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A leadership nightmare turned Everest triumph

Anne Parmenter
Anne Parmenter is an avid mountaineer who has summited Everest, Denali, Agoncagua, and Mont Blanc, among others. She is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School, a climbing guide, and long-time head coach of the Trinity College women's field hockey team.

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.

By Anne Parmenter

 |  April 12, 2010; 1:39 PM ET |  Category:  Outdoor leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree with you, mhoust. People should challenge themselves and test their limits, especially those who are fortunate enough to live comfortably. But there are ways to challenge yourself, both physically and mentally, that also help make the world a better place. Climbing a mountain that has been climbed many times already does not seem to be helping anyone other than the climber. The significant resources and effort that go into that endeavor could help any number of causes while still providing the individual involved a personal challenge.

Posted by: tomguy1 | April 13, 2010 12:31 PM

Perhaps my response is that of an occasional adrenalin junkie; but those of us who a leaders of humanity (physical, mental, political, etc.) have a fundamental need to test ourselves, to push ourselves to the limit and beyond; and by doing so, extend our limits and the limits of our race. We need the challenges to justify to ourselves our right to exist.

Posted by: mhoust | April 13, 2010 11:57 AM

Anne's climbing partner's book High Crimes, is a must read. Anne is the last person who would glorify climbing Everest. Like she said, it was about the journey for her. We at NOLS are proud of you, Anne!

Posted by: aparnadurbin | April 13, 2010 11:39 AM

While summitting Everest is certainly an impressive personal accomplishment, it no longer serves to advance the imagination or status of human beings as a whole.

When I hear of the time, money and energy -- especially the latter, both physical and psychological energy -- that people expend on this endeavor, I can't help but think how much could be accomplished for the benefit of the world if these talents were put into less selfish endeavors.

If you have the stamina, determination, desire and bankroll to be able to summit Everest, surely you also have the creativity to be able to challenge yourself in a way that is useful to the world.

Posted by: tomguy1 | April 13, 2010 10:36 AM

Climbing Everest isn't all that impressive...the Sherpas practically carry them up the mountain.

Posted by: wolfcastle | April 13, 2010 10:07 AM

Nothing personal against these climbers but I have always had a problem with extreme mountain climbing where persons pass into a "zone of death" and one out of 5 summiters...die. (per "Up in Thin Air") I have a problem with the "Because it's there" mentality that supposedly reflects some laudable human spirit. It does not.

Sure, I understand the idea of "going beyond" and exploring the unknown but this has usually been attached to some return of value, areas mapped, things learned, the body strengthed. Everest represents some sort of vanishing point of these ideals. Coming at the end of the age of discovery, there really is nothing new to be learned by climbing Everest. No insight into the human condition, nothing but an ultimate, expensive - in lives and treasure - hobby.

She has already had one bad experience which should not be considered an accident. That should be warning enough.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | April 13, 2010 8:47 AM

I think we need many more rich 'adventurers' to blaze trails of garbage and human filth wherever none existed before.

Posted by: blackmask | April 13, 2010 6:52 AM

12 years old is too young, there's a high risk of sudden death before age 16 due to physiological reasons. Children that young are not permitted at altitude on Mauna Kea for that reason.

Posted by: Nymous | April 13, 2010 5:58 AM

Great article. Glad you got another chance. How do you feel about the 12 year old who wants to climb Everest? I think the parents are being irresponsible.

Posted by: Whazzis | April 13, 2010 2:22 AM

Good luck to them. I lost interest in Everest after it turned into a refuse pit of bad behavior & filth.

Posted by: Nymous | April 12, 2010 10:55 PM

Best of luck to both of these remarkable women and their climbing teams.

Posted by: wilsonjmichael | April 12, 2010 8:35 PM

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