Scaling Mount Everest with One’s Head on the Ground!
Last year in May, Venkatesh Maheshwari, Sr. VP at Aditya Birla Fashion climbed the Everest and became arguably the first senior-level corporate executive in Mumbai to do so. With the unprecedented number of unfortunate incidents widely reported recently on the Everest, we bring relevant edited excerpts of the #TalkCXOLife conversation Sunayana Nair, Editor, CXO Life had with Venkatesh, in which he shares his experience regarding his intensive training, preparation, research and the mindset he developed to begin preparing for his dream climb at the age of 45 years. It was Venkatesh’s first attempt but he divulges how he was prepared to let go of the one dream that had served as an anchor for him almost his entire life, if it had to come to it, willingly prepared to be humbled by mother nature. He was victorious of course but not without surmounting challenges, some that even threatened his life. Venkatesh is now an avid speaker and takes up several speaking opportunities sharing his story and urging corporate executives, young students to fearlessly pursuit their ‘Everest’.
As Venkatesh puts it, ‘one can conquer anything with not just one’s feet firmly on the ground but also one’s head on the ground’.
How did you go about preparing for this dream climb?
I had done a lot of research about what it takes for an average expedition. I was quite aware of the known risks such as frostbite, exhaustion, dehydration etc. and how to prepare for each of them. I spent about six months researching every aspect of the climb including every equipment I would be using for the climb, down to the socks I’ll be wearing on the summit night which is manufactured in a small town in Spain and the best to prevent frostbites. I used that for the last three crucial nights. Also, I began preparing my body gradually, physiologically to improve its ability to adjust to the environment in mountains. Typically, on the mountains, diarrhoea is the most common thing people suffer. You’re already dehydrated on a climb, the air is very dry, so diarrhoea is the last thing you need! Dehydration is one big symptom which many climbers have had to abort later. So, to build my immunity I began drinking tap water wherever I could.
I also meticulously researched on every aspect of improving my physical endurance. Most of the deaths happen because of exhaustion. Very few deaths happen because people fall off the mountain. But it’s sheer physical endurance, your ability to manage the environment cold and so on that matters ultimately. Of course, while the prep is restricted to factors that are only in your control there are factors that are much beyond your control such as strong windstorms, avalanches etc. and one can never be prepared for it.
How exactly did you train yourself physically to improve your endurance? What was the process?
I took around 18 months to prep myself physically and I kept clear quarterly targets. I was 45 years old and I knew that I would have to train my body to be like that of a 25-year-old. I engaged with private trainers as I couldn’t join the mountaineering institute and then worked out a gruelling training routine which was something like this –
I would fly on Friday evening to Delhi and take a cab overnight to Haridwar and then change a cab to take me to the mountains where my trainers were. I would train for about 7-8 days there. Coming back was taxing as no private vehicles were allowed on the mountain overnight, so I would come back in vegetable trucks as that was the only possible way to travel back to Haridwar to make it on time for taking the Sunday evening flight to Mumbai. On Monday, I would resume work. And often, on Monday mornings I would even hit the gym, catching up on my sleep on my Uber ride to work and also during lunchbreaks when I would take the car keys of my colleague and sleep in his car until lunch break. Then get back to work, uber home – sleeping on the way again and would hit the gym soon after.
I would always workout twice a day. I would either be running in the mornings or doing my favourite routine endurance exercise in my 50-storeyed apartment – climbing stairs which I would do with 16 kgs on me comprising a 12kg backpack and 2kgs of ankle weights each on my legs to simulate the kind of boots I would be wearing on the mountain. I would also use an altitude training mask to simulate climbing at 15,000 feet. I would climb up and down 6 to 10 times depending on the kind of time I had. I would also try training over the weekends in the mountains near Mumbai.
What were your biggest fears?
I dreaded frostbites and the second concern more specific one to the climb was that on the north side there is a particular section, just 150 feet below Everest, and that section is scary, one mistake and you are risking a 12,000 feet sky dive. I knew that I had to prepare myself for this, mentally as well as physically.
Now getting to the climb, the ascent – how was that journey?
There are two ways to climb the Everest, either from the Nepal side or the Tibet side. After weighing both the options, I decided to climb from the Tibet side.
The first step is to climb and reach the base camp of Everest, and then you stay there, permitting your body to increase your RBC count, which in turn increases your oxygen carrying capacity for the climb.
Then, the next step is to climb to 22,000 feet which is camp 1 and come back down. You make 2 such round trips, resting in between for 5-6 days – again the purpose being to get your body acclimatised to the conditions. You have to climb without any oxygen support to let yourself have enough oxygen for the later part of the climb. Else, if you can’t do 23,000 feet without oxygen your expedition leader may tell you to abort the trip since you may become a liability further up on the mountain at the final summit push.
The second part is from camp 1 i.e. 22,000 feet to the top. Now for 24,000 feet you have six cylinders of oxygen to go up from 22,000 and come down back to 22,000.
You spend time then waiting for the weather forecast which we get from UK and US regarding the wind speeds on the mountain. You want to summit on a morning when the wind speeds will be about 20 kmph; more than that could be dangerous. So, you work backwards six or seven days and then you leave your base camp to target the summit night. There’s only one chance to summit because you have only so much energy and so much oxygen and if you can’t do that for whatever reason, too bad. Typically, everybody gets the same information and everybody tries to leave at the same time. That’s why the path gets crowded. Everybody wants to summit on the night when the wind speeds are the lowest.
Which was the most difficult part of the climb for you?
The most difficult part of the second phase of the climb is the traverse which is just about 150 feet below Everest that is 28,800 feet – I was most apprehensive of this portion of climb and researched every aspect available. I reached that traverse at around 6 a.m. and that according to me indeed is the most difficult and scary part. Mind you, this is after 35 of the 40 days on the mountains and you are exhausted. This is a point where many people give up.
Decision-making is a critical factor here isn’t it? To what extent do you risk your life for a dream…
Yes! Your actions can have far reaching consequences on other climbers too! If one climber makes a mistake then that weight on the rope line can risk the life of other climbers on that wall. I prepared very well but I knew one thing being a really active sportsperson all my life, even if I had decided to abort at that point of time, I would be okay. Many people would have not even dreamt of reaching those heights. And if I had to give it up, I would give it up but not do anything stupid because my research also showed me that a lot of time people have taken wrong decisions on the mountain at a point where they should have turned back. They didn’t do so and they actually went up further and they died. So, I was very conscious about that to not take undue risks. My decision of not divulging my mission to anyone expect the Aditya Birla Group management and my wife also helped. I didn’t want people’s negative talk to overwhelm me neither did I want to carry the weight of their expectations!
What is the experience like once you reach the top?
Once you reach the top, you have around 5-6 minutes. Anything more than that starts affecting your body because of the cold. So, I spent the first few minutes taking a few pictures and videos which you need as a proof that you made it to the top. The rest of the time all you can possibly do is just enjoy the view; it is the ultimate view, after all you’re literally on the top of the world.
But having said that, I also knew that it’s not over yet, it’s a round trip and it’s only over once I manage to reach back down so that is also one thing that was playing on my mind. I hadn’t slept for five nights, had not been eating and was exhausted. But undoubtedly, the feeling to have summited was unexplainable, it was like a dream for me which has made my life worth it so I was just thankful to be there.
Was there any moment during the entire expedition when you thought you wouldn’t be able to do it?
Yes, actually here were two such moments. One was during the climb when we were at a particular spot and we could actually see an approaching storm. I did think for a bit at that point that it would be wise to abort but we waited and thankfully the winds subsided and then we continued with our climb.
The second was when descending. I had blisters on my legs, some were as big as marbles and every step was so painful. I was exhausted which made me really slow. I was dehydrated and took five hours more than what one would take typically to descend. I ran out of oxygen at 25,000 feet when I reached the camp. I remember telling my tent partner that I might not make it as I was about to sleep. Because I knew my oxygen would get over by 5 o clock in the morning and I still needed to get down to three thousand feet which would be about 10 o clock so anything could go wrong that night. Luckily, I’m here due to God’s grace.
How did you really manage to do all this with your responsibilities at work?
I am really lucky in that aspect as my office supported me a lot. I spoke to them and they gave me a go ahead to chase my dream and that was really nice of them to give me that sort of a freedom. I am happy to be working with the Aditya Birla group. I got an amazing working with me. Though they didn’t know about my mission at that time but they were running the entire show. It also boils down to my leadership style I think, where I typically let my team run the show after immersing myself in that particular capacity for 6 months to a year. Then I step back and let my team take over, so they learn and grow and I can also move on to some other role. So, I guess I struck a balance in allotting enough time to work to ensure business sustainability and that also allowed me to take that extra time off to chase my dream.
How would you sum up your experience? Also, what’s next now?
Well this dream of climbing the Everest has been like an anchor in my life. I have been through a lot of ups and downs in life but this one dream has been like a consistent anchor and now that it is done, I feel like the journey has just begun for me. I am looking forward to more climbs in other continents or a skiing expedition and other such challenges. I think, in a way, the mountains will always call me back!