I’d experienced extended periods of expedition time on tall mountains before, but Everest represented a new paradigm of stress, vulnerability, and reflection. Two months of living in a tent on a moving glacier, straining your physical and mental health to its furthest limits, while facing life-threatening choices daily, strips you down on multiple levels. It challenges what you think you know and more profoundly, who you think you are, bursting that bubble of reality with the sharpest of needles—cold introspection.
The most important learning was vulnerability and its profound and understated power. Feeding into this was a feeling of loneliness, which is the most often-used word I hear from the senior leaders I work with in my role as an executive coach. How many times have we, as individuals and leaders, been in a situation where we felt trapped, overwhelmed, and alone with our own thoughts and emotions?
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 followed by the jolting breakdown of our cozy, predictable, and gregariously busy lives was a eureka moment for me. The sense of vulnerability and abject uncertainty brought back the exact same feelings experienced during my time on Everest.
Everest is like an ultramarathon combined with an interminable obstacle course, spread out over a two-month period between an altitude of 19,000 feet (5,700 meters) and 29,000 feet (8,800 meters). It is a unique logistical challenge with many moving parts needed to sustain an expedition team at multiple camps on the mountain over the three climbing rotations that lead to being in a position to attempt the summit. Considering that in a typical climbing season, there are only three to five days in which the weather allows a summit attempt to be made, and with no organized coordination between the many different expedition teams, it becomes an unavoidably chaotic, pressure-cooker environment. While most of these factors fall into the “things one cannot control” bucket, what I want to do is focus on the things you, as an individual, can control when under pressure—most of which centers around thinking, emotions, and behavior.
Challenge your inner nonsense
Under duress, our inner dialogue tends to go haywire, with much of it being nonsensical. Whether crossing a crevasse or making a presentation to a board, a negative thought can ignite a recurring negative thread, serving no purpose other than to fuel our stress levels and push us into a spiral of emotional drain. We tend to worry far too much about what others think of us and how we will be judged and the exaggerated costs of failure. When we take the time to actually listen to the dialogue in our heads, we quickly see how disconnected from reality many of our own inner thoughts are.
Listen to your body
Everest magnifies everything that is not in balance—things that are too easily ignored in everyday life. We are given but one body in this life. Through good and bad, ups and downs, there’s no trade-in possible. Being honest with yourself means also listening to your body and taking care of it. This can be a major issue in the workplace, too, where at the leadership level, clarity, transparency, and effective decision-making are expected. Being overwhelmed and physically weakened can quickly spiral. Creating a culture of self-assessment encourages your team to view their physical needs with the same importance as their mental performance.
Appreciate that every day is a reset opportunity
As the first rays of sunlight broke across the horizon just below Everest’s South Summit, it lifted me up from the despair of moments earlier. I felt a deep sense of appreciation; not just for all I already had in this world, but also for the metaphor that this moment represented. Every single day of my life—all 29,200 days if I live to 80—would have this same reset opportunity. Each day would be a chance to refresh, turn the page, and let go of the past—of burdens, ignorance, disagreements, pain, and setbacks—and acknowledge that I alone have control over my thoughts, how I feel, and my actions around others.
Legacy is what you will be remembered by
The realization that if something happened to me on the mountain and I didn’t return, how I lived my life up to that point would be how people would remember me. The die was already cast. So, how would they remember me? Had I lived my life to ensure a good enough answer to this question? My immediate answer was a long list of all the things I’d achieved and all the things I had “done” in my life before this trip. However, the more I rattled off the achievements and chapters in my head, the emptier this felt. Then I had a moment of clarity: Would they remember me for how I made them feel? Would they genuinely feel better about themselves because of me? When we remember someone who has made us feel better, stronger, and more alive, we remember that person’s spirit, and we internalize it. This is legacy.
Everest represents many things to me: vulnerability, humility, intuition, legacy, and compassion. Of course, I realize that not everyone will climb Mount Everest. But I believe that we each have our own personal Everest to climb. And it’s different for everyone. It could be feeling burnt out, overcoming a work challenge, pushing through a setback, or having a dream or ambition that seems just beyond our reach, perhaps even ridiculous. This is your own summit. But if you dig down very deep, I think you’ll find, just as I did, that you already have all the resources you need, inside you.
Vivian James Rigney is the president and CEO of Inside Us, an executive coaching consultancy. He is the author of Naked At the Knife-Edge: What Everest Taught Me About Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability.