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Steady Heading Amidst The Chaos

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Riding out the storm is certainly a familiar metaphor when speaking of risks, especially those which catch you somewhat unawares. The importance of being able to set and hold a course that will keep you away from the shoals and onward to your destination despite the roughness of the seas and strength of the opposing gale is something any risk manager can relate to.

So why is this metaphor work? Does it resonate with us because at one time or another we’ve all experienced being out too far from shore when the proverbial storm hits? If that’s the case, how did we get there? What miscalculation did we make that convinced us we were OK when in fact we were not? Was it a question of a poor sense of timing, faulty equipment, or a failure to prepare?

One place on terra firma where storms have wreaked havoc is the upper regions of the mighty Everest (or Chomolungma, which means Holy Mother in Tibetan). Great by Choice author Jim Collins recounts the ascent of David Breashears, an American alpinist and filmmaker who in 1996 led the team that filmed the ascent to the summit for IMAX. Like many of the truly great risk managers who are also adventurers, Breashears honed his preparation skills long before launching the expedition. For example, he spent time in a cold weather lab in Toronto at temperatures hovering around -50F, ensuring that he could withstand the cold to be able to load his camera by hand, so as to be certain the shot was assured every time.

Breashears trained himself to observe weather, and he also developed a sixth sense to warn him when danger was imminent. Near the summit on what turned out to be the dress rehearsal, he looked down and saw an avalanche of climbers heading up the final trail to the summit. After imagining the crowd ascending one by one, and then coming back down the same way, and sensing a storm was brewing, he elected to head back down to base camp and wait out the storm. On his descent he passed two experienced climbers both of whom were confidently continuing their ascent with their group of tourist climbers (confident that their respective leaders would not lead them into harm’s way).

The next time Breashear saw the pair, their corpses lay discarded off the trail along with several of their alpine guests. David had brought along extra oxygen canisters in case of a delay; it was this supply which allowed him a second chance to reach his goal of attaining the summit, which he did several days later. This second assault on the summit had been included in the original schedule as a back-up plan. The extra oxygen canisters he had packed made it possible for the team to go back down the mountain the first time, still believing they would have a second opportunity later on to reach their goal. David and his team owe their lives and their success to the combination of rugged preparedness, proper planning, along with a healthy scepticism to dampen any hubris David may have been feeling as they neared their goal.

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