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Hillary's Inspiring Example

It is beside the point whether the only fall one is threatened by is a fall from favor, or whether the only rarified atmosphere one struggles in is that of the corporate boardroom. Anybody attempting novel accomplishments against daunting obstacles can draw inspiration from Hillary's example.

Mountaineering is an activity so pure in its objectives, so absolute in its terms of success and failure that it serves as a metaphor for any kind of achievement. That being the case, the signature accomplishment of Sir Edmund Hillary-who died last week at 88 years of age - provides an enduring example for all who face seemingly insurmountable difficulties. That applies to insurance IT executives as well as anybody else.There may be further ground for analogy to IT in that mountain climbing, at least in its more refined forms, is a highly technical activity requiring expert knowledge of tools and environments. In the case of Hillary's successful 1953 Everest expedition, led by British Army Colonel John Hunt, it can also be a significant triumph of project management.

The world remembers Sir Edmund and his colleague Tenzing Norgay (who died in 1986) but as The Telegraph's obituary of Hillary notes, the climb began with 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and 10,000 pounds of baggage.

Not being the expedition leader, Hillary's concerns were more focused on execution than preparation. But technical judgment and planning were essential to his role. Once chosen for the final push, along with Norgay, he was given awesome responsibility, both in terms of the technical acumen required, and the magnitude of the consequences of bad decisions.

In an age where rich tourists are practically carried up Everest, it is easy to underestimate the difficulties associated with being the first to summit. Hillary had to rely on his experience to determine whether the snow would support him, he had to rely on his skill to determine the best routes and techniques, sometimes on a step-by-step basis, and he had to continually calculate not only the odds associated with external conditions, but also those based on estimates of his own endurance and that of his oxygen supply.

At one point, in his published account of the final push to the summit, Hillary, having temporarily disengaged his oxygen tube noted, "I was greatly encouraged to find how, even at 28,700 feet and with no oxygen, I could work out slowly but clearly the problems of mental arithmetic that the oxygen supply demanded. A correct answer was imperative - any mistake could well mean a trip with no return. But we had no time to waste." Later, after he and Norgay had ascended above 29,000 feet, Hillary "made another rapid check of the oxygen -2,550 pounds pressure (2,550 from [a maximum of] 3,300 leaves 750, 750 is about 2/9; 2/9 off 800 liters leaves about 600 liters; 600 divided by 180 is nearly 3 1/2)." Such calculations, as important as they were, were only a baseline from which to make further decisions on which his and his partner's lives depended.

Later climbers, beginning with Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in 1978, reached Everest's summit without oxygen. But that's beside the point. Habeler begins the account of his and Messner's final ascent saying, "The tracks of our predecessors, which could be seen in the snow, served as an excellent orientation guide." He meant, of course, climbers who preceded him and Messner by hours or days rather than a quarter century, but it may have been a subtle nod to the pioneers.

It is also beside the point whether the only fall one is threatened by is a fall from favor, or whether the only rarified atmosphere one struggles in is that of the corporate boardroom. Anybody attempting novel accomplishments against daunting obstacles can draw inspiration from Hillary's example.It is beside the point whether the only fall one is threatened by is a fall from favor, or whether the only rarified atmosphere one struggles in is that of the corporate boardroom. Anybody attempting novel accomplishments against daunting obstacles can draw inspiration from Hillary's example.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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