The Big Climb: High altitude, altered judgement, and near death for entrepreneurs

The Big Climb: High altitude, altered judgement, and near death for entrepreneurs


I was in Deer Valley recently for a Pelion LP meeting and the topic turned to high- altitude climbing. Entrepreneurs that I work with know that I constantly use the experience as an analogly for building companies. (I have analogies for everything, some more crazy than others.  At least, that’s what I’m told).

The basic premise is that, as you get to higher  altitudes, your mind and body play tricks on you. Cognitive powers are altered. Moving carefully and deliberately is important, but so is having a guide to help you move quicker and avoid mis-steps. For a look into real-world mountain climbs, there’s a great book called Into Thin Air by Krakuer that covers it well. (and the rebuttal by Anatoly Bukareev is just as good). As for entrepreneurship, there are very few books about a company’s pending danger and death; most focus on reaching the top. I wrote a bit about that aspect in a prior post called Let ’em Crash. I personally have been to what I define as” high altitude,” both in climbing and entrepreneurship. (Over 10,000 and over $100M+ in valuation, respectively.) Here’s a hairy story from one climb: entrepreneurs, see if you can pick out the analogie(s).

A trip to Peru brought me to the Machu Picchu lodge and my altitude adjustment was fully set, having begun the trip in Cusco at 11,000 feet. I had climbed Huana Picchu earlier that day, at dawn. I saw the most spectacular sunrise, as many Inca priests had before me (hint, these would be VC’s), and marveled at the symmetry of the Sun Gate and the other temples in the complex. I returned to the lodge for late breakfast. It was there we began talking about Cerro, the peak I had seen obscured by mist from Huana, with a giant flag fluttering at the top. I did some quick calculations and decided I could make it by sundown.

Cerro is the highest immediate peak above Macchu Pichu, but there’s nothing technical about it.  Like most of the Inca trail, .ost of the path is carved rock.  A little slippery at times, and occasionally requiring pull-ups, but mostly the climb is a mental one. I say this because the Urabumba River roars on three sides of the peak, and the drop is about 1,000m, sometimes straight.  After a few thousand feet, the mist socked me in. All there was in front of me were stones, laid by Incas many hundreds of years ago, and vines. And the sound of the river. It became my navigation.  As I heard it down and to my left, I knew I was on the west face; at it switched to my right, I knew I the path had traversed to the west. Half way up, I met two Japanese who were on descent. You alone?, they asked. Yup. Even that small exchange heartened me, not for the guidance, but for the fact someone else would know where I was on the mountain if things got bad. As it was, their estimate was a bit off.

 Ninety minutes later, I came through a skree field of snakestone (awesome green stuff that looks like malachite, but softer) and arrived at a gate of carved rock. It was the first clue I was entering a holy place. From there, I experienced my closest-to-divine moment. The path became flat, and the mist enveloped my feet, such that only my footfall revealed the path in front of me. I was on the spine of the peak, so the sun, or what was left of it, made the way brighter. I noticed orchids, which grow wild at that altitude. And hummingbirds which fluttered around like some  Natural History Museum display. Summit euphoria was taking over, as I heard the flag flapping in the wind in front of me. As I reached it I sat still for twenty minutes, precious time given the daylight. It was total peace. (Have you guessed? This is an exit!) 

When I turned to go, I notice the river roaring about me not on my left or right, but on three sides. With the dimming sun, the mist, the flowers and birds it was truly heaven. The euphoria lasts through the first fifteen minutes of descent, as I passed markings I had made in my mind during the ascent. I allowed myself to gain momentum, feeling free, and frankly as good as a teenager in springtime. Then I mis-stepped. In an instant, I was hurtling down one side of the face, when I instinctively grabbed on of the vines hanging from the face. It caught me, and I quickly recovered, with not a small amount of briars — and a pulse suddenly 2x. I kept rolling, and reached the main Inca village by dusk.


At dinner that night back in Macchu Pichu, one of our guides, Juan —- asked if I had walked or crawled on the spine of Cerro. I told him, and he was surprised. Most people crawl, he said. The spine is only 2m wide, and the drop to the river there is about 800m on the right side, and 1,200m (4,000 feet) on the left. Well, I walked the whole thing… maybe leaning a bit to the right to compensate for the difference…

But the most interesting thing about that climb was what it taught me about the entrepreneurial climb: the height of the ascent is an optional objective… but the return is mandatory!

» Monastario-Cusco
» Machu Pichu Lodge
 and ask for  Juan and Lourdes Sotomayor

I mentor two kids and several entrepreneurs. Similarities are coincidental.