Listening to the Mountain: The Right and Wrong of Risk

Ed Viesturs is arguably the greatest American mountaineer that ever lived, or more accurately, lives. Ed has a reputation for being a calculated risk-taker, who refuses to compromise safety because of ambition. As a result, he has summited Mount Everest seven times, all without supplemental oxygen. Ed helped people off the mountain during the ill-fated expedition in 1996, which cost the lives of eight people and was featured in two motion pictures, both titled, Everest. Ed has also climbed all 14 of the world's 8000 meter summits (over 26000 feet) - also known as the "eight-thousanders."

I came to admire Ed during the writing of my first book, Right Risk. Having been a professional high diver, I wrote the book to help explain why some people are drawn toward risk while others are repelled by it. I wrote about Ed in the book, and since then he's become one of my risk-taking role models.

I recently caught up with Ed as part of a client engagement that I'm bringing him in to. Risk is an ever-present part of a mountain climber's reality. As Ed explained, "When I get on a plane with five other climbers, there's a chance that one or two of us won't be coming home."

So what does Ed think is central to accessing risk? "Listen to the mountain. The mountain decides whether I climb, not me." Ed explained, "The mountain has been there for millions of years. I need to continually remind myself that I'm just a visiting guest. I need to respect the mountain. It tells me whether I get to climb, I don't get to decide."

Ed shared some additional risk-taking tips that are well worth heeding.

Reject Outside Pressure: You'll likely make a lousy risk decision if you base it on the influence of outside pressure. Professional mountain climbers face pressure from many sources, including the media, equipment sponsors, paying clients, etc. "There's a huge difference between feeling that I have to do something and knowing what I should do. Feeling that you have to take a risk is usually a red flag that you've lost perspective and choice."

Instinct Matters: When facing danger, your inner wisdom is the best guide. "Whether I climb or don't climb often comes down to instinct. If something doesn't feel right at the gut level, I won't do it. I've learned to trust that instinct."

Have the Courage to Say "No": The closer you get to the summit, the greater the temptation to keep climbing. The ambition of a hungry "yes" can cloud one's judgment. "It takes courage to stop in your tracks and climb back down the mountain before reaching the summit. But because conditions change rapidly up there, sometimes walking back down is the choice that will keep you alive."

Longevity in a sport like mountain climbing is a precious thing. There's a reason that Ed Viesturs is a mountaineering legend: he's disciplined about taking risks. When you choose a life of high stakes being disciplined gives you better odds. For Ed, a thrilling adventure never trumps staying alive. As he says, "Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory."

You don't have to be a mountain climber to benefit from Ed's advice. When you're leading a large complex project, or evaluating a big investment, or standing at the threshold of a consequential decision, you'll better your odds by listening to your inner wisdom, rejecting the notion that you have to make the bold move, and having the backbone to say "no" when the temptation to say "yes" is skewing your judgment. It comes down to respecting the risk and following its lead. Ed's right, your odds of taking a successful risk comes down to listening to the mountain.

Bill Treasurer is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. He is the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduced the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations use to build workplace courage. His first book, Right Risk, draws on his adventures as a former professional high diver, and two decades of consulting experience. In 2014, his latest book Leaders Open Doors, became the top-selling leadership training book on Amazon. Bill has worked with thousands of executives from top organizations, including NASA, Accenture, CNN, UBS Bank, Spanx, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at or