7 Things I Learned while Leading Skiing Expeditions

There is only one way to become a leader, and it isn’t taught at Harvard Business School or Wharton.

Before we go any further let me say that I am one of those people who try to talk people out of going to school.  That is unless it’s on the school’s dime.

You only become a leader by saying yes to an uncertain situation.

Being a leader involves only one thing.

napoleon bonaparte leader  quote


That’s it.  A leader doesn’t put people in a position to succeed.  That’s managing.  A leader does this:


I led ski expeditions into the most glaciated region in the world outside the polar circles.  The expeditions were 24 days long.  The weather in Southeast (that’s how Alaskans refer to the panhandle) is notoriously fickle.  It made it tough for helicopters or planes to fly.   This meant that if or when things go south, you’ll probably be on your own.

I’m not being dramatic when I say I made life and death decisions on a regular basis.

Here’s the list:

1.  It’s Okay to be Afraid – I can’t tell you how many times before a big climb or ski I wouldn’t sleep.  I was scared.  Could I get us to the top?  Could I mitigate the risk?    It’s healthy to be afraid when doing things that have real consequences.

2.  Use Another Emotion to Replace Fear – You don’t conquer fear or any emotion for that matter.  You replace it.  Embrace this.  Out in the mountains, you can’t rely on music, movies or YouTube to pump you up.  Get creative.  In town I listen to 2pac’s, You Can’t C Me or Mel Gibson’s freedom speech from Braveheart.

3.  Risk = Likelihood X Consequences – The real trick to risk is controlling likelihood.  If the likelihood is almost 0 then it doesn’t matter what the consequences are.  If you’re doing something worth doing the consequences are likely high.

4.  Treat Your Second like he’s a First – It will pay off when the shit hits the fan.  Trust me.

5.  Plan – Some people that I trust are against planning. That’s dumb.   One time I had to get a woman out of the mountains and the weather was so bad that you couldn’t see 5 feet in front of your face.  I planned a route through 2 mountain passes using a compass and a map.  We later went to South America and learned to tango and ski.  But that’s another story.  Planning pays.

6.  Go Farther Than You Think You Should –  When navigating in a whiteout, or uncertain circumstances, your brain is working so fast that it feels like you should’ve gotten their already.  Before going set a boundary.  Add 20%.  That’s your new boundary.

This doesn’t apply to things like turn around times when climbing or pursuing goals that have already been done.  The uncertainty doesn’t come from the route, or the unknown, the uncertainty comes from your ability.   Very different.

7.  Bring Good Chocolate and Coffee –  It’s impossible to bring too much of either.  Make it a surprise.  When faced with a low point, a luxurious surprise goes a long way to keeping morale up.

8. (Bonus) Don’t Read about the Thing You’re Doing – When I first started leading these expeditions I used to bring books about other mountain climbers.  The circumstance would come up where I was stuck in my tent due to weather, reading about a climber who was stuck in his tent due to weather.  It was mildly amusing at first, then I started to feel like Jack in The Shining.

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