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Redefining success in the face of failure

Sometimes, the outcome really is life and death. This is one of those stories.

8 min read


Mount Everest


As the CEO of a successful outdoor expedition guide company, I’m used to making bold moves, taking risks and achieving business goals. It’s something I live and breathe every day — whether it’s from behind my office desk or dangling 2,000 feet above Yosemite Valley halfway up El Capitan. 

Business and mountain climbing are actually very much alike. You come up with a plan, execute on it and accomplish the task. If you aren’t successful, you need to be able to quickly change course.

For the better part of the last year, I was focused on achieving one professional goal. I wanted to join the elite ranks of the fewer than 200 alpinists who have successfully summited Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, without the aid of supplemental oxygen. It’s a dangerous goal to set, but for a guy who’s summited and guided others up Everest six times, as I have, it felt like the right time to give it a go.

Attempting a climb like this requires months of intense preparatory training — including 4 a.m. trail runs and sleeping in an oxygen-depriving hypoxic tent — that culminates in a grueling acclimation routine before the summit, traveling up and down Everest in a body-punishing regimen that I can only compare to feeling hungover, all day, every day, for an entire month.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my quest. A good friend, fellow climber and photographer for National Geographic, Cory Richards, was my teammate. For Cory, the missions was personal. He’d been pulled from his last summit attempt by a medical emergency; this time he was committed to making it.

Working as a team with a single goal in mind, we prepared ourselves, much like any businessperson does, for the critical day when the prize would be at hand. All the while, Cory and I were Snapchatting our adventures to a growing audience of social media followers, arm-chair adventurists who followed our progress through a regular stream of photos and video snaps that we transmitted by 3G when we had it and satellite when we didn’t.

Before we knew it, the window of opportunity arrived for our summit push. It wasn’t the best timing in the world — we would be traveling through the cold night at extremely high altitudeseven as we received news of several fatalities suffered by a party of climbers who had summited before ours. While the weather was suitable for climbing, there was a steady wind — and it was that wind, and the chilling effect it had on my core temperature, that eventually made me turn back, just 1,000 feet short of the goal.

It was a gut-wrenching decision. I had dedicated an entire year to this project and was within striking distance of the goal. I had dreamt about it for much longer. All that business-school rhetoric came rushing back at me — “failure is not an option”; “innovate your way to success”; “game changers change games”; “always have a plan B for success.” Those were tough calls to ignore.

But with our base camp physician’s voice on my walkie-talkie advising me to abort the summit push (she was monitoring my vital signs and knew I was entering a state of hypothermia) and running the risk of Cory dangerously slowing his own pace for me, I knew that my plan B for success was to admit I was not going to make the summit alive and that it was best to return to our camp at 27,000 feet.

Ultimately, it was a decision that saved my life, but even better, it was a course of action that freed up my teammate Cory to go on and achieve the goal for us. Cory managed to make the top of Everest, without supplemental oxygen, and return to our tent in record time and good style.

My climbing partner is the best. While he was blanketed head to toe with congratulations and platitudes for his accomplishment, he always reminded me that we were a team, and that without my partnership, he would never have made it. And it was my turning back that had allowed him to succeed.

In a year that the mountain saw great tragedy, I needed to remind myself that I had the inner strength and wisdom not to lose sight of the most important goal of all: staying alive. And even though I was being called the “smartest man on Everest” for making the life-saving decision to go back, I also suffered a bit of pain and even guilt for not achieving my goal.  

Weeks later, I decided rather than shrugging the missed goal off, I should actually amplify its bigger meaning — how it was one of the most valuable lessons one can learn, both on and off the mountain.

And while I realize goals are always important, my lesson on Mount Everest taught me that the myopic quest for goal achievement can be detrimental and even deadly.

Here’s some of the ways I now look at defining success:

Created with PixTeller

Missing a target teaches you how better to succeed

While you certainly don’t want to make a habit of it, missing a goal is a great way to learn a lot about yourself, your capabilities and opportunities to change. Missing a goal is a humbling experience, but from that humility springs forth a new set of ideas that you can incorporate during your next attempt of the challenge.

When I failed to make my summit goal, I had to conduct a serious audit of my training regimen.  Doing so revealed new techniques and strategies I need to add to my routine. Addressing a problem after failure opens up whole new insights for you. Leverage those!

Personal goals and team goals are different

On the surface, my personal goal and our team goal for this expedition were identical: summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen. In the end, I needed to set aside my personal goal for the betterment of the team goal. This might be the most important lesson I learned out there. In business, don’t let your professional goals get in the way of the enterprise’s team goal. Sure, it’s great when both sets can be realized, but there will be times when you need to sacrifice a personal triumph so that the team can be a success.

Understand when a goal is out of reach and accept it, quickly

As an athlete, but also as a businessman, winning is everything. It’s what we’ve been taught since a very young age, and it’s why we place so much importance on goal-setting and achievement. What’s not been taught so comprehensively is when to acknowledge the extent of your personal limits and when knowing your resources aren’t going to get the job done. When this happens, you need accept the setback and change course. Doing so quickly and not wasting time and resources on continued futile attempts is critical. 

During my summit push, I kept trying to logic my way around the situation, which was only putting Cory and me in further danger. It was so important for me to acknowledge I was done and take my next steps back to safety.

It’s a continuing challenge

File it under “The sun will come out tomorrow” or “Living to fight another day,” but that’s exactly how I feel now, months after my summit attempt. I have since gone on to lead a family of four up to the snowy heights of Kilimanjaro, spent a week at sea level on a beach with my girlfriend and am already in preparation for another No O’s attempt at Everest. Life is a continuing challenge, and the bumps along the road only make us better equipped to tackle the next adventure. 

Be sure to see the beauty of this next time you fall short of a goal. You’re just in better shape to go for it again next time. 


Adrian Ballinger is CEO and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions and a world-class mountaineer, as well as a skier, business leader and professional speaker.


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