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Quitting on Everest Saved My Life and Made Me a Better Leader

Quitting on Everest Saved My Life and Made Me a Better Leader Credit: Adrian Ballinger

The following piece was contributed as part of Business News Daily's byline series: 

It was just before dawn on Mt. Everest and I stood about 1,200 feet from its summit, the highest point on the planet.  It was dark, unusually windy for that time of day, and I was freezing to death … literally.

Over my walkie-talkie, Monica, our chief medic at base camp who was monitoring my vitals, was warning me my core temperature had dropped significantly. Up ahead, I could see my climbing partner Cory Richards, a teammate and friend I'd spent the last year training alongside, increasing the gap between us. I was so close to the summit and yet so far. I was slowing down and shutting down, physically.

Heading out on our summit push that morning, I had every reason to be confident. After all, I'd successfully summited Mount Everest six times previously, many of those times as an expedition leader. Yet despite that record of successful climbs, one Everest achievement had always eluded me; summiting the earth's tallest peak without the use of supplemental oxygen. We call it "No Os" in the climbing community, and fewer than 200 climbers have ever done it. After months of punishing training and high-altitude acclimation exercises, Cory and I were finally on our No Os summit push. This was it. The do or die moment. There was no turning back.

Shivering uncontrollably and suffering from the disorientation that comes when the brain is starved of oxygen, I made a step-by-torturous-step retreat back to the shelter of our tent at 27,000 feet. It was a decision that ultimately saved my life.

Sadly, several others this year, including experienced members of a team that summited just days before us, weren't as fortunate. Everest is no joke. Even the smallest mistake made at this altitude can be fatal and often times, it is.

Cory went on to summit and when we got back to base camp in the foothills of Everest he was showered with accolades and attention. No one was prouder of him than I was, of course, but I still bore the burden of knowing I had not accomplished the goal I'd set out to achieve.

As an athlete, always pushing myself to achieve the unachievable and living by the "winning is everything" mantra, it was tough to acknowledge, this time, I had come up short.

Family members and my closest climbing colleagues are quick to remind me that in turning back, I hadn't failed. I had, in fact, adhered to the first rule of mountaineering: Come back alive! Being in tune with your own physical limits is one of the toughest skills an alpinist can master, especially at 28,000 feet, where clarity of mind is as scarce as oxygen molecules.

My decision, as difficult as it was to make, actually served as a model for other climbing professionals and will hopefully remind them that it's okay to abort an expedition if, for whatever reason, conditions aren't right.

As a business leader, I learned some humbling lessons on the mountain that morning. Most importantly, it's OK to sacrifice a personal goal for the achievement of a team goal. Cory explains to me that my decision to turn around actually freed him up to successfully make it to the top. In addition, it's just as important to set an example for others, by living the climber's credo and not letting a myopic quest for goal achievement shut down your better judgement. And finally, I discovered through reassessing our training program where I need to improve so I can return to Everest and make my next No Os attempt. I am so thankful I am here to take advantage of that opportunity to try again.

About the Author: Adrian Ballinger is a world class mountaineer, skier, business leader, and professional speaker. As founder and head guide of the internationally acclaimed Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian envisioned a more holistic climbing experience for his clients than the status quo.

Edited for length and clarity by Shannon Gausepohl. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Shannon at sgausepohl@purch.com to learn more about our contributed content program.