Published: March 12, 2009
Ed Viesturs, CEO
America’s preeminent alpinist explains what traders can learn from mountaineers.
Text by Mike Benoist

Editor's Note: Check back for daily video dispatches from Ed Viesturs as he attempts his seventh Everest summit. Coming soon!

On March 25, Ed Viesturs, America’s preeminent high altitude mountaineer, officially un-retired. The man who once told ADVENTURE “I have no desire to climb above 8,000 meters again,” will return to Everest for the eleventh time on a team sponsored by Eddie Bauer, gunning for his seventh summit. “I’m just trying to keep up with Lance,” he says. But while Viesturs’s time away from the high peaks was short, it was hardly unproductive. Since climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains, Viesturs has co-written a memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top (Broadway), and the book’s themes—teamwork, risk management, and goal-setting—have attracted a very slick set of followers: business execs. (The president of steel giant Arcelor Mittal recently flew the climber to Delhi to speak at their global sales meeting.) We caught up to Viesturs as he packed for Everest to ask him about his transition from base camp to the boardroom. Now if we could only get Wall Street to adopt Viesturs’s risk management strategies….

ADVENTURE: Did you write No Shortcuts to the Top with the business crowd in mind?

ED VIESTURS: No. I just wanted to portray climbing as a thinking man’s sport. If you want to survive, you’ve got to plan and budget and organize. It just sort of fell into place that the business community started reading and saying, Oh man, all these messages here are perfect for my business. It was just kind of by accident.

A: What are your main messages?

EV: Teamwork. Overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Doing things one day at a time, one step at a time. Perseverance. Passion. These are all things that companies try to impart on their employees. They always say, Hey, we did great this year, let’s set the bar higher next year. My message is: You can always do better. You can always challenge yourself.

A: In this economic climate, fewer and fewer companies setting a higher bar. If you had a chance to speak to Wall Street before the bubble burst, what would you have told them?

EV: Wall Street was just going full on—grabbing for success, taking huge risks. In mountaineering you have to make some tough choices based on success and non-successes. The most basic, is: Do I go forward or not? Some people are so driven to succeed that their instincts—and the rules they’ve learned along the way—go out the window. And you might get away with it once or twice in business or in the mountains, but sooner or later it’s going to catch up to you. And you can’t become complacent and say, I got away with it once, I’m going to try to get away with it again. That becomes pretty dangerous.

A: So Wall Street needed a good old-fashioned gut check?

EV: Right. I’ve talked to a lot of financial people. Instinctively, they know the right thing to do. But they have all these pressures from people expecting them to push and advance. Their clients are expecting them to do that. They are paid to produce. But I’ve said, if your clients are pushing you to make bad decisions, you should find different clients. You should be able to trust your experience and judgment.

A: I’m sure you’ve felt pressure from your climbing partners to push on when perhaps you shouldn’t.

EV: Sure. Annapurna 2002 is a good example. I was there with my partner Veikka Gustafsson, and we joined up with J.C. LaFaille and his partner. We were pushing for the summit when we got to this very steep, avalanche-prone slope, which we had to climb to get to the summit ridge. J.C. and his partner continued to climb, but I felt very hesitant. I stopped and waited for Veikka to catch up. I knew the slope was bad. There was a lot of exposure. It was ready to go. J.C. was up ahead climbing and called back, “Ed be very careful. This is very dangerous.” “Yeah,” I said, “I know that.” I tried to go up, but I just couldn’t do it. I talked to Veikka, and we decided not to go on. J.C. and his partner continued on, succeeded, and came down. But later, they admitted they were redlining it the whole way. I can’t say what they did was right, or we did was right. Everyone has their own level of acceptable risk.

A: Still, J.C. LaFaille eventually died on Makalu, another 8,000-meter peak. Do you think that getting away with risky climbs can produce a false sense of confidence?

EV: Absolutely. You never hear about the near misses in the mountains. I’ve seen a lot of them. And people walk away and say, I made it. Well, what’s the full story? They don’t want to admit that they barely made it down. Those are the stories you never hear about and a lot of those folks will say, Well, I did it, I’ll do it again. Then you become complacent about risks.

A: It’s also easy to take risks when everyone else is. That’s certainly what happened on Wall Street.

EV: It’s called groupthink. And the same phenomenon happens in the mountains. Climbers say, Oh, 30 people are going for the summit today, it must be OK. Well, that doesn’t mean it’s OK. If you don’t feel it’s OK, you should not be sucked along with the group mentality. You shouldn’t doubt yourself for hanging back when others press on.

A: Climbing and trading are both risky. Do they attract a similar personality?

EV: Probably. They’re both exciting. And both involve a fair amount of analysis. It’s not like we’re obliviously climbing these mountains. There’s a lot of thinking involved. Logistics. Contemplation. Planning. If you want to succeed and survive it gets pretty detailed. For the guys on Wall Street, it’s like a chess game. They know there’s risk involved, but there’s also big paybacks. But on Wall Street, you may lose money. In the mountains, we lose our lives. Perhaps that’s why climbers tend to be more conservative.

A: Is there any mountaineering advice that would get us out of this economic mess?

EV: It’s going to take a while. But we’re almost down at base camp again and we’re going to have to start climbing. It’s going to be a slippery slope, but we just have to stay positive. We can always climb back out. We just have to stick together. And plug away. And work hard— like we always do.