By Rodrigo Jordan
Since the 80s, mountaineering has been divided into two styles that have quite different views on what it means to climb mountains.
One of them is characterised by being highly competitive and accordingly considers risk a factor that determines the level of demand. Higher risk, higher demand.
Those who belong to this line of logic have opted not to use support when reaching summits. A clear example of this is Alex Honnold, the American climber that has made free solo climbing his personal stamp. In 2017, Alex climbed a 900-metre rock wall in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitán. His feat was registered in the movie Free Solo, which won an Academy Award for the best documentary feature in 2019. It is incredible. The level of risk that Honnold took is astounding. There was no room for error because, point blank, it would imply death– his death. Along that same line is the mountaineers who reach the highest peaks without the use of oxygen, who do it solo or who take unexplored routes; everything that means exacerbating the levels of risk.
On the other hand, we have commercial mountaineering, which dates back to the origins of mountaineering in Europe in the mid-1800s. During that time, the English inhabitants –of a country without mountains– travelled to what they called their backyard: The Alps. They hired Swiss or French guides to help them climb to the top of the mountains. The closest thing to this style is what still lives in the Himalayas through the work of the Sherpas.
The true summit picture is not the one that is taken up at the top, but the one that is taken back at Base Camp, once everyone has returned safely.
Claudio Lucero, the father of Chilean mountaineering, describes a third style that runs parallel to the others: romantic mountaineering.
The mountaineers who grew under Claudio’s wing identified themselves with this new style that prioritises the values of companionship, beauty, nobleness, and sharing. In accordance with these values, Claudio explains that the true summit picture is not the one that is taken up at the top, but the one that is taken back at Base Camp, once everyone has returned safely.
Following this perspective, the importance is not in reaching the summit but in what you live as you attempt to conquer it. Claudio heavily emphasises how you climb, who you do it with, and the lessons you acquire throughout the expedition. It is a valid outlook for any aspect of life because it prioritises companionship, respect, and listening to one another. In that sense, romantic mountaineering is not individual nor competitive. The experience of climbing a mountain together is in its DNA. It is not about getting to the top first but making sure we all get there.
What I like most about romantic mountaineering –and maybe I should say mountaineering in general– is that it does not require the existence of a loser. To be better, I do not have to beat anyone. The mountain does not have that situation so characteristic of other sports: the winner that celebrates with their arms in the air and the defeated one that mourns their fall.
That aspect of mountaineering, so noble and so human, excites me.
“Take off your backpack, go down, and help the others get up here”.
This does not mean that there is no competition on the mountain, as it seems to be a gene embedded in who we are as humans. It is almost a natural drive. It has happened to me, without me even knowing it. During my first outings, I unconsciously climbed as fast as possible. One time while climbing El Abanico, a mountain in the range above Santiago, I arrived before everyone else to the place we were going to set up camp. This climb was part of a mountaineering class of fifteen people, and I remember that I arrived almost at the same time as Claudio, the leader. He looked at me and said, “Take off your backpack, go down, and help the others get up here”.
I must have been twenty years old. That was a life lesson.
We tend to put the spotlight on the individuals, more than the collective performance.
The complicated thing about this is that society’s logic, endorsed by the media, tries to give value to the one that reaches first, the one who wins, and the one who leads a team. We tend to put the spotlight on the individuals, more than the collective performance.
It is as simple as watching football transmissions: they always look for the star of the match at the end of the game. One of the few times I can remember the group being highlighted over the individuals was in the 1962 World Cup. The Chilean team, which finished third in the World Cup that year, was applauded in its entirety instead of just for its star players.
In 1992, during an official awards ceremony for the best of the year –in business, sports, social figures, etc–, a tribute was made for the 20th anniversary of Chile’s conquest of Everest. I remember I specifically asked for the whole team to go. When the moment came to accept the award, the master of ceremonies, Sebastián Piñera – who would become Chilean president some years later– invited me to come forward as the expedition leader. People applauded and he made a comment along the lines of “here is a person that knows about triumphs, who knows how to go far”.
I remember having asked permission to speak, to be able to emphasize that reaching the summit of Everest had actually been the result of hard work by the whole team, that three of us had reached the summit, and that the others had joined me in the ceremony. When I went back to my seat, Sebastián Piñera added another comment that was something like, “now there you have a good leader, a leader that takes care of the team.” I went back up to insist that the triumph was not of the leader, but of the team. It was an anecdotal dispute and is useful to illustrate the world’s need to value the individual over the team.
Romantic mountaineering proposes something different.
Romantic mountaineering proposes something different. It says that it doesn’t matter who gets there first, but that we all return safely. High altitude mountaineering is a very dangerous sport. We are always on the brink of death or, at the very least, of losing an extremity to frostbite or getting a fracture from a fall. Therefore, whatever we do, we must do it with excellence; we must be rigorous; we must plan adequately, and we must be very clear on the fact that there is no summit that justifies the death of a person.
Where am I going with this? When you value returning safe and sound from the summit above all things, there are moments when you must seriously consider the option of quitting because, many times, returning alive means giving up on your dream.
One example: in 1983, Claudio Lucero was at the last camp on Everest, at 8,300 metres, with Gastón Oyarzún, Dagoberto Peña and Ivan Vigoroux. It was the first time a team of Chilean mountaineers had attempted to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. They established a camp just 500 metres from the summit. They were ready to attempt the summit when Gastón showed signs of cerebral oedema. (High-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE) is a medical condition in which the brain swells with fluid because of the physiological effects of travelling to a high altitude). Claudio made the decision to abort the expedition and save Gastón’s life by taking him down.
When focused on reaching a dream, the possibility of becoming obsessed with it is very high. And when you are obsessed with something, you go blind and stop seeing the other important things in life.
When I explain this to an audience that wants to apply the lessons of mountaineering to the world of entrepreneurship, they often try to counteract with the statement that no one is risking their lives in their businesses or projects. No one runs the risk of dying like up in the mountains. My answer is simple. When focused on reaching a dream, the possibility of becoming obsessed with it is very high. And when you are obsessed with something, you go blind and stop seeing the other important things in life. You stop seeing your personal life, you stop seeing your family, and you stop seeing your friendships. You become someone who is alive, but dead. You may not have physically died but, in relation to others and your surroundings, you are dead.
I know it is not easy to distinguish that line between perseverance and stubbornness. I know it is hard to differentiate when you must say enough is enough, this is as far as we go.
However, when you are convinced that the true summit picture is when everyone is back safe, that conviction regulates all your actions and helps illuminate something that, without it, may lead you into very uncertain territory.
Rodrigo Jordan is the Founder and President of Vertical S.A and one of Chile’s most accomplished mountaineers, having led several successful expeditions to the Himalayas, including Everest, K2 and Mount Lhotse, and Antarctica and Greenland to document the impact of climate change on the world’s glacial masses. Jordan is widely recognized in Latin America for his work in Leadership and Innovation and he serves as Professor of Leadership in the MBA program at the PUC School of Business. Jordan also directs Fundación Vertical, the non-profit arm of Vertical that serves underprivileged students from schools in Chile.