Networking on the Rope to Success

Want some sound business advice? Go climb a mountain. Hey, it's what all the savvy capitalists are doing these days.

    Photo: Clay Ellis

"YOU'RE WONDERING where the pitch is, right?"

Neal Dempsey, venture capitalist and expedition leader, let out an easy, good-natured laugh, his eyes alight with a little gleam of mischief. We, his climbers, were sitting at the end of a long table beneath the thick cedar beams of the Paradise Inn dining hall at Mount Rainier National Park, picking the last bits of bourbon buffalo meat loaf off our dinner plates.

"We don't have a set agenda," Dempsey told us. "We just thought summiting Rainier would be something fun to do. Venture firms tend to do all this traditional crap, like golf, tennis, dinners, plush resorts, blah, blah, blah. Our idea was, why don't we do something different? Something hard, but not so hard that you hate it, but that really gets you out there."

Fair enough. I was here chasing down one of the more tenacious trends whelped by the ever-expanding adventure-travel beast--in this case, the trend to appropriate arduous and sometimes extreme activities as a self-improvement regimen for rudderless (but bullish!) corporate desk jockeys across America. I'd been asking Dempsey if there was any other agenda for the weekend ahead besides getting our crew of 12--most of them business executives, all here at his invitation--to the top of Washington's 14,410-foot, no-bullshit volcano. Were there new associates to haze, deals to be struck? Was this a motivational exercise, or just a big PR stunt? No, not really, he maintained in his charming way.
Dempsey may have grown up poor in Tacoma, but now, at 60, a married father of two grown kids and a principal at Bay Partners, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm, he needn't fear going without. Bay Partners isn't a marquee rainmaker the way Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers is, but the 26-year-old firm has done quite well for itself and its investors. It manages five investment funds together worth more than a billion dollars, and unlike many of its rivals, during the market run-up of 1998-­99, it remained focused on high-tech infrastructure rather than dotcoms. As a result, since the digital bubble began to deflate back in early 2000, Bay Partners has suffered less than most of its VC brethren.

A lean, six-foot-tall man with runner's legs and genetically mussed gray-brown hair, Dempsey reflects the firm's anti-glam yet adrenalized approach. He's a good listener, likes to kid ya, and has the winning habit of inserting [Your Name Here] as he's making a point. In a business that demands upbeat charisma, he's an admired player-coach, a wily veteran who's still got game.

True, lots of other moguls are known for their high-adventure hobbies: Daredevil pilot and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison races sailboats against Hasso Plattner, cofounder of the German software giant SAP. Martin Brauns, head of Interwoven, the self- described "fastest-growing software company in Silicon Valley," competes in Hawaii's Ultraman World Championship (triple the Ironman distance). Jim Clark, the serial entrepreneur lionized in Michael Lewis's best-seller The New New Thing, is a sailor, a pilot, and a scuba diver who uses a rebreather to commune with whale sharks. Yet even in this elite company, Dempsey's got impressive bona fides. He's finished more than 50 marathons since he began running in 1981. He went on his first "CEO climb"--summiting Rainier with the president of Rainier National Bank and other execs as part of a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association--back in 1988. He's been weathered off Aconcagua and Mount McKinley, only to summit both later, and has topped out on six of the Seven Summits--all but Everest.

Sitting in the dim light of the Paradise Inn, it was dawning on me how Dempsey had managed to help guide Bay Partners with such a steady hand. A far more agile thinker than your average sports metaphor­slinging financier, he knows intuitively when and how to buy into (and out of) the hype. And right now, he was keeping me guessing. Not a fan of ropes courses and other New-Age-meets-boot-camp "off-sites" favored by Fortune 500 companies trying to "forge" business teams ("I never thought those things were worth a shit"), Dempsey may have devised a fresh twist on the corporate-retreat-as-adventure-vacation. His partner in the firm, Bob Williams, who was also along for this summit attempt, calls it "purposeful indirectness"-- assembling a heterogeneous group and seeing what connections emerge. Or, as Dempsey told me later, "I liked the idea of Rainier for the challenge of it, but also the bonding of these people who didn't really have a previous relationship other than that some of them knew me. Well, all of them knew me--except you."

SO,I HADN'T joined a business team working out its "issues," nor was I present at the creation of some goofball startup intent on "team-building." It was a networking event, a kind of extreme salon, but with Gu and PowerBars instead of chardonnay and chicken-on-a-stick.

Or something like that. Dempsey's li'l executive mountain-climbing excursion was more about sharing a passion. And instead of a crew of gassy--though incredibly wealthy--windbags in J. P. Tod driving shoes, he'd assembled a small group of reasonably fit movers and shakers who looked at home in fleece.

Among them were Susan Luria, 34, a tough-as-nails marketing executive from Cleveland who was president of 1800Homecare.com (now defunct); Dino Vendetti, 40, a Seattle investment banker with the build of a middle linebacker; Michael Ashton, 26, an analyst at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown Inc., who reminded me of a couple of friends from high school who were a little too smart to be cool but who you end up working for; Ethan Aumack, 26, the token nonprofiteer from the Grand Canyon Trust in Arizona; Bob Williams, 46, Dempsey's Bay Partners partner and a hard-core cyclist who sounded as if he could hold his own on CNN's Crossfire or ESPN's SportsCenter; and Marcy Keenan, 42, a Bay Partners "entrepreneur in residence," and an enthusiastic bruiser who'd previously run two software companies. There was one couple: Steven Gatoff, 34, an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and his then-girlfriend, Kate Jaquet, 28, an analyst at Seneca Capital.
It was a squad of type-A personalities, to be sure--but seemingly well-adjusted type A's. As our Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guides John Race, 31, and Art Rausch, 39, led us through the rigors of Snow School on our second day, nobody lost his temper when someone nearly put his crampons through the rope while learning to turn corners on a rope team. Nearly all of us qualified as out-and-out yuppies, at least on paper, but no one aired the self-actualization aphorisms that sometimes frame such events. "Dude," Gatoff replied when I asked him about mountaineering as a business metaphor. "We--and you--will definitely get beat up if you start talking about 'reaching the summits of success' in business."

IT'S NOT HARD to appreciate Gatoff's apprehension. Though the rhetoric is cooling off somewhat now that the Nasdaq has come down to earth, over the last few years journalists and bizspeak gurus served up astonishing quantities of overheated blather about the New Economy, the New Rules, and the notion that business had become a radical adventure for those willing to keep up with the velocity of change. For a few months there, it really did seem like we'd all soon be living in a PowerPoint Nation, where every field of human endeavor and significant historical figure would get co-opted as an object lesson for ambitious middle-managers--from God's only son (Laurie Beth Jones's Jesus CEO) to the Bard (Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman's Shakespeare in Charge) to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (John Kao's Jamming). Not surprisingly, mountaineers, endurance athletes, and explorers were next.

"What I do is only seemingly more dangerous than what a dedicated business manager does," asserts the Tyrolean alpinist Reinhold Messner in his latest book, Moving Mountains: Lessons on Life and Leadership. "A business person accepts risk in his or her sphere. Risk is the resistance which we detect, assume, wish to master." A solo climb of Pakistan's Nanga Parbat and a run up the Big Board at the NYSE: Same difference!

Last year saw a logjam of guides to business excellence modeled on extreme antics. Maryann Karinch's Lessons from the Edge is filled with anecdotes about stunt sky divers and her rivals in the inaugural Eco-Challenge in 1995, but like Messner's tome, it's a bit of a miscellany. Her theme: The crazier the gig, the more crucial the preparation. Pat Williams, senior veep for the Orlando Magic, recently divulged his business wizardry in the tantalizingly titled Secrets from the Mountain, based on a climb of...Mount Rainier. Unfortunately for those trudging the road to corporate enlightenment, his insights couldn't be more trite, i.e. "Be a Winner and Join the Team." And then there's all the grist that's been made of Ernest Shackleton's big blunder down under (including the books Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer and Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition). Not everyone on the Dempsey Summit Team (stitched on commemorative baseball caps) was sure this was such a good idea.

"I find it very interesting that Shackleton has taken on almost this heroic, cult- figure status in the business community," Gatoff said. "People point to this guy as a great role model when in fact he basically failed miserably, and didn't come anywhere close to reaching his goal."

Dennis N. T. Perkins, one of the authors of Leading at the Edge, has heard such criticism before. "I don't contend that the leadership Shackleton demonstrated to see his crew to safety is enough for all aspects of business," he told me. "You also have to have good strategic planning and a business model that works."

With the tale of the Endurance, the TV show Survivor, and films like Cast Away driving interest, the trend toward extreme outdoor experiences tailored to "professional development" has taken off in the last few years. New York­dquartered Outward Bound was a pioneer when it first took suits into the woods for a little teamwork back in the 1970s. Today there are approximately 15,000 "adventure programs" in the United States, and the ones focused on business groups compete for between $100 million and $250 million annually, according to Bill Proudman, founder of the Inclusivity Consulting Group, a management-training company in Portland, Oregon. Those programs run the gamut from ropes courses conducted at the local Boy Scout summer camp to guide services like 33-year-old RMI and on through wilderness-survival programs such as Wyoming's National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Colorado's Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS)--not to mention outfitters like Texas-based spECOps, a six-year-old tour operator staffed by former and reserve Green Beret medics that recently took a billionaires club to the Costa Rican jungle for some improvised X Games.

The way "corporate enhancement" or "executive leadership" programs are supposed to work is straightforward enough. As Confucius had it, "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." What most companies want their employees to understand is that they're working toward a common goal. That goal is usually as mundane as opening up lines of communication between two divisions (the marketing department, say, and the engineers) or trying to "change the culture" by encouraging a department that's lapsed into a pass-the-buck malaise to pick up that buck.

"The impetus for these trips isn't really so different from those designed for recidivist youth," notes Jaci Dvorák, co-owner, with her husband, of Bill Dvorák's Kayaking & Rafting Expeditions, in Nathrop, Colorado, whose clients have included the Bayer Corporation, Boston Beer, and a number of medical suppliers. "You just change the language and it's really the same," she teases. "A lot of these business types are recidivous, too."

ON THE MORNING of day three, we left the Paradise Inn, wound our way up through patches of wildflowers and snowmelt streams, and stepped out onto the Muir snowfield. We were off to Camp Muir, elevation 10,188 feet, but unlike the previous day, today was sheer drear, the sky and sun blotted out. We trudged silently in a frigid soup of cold, as if moving through ice in its gas form. Mountaineering might be a corny metaphor for work, or it might be a splendid one, but this--this was just plain hard work.

The harsh weather underscored how Dempsey, without really trying, had drawn upon some of the methods the consultants and mountain guides swear by for fashioning effective adventure training, including assessing the expectations and conditioning of the team in advance and finding the right mix of personalities. Tellingly, when I asked the members of Team Dempsey if they would make this same climb with the people they worked with every day--meaning those they'd most likely be stuck with on a corporate outing--most said no.

"It horrifies me to think of having my coworkers tied to me crawling up Mount Rainier," Michael Ashton e-mailed me later. "For one, there would be a lot of bitching. And for another, I've seen a couple of these people try to ski, and they have no business anywhere near snow."

"As self-serving/arrogant as it might sound," wrote Gatoff in another e-mail, "people in our profession are of the type that generally work fantastically hard at whatever they do and are accustomed to not only succeeding but to being at the top; that's who you're comfortable having on your rope team, not some knucklehead nine-to-fiver who doesn't understand why someone would need or want to work until 11:00 p.m. to kick ass and get the job done right."

Knowing these very attitudes, the experts insist, is essential to constructing a successful wilderness experience. In a 1997 textbook titled Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, authors Simon Priest and Michael Gass--each with a Ph.D. and over 25 years of backcountry experience--include a graph to illustrate the importance of matching the right level of challenge to competence. On the y-axis is risk, perceived or real, and on the x-axis is competence, perceived or real. Peak adventure, the optimal outcome, is a diagonal rising straight from the intersection of the two axes toward the upper right. The extremes, on either side, are boredom or disaster.

Of course, not everyone thinks adventure should be so programmatic. "I think what's happened is that people have stared at those motivational posters for so long--you know, the ones with all the mountain climbers and snowboarders and so on--and they've taken them literally, and feel they must have an extreme outdoors experience to get inspired to work," says Thomas Frank, author of the New Economy critique One Market Under God. "And let's face it, to be a manager today, you can't just be a suburban guy who watches birds or goes car camping or other Boy Scoutish things like that. That won't make you effective. That won't be enough for you to lead the revolution."

"I think it's sort of dumb to turn these experiences into something other than what they are," says Kathleen Eisenhardt, an avid backpacker, professor of management at Stanford Business School, and author of Competing on the Edge. "The more structured they are, the less likely they are to attract interesting people. They start to feel less like adventure and more like work."

As it turned out, Dempsey's agenda-free agenda on Rainier put the more structured professional-development programs in stark relief. It also raised questions at the heart of the corporate-adventure biz: Are these trips better served by a more explicit set of motivational goals, or are they best when participants are encouraged to concentrate on the tasks at hand, and otherwise find their own way? And can you really teach leadership?

"I see value in both approaches," says RMI co-owner Peter Whittaker. "During the peak of the summer, I'm a guide, but I'm also managing 150 to 160 people. Something I love, but hardly get the chance to do, is go up on the mountain with 15 or so of us without any structure at all. And you know, the leaders down here may not emerge as leaders up there." Much of the structure in corporate adventure, Whittaker suspects, is there to keep a power structure in place. "People emerge, given the opportunity," he says, adding that he respects CEOs and execs who climb with RMI without trying to control the experience, because "the mountain is a great equalizer."

Edwin Bernbaum, a climber, corporate speaker, and author of Sacred Mountains of the World, takes mountaineering-as-metaphor so seriously that, for each of the last four years, he has helped lead groups of midcareer executives enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business on treks up Chukhung Ri, a 18,191-foot peak in Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park. There, in the shadow of Everest, he leads discussions of the decision-making detailed in Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, Tom Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. "What went right and what went wrong on May 10, 1996?" Bernbaum asks, for instance. "Did you think more of [Scott] Fischer's team survived the storm because he was a better delegator?"

"Even in Western culture, where we often think of climbing a mountain as a conquest," Bernbaum says, "the most famous climber isn't Edmund Hillary, but Moses. And whether you believe the story or not, the idea there is that you're climbing the mountain in response to a call in order to get something of benefit for others. It's not about goal-setting, but what you bring back from the experience."

AFTER HUNKERING down for several hours in a rank plywood shack at Camp Muir, we started our bid for the summit at 1 a.m. on September 19. Forty minutes into our ascent, just over the Cathedral Gap, we started losing bodies. To cross the first glacier a month earlier took all of 15 minutes. Now, a week before RMI closed its guiding service for the winter, the ice was ripped by crevasses, and we had to zigzag to avoid the fault lines. Not that those 40 minutes were without their pleasures: the stars, the tracer light of headlamps reflecting like will-o'-the-wisps in the blue night air, the eerie walls of rock jutting up all around us, that haunting, hollow echo of rock on rock as slivers fell away and landed on the scree below. It was sublime. But the fierce winds had returned, and good luck staying warm.

Despite summiting Rainier in 1996, or maybe because of it, Steven Gatoff was the first to announce he couldn't go on. Susan Luria, the marketing director--suffering, it emerged, from a stress fracture in her left foot--was the next to drop out. "Turning back, although difficult, is sometimes the right course of action," she later e-mailed, connecting the lesson with the manner in which she eventually managed the demise of her dotcom. "The right decision was to stop and not burn through anyone else's money because it wasn't going to get us where we needed to be."
At the next rest stop, on the bone-chilling, windswept Ingraham Flats, we lost half of the remaining members of Team D, among them Dempsey. The rest of us shuffled along for ten more minutes until Rice and Rausch called off the ascent altogether. Before us yawned a several-hundred-foot funnel of ice, the face of which was graced with only a thin ledge to walk across. We were at roughly 12,500 feet, 2,000 feet short of the top. Later, we learned the winds at the summit that day had been clocked at 100 mph.

IN THE MONTHS following our failed summit bid, I called Neal Dempsey to see what had come of his improvised high- altitude schmoozefest. A few things had.

In December 2000, Dino Vendetti was offered a position at Bay Partners, which he accepted. Steven Gatoff, meanwhile, set up several meetings at Morgan Stanley for Dempsey and the others at Bay Partners in order to consider some joint investments. In May 2001, our lead RMI guide, John Race, aided by $1,200 from Team Dempsey, flew to Nepal to join the search for the body and effects of Sandy Irvine, George Mallory's partner on Everest in 1924. (They turned up little.) And in March 2001, displaying a flair for extreme-sports metaphor that might worry their colleagues back at the office, Gatoff, Luria, and Marcy Keenan, who'd only met for the first time on Rainier, went dog mushing together for a week in Alaska.

For his part, Dempsey said his latest experience on Rainier only reinforced what he's learned about risk, whether in the mountains or the markets. "You know, when I was on McKinley [in 1992], we got weathered in for three days by one storm at 17,000," he told me. "And there were three Korean climbers who were there alongside us, without guides and stuff they really should have had with them. In the middle of the night, they took off. They had to get to the summit, because they had to catch the 6:08 out of Anchorage seven days later. Well, they died trying to go to the top. That was an absolute lesson in real time." In business, as in climbing, risk is overrated, Dempsey said. Sure, you have to take a risk to do anything of distinction. But "you don't have to be reckless to prove you're a risk taker."

Honing your decision-making skills and discovering whom you trust when you're in a fix are just two of the upsides of heading into the mountains with your business group. And it's these kinds of lessons, says Peter Mayfield, a founder of one of the first rock-climbing gyms in the United States who has led climbing clinics for corporate clients like Sun Microsystems and Disney, that will keep driving the adventure-training trend despite the softening economy.In fact, Mayfield plans to relaunch a corporate-focused program this fall in Yosemite. "These things have gotten much more effective over the years," he says. NOLS and BOSS, who only started their "professional development" divisions in the last two years, are betting he's right. Indeed, BOSS has gone so far as to contract Richard Hatch, the first Survivor winner, as a "corporate facilitator."

"You know," Mayfield laughs, "there is one downside you have to look out for. A few times we had people come out to the Sierras who were so moved by their experience, the next thing they did was go into work only to quit their jobs."

I know what he means. Making our way across the Emmons Glacier on the morning of our summit attempt, the sun slowly tore open the sky, painting the spires of Little Tahoma peak and the walls of the crater to our left a luminescent pink. It was the kind of sunrise that burns into your memory, a Technicolor burst that helps you make it through the drudgery of every other gray day. I looked at that and thought, "That's it. I quit."

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