Ever since Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” (Random House, 1997) was published, the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) has been tracking the growing fascination with all things alpine. Krakauer’s book turned into a TV movie; mountaineers hit the lecture circuit in large numbers; and inevitably, the notion of scaling the peaks, reaching the summit, and bagging the big ones began to infect the business lexicon. There are consulting firms whose very names invoke the craze: Blue Mountain Systems Inc. and Mountain Technology Consultants Inc. There are other business and career books: “Waiting for the Mountain to Move: Reflections on Work and Life,” by Charles Handy (Jossey-Bass, 1999) and “The Right Mountain: Lessons from Everest on the Real Meaning of Success,” by Jim Hayhurst (John Wiley, 1996). And there are, of course, the inevitable consultant-enabled corporate retreats, leadership gatherings, and team-building exercises that exhort the troops to take it to the top, scale the summit, hike to the heights. “Summitry” is the management metaphor of the moment — which makes it a walk in the park for the CDU.
Now, take a closer peek at the language of peaks: What could possibly be wrong with using it? The CDU found that, as is often the case when metaphors migrate to management, this mountaintop message ends up, well, disappearing into thin air: It stops at the top. With all of the hoopla focused on reaching the top, these pinnacle pushers seem to miss completely what comes next — the descent. Which is the crux of the CDU’s significant finding: For all of the focus on climbing a mountain, the hardest part is getting back down safely. “Most injuries and deaths occur during the descent,” says Tim Kovacs, president of the Mountain Rescue Association, in Golden, Colorado, which provides support for search-and-rescue operations all over the world. “The summit is only the halfway point. The real goal should be returning safely to the trailhead.”
According to most wilderness experts, the most dangerous part of any ascent is, in fact, the descent. And why do so many accidents occur on the return trip? “Most people spend too much time getting to the top of the mountain,” says Rick LaValla, president of Emergency Response Institute International Inc., a consultancy headquartered in Olympia, Washington that helps state and local governments improve their mountain-rescue and disaster-preparedness programs. It’s tempting for climbers to stop for a while and enjoy the sights at the top, LaValla notes. “But then, get-home-itis sets in. And that’s when people begin to push the envelope trying to get back on time.”
The descent also tends to be more difficult, technically and physically. “Gravity moves you down the trail with greater speed,” says Kovacs. “On the way up, everything is in front of you and is higher than foot level, which makes it easier to see. On the way down, everything is below you, and you don’t have eyes in your feet.” And besides not being able to see, joints and pressure points in the legs, knees, ankles, and feet take a more severe pounding on the way down than they do on the way up.
But the bottom line of getting back to the bottom is simple: Most mountain accidents occur because of the unpredictability of the beast underfoot. “By their very nature, mountains are unstable,” says Kovacs. “They’re always in a state of flux. They create their own winds. You wouldn’t find many true mountaineers who would say that they’ve conquered a mountain, but rather that the mountain submitted itself to them, and Mother Nature was kind that day. Most of them still consider the whole trip to be the goal, not just reaching the summit.”
For further confirmation, the CDU took up this line of reasoning with the queen of the hill, Pat Summitt. Summitt, who is head women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee — a six-time NCAA championship winner — wrote “Reach for the Summit: The Definite Dozen System for Succeeding at Whatever You Do” (Broadway Books, 1998), which itself rose to the Wall Street Journal’s best-seller list for four weeks before making its inevitable descent.
Last season, her team was heavily favored to win the title again, but ended up losing in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. The experience gave Summitt a new perspective on the ups and downs of peak experiences. “Once you’ve reached the top and fallen down,” she says, “the best thing you can do is to visualize yourself having slipped to the absolute bottom of the mountain.” But as far as the whole mountain metaphor is concerned, Summitt has her doubts. “In sports, mental imagery is very important,” she says. “That’s why the mountain metaphor has been used so much in my field. In fact, it may be a bit overused.”
For a final word on the subject, the CDU turned to Jeanne Lehman, a woman who knows everything about conquering scales. Lehman, who sings the show-stopping “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in her role as Mother Abbess in the national tour of “The Sound of Music,” has been singing and acting on and off Broadway for more than 30 years. “The song is very difficult to sing,” Lehman says. “It’s in three different registers, so in some ways, it’s as if I have my own mountain to climb every night.”
With all the ups and downs in the course of the song, Lehman’s voice gets a vigorous workout. Even though she hits the high note at the end of the song, Lehman realizes that reaching the top isn’t the end of the journey.
Lehman knows that’s true for climbing mountains as well as for singing about them: During her childhood, she scampered over the hills of Sacramento Valley, in northern California, and recently, she visited the Swiss Alps with her husband. “When you reach the top of a mountain,” she says, “you usually look out onto the horizon and take some time to enjoy the view. Then you notice all sorts of mountains that look like they’d be fun to climb as well. But you have to descend the one you’re on before you can climb to the next peak — you can’t just hop from one mountaintop to another.”
Without wanting to make a mountain out of a molehill, it’s a lesson in business (and in singing) that consultants can take with them on their journey up to the summit — and then back down again.