Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay


Happy Anniversary for reaching the top of the world. You don’t get any higher upside than that. Nor do you get more critical embrace of failure.

This day in 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascended to the top of the world for the first time. I’ve already written about the Leadership and Management lessons of Everest. Mountain climbing has long been a metaphor for any challenge – risk taking, sheer effort, logistical execution, planning, teamwork…and embracing failure.

With all of the tourist treks up Everest, one would think that the summit has become a walk in the park (a very steep park with no oxygen perhaps). But a grim reminder of its persistent peril and punishment has been the death this month of 4 climbers, the most fatal year since 2004. Many are attributing the spike of fatality to what might be dubbed the converse of embracing failure, ie. being a ’victim of success’. Everest seems so achievable to so many that a record 200+ people made the attempt in a single day where weather conditions were ideal. But where Mother Nature relented, human nature just aggravated as the throngs of summiteers created a virtual traffic jam on the mountain forcing people to linger in the ‘death zone’ simply to wait for others.

When you study Everest climbs, you learn that the key is not getting to the top…but getting down…alive. The decision to ‘turn around’ is the most critical decision of every expedition. And like any expedition, it is not a simple calculation. Weather, physical condition, forecasts…and the ever seductive proximity to the summit goal all play a part in making this crucial call. It’s actually not ‘all down hill.’ Instead, the starting pistol in the race against death really fires at this point. So making the decision just yards beneath the summit after miles of climbing is one of the ultimate embraces of failure. Life savings spent, hours of training toiled, and a painfully arduous climb over weeks to get to where you are. All to kiss it away with an unsuccessful retreat. A retreat that might be the best thing that ever happened in your life.

One of the teams that avoided catastrophe was veteran Jake Norton’s Challenge 21 Team and his final post on their attempt was titled ‘Embracing Failure’

  • “By any standard, Western definition, Brent, Charley, David, and I failed on Everest this year. Hard work, passion, and a lot of effort aside, we barely made it within 5,000 feet of the tippy top of Everest. We didn’t even make it to the West Shoulder. But, we smiled a heck of a lot. We laughed together, we got scared together, we motivated each other, we supported each other, we believed in each other and our dedication to embracing the opportunity to fail. And, for me, this climb was never about the summit (nor do I think it was for any of our team). Rather, this climb was about a celebration – a celebration of the efforts, vision, and audacity of Hornbein, Unsoeld, Bishop, Emerson, and the West Ridgers of 1963. It was a celebration of stepping a bit off the beaten track, and touching something of the unknown, the uncertain, the non-guaranteed. We didn’t reach the summit; there’s no question about that. And if our expedition is thus considered a failure, I’ll take failure any day of the week.”


Jake Norton Everest