Staring up at the frosty peaks of the world’s highest mountain, management professor Scott DeRue was about to embark on his most challenging climb yet. Mount Everest soars 8,848 meters above sea level and packs a one, two punch of Khumbu Icefall and exposed faces that can cause even the most experienced climber to make fatal mistakes.
This two-month journey that began last March would test his physical strength, mental toughness, focus and every lesson he teaches his MBA students during the Everest simulation in the course “Leading People and Organizations” at the University of Michigan’s Ross School.
He has been teaching the simulation since 2009 but nothing could have fully prepared the 36-year-old business school professor for the real thing (see Business Lessons From Mount Everest).
In the nine months leading up to the riskiest climb of his life, DeRue completed a rigorous training program, devoting four to five days of creating his own Everest simulation. DeRue climbed with dumbbells in his pack up to three hours per day and lifted weights two times a week. He notes that his dedication to training is similar to the vitality that students must have to withstand the pressures of business school.
“To get the most out of business school, you must have an unwavering commitment to your goals, work effectively in teams, and be willing to take risks and put yourself in stretch situations. The same is true with mountaineering.”
However, in DeRue’s case, his commitment to his training couldn’t protect him from Everest’s relentless effects. He lost 15 pounds while eating a whopping 5,000 to 6,0000 calories per day and experienced minor symptoms associated with altitude sickness including lack of appetite, headaches and oxygen loss. Although that paled in comparison to his three team members who suffered severe respiratory infections and had to return home.
“Your body is working really hard to sustain life at those altitudes,” DeRue says.
NEARLY 300 PEOPLE HAVE DIED ATTEMPTING TO CLIMB MOUNT EVEREST
But DeRue says he was always perfectly aware of these physical risks that are involved with climbing Everest. It is widely reported that nearly 300 people have died attempting the climb of their lives and half of them have never been recovered. But he argues that you can’t focus on the uncontrollable elements that Everest might thrust upon you. Both DeRue and his fiancé Kathy tried to block out the potential dangers and put their trust in the months of preparation DeRue did before the climb.
“There are always uncontrollable risks — other climbers, the Khumbu Icefall, and hazards that are largely outside of your control,” he says. “But you cannot control them so there’s no need to focus on them. My focus was doing what I needed to do every single day to be healthy and safe.”
DeRue came face to face with these uncontrollable elements when he witnessed a team member plunge nearly 100 feet down an icy slope on the steepest part of the mountain — losing a crucial part of his boot known as a crampon. DeRue’s team was forced to collectively mobilize down the dangerous path to help him put his crampon back on so that he could continue the climb. DeRue attributes their success to the months of team development they completed before the summit on May 18th where the wind chill was a negative 50 degrees.