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[Excerpt] Naked At The Knife-Edge

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by Vivian James Rigney, author of “Naked at the Knife-Edge: What Everest Taught Me about Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability” 

Awaking to the sun’s dawn rays warming my tent, I felt as though I had never left Base Camp. It was May 10 and Day 36 of our Everest expedition. With both excitement and trepidation, I walked over to the main tent. Inside it was akin to the Houston Space Center (at least our version of it), and it reminded me of a scene from Apollo 13. Scott and Bill had two laptops open, and there were pages of paper strewn in front of them with colorful weather charts, maps, and satellite images. Scott was on the radio communicating with some of our Sherpa team, who were higher up the mountain, carrying oxygen to the upper camps. His outward demeanor was calm as usual, but his brow was now furrowed and his concentration intense.

“Good morning, Scott here at Base Camp — how are you guys doing? Over.”

The radio crackled. Everyone stared anxiously at the receiver.

Silence.

Scott tried again two more times.

After the third attempt, we heard a roaring wind over the radio, then a voice, heavily panting and out of breath.

“Good morning, we’re okay… Over.”

“Good to hear. Where are you guys now and what are the conditions? Over. How are the ropes and how far up have they been secured? Over.”

“Weather not good. Very cold here. Making our way to Camp 4. Having tough time with ropes but hope to complete in next days. Over.”

After lunch, Scott and Bill called a meeting and laid out the situation. They had been studying the different forecasts and assessing our options for our summit bid. The good news: a weather window was opening up on May 17, the first decent weather window for the season thus far. The concern, though, was that it was a narrow window with high winds of more than 130 kmh (80 mph), tapering only temporarily before regaining strength. Climbers ideally like to experience gusting winds of less than 50 kmh. Higher wind speeds meant exponentially increased risk of hypothermia, frostbite, and, ultimately, death — especially coming down, when the body would be at its weakest.

The next possible window was approximately five days later, although any weather window further out would obviously be less accurate and less reliable. This was further complicated by the different weather providers Scott was subscribing to, as each one had its own forecast about when the weather would change. Just like with hurricanes back home in the United States, we had to review a number of models to get a more complete picture of timing, opportunity, and risk. Three core weather elements were essential to the decision-making process and, indeed, our survival: wind, temperature, and precipitation.

Scott had pored over the data and was clearly tempted to go for the earlier window. Time was progressing, and the weather was changing with each day that passed, the air becoming more dense, humid, and unstable. The monsoon season was a massive seasonal occurrence for the whole Indian subcontinent, including the Himalayas, and we could feel it building around us in the increased intensity of the snowstorms at Base Camp. Another challenge was that we had no way of knowing if this would be the only weather window this season. With the change in climate over the previous four decades, nothing could be taken for granted.

Scott presented the options and trade-offs, then sat back and asked for questions, watching us carefully, clearly wanting to judge the mood of the group. Most of us were keen to go earlier and ideally maximize our chances, and the questions mostly reflected this. In typical Scott style, he was direct in his answers.

“Listen, I want to make sure we’re on the same page here. Going early doesn’t mean we have more options to summit. We have one shot at summiting, and there’s no redo if we encounter difficulties or setbacks. If we commit to a date, that’s our bid. If things don’t work out, we will return down the mountain. I just want everyone to understand this.” There it was, distilled into a crisp delivery — a wry slap back to reality for our ambitious and impatient minds.

After a few moments of silence, I asked, “What do you think we should do, Scott? What’s your experience and intuition telling you?” He had been in this position multiple times before, and his experience mattered.

He stared back at me, taking a few seconds before responding, the emotion around making this tough call palpable. “I feel strongly that we should avoid this window and wait to see if another one opens up. There’s just too much uncertainty, and the margins are too tight for my comfort level.”

This was not a mountain in the Alps, where second attempts were commonly made. Climbing in the Death Zone was a game changer — everything was finite, including physical energy and oxygen supplies, and there would be no forgiveness for errors. On one level, the call was deflating and hard to swallow. Yet, as a leader, Scott was delivering his tough message in a transparent, succinct, and assertive manner. And he showed his vulnerability through clearly feeling the stakes and impact of his call. It was not an ego decision of “I’m the leader so this is what I’m deciding.” He was extremely smart in putting out the facts and inviting our views and questions. It meant we had to consider the information before us and be brought into his world, where the data was inconclusive.

I could feel his comments drain the optimism that had been building since our recuperation at Dingboche. Outside, in Base Camp, some other teams who had made the opposite decision were busy preparing to leave. We could hear and feel their intense excitement, and it only exaggerated our feeling of disappointment, their laughter punctuated by the call to action and in readying themselves for their departure up the mountain and into the weather.

Our dismay was undoubtedly also a result of our being there for so long already and the boredom, which was an ever-present threat to our mental and motivational health. It reminded me of war movies, where troops who had trained hard and prepared themselves felt that anyone leaving for danger before them was considered lucky. It’s totally counterintuitive, but it’s the way the human mind works, particularly under stress.

Emotion is the greatest seducer known to humankind. Sometimes it’s just really hard to separate the noise of momentum and excitement from reason. The crowd was moving up the mountain toward the glory of the summit, and it created a vortex of energy that was contagious and impossible to avoid. As is so often the case in life, it’s the momentum of sentiment and emotion that moves stock markets, crowds, and hearts. Yet moving with the crowd here would have been a potential death wish for us. In truth, we would have been sheep, not heroes; all courage but no substance.

Analyze the data, focus on the purpose, and use the power of intuition.

There are rarely perfect choices on mountains, just as there are rarely perfect paths in life. And to be clear, I’m not implying that our decision was better than any other team’s decision to go up earlier than us. However, what was important was listening to our own judgment — judgment based on thoroughly gathering all the data possible so we could pore over it and understand what each piece and its implications meant. Then it was simply a matter of understanding what our whole purpose was. The emotion was saying to summit Everest, yet our overarching purpose was to return to our families — alive.

Intuition is perhaps our greatest superpower as humans. It’s a gift we see in young children, where they can often be incredibly incisive and perceptive. Education, conditioning, and rational thinking can often teach us to second-guess such powers. Stranger still is that the power of emotion can often win the day. Faced with conflicting data, Scott’s intuition — backed by his extensive experience and our trust in him — was crucial in making the call to wait. His main interest was for our safety, and whether we summited or not was less important than bringing us down the mountain in one piece. Decisions were being made not only around our goal but also around our survival. We didn’t appreciate this fully at the time, but it grew in importance as the days progressed.

 

*excerpted from “Naked at the Knife-Edge: What Everest Taught Me about Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability” by Vivian James Rigney, with permission from Forefront Books, 2022, www.forefrontbooks.com

 

Vivian Rigney

Vivian James Rigney is President and CEO of Inside Us LLC, a boutique executive coaching consultancy. He has helped implement leadership development initiatives for some of the world’s leading companies and their executive teams. As an executive coach for some of the world’s most successful leaders, he is known for building a strong rapport with people and asking tough and incisive questions, with an uncanny ability to help them reveal and become their best version of themselves.