This Entrepreneur's Failed Mount Everest Summit Changed How He Manages His Team
A Note From The Editor
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How Success Happens is a podcast featuring polar explorers, authors, ultra marathoners, artists and more to better understand what connects dreaming and doing. Linda Lacina, Entrepreneur.com's managing editor, guides these chats so anyone can understand the traits that underpin achievement and what fuels the decisions to push us forward. Listen below or click here to read more shownotes.
For most people, summiting Mount Everest is enough of a challenge. The mountain, 30,000 feet at its highest, requires top-notch climbing, camping and survival skills, not to mention physical stamina for a climbing trip that can sometimes take more than two months. For Adrian Ballinger, a climber with his own expedition company, Alpenglow Expeditions, he has managed to climb the mountain multiple times, just with supplemental oxygen. He wondered if he could do it without.
“I always had more resources to give and to guide,” Ballinger says on this week’s How Success Happens podcast. “That led me to dream, 'Would it be possible to try without supplemental oxygen, and if I do try, will I find that true physical emotional limit of myself?’"
Fewer than 200 ascents have been made without oxygen, but Ballinger felt optimistic.
He attempted that climb in 2016. A National Geographic photographer came with the team and media would be waiting in New York for a press conference.
On the climb, things started out well. Without the weight of an oxygen tank, he could move more quickly than usual. But once he got closer to the summit, he ran out of reserves. He couldn’t keep his body warm and with no feeling in his hands, he could no longer work his ropes. He found himself free-climbing without a rope over a 9,000 foot drop wobbling along the side of a mountain ridge.
He didn’t make the summit. He told himself it was too cold, that it wasn’t his day. Still, it wasn’t long until he started thinking about what he’d done wrong and what he could have done differently.
He learned, that in part, he’d likely exhausted himself long before the final summit, trying to pitch in with the things he usually did on climbs, cooking food and setting up a tent. And also, he realized if he wanted to reach a goal he’d never reached before, doing what he always did wouldn’t help. In fact, his experience alone, wouldn’t even prepare him. He’d need advice, support and coaching, even as an experienced climber.
“I realized I had to look outside of myself and ask for help,” he recalls.
So, he dived into the process to learn more, reaching out to an Olympic Nordic ski coach, a nutritionist as well as the University of California-Davis Sports performance lab. And on his next attempt, he allowed himself to depend more on his team -- his sherpas, his expedition doctor, his teammates and his climbing partner -- so that he could focus on his goal.
Training for a new attempt wasn’t easy and involved skiing in near starvation conditions to train his body to burn fats differently, so he’d have the energy needed. And it meant resisting the urge to pore over the details he usually does on a climb -- from weather models to little details only he cares about, like rearranging the ketchup bottles at basecamp. Mostly, it taught him to think differently about climbing altogether, that success didn’t need to be synonymous with suffering, and he could use tools to work smarter, not harder.
Ballinger summited without supplemental oxygen in 2017. The effort changed how he trains and was an important reminder to him that while he was an expert climber, there was still more he could learn.
It also changed how he managed his team. A big part of the success of his climb, Ballinger realized, was empowering his team to push back on him and give them a chance to step up and find solutions that he never would.
He’s now instituted monthly big-picture planning sessions that help him step back and better understand the company’s goals and challenges so others can contribute ideas and solutions. This shift has helped him focus on what he cares most about: create solutions he couldn’t have imagined and boosted his team’s excitement and engagement.
“You have to step back and look bigger,” he says.
Learn more about how he’s learned a new way to talk to his team -- and push his own limits -- in this week’s podcast.