One of the biggest challenges we face in life is dealing with change. It’s the same in the mountains.
To avoid accidents you need to see the world clearly, see the changes happening and then change your behaviour. When you are a novice just starting out, there is so much new information to interpret that it is hard to fully understand each situation.
Snow conditions and weather represent the two biggest elements of change in the mountains. In order to survive as an Alpinist, you need to gain enough experience to clearly interpret these.
If I think over the many times I have attempted to climb Mt Blanc, change has been an ever-present theme. Here are three examples where responding to change has helped us survive.
In my first big season in the Alps, I climbed on Mt Blanc twice with two different partners. During the second climb, The Brenva Spur, an unpredicted, vicious storm hit at the Col de la Brenva, 500 metres below the summit. Complicating matters was the fact that my climbing partner, Pete, was struggling severely with altitude sickness. We needed to rest. I helped him into his sleeping bag and considered our options. It was obvious that we had to get down as soon as possible, by the easiest route, and that meant abandoning the summit. I am sure, had we tried to continue to the top, things would have become much more serious indeed. We relinquished our goal to survive.
On a subsequent occasion, whilst working as a mountain guide leader, the slopes around Mt Maudit (a subsidiary summit) were too avalanche prone and so I turned my team around. As a consolation, we climbed the Cosmiques Arête on the Aguille du Midi. Though obviously disappointed with not reaching the summit of Mt Blanc, at least we did achieve something. And my team who were new to the mountains learnt a lesson in humility.
More recently, again as a guide, during an ascent of the normal route of Mt Blanc an enormous electrical storm looked to engulf us. Many teams higher on the peak descended. We just happened to be at the Gouter Refuge and waited for almost an hour there. By a stroke of luck the storm retreated towards Lake Geneva and we continued, reaching the summit in glorious weather.
Obviously, the trick is gaining enough experience to interpret conditions and to then make the correct decision under pressure. My advice would always be to include a Plan B from the outset – an alternative climb in case the main objective is out of the question. Also, always consider a bailout plan from the route you are on. Cutting your losses can feel negative, but it is an important part of mountain survival. It might be that you can transfer to an easier climb, or escape altogether from part way up the climb. Occasionally, the best option is to carry on and over the summit, sticking to Plan A, but not always.
Perhaps one of the reasons why making decisions in the mountains is so difficult is that so much is at stake. The key is to balance courage and humility and to judge when one and not the other is needed. Learn to recognise when to stick with a strategy, when to adapt it or when to abandon a project, even when you have invested heavily in it. Sometimes great courage is needed to quit.
In life, in business and on Mt Blanc, change is never easy. But for leaders and teams in any sphere, it is a key survival skill.
For a business perspective, do check out this article in the Harvard Business Review