Leadership

Seven Summit Strategies for Reaching the Top

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On January 24, 2010 at 3:45pm, our team stood atop the 22,840-foot summit of Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. It was an amazing, unbelievable feeling. It had taken two years of planning and training, eleven days of climbing, the expertise of our guides and the fortune of good weather to get us to the top together. We were all thrilled!

When I returned home and described the ups and downs of our journey to my colleagues, I realized my experience as a software CEO had actually helped prepare me for the expedition. The skills and best practices needed to summit a major peak are very similar to those needed to build a successful software company.

Based on my experience climbing Aconcagua, I recommend entrepreneurial business leaders consider these “Seven Summit Strategies” for reaching the “top.”

1. Drive to “do” different

I didn’t really set out to be a mountaineer. I simply wanted to do something different – something few other people set out to do as they approach their 45th year. Two years ago when my roommates from college and I began to talk about climbing a major mountain peak, I realized that it could be a life-changing experience.

Sure, some of my friends referred to Aconcagua as my personal manifestation of a mid-life crisis. But I was very motivated to try something new. I wanted to do the un-obvious. Avoid the easy path.

So on January 13, 2010, our team of climbers and three guides set out from the village of Los Penitentes, Argentina to reach the summit of Aconcagua. The Andean peak is the highest outside of the Himalayas and the second-highest of the Seven Summits after Everest.

Aconcagua

The commitment to take on Aconcagua is just another example of my love for a challenge. When I began a web services platform-as-a-service company in 2000, Software as Service Inc., the vision of today’s rapidly expanding SaaS and cloud models was anything but clear. But I knew the software industry was changing and the benefits of the technology were compelling. We took a risk and were rewarded as the market took off.

This drive to “do different” is one of the differentiating characteristics of entrepreneurs. Where many people excel in the established, highly competitive paths of legal, medical or business school, others don’t. I was one of those “others.” Very often, entrepreneurial individuals want to change the game and play by their own rules. A degree of comfort with risk-taking and taking on unique challenges plays a big part in that personality – and the potential for future success.

2. Live to climb another day

We did not use porters to carry heavy loads on Aconcagua. On several days during our climb, we carried a 60-pound pack up over 3,000 vertical feet, dropped its contents, descended to the lower camp to sleep, and then ascended the 3,000 feet again the next day with another 60-pound pack. Along with our need to move our supplies up the mountain, this is a valuable process of acclimatization when climbing a high mountain peak. It can also be somewhat demoralizing. The effect is that we basically climbed the top-10,000-feet of the mountain twice!

But these grueling climbs were not the hardest part of the expedition. The climbing, pressure-breathing, altitude challenges, snow storms, howling wind, sub-zero nights – all of these were factors I had anticipated. The biggest challenge was the mental games my mind would play on me – especially at night, when harsh conditions meant sleeping was often impossible. “How am I going to climb tomorrow if I’m not sleeping now?!” Lying like a mummy in my sleeping bag, I could not even read a book because gloveless hands would freeze in minutes and I could not turn the pages with gloves on. I found myself at times gasping for breath from the stress of what might happen.

“Don’t panic,” I continually told myself, using a simple but profound mantra from one of my business mentors. “Just make it until dawn. It really won’t be that bad.” Sure enough, on most nights, I ended up getting enough rest to recuperate and rally in the morning.

With a startup, panic situations are common: A big customer just dropped its contract, the product release is late, an investor backs away from a deal, and so on. The key to surviving these seemingly near-death events is staying calm. It invariably happens that the next hour/day/week/month will be better. As we used to say while growing up in Maine, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

Leaders simply cannot panic. It doesn’t soothe the team, solve the problem or build your reputation. You’ll get through the rough patch if you calmly assess the situation and determine the right course of action. Conversely, the same advice applies during times of great excitement, growth and success. Unfortunately, good times can end just as quickly as bad times. It is important to remember to prepare the board and internal teams for both types of changes in the weather when running a startup.

3. Trust Your “guide”

One of the most impressive things I saw on the slopes of Aconcagua was the expertise of our guides in action. These expert mountaineers have climbed many peaks around the world – in fact, some had already climbed Aconcagua multiple times. Their experience with big mountains and with hundreds of climbers gives them unparalleled insight into the entire process of reaching the top of a major peak.

Their secret is that they have done it all before. The guides can recognize patterns on the trail, patterns in the weather, patterns in behavior. They can look in a climber’s eyes and decide if he or she is really losing it, or just having a bad day. They monitored our status carefully, with regular checks for blood-oxygen levels, blood accumulation in the lungs, gastrointestinal issues and other signs of altitude sickness. I found myself trying to stay right behind a guide as we climbed so that I could talk with him and learn more from his experience.

At first, I thought of our guides as the CEOs of the expedition. But I soon realized that all of the climbers were CEOs – responsible for our own loads and for making it up the mountain under our own power. The guides really served as coaches who provided us with the tools and guidance we needed to reach the top.

The software industry is full of “Type A”-ego CEOs who often seem to know it all. But no matter how savvy an entrepreneur or how much experience a founder might have, it is critical for CEOs to reach out to a mentor or coach with more and/or different experience. For entrepreneurs, it is invaluable to find the right coach and enlist his or her commitment to the startup and its goals.

4. Maintain a steady pace

As we reached 18,000 feet, I was happy that the climb had gone so well. Our guides told us that the weather looked good and that if we reached High Camp at 20,000 feet the next day, we would “be in position” to summit.

Everyone wanted to hear those words.

I was feeling strong and was in a good mental state. But the lead guide pointed out that everyone on the team was not feeling 100 percent. He floated the idea of taking a rest day before pushing up. He spoke to the group as a whole and then went to each climber individually to gauge their interest in proceeding.

I was ready. When the guide came to me, I told him I felt great and that I could even take extra weight in my pack if it would help others who weren’t feeling as well. The team eventually decided to advance the next day — and the guides rewarded me with my heaviest load of the trip. My pack was probably 50 percent heavier than the packs I had been carrying up to that point.

The load proved too much. I reached High Camp at 20,000 feet, emptied my pack and returned to lower camp exhausted. It was by far the toughest day of the climb. I was extremely tired but again I couldn’t sleep that night. I rolled around in my tent feeling physically ill. I had overdone it – pushed too hard – and now there was a chance that I wouldn’t make it to the top.

Luckily, the next day was a planned rest day. After emerging from my tent in the morning as a physical and emotional wreck, I was able to return after forcing down some bites of breakfast and finally fell asleep for a couple hours. The rest was critical and I was feeling better by day’s end.

When in pursuit of a major goal, it is tempting to push the accelerator all the way to the floor. The reality is that can be the fastest way to burn out. In a startup, too often leaders push themselves and those around them beyond their capabilities. I have found that it is more productive to step back, assess the full scale of the goal you are after, and move steadily if you want to reach the top.

5. Embrace confidence and perseverance

Our final push to the summit of Aconcagua would require a 3,200-foot ascent. One mountaineer I spoke with who had also summited Everest said that Aconcagua actually had a tougher “summit day.” The wind can howl across the peak at more than 70 miles per hour. Before you reach the peak, you must navigate the Canaleta – a very steep climb through a rocky, tight scree field covered in snow.

And you have a full pack of protective gear in case the weather turns bad along the way.

Despite the obstacles, our entire team reached the summit of Aconcagua after more than eight hours of climbing.

I was unbelievably proud.

Surprisingly, however, I wasn’t relieved. I had really never doubted that we would make it to the top. While on the summit, I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment – not relief. Instead I thought, “What’s next? How can I take this amazing experience, build off of it and identify a new challenge?”

Self confidence is one of the keys to achieving success. Psychologists uniformly note that we increase our confidence by continuously identifying obstacles, overcoming them and acquiring a sense of mastery. We do it first as children: We can’t read, and then we learn… We can’t swim, and then we learn… Tackling each challenge is what teaches us a sense of accomplishment and gives us the ultimate confidence in our ability to execute. Confidence is a strength you can build on – it breeds on itself.

The summit experience was also like raising a financing round for your company or even taking it public. Many founders have a belief that their funding event is a sign that their work is done. The reality is that it is simply another intermediate step on the very long road to building a successful company.

6. Remember: “team matters”

Most summit teams pictured on the top of major peaks are just a fragment of the original team that set out from base camp. Multiple guides are part of each team so that one or two guides can be left behind to lead “dropped” climbers back down as the rest of the team continues to climb for the top.

The beauty of our summit photo is that our entire team is in it: We all made it to the top of Aconcagua. Despite illness, exhaustion, and a host of other personal challenges, the entire group exhibited a spirit of camaraderie which had us rooting for each other and driving us all upward.

Aconcagua

We knew that our team would only be as strong as its weakest member. If one person had an injury or illness on a certain day, we all changed our pace to stay together. One guide was always accompanying the slowest climber on any given day.

Our success was a team effort – not any one individual’s personal achievement. The same is true in business. Leaders must work hard to address the needs and spirits of the entire team. Sometimes it might be necessary to moderate a relentless pace to enable the team to reach the top together. Founders have to be careful not to create an atmosphere of internal competition where it is impossible to “win” as a team.

7. Break it down into “steps”

If you’ve ever seen footage of mountaineers climbing near the top of the highest peaks on Earth, you know the process looks incredibly slow and painful. Minutes seem to elapse between each step. The climber appears as if he or she might keel over at any moment.

The reality? Yes, they are tired, but they are also performing what is called a “rest step.” At high altitudes with heavy packs, climbers keep their weight on their straightened back leg, position their front foot for the next step and take a deep breath – or two or three – before stepping forward.

The rest step is exactly the opposite of the way we walk in the “flatlands” – by advancing our weight to our lead foot – and it takes some getting used to.

It is a simple technique but an extremely effective way to deal with the monotony and challenge of the final ascent. With the rest step and a breathing technique called “pressure breathing,” I felt like I could climb forever – even in the thin air. Our team stayed together. We kept our minds focused on the climb, even as the hours ticked by.

With what I know now – and a few more ascents under my belt – I could imagine attempting to climb the highest mountain in the world. It still seems like an overwhelming “obstacle” but with the techniques I’ve learned and the experience I’ve gained on Aconcagua, I could break down the complexity of such a climb into smaller pieces and grind it out.

Facing the challenge of launching a company is equally daunting. But once you’re in the midst of it, the process isn’t as mystical and impossible as it seems from the outside. Any goal can be broken down into more simple and achievable “rest steps” – best practices that ensure continuous milestones of progress. As they say, it is possible to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

Before I left, my 12-year-old son asked me why I wanted to climb Aconcagua. “You might not come back,” he said. “You want me to do this,” I replied. “You want me to keep trying to take on new challenges – not rest on my past experiences.” Now that I’m back, he gets it. On summit day, after he saw my blog post he forwarded an email to his friends, “That’s my Dad!”

My greatest learning from the Aconcagua climb? It is critical to continue to set goals – both personal and professional – that seem unattainable. When you stop challenging yourself and/or your team, and you feel yourself coasting, it is very likely time to make a change. I’ve realized that when life seems toughest and most challenging, that’s when I feel most alive.

Gordon Ritter is Founder and General Partner of Emergence Capital Partners. Read more about the journey up Aconcagua on his blog at www.emcap.com/blogs/ritter/.

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