Facing an uphill climb? Here are some tips from the death zone

Phil Castle

Business owners and managers face fearsome challenges, particularly at the confluence of a pandemic, labor shortages and supply chain interruptions.

I report about those challenges and the efforts to surmount them. In the process, I marvel at the hard work, perseverance and resilience owners and managers — their staffs, too, of course — bring to their endeavors. Faced with such uphill climbs, I wonder what motivates them to keep going and what makes the difference in their ultimate success.

All of this comes to mind after reading an account of uphill climbs of a different sort — 14 to be exact. While there are vast differences between scaling mountains and managing businesses, there are also some similarities.

In his memoir titled “Project Possible,” Nims Purja recounts his quest to not only reach the summits of the 14 highest mountains in the world, but also do so in only six months. To comprehend just how audacious that goal was, consider the previous record for the feat was seven years.

Consider, too, those 14 peaks top 8,000 meters in elevation — more than 26,000 feet above sea level. Mount Everest, the highest peak of all, exceeds 29,000 feet.

That’s more like the cruising altitude of a jetliner. The insufficient oxygen, frigid temperatures and other dangerous conditions have earned those areas above 8,000 meters the grim designation death zone. Tragically so given the number of climbers who die there every year.

Scaling even one 8,000-meter peak constitutes a remarkable achievement. Less than 50 climbers have scaled all 14. Reinhold Messner, the Italian climber who was first to summit all of the 8,000-meter peaks, spent 16 years in the pursuit. 

Incredibly, Purja completed his tour in Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet in just six months and six days. He reached the summits of Everest as well as nearby Lhotse and Makalu in one, 49-hour stretch.

What kind of a human is capable of that kind of performance? An athletically gifted one who gives new meaning to the term peak condition. But also a determined and disciplined one.

Purja grew up in Nepal and joined the British military with first the Nepalese Ghurkas and then the Special Boat Services. He developed his resolve to achieve ambitious goals in preparing for and enduring the brutal selection processes for those elite forces. His training regimen included 70-mile bike sessions in the gym and lengthy swims in the pool. He’d get up in the middle of the night for hikes with backpacks loaded with 75 pounds of weight. The physical testing for selection into the Special Boat Services included an 18-mile speed march followed by an additional march of 37 miles carrying a backpack loaded with 80 pounds of gear.

Purja completed his first ascent of Everest with the assistance of a single Sherpa and rescued an Indian climber on the descent. In 2017, Purja returned as part of a military expedition and climbed Everest twice as well as Lhotse and Makalu.

He had even loftier goals, though, and ended his 16-year military career to take on a personal mission he dubbed Project Possible — to climb all of the 8,000-meter peaks in quick succession. He completed his mission and endured in the process nearly lethal avalanches, treacherous climbing conditions and extreme weather.

The book includes an appendix with what Purja terms eight lessons from the death zone. While the circumstances are different, those lessons also apply to business:

Leadership means considering the needs of others and working together in ways to benefit everyone.

Taking care of little things make a big difference.

Don’t underestimate challenges. Prepare and proceed confidently, but also with respect. 

Hope and commitment are essential.

People’s true natures are revealed in stressful situations.

Strive to mentally turn bad situations into good ones and maintain a positive attitude.

Give 100 percent to the task at hand and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

Never lie or make excuses.

I’ve bagged a couple of peaks. But the 14ers and 13ers I climbed in Colorado are less than half the elevation of  8,000-meter peaks. Similarly, I’ve long written about businesses, but never managed one myself.

I remain amazed and inspired by uphill climbs of all sorts. That includes the fearsome challenges faced and surmounted in businesses every day. Here’s hoping those involved come out on top.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at 424-5133 or phil@thebusinesstimes.com.