South African mountaineer Cathy O’Dowd is the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest from both sides. She works as a motivational speaker, using story-driven expedition case-studies to share ideas about mitigating risk, team leadership and project management with her corporate clients. Cathy live in the Pyrenees mountains, in Andorra, where she does rock-climbing, ski-mountaineering and canyoning. In the summer of 2020 (Covid-19 allowing) she will be doing an exploratory sea kayak expedition along the coast of Greenland.
Book: Just For The Love Of It – the story of Cathy’s four expeditions to Everest
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
The amount of beauty to be found in my local forest when our Covid-19 lockdown rules only allowed us to walk up to two kilometres from our homes. It made me pay close attention to the small details close to my house. It left me with a sense of awe and of abundance, there is so much available to us if we just take the time to look.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I imagine that it is part of what makes us human, our ability to wander through our complex environment and wonder and ponder and investigate based on pure curiosity.
For you what’s the big appeal or drive in wanting to climb mountains?
I don’t feel driven. I do find mountains appealing. I’m always curious about whether I can work out how to get somewhere, I’m interested in the process and in what I discover – about the place and about myself – on the journey. The ‘goal’/summit is just a way of giving direction to the journey, but it is not the main reason to do it.
I like the wilderness, and the beauty, and the uncertainty. I find managing risk a compelling proposition. So no, it is not about chasing some extreme of ‘pushing myself’ or ‘forging new routes’. That can be part of the process but it is not necessary. I’m interested in learning new skills, or taking my skills into rather different environments and seeing if I can adapt them.
What are the differences between ascending the two sides of Everest? Are there big technical and physical differences?
People often assume that the south side (meaning the route via the South Col) is easier than the north side (meaning the route via the North Ridge). Not surprisingly, the real differences are more complex than that. The most technically difficult, and dangerous, part of the climb on the south is the icefall. But that is now equipped and maintained by a professional Sherpa team so the climbers are largely shielded from the reality of it. In the same way, although less dramatically, the difficulties of the Lhotse Face and of the final ridge to the summit are reduced and simplified by fixed safety line laid by the Sherpas.
On the north, the trickiest climbing is on the summit day, as you gain the ridgeline and then pass the three steps (of which the Second Step is the most famous). Much of it is about mixed shattered rock and ice, in a series of narrow ledges and small cliffs.
Overall, the two sides are very different, in views, in geology, in weather patterns. I thoroughly enjoyed both.
What were you thinking/feeling at the top of Everest? And what did you think/feel the next day down at basecamp? Was it an anti-climax?
As soon as I got to the top of Everest (which I did twice) I switched to focusing on the descent. Too many accidents happen on the way down due to tiredness and lack of focus. So the key moment is slightly earlier, when I can see the summit in the distance and I know that I am going to be able to get all the way there. And it takes more than one day to get all the way back down to basecamp! Back at basecamp it doesn’t feel so much like an anti-climax, more like a dream, or a book I read. The experience recedes so fast!
What did you learn about yourself from your adventures?
That I am capable of much more, physically and mentally, than I ever imagined. But also that I do have limits, I’m not interested in gambling everything on one mountain. I’d rather turn away and live to climb another day. Also that I do seem to be motivated by slightly different things compared to many ‘adventurers’. I’m much more interested in the process than driven by the goal.
What can businesses learn from your experience extreme exploring? What mountains do businesses (or business leaders) face?
I don’t think the key connection lies in learning to conquer metaphorical mountains. Expeditions are extreme project management, exaggerated and simplified compared to business. Smaller teams, clearer goals, shorter timelines, more extreme risks, and much more rapid feedback when you make mistakes. So, they make interesting case studies, helping to illuminate some of the underlying issues that make or break such projects.
At the core of all of it lies the team dynamic. Mountains, like economies, are unpredictable. You make plans and forecasts but can still be knocked down by events completely beyond your control. Often it is team dysfunction that causes you to fail, even in good conditions. And high performing teams that react best to unexpected setbacks and find new ways to move on towards the summit.
It is these kinds of issues that I explore through my expedition case-studies.
What ingredients go into making a high performing team?
Respect – you don’t have to like each other, but you do need to respect each other. Trust – a feeling that you are all pulling together on the same side, that you are looking out for each other. The ability to communicate clearly. A spirit of collaboration, rather than competition. The recognition that you are stronger as a group than you would be individually.
I listened to an interview with explorer Alistair Humphreys last month and he talked about going on micro-adventures. How would you encourage other people to be more adventurous in their lives?
I’d like to see people pursing skills rather than goals. With many adventures now available at a price via a commercial provider, people are claiming their summit selfie while having outsourced all the judgement and risk management to a paid guide. You get your photo that way but you don’t learn a great deal. For often a lot less money, you can do courses to build skills and then go off on your own adventures. It takes longer, it means accepting more risk, but the final success is much more your own.
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