Jul 21, 2013

Taking time out for reflection... The "L&Co Talks with..." interview

Sometimes I find myself getting so caught up in the physical hustle and bustle of life - planning expeditions, running to and from meetings, and keeping fitness levels up to snuff... that I forget to take time out and reflect on how this crazy personal and professional journey has evolved, what I've learned from it all... and, perhaps more importantly for me personally, the 'why' behind it. Many thanks to  entrepreneur Shannon Lewis, a seasoned communications professional and President of Liberty and Co, a strategic communications consultancy for encouraging me to stop in my tracks and reflect on the journey through some thought provoking questions through her L&Co Talks series. 
The full interview can be found here: http://libertyandco.ca/lco-talks-with-mountaineer-heather-geluk/

L&Co. TALKs this week with high altitude mountaineer and savvy business women Heather Geluk. Heather’s story is one of adventure in attitude. She has reached the highest points on earth climbing Cholatse, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Mera Peak and Everest and currently summiting the famous Eiger in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. Heather’s inspiration of  pushing beyond one’s limitations can be applied to our daily lives in facing new challenges, seizing new opportunities and testing yourself against the unknown.

L&Co: What words do you live by?

Heather: Discipline. Commitment. Courage. Creativity.

L&Co: What were your motivations to climb? What brought you to the mountain?

Heather: To prove to myself that I could do it and to set out on the journey to make it happen.  Life can be full of ‘Everest-like’ challenges. We all have the ability to conquer these challenges by facing and overcoming our fears, by believing in ourselves and putting our hearts and mind to the challenge. We set our own limits. Sometimes the only thing between us and our dreams is ourselves.

The summits of the mountains I’ve climbed, I always hoped, would serve a greater purpose and have a deeper meaning than just accomplishing a goal. I am fuelled by the strength and courage of cancer patients and their families who face the challenges of cancer on a daily basis. These challenges are much more significant than an 8848m peak. Through my climbs I support the charity Hope for Tomorrow hopefortomorrow.org.uk whose mission it is to bring one Mobile Chemotherapy Unit into operation in every county in the UK. Treating as many as 20 patients a day, Mobile Chemotherapy Units bring vital chemotherapy treatment closer to patient’s homes reducing long distances of travel, waiting times and avoid the stresses and strains of busy oncology centers. Each bespoke unit costs £260,000 to build and maintain over 3 years – a nominal amount when you consider the tremendous impact that they have on the quality of life to so many patients and their families.

L&Co: What is the most challenging part of your Himalayan climbs?

Heather: I love my job as a management consultant and have been lucky enough to lead individuals, teams and organizations to their own ‘Everests’ – in a business context.

The results-driven nature of these projects motivate me to deliver my best – even if this means working long hours and skipping that gym session or two just for the thrill of working with others to achieve their goals. Finding the balance between my job plus training, raising funds for charity and developing my personal ‘brand’ hasn’t been easy. And balance as more precarious than any summit ridge I’ve ever been on!

I believe that I’m a better consultant because I climb and a better climber because I’m a consultant. If you’re able to find that balance and stay true to yourself then reaching the summit is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

L&Co: Speaking of the summit, what is the view and feeling being on top of the world?

Heather: Summit views are all about seeing ‘possibility’.  From the Lhotse summit, I watched as the spindrift blowing off of the steep face shifted to provide glimpses of the slopes of Everest and of the myriad of peaks beyond – new possibilities spread out tantalizing below.  Some of these mountains I’d already attempted or climbed – Cholatse, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Mera Peak and Everest.

L&Co: Can you describe what was going through your mind when you are reaching the summit?

Heather: Why can’t I enjoy a beach holiday and a mojito like normal people?

When the steep rocky summit came into view I felt a broad range of emotion – from euphoria to fear to vulnerability to feeling truly ‘human’ and truly alive in an environment that I didn’t physiologically belong in. I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I couldn’t believe how close the sun felt and how far away the rest of the world seemed.

I felt truly ‘alive’, very conscious of my vulnerability and nostalgic. I thought of my family in Canada. I thought of the charity, Hope for Tomorrow and the ‘Everests’ of those people and their families battling with cancer. I reflected on the journey I’d taken to get here – the experiences both on and off of the mountains I’ve climbed and the lessons learned. The hours of training, the worries, but also all the pure joy, the happiness, and the truly inspiring, amazing people that I’d met along the way. We didn’t stay on top too long as it was about -45 degrees C and we still had a long descent ahead. Just long enough to enjoy the views, have a team hug and a photo.

L&Co.  With your climbing team, how much to you rely on them? What was the dynamics like? 

Heather:  People are people, no matter what the environment. Team dynamics on a mountain are like team dynamics at work – the stakes are just different and the impact of the decisions that individuals make and the risks that they take can have fatal consequences.

There’s always some element of ‘give and take’ on any team but you need to be clear on the basics – the degree of risk you’re willing to take and build a solid foundation of respect and camaraderie as you work toward an agreed joint vision or goal. I rely on my team for physical support and also for emotional support.

L&Co. Everyone tends to focus on the Summit, but often the journey down can be most treacherous. How do you prepare for this, mentally & physically?

Heather: Every summit is different so there is no best answer on how to best prepare. What needs to remain front of mind on both the ascent and the descent is around understanding as an individual how much risk you are willing to take and when it’s time to turn around. This needs to be understood and respected by the team. A dead body sits frozen just below the summit of Lhotse – still dressed in his down suit, attached to his rope and wearing his big mountain boots. He serves as reminder about the fatal consequences of taking undue risks and making good decisions when it’s time to turn around and go home. There are some risks that simply aren’t worth taking.

L&Co: Where do you find inspiration?

Heather: I meet inspirational people every day – in basecamps and boardrooms. Some of these people have dazzled me with their genius and art. Others have shared with me insights about how I can live. Others have devoted their life to helping others. Some have conquered mountains while others have built business empires. Some are great artists while others have entertained with their brilliant musical talents.

One thing that they all have in common is that they are passionate, talented, and amazing people who have added color to my life and have helped to gently shape the moments that make up my journey – both at work and at play. Without the tremendous support of these people, life would not be nearly as fascinating and mountains would be significantly higher.

It’s not just the mountain but the mosaic people you meet along the way that make life such an incredible adventure.

L&Co: There is controversy that too many climbers on the mountain are not experience and its over-crowded,  should anyone be able to venture to the peak? Or should it be only those who are highly skilled, especially we so many fatalities? 

Heather: Everest was crowded this year with about 1000 people at Base Camp and about 600 or so people going for the summit at various times during the late-May weather window. It was quite different to Makalu, a much more technical 8000m peak I attempted in September 2012 where there were only about 20 of us in Base Camp.

So yes, it was busy but I didn’t ever feel ‘threatened’ by the number of people on the mountain. What concerned me more than the numbers was the number of inexperienced climbers going with low-cost, low budget operators, signing up for expeditions without understanding the undue risk that they are taking for themselves and how these low budget operators impact the better organized operations on the mountain, looking to them when there’s trouble. Many of these operators serve low quality food, don’t have the appropriate supporting infrastructure with tents, oxygen, sherpas, radios etc. By the time that clients realize they are in trouble on a mountain and/or that this infrastructure doesn’t exist then it may already be too late. There were several deaths on the mountain this year that definitely could have been avoided this year.

L&Co:  You are also working in London, UK at a high profile job at PWC, what keeps you on top of your game, balancing climbing adventures, work and life? 

Heather: After returning from climbing Makalu and Ama Dablam in Nepal in November 2012, I took some time out to reflect on how my love for the mountains fits into my career as a management consultant. I’m not your typical ‘climber’ and I’m not your typical ‘consultant’ either. I like my ‘creature comforts’ but there are more than a few days when I’d quite happily swap a pair of Jimmy Choo’s for a pair of LaSportiva boots, a Burberry trench for a Sherpa soft-shell and a Birkin bag for a Berghaus.

I love and thoroughly, appreciate, embrace, and soak-up every moment I spend in the mountains however I also love the time I spend in the office, drawing insights and inspiration from my colleagues, clients and helping individuals and teams to reach both short and long-term goals. I feel that the contrast between these two environments has helped to shape the way I approach challenges, make decisions, manage risk and manage my time.

Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices. I am creative in the way that I balance my work and passions outside of work – this means prioritizing and saying ‘no’ when I have too much on my plate and becoming disciplined in the management of my time.

L&Co: Has climbing become an obsession? Will you climb Everest again or are you onto another adventure?

Heather: I love life. I am happiest when pursue things that I feel passionate about. I love climbing but it’s not an obsession in its own right. Climbing, like my job, serves as a vehicle that enables me to challenge myself emotionally, mentally and physically. I plan adventures every day but these adventures are as much about self discovery and awareness as they are about physical challenge.

Next week I’m off to climb the Eiger (also known as ‘wall of death’) in Switzerland… then I’ve got a big challenging work-project to tackle followed by organizing an expedition to lead a group of women to climb Kilimanjaro. Scattered between these milestone events are adventures like learning how to use my new iphone and meeting my new goddaughter. 

L&Co: What is your favorite app or digital tool on the mountain? 

Heather: I love my kindle – light and easy to pack and has a great battery life. I have a lot of ‘down time’ on big Himalayan expeditions when I often find myself stuck in a small tent with the wind howling outside. Diving into a warm sleeping bag with a collection of my favorite literary classics a click-away is an absolute luxury. When I first started climbing I was limited to carrying up one (if any) book at a time to save on weight. Reading ‘War and Peace’ at 8000m would have been unheard of!

L&Co: How would other describe yourself in three words?

Heather: Unique. Bold. Positive.


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