Climbing Mt. Everest

“Sometimes we think that progress must occur in one direction. But that’s not really true. Sometimes you have to go backwards to move forward.”  –  Alison Levine – Lead the first all-woman US expeditionary team to climb Mt Everest

Several years ago I had the privilege of hearing Alison Levine present as a keynote speaker at technology industry symposium. An accomplished mountain climber, she is one only a handful of females who have climbed Mt Everest, and may be the only one to have traversed all 7 of the highest summits in the world. If you’ve not had the chance to hear her speak, it’s worth exploring her website to get a sense for her accomplishments and her passion for leadership ( The way she translates them in to something each of us can appreciate is a talent in itself.

Such was the case when I saw her speak about her journey to the top of Mt. Everest. Her story was riveting, and the implications for both business and leadership have left an impression with me for years. In fact, her story inspired me to do a little research on climbing Mt. Everest, and led to a few of my own observations on its relevance to leadership. I’d like to share a few of those with you today.

First, let me share some insight in to the challenge of Mt. Everest. At 29,035 ft in altitude, it is the highest peak on the planet. Think about that for a moment. Commercial airplanes often travel at that height. Which means its deadly. At 25,000 ft, the human body literally begins to die. In fact, the mortality rate of climbing Mt. Everest is nearly 10%. That’s one in ten that will die in their attempt to traverse this mountain. A staggering thought.

Because of this, climbing Mt. Everest requires a series of adjustments so the human body can acclimate to the higher altitudes. I’ll use the south slope as an illustration to make this point. In addition to the base camp (located at 17,500 ft), there are four other camps – Camp I (19,500 ft), Camp II (21,000 ft), Camp III (23,500 ft), and Camp IV (26,300 ft). These camps serve as staging and acclimating points along the hike, and are vital to the overall success of the climb.

The human body’s ability to acclimate is only part of the challenge, but a significant one. Only the most experienced climbers can risk this task. Not only does it take significant expertise, but it also takes both mental and physical stamina. This climb will push you to your limit and then beyond.

No climber can do this alone. It takes a seasoned team of climbers to make this happen. That team has to also have climbers with the right experience and expertise, AND the right mental ability to push themselves beyond their own limitations. You can’t simply leave a member behind half way through a climb. And the climb can’t be done alone – it will take teamwork to secure footings and anchor ropes, for example.

Here is where it gets interesting. I did a Google search on sample timelines for climbing Mt. Everest. While there was some variation, for the most part they were all very similar. Here is an example of one of the timelines I saw (this is literally a cut and paste):

  • Day 1-7 – Arrive in Nepal. Acclimate
  • Day 7 – Trek to Base Camp. Acclimate 6 days
  • Day 13 – trek to Camp I. Return to Base Camp
  • Day 15 – “First Rotation”
    • Trek to Camp I. Stay 2 nights
    • Trek to Camp II. Stay 3 nights
    • Return to Base Camp. Rest 3 days
  • Day 25 – “Second Rotation”
    • With nights at Camp I and Camp II
    • And a day trip to Camp III
    • Return to Base Camp
  • Day 35 – “Third Rotation”
    • Trek to Camp I. Stay 2 nights
    • Trek to Camp II. Stay 2 nights
    • Trek to Camp III. Stay 1 night
  • Day 40-45 – Rest Days
    • Some members may elect to descend to lower elevation to recoup before the summit attempt begins
  • Day 46 – likely first summit attempt

Once you have reached Camp III (and after 45 days of climbing), your next elevation is Camp IV where you stage for the climb to the summit. When you reach that point, you have a very short window (48 hours or so) before you must descend to a lower elevation. Why? Remember my point above – the human body literally begins to die at 25,000 ft. Camp IV is at 26,300 ft.

What’s interesting about this climb is that the most treacherous part is between Base Camp and Camp I. This portion of the climb involves traversing the Khumba Icefall, and active glacier that can literally open and close deep ravines on almost a daily basis. And the plan calls for the team to traverse this 8 separate times (if you count the return portion of each climb). 8 separate times across a moving glacier at times navigating cracks and caverns that can be dozens of feet in width and hundreds deep!!!

So let’s put this all together and reflect on what it takes to make this climb: Experience/Expertise, the right team; Acclimation; Change; Progress. Without any of these items, the climb simply cannot be possible. Achieving this monumental goal would fall completely short.

Which is why this has such an amazing correlation to success in business:

  • Experience/Expertise – as an individual, you must focus on your own development. You must work tirelessly to improve, to become the best you can be. To be willing to push yourself beyond your own perceived limitations
  • The Right Team – no individual can do this alone. It takes a team. Some have to lead, others have to be willing to follow. But all will be called upon to help each other achieve success
  • Change – Put simply, survival means change. Sitting still will kill you.
  • Acclimation – Any person, team, or organization will need time to acclimate to new paradigms. It must be part of the thinking that accompanies change.
  • Progress – Last, but not least, achieving success means progress. But what’s most interesting is that progress doesn’t have to be forward. Sometimes – most times – it means retracing your steps, regaining your bearings, and doing it again. And again. And again.

As we all aspire to be our best, and achieve success in a truly meaningful way, keep in mind that climbing that mountain will take more than you ever realized.

But the views are amazing and worth every moment!!!

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