Climbing your own mountain

Our guest blogger is Cathy O’Dowd, the first South African to climb Everest and the first woman in the world to climb it from both sides.  An internationally known motivational speaker, author and active adventurer her insights help us all to climb our own, personal mountains as we start 2016.  You can find out more about Cathy’s Everest expeditions in  Just For The Love Of It follow her on FaceBook, Instagram (Cathy_ODowd) and Twitter

“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”

These were the first words Edmund Hillary said on meeting teammate George Lowe, after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the top of Everest, the world’s highest mountain. It’s such a ‘boy’ thing to say. It was just one more brick in the wall that confirmed the ‘conquering’ of Everest as the manliest of all manly activities.

The way I got onto my first Everest expedition confirmed all these stereotypes. The (male) leader had invited South Africa’s best mountaineers (all men) to join him. One of the sponsors – a large Sunday newspaper – decided that the first South African expedition to Everest wasn’t sufficiently interesting and how about running a ‘competition’ to find a ‘girl’ to join the team. One of the headlines read: Have you got the balls to be our woman on the summit?

The events that followed were tumultuous, traumatic, complicated and controversial. By the time we reached the top, some of the best of the male climbers had walked out and gone home and I was the first South African (female or male!) to climb Everest.

There are far too many aspects in modern life that we subconsciously think of as belonging to men, which we women can only enter if we have great courage and exceptional qualities. Men and women alike, we are often profoundly mistaken in how we judge these things.

It’s true that the ‘average’ man is stronger than the ‘average’ women. It’s an irrelevant piece of information. None of us are that average woman. We are all stronger than some men and some women and weaker than others. More importantly, we fail to interrogate the concept of strength.

Everest is undoubtedly a physical challenge but the vast majority of climbers, men and women, turn to the same solutions. Train to get stronger. Make adaptions – take less kit, take lighter kit, share the load, employ Sherpas.

The first person to reach the top of Everest alone and unaided (no Sherpas, no oxygen, no team support) was Reinhold Messner. The second? A British woman – the superb mountaineer Alison Hargreaves.

Everest, like many endurance challenges, is also a profoundly emotional undertaking. Most climbers fail mentally long before the mountain becomes literally too difficult. Their motivation and resolve crumbles in the face of the day-to-day grind.

Women do well in such environments. We are built to endure. In ultra-endurance races, where men and women compete in the same field, we are beginning to see women emerging as outright winners. We do even better mentally. From what I’ve seen on expeditions, we are more likely to ask for help when needed, we more likely to value a collaborative – and so more effective – approach within the team, and we are better attuned to reading and managing emotion – our own and others.

What can you draw from this for the world of work? I’d love to tell you to ignore ‘man’s world’ thinking, but that would be naive. A lot of people still carry that mindset and you need to recognise and manage it when you meet it.

Take it out of YOUR vocabulary. It’s a ‘people world’. If you find yourself shying away from something because it seems ‘better suited’ to men, look beyond that initial impression and interrogate the idea – as with Everest. Is mountain climbing really just about physical strength? How can you become stronger yourself or find tools to aid your strength? What else is needed to climb a mountain? Are those talents you do or can come to possess? What female role models can you find who have done this already and how did they manage it?

By taking this approach, you are not just doing yourself a favour. You’re doing the men a favour. Management research shows with increasing authority that mixed teams perform better.

My journey to Everest began years before when I read Arlene Blum’s book Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, the story of a the first all-woman expedition to an 8000-metre peak in the Himalaya. I will give the last word to her wonderful expedition sloganA Woman’s Place Is On Top.

What personal mountain are you now going to climb?  Have you got an inspirational story to tell?  Get in touch and join the conversation.