I recently participated in my first alpine climbing expedition to scale Mount Baker, a glaciated volcano located in Washington that reaches 10,778 feet. This experience would require me to tread into unfamiliar territory, learn new skills and manage the unpredictable factors that nature brings to the table. Although this effort was classified as a level II climb, targeting beginner-intermediate climbers, Mount Baker is the highest, most glaciated peak in the North Cascades National Park.
Defining clear objectives
Whether it be a new IT initiative or a first time alpine adventure, a critical success factor in these endeavors is to mitigate the sometimes paralyzing factors of fear, uncertainty and doubt when faced with a challenge. Another important factor is to clearly define the core objectives. The objectives for the Mount Baker expedition were as follows:
- To gain the alpine skills and capability to successfully participate in more advanced alpine expeditions in the future;
- To have everyone safely return; and
- To get as many people to the summit as possible.
The objectives are similar when T2 Tech Group collaborates with clients on new IT initiatives:
- To gain the necessary IT capability to support the organization’s ongoing strategic objectives;
- To implement this new capability within the organization’s financial framework and minimize disruption of day to day operations; and
- To achieve as many of the high-priority project goals as possible within the project timeframe and budget.
Building the team
I am a big believer in leveraging foundational knowledge and skills that have been successfully utilized in past endeavors and applying them to new situations. On the other hand, when faced with a challenging situation it is also important to not only build a committed internal team but to pull from the knowledge and experience of subject matter experts to successfully navigate unfamiliar territory.
Although many of the team members, including myself, had some ice climbing experience, I knew two things:
- We would need a mountain guide with local expertise of the mountain, to help us to prepare, plan and lead the execution of the necessary tasks to have a successful expedition.
- The team members were going to need to climb the mountain. The guides were not going to be able to drag us up the mountain; any guide who promised this would not be engaged.
Gear check: Although all team members were provided with a detailed packing list, the expedition started with an 0700 gear check session where everyone emptied out their packs. This enabled the guides to check the following:
- If none of the essential equipment, clothing, and supplies were missing;
- If we had the capacity to pack everything we required for base camp; and
- If our packs were not weighed down with unnecessary items that could impede progress of the group.
Base camp: The hike up to base camp enabled the team to assess their strengths, abilities, and organizational efficiency to establish base camp per the schedule. Base camp also provided the team with a view of the spectacular Mt. Baker summit, a newfound respect for the challenges of the glaciated terrain and a taste of the 5,500-foot climb ahead.
A schedule change: The team was two hours late reaching base camp due to the additional time needed for our equipment check. In addition to being late, the team was physically spent from the climb to base camp with 40-50 pound packs. After setting up base camp, the team had a meeting led by the guides, where they recommended, and the team agreed, that we delay the planned summit attempt at 0200 that night. This would allow for a day of physical recovery and provide enough time for proper training on the equipment and techniques needed to successfully navigate the dangerous glacial crevasses and climb/descend the mountain.
The climb: We spent the next day learning how to use ice axes and crampons, and we learned how to work as collaborative teams of four climbers who were roped together. These important skills would allow us to provide support to a team member if they were to fall into a crevasse or slip and start to slide down the mountain, where sections had inclines of up to 45 percent.
After our training, along with a day of preparing the summit packs and physical recovery, the team was locked and loaded for the 0100 alpine start. After six hours of climbing in the dark and being met by a spectacular alpine sunrise, the team was poised for the climb to the peak. This section, which is called the Roman Wall, is a 1,300 foot section with the steepest elevations we would encounter.
The decision: All members had worked as a team, and we successfully navigated around crevasses, climbed well and proved to be physically able and willing to traverse the Roman Wall and reach the summit. The issue was time and energy. The one-day delay for physical recovery and skills training dictated a tight schedule. This would mean the team would need to not only summit, but also descend 5,500 feet, break down base camp and pack all the equipment into the cars for the two-hour drive to Seattle. This schedule was aligned with the team membersâ€™ flights back home.
As previously discussed at our meeting at the base of the Roman Wall, the guides noted we were at the edge of the time window and had expended a lot of energy to this point in the climb. They laid out the risks of summiting without any margin of error on our time schedule to accommodate climbers who may run low on energy or have issues making it back down safely.
Five team members successfully traversed the imposing 45 degree, glaciated Roman Wall and reached the summit of Mount Baker, with three team members starting their descent at the base of the Roman Wall. All members of the team made it down safely, had a nice dinner in Seattle, hit the sack at midnight, and slept blissfully between clean sheets. With a midnight wakeup call the night before the 0100 alpine start of the climb, the team members had a long but rewarding 24 hour day of climbing.
Meeting our objectives: At the expedition’s debriefing session in a quintessential Seattle coffee shop, all team members agreed on the following takeaways from our journey:
- We had gained valuable skills and experiences that could be used in future alpine climbing expeditions.
- Most of our team had reached the summit and did so safely.
- Everyone wanted to start preparing and planning for the next, more advanced outdoor adventure as a team.
Critical success factors: The team also reflected on the following lessons and methodologies to be carried forward to facilitate successful future expeditions:
- Clear objectives that measured success;
- Incorporating processes at key points in the expedition to assess the current state and to make informed decisions to address risks associated with meeting the overall objectives; and
- Leveraging a strong, internal team aided by appropriate subject matter experts with well-defined duties and responsibilities.
Subject matter experts: After much research, our group selected the Mountain Madness guiding company. This outfit was founded by climbers, had built a successful commercial endeavor over 25 years and has led expeditions ranging from Mount Baker all the way up to Mount Everest. In addition to all of the above, Mountain Madness was selected because they provided us with the following benefits:
- A schedule that aligned with our capabilities and met the needs of our busy work schedules;
- A flexible plan that accommodated the vagaries of nature with clearly defined responsibilities of the guides and the client climbers; and
- A defined equipment list and budget that encompassed all the costs for the trip.
In closing, although I was extremely disappointed that I was one of the climbers that did not summit, I was grateful that I experienced this life adventure with my wife and two daughters. My youngest daughter Emily, an intercollegiate water polo player at Bucknell University, successfully summited. We all made it down safely. I am thankful to my friends on the climbing team and Mountain Madness for making this a successful “first ascent”.