances.
9. Testing Your Physical and Mental Limits
It can be easy to do the same thing at home or on the job. It’s safe, brainless, and easy and for many people that is all they want. The challenge is to test your physical and mental limits. My wife were recently watching a documentary of people climbing Mount Everest. Several of the climbers had ascended the mountain 3 or 4 times already, and they were trying again.
My wife asked a reasonable question, “Why would anyone want to climb Mount Everest again after they had already reached the top?” My response was that typically these people want to try to summit in different ways. They want to try new routes, go at different times of the year, try it without oxygen or with little to no support.
Whatever their motivation summiting the highest mountain in the world is not the end of their ambition. They want to test and push their physical and mental limits farther and farther. It is their adrenaline, their energy source and the driving force. For some people
10. Gratitude, Humility and Thankfulness
Any mountain climber knows that they cannot achieve any summit without help. And whatever form that help takes must be recognized with gratitude, humility and thankfulness.
Thank you support team, show humility and deference to the mountain, and be grateful for the opportunity.
On Mount Everest there are ceremonies, prayer flags and more all to show respect to the mountain in hopes of success of the ensuing summit attempt. While most mountains don’t have this much formal ceremony, taking the time to be respectful and thankful applies anywhere and anytime.
Mountain Climbing in Conclusion
Our story here uses the mountain and mountain climbing as a metaphor for whatever you are facing in your personal and professional lives. Face your fears head on. Be self confident no matter what the outcome is and persevere. Through it all keep yourself and your self image in perspective.
Be sure to apply these mountain climbing lessons and strategies we have outlined here no matter what challenge you are facing in any aspect of your lives.