Here’s How to Make It to the Top

Arlene Blum has climbed the world’s highest peaks. Now she teaches executives the secrets of high-altitude leadership.

When Arlene Blum stepped on stage this spring at the 20th Anniversary Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado, the audience greeted her as if she were a patron saint. If paradise lies above 26,200 feet – the invisible boundary separating the world’s loftiest mountaintops from the rest – then Blum, 53, has been to paradise and back. She has made more than 300 successful ascents, including the first all-woman climb to the top of Denali, the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition, as well as a 2,400-mile trek across Bhutan, Nepal, and India.


Her appearance in Telluride marked the 20th anniversary of her most dramatic challenge: leading the first all-woman expedition up the treacherous slopes of Annapurna (in Nepal), the world’s 11th highest peak. The expedition – chronicled in a documentary, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, and in Blum’s book of the same name (Sierra Club, 1980; to be reissued by Random House this October) – stands as a model of pioneering leadership.

Indeed, for the past 20 years, Blum has conducted seminars on leadership for organizations as diverse as Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, the Girl Scouts, and government agencies in the United States and India. What separates people who make it to the top from those who don’t? “The real dividing line is passion,” says Blum. “As long as you believe that what you’re doing is meaningful, you can cut through fear and exhaustion and take the next step.” Blum shared her step-by-step guide to making it to the top with Fast Company.

If you can’t picture it, you won’t make it.

“To get anywhere – in climbing or in business – you have to know where you’re headed. I’m not talking about ‘corporate vision.’ I’m talking about a clear picture that depicts where you, the individual, want to go. I started doing this in college, when I saw the movie Endless Summer. I thought, Why can’t I do an ‘endless winter’ and travel the world looking for the perfect mountain? So I drew a line around the globe that connected the best mountain ranges. I recruited some friends, and we did it – 15 consecutive expeditions in as many months.

A decade later, I drew a line on a map across the Himalayas – and created the Great Himalayan Traverse, a 2,400-mile trek across three countries.

“The biggest complaint I hear from businesspeople is ‘I can’t create a vision, because my boss sets the goals.’ But as soon as these people map out a picture of their work, they realize that they know more than they thought they did – and that they have more power to change things than they imagine.”


Choose your companions as if your life depended on it.

“The best way to pick your teammates is to let them pick themselves – through self-selection. When I’m putting an expedition team together, I invite all the candidates to go on a practice climb. We’ll go to the Sierras in the middle of winter, when it’s cold and miserable. I’m not looking to see if they’re good enough; I want to know if they’re enjoying it. That’s going to matter in the Himalayas – when the glamour fades and the hard work sets in.

“Once you find the right team, it’s your job as leader to make sure that everyone is in the right role. The best way to do that is to communicate relentlessly and realistically about performance. I learned this the hard way during the Annapurna expedition. The team member in charge of food had a narrow vision of what food was and how much we needed. Sure enough, partway through the expedition I found that we didn’t have enough food. I put someone else in the position. That was hard, but the success of the expedition depended on it.”

Leaders know when to put their foot down. And when to back down.

“Before we left for Nepal, we met with a psychologist who asked us what kind of leadership we wanted. The answer was unanimous: The group wanted a voice in all decisions and a strong leader who would take responsibility for those decisions. I ran into that paradox constantly on Annapurna. A strong leader is different from a dictator.

“This was never more apparent than when I presented my decision about who would lead the summit attempt. On the lower, safer slopes, we alternated leading – which everyone prefers – with following, which involves carrying heavy loads between camps. When we came to the steep, hard slopes just below the summit, I decided that only the four best ice climbers would lead. Everybody got unhappy. The people who were excluded from leading thought they’d lost their chance to reach the summit. Those I picked to lead weren’t comfortable with being singled out. Morale plummeted.


“I realized we had to stop to talk about it. And in the end, the group concluded that only the best ice climbers – the ones I had named – should lead. When people have their say, they’re more likely to accept and support a decision.”

The last 5% is the hardest part – and the most important.

“In so many of the things we do in life – from projects at work to household chores to climbing a mountain – we find reasons not to do the last 5%. With a Himalayan expedition, you spend years raising funds, you travel all the way to Nepal, you carry loads between camps for six weeks. Then, finally, it’s summit day and you’re hours from the top – but it’s too cold, it’s too steep, or you’re too tired.

“I’ve been so successful in my climbing because I usually haven’t turned back during that final, exhausting 5%. Making it to the top isn’t about a final sprint; it’s about maintaining your rhythm – even if that rhythm is five breaths for every one step. That kind of focus means that you’re more likely to have the energy to deal with unforeseen challenges – and less likely to lose sight of why you’re climbing the mountain in the first place.”

Contact Arlene Blum by email or visit the Web