02 Jan 2018 19:01 IST

Lessons from a mountaineer

The ambition to pursue a goal against all odds is inspiring. ‘Into Thin Air’ is a must read for MBAs

In 1997, Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, one of the best books about climbing Mount Everest. Over 20 years later, despite the world having changed dramatically, lessons from the book are still full of relevance, especially for the likes of today’s MBA aspirants.

Krakauer, an experienced mountain climber, had previously written off trying to scale Mt. Everest. For one thing, the novelty was dwindling each decade from the time Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay accomplished the feat in 1953. As of 2016, there have been more than 6,000 ascensions to the top by over 4,000 climbers, with many reaching the summit more than once.

No mountain like Everest

There’s no mountain quite like Everest. At 29,028 feet, it is the tallest peak in the world. Krakauer notes wryly that this is the customary altitude of commercial airliners. The mountain straddles the northern border of Nepal with Tibet, which is controlled by China. In fact, the border runs through the peak and Krakauer talks about how he had one foot in China and another in Nepal once he had reached the summit.

The weather is highly unpredictable and almost always brutal. Icefalls, a build on the word waterfalls, can move ice sheets by as much as 700 metres each year on the Khumbu glacier. Crevices, many over 300 metres deep, can consume climbers if they’re not careful.

And there’s the thinness of the air. At the Base Camp at the foot of the mountain, there is only half the amount of oxygen as at sea level, and at the peak, only a third. Climbers have to get used to the thin air for weeks before their climb to the peak and this they do with their practice runs past Base Camp, returning to their tents before the midday sun begins to melt the ice sheet, making descents deadly.

Everest mystique

So what is it that propelled the 42-year-old Krakauer to even consider the trip when he was asked by Outside magazine to submit an article about the commercialisation of Everest? He could easily have agreed to stop his climb at Base Camp, which, at an altitude of 17,600 feet, is a noteworthy accomplishment in itself. He could have written about how such pristine land plays host to hundreds of tents and nearly 40,000 people who routinely go each year with the hope of scaling the peak.

Krakauer writes that what drove him was the ‘Everest Mystique’. He wanted to climb the mountain as badly as he had ever wanted anything in life. It didn’t matter that he had weaker legs and lungs. When his scared wife argued with him, saying, “If you get killed, it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay too, you know, for the rest of my life. Doesn’t that matter to you?” He calmly replied, “I’m not going to get killed — don’t be melodramatic”.

He was right about his optimism. He made it to the top and stayed there for less than five minutes, clicking pictures of the northern face sloping down into Tibet and the southern face that he had just climbed. He experienced the sheer joy of accomplishing one of life’s most difficult and treacherous challenges. And the even greater joy of living to tell the world his story.

Higher uncertainties

But he was wrong about the others who made it to the top that day. Out of 26 members of his team, which included Sherpas, only five reached the top. Most of the remaining were unable to make the last few hundred feet because the weather window was closing down.

Four of them, including a veteran New Zealand guide called Rob Hall and their leader, who had climbed the peak on multiple occasions, died. There was tragedy awaiting other expeditions too. Five more climbers from four other teams perished — all consumed by the mountain’s fury, as a rogue storm blew in without any warning. That all of this happened in a space of a couple of hours points to life’s uncertainties.

It is this part of the story that is relevant to all of us, who are not as bold or as driven in life to gather our mountaineering gear and head out to the slopes. After all, most civilians do not endanger the comfort of their well-being to chase a dream. But the sheer ambition to pursue a tall goal against all odds is inspiring.

Risk aversion

For example, earning an MBA degree is optional. Many people are so put off by the obstacles and risks of pursuing the degree — the opportunity cost; the effort required to go back to school; the physical separation from friends and family; the anxiety of landing that plum job after graduation — that they simply decide to abandon the idea of enrolling in a B-school.

This feeling of risk aversion is a basic human tendency called the Ellsberg paradox, named after a Harvard economist who wrote his PhD thesis on this subject. As Tony Khoun, a psychologist says: “People exhibit strong aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty, meaning they have an inherent preference for the known over the unknown.”

Human beings are so risk-averse that we choose to stick with bad situations rather than face uncertainty. For the budding MBA student who ultimately decides not to pursue an MBA, a known devil is better than the promise of an unknown angel.

Management graduates are likely to assume leadership positions in organisations and their decisions today will have an impact 30 years from now.

Littering at the top

Everest has become so commercialised that it is one of the most polluted places on earth. Krakauer says that Base Camp feels like an outdoor market. In March 2017, the BBC reported that over 16 tonnes of garbage has been removed from the mountain so far; rubbish made up of oxygen bottles, utensils, masks and even human waste.

To dissuade people from making the trip, Nepal now charges $65,000 in user fees and licenses. But the wealthy, with little or no climbing experience, pay an additional $60,000 to private tour guides to help them make it to the top.

This is an important lesson from the book. Had the Government of Nepal been more careful in the 1980s, it could have prevented this assault on one of Nature’s most majestic gifts.

There’s also the realisation that while each person up the slopes is on their own, the whole endeavour needs a team — the yaks which carry equipment; the Sherpas who, having lived on mountains for centuries, provide expertise about the organisational aspects of the climb; the guides; fellow climbers who lend a helping hand to fellow men. The whole enterprise couldn’t work without camaraderie and a guiding team spirit.

Debating decisions

The government of Nepal is recognising the importance of this teamwork, and is doing so under the umbrella of climber safety. An Agence France-Presse report last week said that solo climbers will now be banned from scaling the country’s mountains to reduce accidents on the slopes. This means that starting 2018 , all climbers must be part of a group.

Into Thin Air is an inspiring book for MBA aspirants, who are contemplating on one of life’s most important decisions. True, the consequences of pursuing an MBA are not quite as dramatic as scaling the Everest, but it may be just as meaningful over a long career.