Is Mountain Climbing Like A Business?

I pondered this question as I flew back from Africa after a successful ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro this month.  Let’s start with a little bit of background.  I have intermittently climbed mountains throughout Washington State for the last fifteen years.  I started with Mount Rainier and managed to get summit on all the other major volcanoes in Washington over the next few years.  During this time I also climbed Mt. Kala Pattar in Nepal which at 18,192 feet provides a spectacular view of Mt. Everest and all the 8,000 meter peaks surrounding it. 

I always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  It is one of the “seven summits” in the world. At 19,335 feet it’s the tallest free standing mountain in the world.  It’s virtually at the equator so that means you are climbing through ninety degree temperatures in the rain forest at the beginning and ending below zero in snow fields at the top.  The approach is a forty mile hike that climbs continuously from 5,000 – 19,335 feet. 


I decided this fall it was time to get this mountain done.  I talked to Dan Rothrock who is CFO at Stemilt Grower’s and Albert Rookard, EVP of Armada Corp.  Both signed up to go.  Ultimately Al tore his ACL in his knee and had surgery instead of being able to go. 


Both Dan and I reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro early in the morning on February 5, 2005. 


So how does mountain climbing compare to building a business?  I found there are a number of similarities: 



Obviously in climbing a mountain your vision is fairly clear you visualize yourself standing on the summit.  Virtually anything short of that is viewed as a failure. There were times when we would get glimpses of the mountain as we were approaching it and you realized how far away it was and how high it was.  You had to put these discouraging thoughts out of your mind and continue to quest towards that vision. 


Vision for a business is no different.  Let’s say your vision for your business is to grow it $ 500,000 in sales to $ 2.5 million in sales. The $ 2.5 million obviously represents a summit that you hope to achieve.  All the efforts of your team, guides and others must be focused on reaching that vision for your company.


The critical element here is to establish the vision as to what you want to achieve and then communicate it clearly to all your team members. One of the advantages of climbing a mountain is that the vision of reaching the summit is abundantly clear to all. In business unless you are intentional about establishing and communicating the vision companywide it will not be clear where you want to go. 


Strength and Weaknesses Analysis 

Once you have your vision established it’s important to do a strengths and weaknesses analysis on what assets you have available to achieve the vision and what liabilities may keep you from the vision.  Obviously, mountain climbing is going to take a lot of stamina and tenacity to reach the top.  Once you decide to go for the summit you need to start training immediately and get yourself prepared for a long arduous journey. 


The same thinking relates to business.  If you consider your sales force to be a weakness then that’s going to need to be shored up before you can find yourself moving toward $ 2.5 million in revenue. 


A thorough strengths and weaknesses analysis will get you ready for either climbing a mountain or running a business. 


Preparation of a Plan

If you want to climb a mountain or you want to run a business you need a very detailed plan.  We signed up with REI Adventure Travel for our climb so much of the plan was laid out for us.  This included the timing, seemingly endless list of equipment necessary to adapt from ninety degree weather to zero degree weather, etc.   


In business you need to clearly lay out your plan.  You need it structured in a way that bench marks are established that let you know you are proceeding towards your goal.  We call these Key Performance Indicators or Metrics.  On the mountain we knew when we reached the 12,500 foot level and how many days into the climb we were so we knew if we were making progress.  Similarly in your business if you anticipate growing revenue you need to know on a monthly or quarterly basis what levels of revenue will tell you you’re making progress towards your goal. 


Team Approach 

Most mountain climbing is not done in isolation. It requires a well oiled team that assists you in reaching the summit.  This will include the guides, porters and fellow climbers.  All these people are important towards keeping you focused on reaching the summit.  They are also a good source of independent information on how you are actually doing and can give you feedback on a regular basis. 


The team approach in business is just as important.  A well oiled team can help you reach your goals.  You need to reach out and rely on your team to each do their part of moving you towards the goal. 


Experienced Guide 

One of the most critical elements to keep you safe and make your climb successful is an experienced guide.  Our guide on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Peter Mato, had been on the summit of Kilimanjaro over six hundred times prior to our climb.  He obviously knows every nuance of the mountain including weather, trail conditions, snow conditions, etc.  In addition he has worked with thousands of individuals trying to achieve that goal and knows the best way to help make that happen. 


With all of the potential elements of illness, altitude sickness, fatigue, etc. he knows when to push and when to back off based on his considerable experience dealing with people trying to ascend the mountain.  He and his team were the principal reason we succeeded in reaching the summit. 


In business the need for an experienced guide or mentor is just as acute.  You need someone who has seen the ups and downs in business from many perspectives and has experience to assist you in establishing realistic goals and working with you to achieve them.  This may be a mentor you have been fortunate enough to come across, a more experienced partner in the business or a consultant you hire to fulfill this role.  I would never try to climb a mountain without a guide and I wouldn’t recommend business people try to build their business without some assistance that will help guide them along the way. 



The final component of a successful mountain climb is simply luck.  You can control all the things up to this point but luck will be the final determinant as to whether you are successful.  Samuel Goldwyn of MGM fame once said, “The harder I work the luckier I get.”  All the preparation described previously is the hard work that will hopefully produce the results.  But in the end luck has a final veto vote that may keep you from your destination.  Bad luck may include a freak weather storm that brings in eighteen inches of new snow and makes passage impossible.  You need to prepare relentlessly to reach your goal but luck will have its final say. 


The same phenomenon exists in business.  You need to do everything you can to be prepared but luck will have a hand in your final outcome.  Bad luck may include a fire season that produces so much smoke in Chelan County that it drives away your customers during your peak business month.  You can ask the people in Chelan or Leavenworth about how luck affected their results during a big fire year.  In business you need to follow Samuel Goldwyn’s advice and work as hard as you can and hopefully things will fall your way. Take care of all the things you can control to mitigate the effects of things you cannot control. 


It turns out there are a lot of similarities between mountain climbing and successfully running a business.  Good Luck on achieving the “summits” you set for your business.