Jul 21, 2013

Taking time out for reflection... The "L&Co Talks with..." interview

Sometimes I find myself getting so caught up in the physical hustle and bustle of life - planning expeditions, running to and from meetings, and keeping fitness levels up to snuff... that I forget to take time out and reflect on how this crazy personal and professional journey has evolved, what I've learned from it all... and, perhaps more importantly for me personally, the 'why' behind it. Many thanks to  entrepreneur Shannon Lewis, a seasoned communications professional and President of Liberty and Co, a strategic communications consultancy for encouraging me to stop in my tracks and reflect on the journey through some thought provoking questions through her L&Co Talks series. 
The full interview can be found here: http://libertyandco.ca/lco-talks-with-mountaineer-heather-geluk/

L&Co. TALKs this week with high altitude mountaineer and savvy business women Heather Geluk. Heather’s story is one of adventure in attitude. She has reached the highest points on earth climbing Cholatse, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Mera Peak and Everest and currently summiting the famous Eiger in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. Heather’s inspiration of  pushing beyond one’s limitations can be applied to our daily lives in facing new challenges, seizing new opportunities and testing yourself against the unknown.

L&Co: What words do you live by?

Heather: Discipline. Commitment. Courage. Creativity.

L&Co: What were your motivations to climb? What brought you to the mountain?

Heather: To prove to myself that I could do it and to set out on the journey to make it happen.  Life can be full of ‘Everest-like’ challenges. We all have the ability to conquer these challenges by facing and overcoming our fears, by believing in ourselves and putting our hearts and mind to the challenge. We set our own limits. Sometimes the only thing between us and our dreams is ourselves.

The summits of the mountains I’ve climbed, I always hoped, would serve a greater purpose and have a deeper meaning than just accomplishing a goal. I am fuelled by the strength and courage of cancer patients and their families who face the challenges of cancer on a daily basis. These challenges are much more significant than an 8848m peak. Through my climbs I support the charity Hope for Tomorrow hopefortomorrow.org.uk whose mission it is to bring one Mobile Chemotherapy Unit into operation in every county in the UK. Treating as many as 20 patients a day, Mobile Chemotherapy Units bring vital chemotherapy treatment closer to patient’s homes reducing long distances of travel, waiting times and avoid the stresses and strains of busy oncology centers. Each bespoke unit costs £260,000 to build and maintain over 3 years – a nominal amount when you consider the tremendous impact that they have on the quality of life to so many patients and their families.

L&Co: What is the most challenging part of your Himalayan climbs?

Heather: I love my job as a management consultant and have been lucky enough to lead individuals, teams and organizations to their own ‘Everests’ – in a business context.

The results-driven nature of these projects motivate me to deliver my best – even if this means working long hours and skipping that gym session or two just for the thrill of working with others to achieve their goals. Finding the balance between my job plus training, raising funds for charity and developing my personal ‘brand’ hasn’t been easy. And balance as more precarious than any summit ridge I’ve ever been on!

I believe that I’m a better consultant because I climb and a better climber because I’m a consultant. If you’re able to find that balance and stay true to yourself then reaching the summit is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

L&Co: Speaking of the summit, what is the view and feeling being on top of the world?

Heather: Summit views are all about seeing ‘possibility’.  From the Lhotse summit, I watched as the spindrift blowing off of the steep face shifted to provide glimpses of the slopes of Everest and of the myriad of peaks beyond – new possibilities spread out tantalizing below.  Some of these mountains I’d already attempted or climbed – Cholatse, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Mera Peak and Everest.

L&Co: Can you describe what was going through your mind when you are reaching the summit?

Heather: Why can’t I enjoy a beach holiday and a mojito like normal people?

When the steep rocky summit came into view I felt a broad range of emotion – from euphoria to fear to vulnerability to feeling truly ‘human’ and truly alive in an environment that I didn’t physiologically belong in. I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I couldn’t believe how close the sun felt and how far away the rest of the world seemed.

I felt truly ‘alive’, very conscious of my vulnerability and nostalgic. I thought of my family in Canada. I thought of the charity, Hope for Tomorrow and the ‘Everests’ of those people and their families battling with cancer. I reflected on the journey I’d taken to get here – the experiences both on and off of the mountains I’ve climbed and the lessons learned. The hours of training, the worries, but also all the pure joy, the happiness, and the truly inspiring, amazing people that I’d met along the way. We didn’t stay on top too long as it was about -45 degrees C and we still had a long descent ahead. Just long enough to enjoy the views, have a team hug and a photo.

L&Co.  With your climbing team, how much to you rely on them? What was the dynamics like? 

Heather:  People are people, no matter what the environment. Team dynamics on a mountain are like team dynamics at work – the stakes are just different and the impact of the decisions that individuals make and the risks that they take can have fatal consequences.

There’s always some element of ‘give and take’ on any team but you need to be clear on the basics – the degree of risk you’re willing to take and build a solid foundation of respect and camaraderie as you work toward an agreed joint vision or goal. I rely on my team for physical support and also for emotional support.

L&Co. Everyone tends to focus on the Summit, but often the journey down can be most treacherous. How do you prepare for this, mentally & physically?

Heather: Every summit is different so there is no best answer on how to best prepare. What needs to remain front of mind on both the ascent and the descent is around understanding as an individual how much risk you are willing to take and when it’s time to turn around. This needs to be understood and respected by the team. A dead body sits frozen just below the summit of Lhotse – still dressed in his down suit, attached to his rope and wearing his big mountain boots. He serves as reminder about the fatal consequences of taking undue risks and making good decisions when it’s time to turn around and go home. There are some risks that simply aren’t worth taking.

L&Co: Where do you find inspiration?

Heather: I meet inspirational people every day – in basecamps and boardrooms. Some of these people have dazzled me with their genius and art. Others have shared with me insights about how I can live. Others have devoted their life to helping others. Some have conquered mountains while others have built business empires. Some are great artists while others have entertained with their brilliant musical talents.

One thing that they all have in common is that they are passionate, talented, and amazing people who have added color to my life and have helped to gently shape the moments that make up my journey – both at work and at play. Without the tremendous support of these people, life would not be nearly as fascinating and mountains would be significantly higher.

It’s not just the mountain but the mosaic people you meet along the way that make life such an incredible adventure.

L&Co: There is controversy that too many climbers on the mountain are not experience and its over-crowded,  should anyone be able to venture to the peak? Or should it be only those who are highly skilled, especially we so many fatalities? 

Heather: Everest was crowded this year with about 1000 people at Base Camp and about 600 or so people going for the summit at various times during the late-May weather window. It was quite different to Makalu, a much more technical 8000m peak I attempted in September 2012 where there were only about 20 of us in Base Camp.

So yes, it was busy but I didn’t ever feel ‘threatened’ by the number of people on the mountain. What concerned me more than the numbers was the number of inexperienced climbers going with low-cost, low budget operators, signing up for expeditions without understanding the undue risk that they are taking for themselves and how these low budget operators impact the better organized operations on the mountain, looking to them when there’s trouble. Many of these operators serve low quality food, don’t have the appropriate supporting infrastructure with tents, oxygen, sherpas, radios etc. By the time that clients realize they are in trouble on a mountain and/or that this infrastructure doesn’t exist then it may already be too late. There were several deaths on the mountain this year that definitely could have been avoided this year.

L&Co:  You are also working in London, UK at a high profile job at PWC, what keeps you on top of your game, balancing climbing adventures, work and life? 

Heather: After returning from climbing Makalu and Ama Dablam in Nepal in November 2012, I took some time out to reflect on how my love for the mountains fits into my career as a management consultant. I’m not your typical ‘climber’ and I’m not your typical ‘consultant’ either. I like my ‘creature comforts’ but there are more than a few days when I’d quite happily swap a pair of Jimmy Choo’s for a pair of LaSportiva boots, a Burberry trench for a Sherpa soft-shell and a Birkin bag for a Berghaus.

I love and thoroughly, appreciate, embrace, and soak-up every moment I spend in the mountains however I also love the time I spend in the office, drawing insights and inspiration from my colleagues, clients and helping individuals and teams to reach both short and long-term goals. I feel that the contrast between these two environments has helped to shape the way I approach challenges, make decisions, manage risk and manage my time.

Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices. I am creative in the way that I balance my work and passions outside of work – this means prioritizing and saying ‘no’ when I have too much on my plate and becoming disciplined in the management of my time.

L&Co: Has climbing become an obsession? Will you climb Everest again or are you onto another adventure?

Heather: I love life. I am happiest when pursue things that I feel passionate about. I love climbing but it’s not an obsession in its own right. Climbing, like my job, serves as a vehicle that enables me to challenge myself emotionally, mentally and physically. I plan adventures every day but these adventures are as much about self discovery and awareness as they are about physical challenge.

Next week I’m off to climb the Eiger (also known as ‘wall of death’) in Switzerland… then I’ve got a big challenging work-project to tackle followed by organizing an expedition to lead a group of women to climb Kilimanjaro. Scattered between these milestone events are adventures like learning how to use my new iphone and meeting my new goddaughter. 

L&Co: What is your favorite app or digital tool on the mountain? 

Heather: I love my kindle – light and easy to pack and has a great battery life. I have a lot of ‘down time’ on big Himalayan expeditions when I often find myself stuck in a small tent with the wind howling outside. Diving into a warm sleeping bag with a collection of my favorite literary classics a click-away is an absolute luxury. When I first started climbing I was limited to carrying up one (if any) book at a time to save on weight. Reading ‘War and Peace’ at 8000m would have been unheard of!

L&Co: How would other describe yourself in three words?

Heather: Unique. Bold. Positive.

Jul 19, 2013

The People You Meet: The 'Cool Climb' Team & Access Sport climb

I paused briefly from my high-altitude plodding to take in the deep shades of gold and pink being cast over a panorama of snow covered peaks around us here in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Ahead of me and cutting the steps in the snow-covered ridge of the Monch were guides Kenton, Farmer and Margaret and following on the ropes were Nick, Owain, Becca, Montel and myself. Together we formed the heart and soul of the ‘Cool Climb team’ braving exposed ridges, corniced slopes and a hut full of snorers to attempt to climb the notorious Eiger to raise money and awareness for the charity Access Sport. The 4017m Monch was just one of our key objectives – an acclimatisation climb which would prepare our bodies for the duress of altitude which we would experience in the days ahead during our planned ascents of the Eiger and Jongfrau.
It was a beautiful morning for our ascent of this majestic peak. We left the M√∂nchsjoch Hut at 3658m at 4am after feasting on a breakfast of muslix, cheese and strong ‘bowls’ of coffee and tea. The Monchsjoch hut is one of the highest huts owned by the Swiss Alpine Club. Because of its altitude, the first night in the Monchsjoch Hut, when the body is still adjusting to the ‘thin air’ will always present its challenges and few people manage a good first nights’ sleep at this altitude. Our merry band of travellers proved no exception with everyone appearing a bit more bleary-eyed than usual at breakfast. Only Owain, aka, ‘the Labrador’ seemed as spritely and keen as always and we had to hold him back from running out onto the mountain before breakfast..!
A blast of mild 4am air blew out the cob
webs and we began our silent approach over the glacier to the foot of the mountain where we strapped spikey-crampons to our boots, armed ourselves with ice-axes and donned our helmets! Nervous smiles were exchanged all around at the prospect ahead but we were comforted by our fearless guides who double checked our equipment to ensure that we were well prepared. Montell looked up excitedly and we all remarked how he would fare brilliantly on the ascent – particularly following his flawless (and seemingly effortless!) ascent of yesterday’s 2500m peak. Becca also smiled bravely, pacing on the glacier to keep warm and testing the knife-edged points of her crampons as we roped up and began the climb..!
There’s a common distinction in climbing referred to as ‘Type 1 fun’ and ‘Type 2 fun’.
Type 1 fun: This is when you enjoy the moment / activity as you are living it.
Type 2 fun: This is when the moment / activity is not particularly enjoyable, but in hindsight you enjoyed the experience

That morning, under perfect conditions – mild temperatures, great snow, gentle slope, and a beautiful sunrise is a perfect example of ‘Type 1 fun’. Moving together as a team, sharing the occasional laugh and joke and experiencing the sheer beauty of the mountain under an exquisite sunrise – I found it difficult to imagine anything more perfect.
I’ve spent a few seasons in the Himalaya so am accustomed to the challenges that mountain-terrain can sometimes throw at you – and how challenging it can be to overcome a fear of the unknown. What most impressed me was the way that the team – particularly Montell and Becca – moved over the terrain especially given that they had never even walked on crampons before and, in Montell’s case, had never seen a mountain..! Rather than shy away from the challenge, they embraced it and excelled navigating over exposed rock, steep snow covered ridges, and dizzying heights. It was far from an easy, straightforward climb and yet they smiled through it and kept positive spirits throughout.
Conditions began to deteriorate and the mild temperatures prompted a thick fog to roll in. At around 3950m, on a particularly exposed ridge which presented perfect views of the sheer face of the Eiger Montell and Becca made the wise call to begin their descent. Given the warm temperatures there were additional risks posed by the melting snow and the descent often presents more challenges than an ascent – they showed tremendous maturity as budding climbers in understanding the conditions and their own abilities. The expression, ‘everyone has their own Everest’ sprang to mind and I was / am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to share this Everest with Becca and Montell. We took advantage of a break in the fog to capture the moment with a well-placed team photo complete with an Access Sport t-shirt.
Kenton, Farmer, Owain, Nick and I continued to the summit of the Monch while the visibility decreased due to the cloud which quickly began to close in. Every now and again there was a break in the cloud and we were able to witness the many snow covered peaks – the many ‘opportunities and possibilities’ below us. Enjoying these views was short-lived as the narrow summit-ridge was extremely exposed and attention was certainly required to put one careful foot in front of the other..!
When the corniced, precarious summit finally came into view, the satisfaction of having realised our goal allowed us to take a few minutes to enjoy and congratulate each other on our collective achievement – the 4017m summit of the Monch! No matter the mountain, for me personally, ‘summit satisfaction’ feels the same – maybe a perfect example of ‘Type 2’ fun.  There is a moment of happiness for having achieved the ultimate goal followed by an overwhelming with a sense of feeling incredibly ‘tiny’ and powerless in an environment which I feel hugely privileged to experience. The opportunity to experience this with such an exceptional team and for such a great cause made our success even sweeter. Something that I fully appreciated when we were all down from our adventure, safe and sound and enjoying a cold drink back in the hut..!
Huge thanks to our fantastic Cool Climb Team for an exceptional day in the mountains and for yet another incredible alpine adventure..!

Many thanks to our generous sponsors who made this climb possible:
and to Nick House, Owain Walbyoff, and Kenton Cool for their initiative in setting this up this fantastic opportunity for Access Sport..!