Saturday, August 09, 2003

A Classroom on Top of the World

We paused to catch our breath and looked at the majestic sight in front of us. Mount Kangchenjunga, at 28,168 feet the third highest mountain on the planet, towered above us. The bright sunshine glistened off the icy slopes of this Himalayan skyscraper. A plume of mist rose from the top of the peak and was swiftly carried away by the ferocious wind. Suddenly the radio crackled to life: "We are on top of Go-Cha La pass and will start our descent shortly." The message was from five team members who had reached the high point of some 17,000 feet beneath the shear south face of Kangchenjunga. Cheers broke out among the remainder of our trekking party of eighteen.

Supported by a staff of Sherpas and porters and a herd of yak, Wharton Leadership Ventures had brought a group of MBA students and alumni and several participants from the Wharton Executive Education programs to the Indian state of Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas. Now in its fifth year, our trek had earlier been slated to reach the lower slopes of Mount Everest in Nepal. But due to the sometimes violent unrest in Nepal this year, the trek had been redirected to the slopes around India's towering colossus of Kangchenjunga.

The trek's lofty goals were in keeping with the heights we were scaling. Leadership is a capacity that draws on all aspects of an individual and an organization. Developing a vision, articulating it, and inspiring others to achieve it require not only careful analysis and technical knowledge but also a sense for what is important for the organization and for the people in and around it. We knew that mastering these abilities is a lifelong endeavor, and this leadership trek promised an opportunity to continue our leadership development, exercise our body, cross-train our mind, and reflect on our leadership future amongst the awe-inspiring peaks of the Himalayas.

Teaching leadership in a classroom is challenging enough. But how on earth do you teach leadership by shifting the classroom to a remote mountain landscape reached only by days of international flights and treacherous road travel?

Our trek started at Yuksam, a tiny Himalayan village at a height of 6,800 feet, passed through dense pine and rhododendron forests to Alpine meadows above the tree line and finally to a point where there was no e-mail, no electricity, no plumbing, no human settlements, no plant or animal life -- just a vast cold emptiness on a glacial moraine with some of the most remote, desolate vistas I have ever seen.

Within hours of hitting the trail it was clear that our trekkers came with varied backgrounds and abilities. Lindsay Patrick, who had grown up in the Canadian Rockies and captained the Wharton women's soccer team, scampered up the steep slopes and slithered down snowy stretches like a mountain goat. I by contrast had grown up a few hundred miles north of the equator and had not seen snow till I was in my thirties.

Our second night's campsite was the windswept plateau of Dzongri at an altitude of 13,200 feet. Lynne Dant, a marketing manager for a specialty chemicals company, and Eric Byrne, a software consultant, were anxiously anticipated the evening as this would be the first time that they had ever camped in the great outdoors. They were shocked as we neared the campsite when we were hit with a fierce Himalayan ice storm that rattled even our experienced guides. The wind howled and thunder cracked all night and into the following day, blanketing our tents and the landscape with layers of hail and snow.

As the storm continued through another night, we began to face a critical decision: whether to stay put until the weather abated, or to push higher in the storm. The snow-covered trail ahead initially dropped more than 1,000 feet into a river gorge, and then back up the other side onto a treacherous boulder field. We had no idea how slippery and dangerous the descent and subsequent ascent would be. Some of us urged that we remain at Dzongri until the storm abated, while others were eager to go. Everybody weighed in with their opinions, and the collective will came to point toward climbing higher despite the conditions. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as the sun emerged several hours later to melt the new snow and reveal an array of spectacular peaks soaring above us.

Several nights later we readied for a 3 am departure for the high pass of Go-Cha La. Our trip physician, Brad Reinke, warned us to pay close attention to any signs of altitude sickness once we ascended over 15,000 feet. A trip leader added in no uncertain terms that while going up was voluntary, getting back was mandatory. As we climbed up, each of us had to continually assess how we felt, how much higher we could ascend, and how much reserve remained for getting back down. We knew that the latter would be critical not only for own well being but also for the safety and success of the entire team.

Most of the team made it to the Go-Cha La point at 16,700 feet, and five pushed all the way up to Go-Cha La pass at 17,000 feet. Lynn Dant and I had set our own personal "Go-Cha La" of reaching at least 16,000 feet, and we succeeded in climbing higher than that and getting a magnificent up close view of Kangchenjunga before our inner voices said that was enough. With our type A personalities it was hard to say "no" to going all the way to the top. But we had to make a sensible call to leave ourselves with enough reserves to descend safely and not jeopardize the rest of the team. It proved a personal leadership moment.

(Original article in the Wharton Leadership Digest. See the 5th article from the top)

Photos from the Himalayas