Mt. Everest, Part II: Learning from a Second Climb of the World’s Highest Mountain

Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, tells the story of Chilean adventurer Rodrigo Jordan, who climbed Mt. Everest in 1992 and is gearing up for a second climb in May. This time, however, Jordan will be adding two novel twists, both of them reflecting his lifelong passion for exploration and leadership.

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took the final step onto the top of Mt. Everest, the world’s loftiest summit at 29,035 feet. Hillary snapped a photo of Tenzing at the apex, ice axe raised in triumph, a defining symbol, not only for climbing and summiting, but also for aspiring and succeeding in any hard endeavor. 

The route that Hillary, Tenzing and other members of the British expedition had pioneered that year was — and is — difficult and dangerous. British parties had been seeking to reach the summit by another route for 30 years, all falling short. The new route opened a better way, but it still required navigating around gigantic ice-blocks and massive avalanches. Even today, with far superior equipment and provisions, those who follow the 1953 way require weeks in the extreme. Some come back with frostbite or snow blindness, and a few not at all, as readers of Jon Krakauer’s account, Into Thin Air, will recall. Krakauer’s book describes the events surrounding the loss of five climbers on this route in a single day in 1996.

A Mountaineering Tradition

Despite the extraordinary hazards and deprivations, Rodrigo Jordan, a Chilean adventurer, set out to climb the mountain in 1986 by an even more difficult and dangerous route up the East face of the mountain. The Kangshung face is nearly two vertical miles of jagged rock and black ice, a colossal challenge for surviving, let alone ascending at high altitude. His team fell short in 1986, tried again in 1989 and finally summited in 1992. Three Chileans, including Jordan himself, were the first of their country to reach the summit, making it a matter of pride and prominence in a nation already steeped in mountaineering tradition with the Andes and Patagonia in its backyard.

Fast forward two decades. Jordan decided that a 20th anniversary celebration of his country’s first ascent of Mt. Everest would be welcome. Like veterans of foreign wars, veterans of Himalayan expeditions sometimes commemorate their achievements with reunions, but Jordan would add two novel twists, both of them reflecting his lifelong compassion for exploration, leadership and learning.  

With a PhD in organizational administration from Oxford University, Jordan returned from his triumph in the Himalayas to create Foundation Vertical, a non-profit organization to give inner-city youth an experience in the wilderness; Vertical SA, a company to take company managers and others into experiential learning; and even an institute to run college-degree programs. The Wharton Leadership Program has long partnered with Vertical for its MBA Leadership Ventures in the Atacama, Patagonia, and even Antarctica.   

An Unforgiving Environment

If Jordan’s driving passion is to help others develop their own leadership by pushing their limits and learning from the experience, then a marking of the 20th anniversary of Chile’s first ascent of the world’s highest mountain should be more than reunion. He would organize instead a symposium — “Everest 20 Years: Beyond the Peaks” — of those who had stretched their limits in a range of arenas where few have dared to tread. For two days in mid-March, Jordan gathered some of the world’s most venturesome figures to learn what they had mastered from the past that could better inform the next generation’s future. 

Andrew Muir of South Africa’s Wilderness Foundation and Wayne Saunders and Mandla Mkhwanazi of the Wilderness Leadership School have been leading visitors into game preserves for years. Those who have been on safari in South Africa, Kenya or Tanzania know well the normal drill: With prowling lions and cape buffalo making the landscape hazardous, visitors must normally remain well within the confines of their Land Rover. But not so for their enterprise, where walking is the convention. Venturing on foot does require exquisite self-management: Stay down-wind, make no sound, move furtively, remain fearless. As a back-up, guides carry high power rifles, but some 60,000 clients over 50 years have walked the wilds without serious mishap. The point: By carefully learning to manage our environment, we can come far closer to seeing up close what is most remarkable in it.

Mexican adventurer and educator Karla Wheelock offered similar prescription from entirely dissimilar terrain. She had climbed the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the continents, and from her extreme experiences on them, she reminds us that in very unforgiving environments — whether on the mountains or in business — when it comes to strategic choices, we must strive to be fault free. But by going and testing ourselves in the extreme, we can come to better understand what we are made of and how to avoid such errors. Each of us, Wheelock urged, would be wise to find our “own Mt. Everest.”

Norwegian adventurer and author Erling Kagge had reached what are sometimes termed the earth’s three poles: the South Pole, the North Pole and the summit of Mt. Everest. He had sailed the Atlantic Ocean twice, and, for good measure, traversed New York City — underground. We are all born explorers, he believes, and we start by climbing chairs and then maybe stairs. But as we grow, that instinct in us all is alas suppressed in most. His objective, he said, is to remind us of our natural state, to bring it out, and to focus us more on a world that is still full of opportunities for fresh discovery.

Pertemba Sherpa of Nepal and Christian Bonington of Great Britain were a central part of a 1978 expedition to climb Mt. Everest by a new and difficult route up the Southwest Face. Sir Chris led the expedition and Pertemba reached the summit. For them, they said at the symposium, success came down to logistics and teamwork. With the right supplies in place and the right people on the rope, they could achieve what nobody else had achieved before.

The celebration of a triumph of 20 years ago spoke to the value of not just recalling the past but also to building a better future. In the words of symposium presenter Johan Reinhard, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, “It’s not enough to discover, to explore; we must share what we learn with others.”

Returning to Mt. Everest

Rodrigo Jordan’s concept of celebration came with a second novel twist as well. Just two days after the symposium’s conclusion, a forward party from Vertical, led by one of its more seasoned guides, Kiko Guzman, flew to Nepal to lay the groundwork for another attempt at Mt. Everest, this time by the same route as followed by Hillary and Tenzing. If all goes well, and that “if” always looms large because of the vagaries of the extremes, they anticipate a final from Camp 4 push to reach the summit in mid-May. To commemorate the first ascent of 1992, they would do it again.

The mountaineering tradition has long defined climbing success as the placement of at least one or two members of an expedition on the summit, with others playing essential roles of support but all enjoying the accolades of success. For its many benefits, however, that tradition always came with a price, borne by those who did not stand on the summit but who might have done so were it not for the luck of the draw or the obligation of support. 

That custom, however, gave way to a new concept during a breakthrough discussion led by Rodrigo Jordan at a base camp several years earlier. He was then leading a Chilean expedition to climb Lhotse, a 27,940-foot peak attached to Mt. Everest, and his team was preparing to send a small summit team to the top of Lhotse. Jordan faced one of an expedition leader’s most excruciating decisions. Many of the team’s members are typically capable of reaching the summit, all have shouldered great risk in carrying supplies, and yet only a pair or two are normally accorded a chance to stand on the shoulders of others to make a final push for the top. 

Jordan’s climbers had assembled in a base-camp tent to learn whom he would designate for the honor of the summit team. But he surprised them all by proposing to follow a very different pathway. Instead of the leader solely choosing, all of the climbers would collectively decide on the summit party, bringing far more data to bear on a critical decision since each member would contribute his own direct knowledge of the relative capabilities of all the others.   

All to the Summit

One of the climbers in the base-camp tent, Kiko Guzman, proposed instead an even more novel approach: Why not plan for all to go for the summit? The light-bulb lit, Jordan instinctively responded, “why not?” and in an instant Jordan and his team embraced a complete break with convention. That required quick revision of a host of logistical plans: The high camp on Lhotse, for instance, barely had room for several climbers, let alone all. But just five days later, Jordan and 14 others stood on the summit of Lhotse — the first Chileans to reach the top, and all of the Chileans on the expedition.

The same is now planned for Jordan’s return to Mt. Everest this spring.  Jordan has invited 10 mountaineers, three army officers and 10 climbing sherpas to join the expedition, and he is planning for all who are physically-fit on summit day to climb from the high camp, shinny-up the Hillary Step, and hopefully come to set foot on the highest square-yard on earth. 

Rodrigo Jordan reported that his early expeditions to Mt. Everest had been vitally informed by Chris Bonington. Bonington reported that his own expeditions had been informed by John Hunt, the leader of the 1953 British expedition. In celebrating their past ascent in a completely novel way, Jordan is now doing much the same for the coming generation of leaders, whether in mountaineering, business, or service. Stay tuned: http://www.everest20años.cl/english.

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