Mountain Leadership

by Rob Hess 


As mountain athletes, leadership is something that is at the heart of all our endeavors and interactions with ourselves and others. We are lucky to live in an environment of exceptional people with exceptional character.

As we travel around the country/world on our various pursuits we must be mindful of the fact that we are coming from such a strong place. Understanding those of different mindsets and motivation is integral to our living in balance… without balance, we can not effectively lead ourselves or others.

I am constantly looking for balance in life. Learning to lead has been a lifelong quest and one I continue to learn about from myself and others. Finding that balance has been the hardest task, for the personal qualities of a good leader do not necessarily come easily for me.

Passion, humor, empathy, strength of character, general maturity, patience, wisdom, common sense, trustworthiness, reliability, creativity, and sensitivity are the words I would use to describe my views and expectations of myself and others in the context of self-leadership.

The path of self-awareness and the development of self-leadership does take hard work and persistence. On this path, we must experience those who we feel emulate the qualities we are looking for in sound leadership. As well, we must experience success and failure. The emotions that come from such experiences are profound and stay with us from then on in our life.

I think of two experiences in my life that helped shape my personal being.

1. Gasherbrum II in Pakistan

In 1987 I was with friends on our first Himalayan expedition to Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. As a group, we were young, strong, reasonably skilled and very determined. We experienced many great hardships logistically as we were guys with a limited budget. We had hired a number of porters to ferry our equipment to base camp.

A powerful storm pinned us down in route to base camp. Having to pay porters for all the days sitting idle in the storm and dwindling funds, required that we release all the porters. There we sat, 3-4 days from our base camp with all our gear and no reasonable way to get it there. We started ferrying the loads ourselves.

Fortunately, we were able to hire a few porters to finish the job and finally made it to base camp. On the mountain, I was powerful, unstoppable! or so it seemed. Before leaving for the expedition I had been having problems with a girlfriend, as much as I loved her and wanted to be with her, I knew somewhere inside me that it was over.

As the expedition progressed and my feelings of insecurity simmered and I became more self-absorbed, my focus and determination crumbled. I lacked the strength of character, maturity, and wisdom to look past my emotions. It all came to a head on our summit day. I had put forth huge amounts of physical energy as I was the strongest member physically. Mentally the emotional stress had taken its toll, I gave up… I did not summit on a good day that allowed the others to summit. I had let myself down, I lacked balance!


2. Mt. Everest

The next experience was on Mt. Everest in 1994. I had always remembered my experiences on Gasherbrum II. Although I was not necessarily successful on all the expeditions I had taken part of since then, I at least knew I had for the most part been true to myself and made decisions based on conditions I had no control over.

Mt. Everest was one of those expeditions we all hope for in our Mountaineering careers. No expedition is without hardship but when one goes without a major hitch and you are successful, you are psyched! I felt balance in my life and in my performance on the mountain. I looked out for my friends, I did things for all the right reasons and I felt comfortable with myself.

Of greater importance, I was with someone I saw as a great leader, Scott Fisher. Scott believed in himself and he believed in me. He brought the best out of me and as a result, we were a strong team! unstoppable!

Together we summited Mt. Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and in doing so I became the third and Scott the fourth American to do so. The power of the mind is incredible!

I have been fortunate to live and work with some people I feel were great leaders. These people burned bright but were taken from us early.

Scott Fisher and Doug Coombs are two people whose style and class as leaders and individuals will always live with me. We all have our inner demons, but from my point of view, they both shared one major point that I have mentioned: balance!

They were noble warriors… fierce in battle, but they loved their family, loved their friends and treated all with respect. They believed in themselves and believed in others. They made you feel anything was possible!

I will never forget watching Doug taking clients into steep committing couloirs in La Grave. Arguably they never belonged there, but Doug empowered them and made them believe in themselves, Doug had them on that invisible rope, failure was not possible.

In the end, if we are to be good leaders, we must first take care of ourselves. To risk being cliche, “Sound mind. Sound body”… Try hard, love your friends and family, respect the environment…find balance!


Rob Hess is an IMGA Certified Mountain Guide, Chairman of the AMGA and Co-Owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.



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