Entrepreneurship Lessons from Mountaineering

Posted in Human Resources Articles, Total Reads: 2358 , Published on 03 December 2012

Reaching the summit of Everest is a dream for any mountaineering enthusiast. The main reason why the highest mountain is a dream for all climbers across the world is that it is so dangerous that not everyone can scale its height. Above the height of 8000 m or 26000 ft the temperatures are at sub-zero levels and oxygen is one third that of sea level. This height is called “Death Zone”. Generally it is difficult to sustain at this height without oxygen tanks. A place where mountaineers need quick thinking and best physical condition possible, they may become as good as a slow child without oxygen tanks at such a height. Often climbers face High Altitude sickness at such heights. Even the weather is highly unpredictable. However, over last few years due to technology and commercialization, even amateur climbers or businessmen can pay their way to the summit.


Into Thin Air is the book authored by Jon Krakauer which is his personal account of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster. 8 climbers lost their lives during the bid to summit on 10-11 May 1996. The tragedy was a combination of human judgement, commercialization, limitations of death zone, nature of the highest mountain of the world and bad weather.

To reach the summit of Mount Everest, there are two main routes, the North ridge from Tibet and Southeast ridge from Nepal. Into Thin Air is an account of happenings at Southeastern ridge. The base camp for Southeastern ridge is at 5380 m or 17700 feet. Then there are Camp I, Advanced Base Camp or Camp II, Camp III and finally Camp IV before the summit. Beyond Camp IV the death zone begins where climbers have 1 or 2 days to make the summit bid depending upon the favourable conditions. The attempt from Camp IV begins by midnight so that the climbers have 10 to 12 hours to reach the summit and be back before nightfall. At 8760 m or 28740 feet, there is a rock wall called Hillary step which is climbed using fixed ropes. This is also a point where bottlenecks occur since only one climber can cross at a time. Many times climbers wait for 1 or 2 hours at the step for their turn. Climbers are advised to reach the summit by 2pm and come down after that since that is the safe return time.

On May 10-11 of year 1996, 33 climbers attempted the summit bid. There were delays in setting up fixed ropes and bottleneck at the Hillary step that day. Climbers even reached the summit as late as 3:45pm. Often climbers take the risk since they have paid as much as $65000 for the attempt. Around 5:30pm the weather turned bad with snow and heavy winds. Several climbers had not reached Camp IV. The storm left 8 dead and at least 3 severely injured.

There are several learnings from the incident and high mountains in general. These learnings especially hold good for entrepreneurs.


For a climber, the vision is not just to reach the summit of the mountain but to come back safely as well. Similarly for an entrepreneur, it is important to set the right vision. Vision is any target or aim that drives the need from within to achieve it. An entrepreneur without a vision is like a car without steering wheel. Although today many companies use vision statements, they do not always ensure that those statements fully and clearly communicate “the summit.” It is important to understand what a well-crafted vision statement contains in order to create your own.


Strengths and weaknesses are internal to a person. For a climber, strengths or weaknesses may be athleticism, breath control, mental stability, mountaineering techniques. For an entrepreneur, these may be patents, technological expertise, experience, etc. It is often difficult for an entrepreneur to list out his own strengths and weaknesses where other employees, stakeholders, friends or guides may help.

Opportunities and threats are generally external factors to a person. For a climber, opportunities and threats may be weather conditions, government permission to climb, availability of local support, etc. Similarly for an entrepreneur, market conditions, government regulations, competition, customers, social changes, etc are the opportunities and threats.

Planning and Preparation

Climbers often plan and prepare for months before starting the mountaineering expedition. The planning involves financial planning to equipment planning. Plans are created on the basis of extensive research. Most of the parts of the plan are fixed, however, certain parts have to be kept flexible. A typical plan would include time bound budget requirements, fitness level, necessary equipment, emergency equipment and a team of climbers, sherpas and medical advisors.

For an entrepreneur, a clear business plan in writing is a must. It must also be clear and easy to understand. A typical business plan would include fund requirement, target customers, infrastructure requirement, employee requirement, performance standards, etc.


Few climbers dare to climb alone. However, most climb in teams. It is good to have team members with complementary skills. A typical team of climbers would have a guide, lead climber to fix ropes, Sherpa to carry load, medical advisor and equipment technician for things like camera, tents, radio, stove and other climbing equipment.

There’s a lot of strength in a business team that can be organized and utilized much like a mountain-climbing team. The members of the business team need to recognize that they are “roped together.” Their successes and failures proceed from a common mission.


For a climber on an eight-thousander mountain, the various camps are very important. These milestones act as points to assess progress and prepare and acclimatize for the next stage. Duration of stay and assessment of equipment, weather and fitness at every stage can make a difference of success and failure.

For an entrepreneur, KPIs (key performance indicators), balance scorecard, performance reviews on quarterly and annual basis help in judging whether the business is running as per plan or not. Even the target is divided into sets of achievements. On achievement of these milestones, the team should be able to celebrate and prepare for the next level of effort.


Any climber can never get too prepared to succeed. By doing everything in his control, climber can only increase the probability of success. However, finally lot depends on luck. A sudden bad weather stretched over several days means climbers need to abort the summit attempt, sometimes even from the last camp from where summit is so close. Bad weather of May 10-11, 1996 on Mount Everest was nothing but bad luck for the climbers.

Earthquake in Japan is an example of bad luck. Several Japanese companies faced severe losses in the earthquake and following tsunami in 2011. No amount of preparation was enough for the companies in Japan. However, chances of survival and sustenance of those companies are higher which are more diversified, within or outside Japan.


Climbers face the same difficulties in reaching the summit that entrepreneurs face in reaching the heights of success in business. The great mountains of the world are live simulation of the business environment. Every entrepreneur can learn the way to success from the experience of a climber on an eight-thousander mountain. If a climber goes as close as last few feet of summit before deciding to turn back or an entrepreneur fails in business when it was about to stabilize, there are always experiences gained for the next attempt.

This article has been authored by Varun Arora from LBSIM.


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