How much room is there at the top of the mountain?

Given the recent tragedies on Mount Everest, is it time that we reexamine our business and life metaphors?

Matt De Reno

CNN reported today that yet another mountaineer has died after summiting Mount Everest, bringing the death toll for the 2019 climbing season to 11 people. The latest ill-fated climber was remembered by his family as such:

"He saw his last sunrise from the highest peak on Earth. At that instant, he became a member of the '7 Summit Club' having scaled the highest peak on each continent," the statement said. His family said he died doing what he loved and that he is survived by his mother and younger siblings.

My heart goes out to the loved ones of those that perished on the mountain.

I always thought there was room at the top of the mountain for at least one more person—and gosh darn it, I will one day make it to the top of that mountain. Unfortunately the recent spate of tragic deaths atop Mount Everest has me rethinking that timeless mountain climbing metaphor for business and personal success.

That age-old, climbing the mountain metaphor has served as a personal inspiration for many, both physical and metaphorical. No one can deny—and I certainly won’t—the joy and accomplishment that climbing to the summit of Everest must have brought those individuals. Dying on top of Everest is going out on top, literally.

Still, maybe we need to look closer at the mountain-climbing metaphor?

Our business and life metaphors, which we use to motivate and inspire us, only focus on achieving the pinnacle of the mountain. That is half the journey. For the top is but the halfway point of a mountain climb, if we one day wish to return from it.

Not to borrow or twist too much of the mountain climbing career metaphor—though it might be too late for that—but I think that standing on the mountaintop is a journey point fraught with incredible peril unless you have properly prepared for your success along the way and planned well your descent from the top of the world.

Part of the planning stage of achievement should now include how one might come down from that mountain as well as how to climb it.

Let’s consider descent from success as the inevitable last leg of the mountain climbing journey. After all, riches are transitory. The saying goes “you can’t take it with you.” The biblical equivalent is “dust to dust.”

Don’t let me get you down (or maybe let me). You see there is much benefit In savoring the descent from greatness for the mere act alone presupposes that we will and are going to be at the top of that mountain one way or another. The point is this: do we want to die on that mountain?

If the answer is no, then how do you get back down from the summit? 

I don’t want to discourage anyone from reaching the top of any mountain, scaling the summit, to sit on top of the world, become A-1, the top of the heap, but what is your plan to complete the entire journey?

Is the top all you crave. The look down—is that all that matters? Is life over once the top is reached.

Make no mistake, the view from the top of the mountain is to be cherished and appreciated.

Perhaps only from the mountaintop can you truly appreciate the breadth of your empire. With all apologies to historical truth, let us remind ourselves of Alexander The Great’s lament according to the character Hans Gruber in Die hard:

“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

As I researched mountain climbing as a business metaphor, I came across an article: Why climbing a mountain is the ultimate metaphor for business success.

The author cites a litany of reasons that one’s path to business success is similar to a mountain climbing expedition and includes having a clearly defined outcome, the need to prepare for the success, the need for the right equipment, following a path where someone else has gone before, and more.

The writer of this article notes that it can be lonely at the top and that you must savor the reward, including the journey, and each rock you climbed. The article concludes with a simple thought meant to be whimsical:

“Now, how do I get down off this mountain?” 

That concluding phrase might hold the key to a deeper understanding of both personal and business success. Attaining success is one thing but what if you get it. Then what?

Therefore, we might update the mountain climbing metaphor with a bullet point on returning home, descending the mountain, with the idea that there will be more mountains to climb. 

Disclaimer: I temper this post by reminding you that I am not so much a mountain climber as a but a guide up the mountain, a career Sherpa who has never been to the pinnacle of his own profession, though I am hard pressed to define exactly what that is for me.  Of course, I still have some time to do that and I suspect I’ll know it when I am standing on the cliff’s edge.  

What follows now is my advice to you would-be summit chasers—all your career ambitions bold and glorious. You will get there if you put your mind to it. I know you will.  When you do get there, do this.

Take a deep breath and appreciate the view at the top or from the highest point you are willing to climb. Maybe that is Base Camp, Camp 1, 2 or 3 and just short of the mountain top?

Whatever height you reach, savor the journey. After all, where you are now might afford the best view of mountaintop you will ever get.

Do not forget that the the thrill of a mountain climbing trek, and all your pursuits trivial and grand, are in the journey, not the destination.

Consider the “"sad height”" achieved by the father in Dylan Thomas’ poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

What is Dylan Thomas referring to by those words "sad height”? Was the sad height the top of the mountain?

It might be that what Dylan Thomas was trying to say was, “Hey Pops, don’t die on that mountain.” 

There are other metaphorical allusions to the danger of the mountain. Perhaps this is the real meaning behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s name of the “Lonely Mountain” in The Hobbit? The Lonely Mountain was the lair of the dragon Smaug who guarded a pile of gold, but had nothing better to do with it but sleep upon it?

Make no mistake. There is indeed room at the top of the mountain. There is room for you and me and many others to succeed in business and in life.

The recent tragedies that have befallen the climbers of Mount Everest are reminders that there is also room at the top for more bodies.

Let us not forget that lesson, in the memory of those lost climbers, as we go about ascending to our own peaks in business and life.

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