A leadership nightmare turned Everest triumph
With the 2010 Himalayan climbing season already underway, two women are poised to make history if all goes well in the high peaks this spring. A race is brewing between Oh Eun-Sun, 43, from South Korea, and Edurne Pasaban, 36, of Spain, with both women on track to complete all 14 8,000 meter peaks.
Successfully climbing the world's highest peaks will gain them access to a very exclusive club of climbers, which to date has only 18 male members. As I write, both women are climbing Annapurna, the only peak Eun-Sun must summit to bag all 14, while Pasaban is planning a "two-fer" with Annapurna, and, later this spring, Shisha Pangma.
Other climbing expeditions are not far behind these women. As they all depart Nepal's capital, Katmandu, last-minute shopping, packing and re-packing will reach fever pitch, with team members frantically squeezing their gear into barrels for two months on the mountain. Most are headed for Everest's south side. Some are headed for its north side, provided access into Tibet is granted.
As Pasaban, Eun Sun, and the other expeditions begin on their journeys, the question running through their minds is undoubtedly, "Will we make it?"
What makes or breaks a climbing team? What does it take to summit successfully?
The less popular north side of Everest is where I got my first taste of the mountain back in 2004 -- and the encounter is one I have tried hard to forget. Hastily laid plans, a price tag that was too good to be true, and a mismatch of team members created a recipe for disaster. Our group became fractured by a dog-eat-dog mentality, lack of leadership, and disrespect for other team members. "Summit at any cost" seemed to be the team mantra.
Several members were bullied, gear was stolen, and threats were made against me and my climbing partner, Michael Kodas, making an already stressful situation even more dire. Michael and I turned around at Camp II (21,500 feet) because we didn't trust our teammates. I did not summit that year, but I do not regret our decision to turn around. I was devastated at the time, but thankful to be alive.
With the debacle of that failed attempt behind me, I thought my chance of climbing Everest was over. However, in 2006, with more careful planning, a reputable outfitter, and a team that valued the same principles that I hold true in my own life, we were set to return.
My two experiences on Everest could not have been more different. In 2006, I was fortunate to rewrite my Everest nightmare, summiting on May 25th with a small group of wonderful people. With cooperation, teamwork, and a little luck, we spent 45 minutes on the summit together -- with blue-bird skies, no wind, and a view of the world that remains etched in my memory today.
Leadership was instrumental in our successful 2006 expedition. Our team was imbued with the leadership qualities that my National Outdoor Leadership School training taught me are instrumental to any successful expedition, namely: competence, tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, communication and self-awareness. Besides perhaps competence, none of the other qualities of leadership existed in my 2004 expedition team. As I learned on the mountain, a team can have decades of combined mountaineering experience, but without effective leadership and teamwork, summiting is unlikely.
Famous British climber George Mallory was once asked by an American reporter why he sought to reach the summit. Mallory, angered by the question, is reputed to have given the now-classic answer, "Because it's there." I am often asked the same question: Why climb mountains?
For me the answer is not simple. It is a compound of the great beauty of clear, cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of what the legendary Himalayan mountaineering pioneer Charles Houston called "the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience." Ultimately, however, my Everest quest was more about the journey than the goal. Summiting was important, but how we reached the summit was equally critical.
I have used the lessons on Everest to help in my field hockey coaching, guiding, and teaching. While I hope nobody ever experiences what I endured in 2004, it has made me a stronger, more determined person. I realize now more than ever that good leadership is the key to any successful team, be it on the mountain or on the playing field. It has helped me establish a set of values and principles that are important in my daily life, while my climbing partner, Michael Kodas, wrote about these leadership issues in his book, "High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed."
I look forward to following the adventures this season as each team strives for the summit of whatever mountain they are climbing.
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