University of Southern California

We Were In the Death Zone
March 30, 2012 • by Paul Fejtek

My wife Denise and I were in the "Death Zone" on Mt. Everest at 28,500 feet. I had just spilled some water on my glove. It froze instantly, and as a result its insulation properties were damaged. My fingers grew painfully cold. Two things were on my mind: 1) a Japanese climber we had met in Antarctica who had lost all 10 fingers to frostbite climbing Everest, and 2) Cyclone Laila, a pending storm system that was threatening to end the climbing season, or worse.

It was decision time. Denise and I had been climbing the famed Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each continent) over the past eight years, and Everest was the final peak in our quest.

We had already spent nearly two months on this mountain, not to mention the significant financial investment in this expedition. If we turned around now, our summit dream would be over.

This was a critical decision point and an exercise in managing risk. The moment resembled decision points we all face in today’s complex and ever-changing business world. Regardless of industry or job title, today we have to manage risk in order to survive.

At the upcoming USC Marshall Leadership Summit, I will expand on the topic of managing risk. The theme of the conference is "Navigating the Landscape of Competition, Complexity and Change," a subject that mirrors my experiences on the mountain and in investment banking.

In my book "Steps to the Summit," I have written about 15 specific steps to get to the top in business and life. One of those steps is to "Make a Decision." The word decide comes from the Latin decidere, which means literally, to cut off. When you make a decision you’re cutting off all other options.

So there I stood, less than 500 vertical feet from the summit of Mt. Everest, in the "Death Zone." Goals and dreams are important, but losing my fingers wasn't a price I was willing to pay to reach the top. Then I remembered something from my days on the swim team: before a swim meet we would swing our arms in circles like a windmill to warm up our shoulders. I stopped for a moment and tried this exercise before making our final ascent up the Hillary Step to the top of Everest. The centrifugal force from this motion pushed blood down into my fingertips, returning circulation and warmth, and enabling me to safely and successfully reach the top of the world!

I urge you to pursue your own dreams and reach for your highest peaks. To inspire your efforts, please join us at the Marshall Leadership Summit April 11th and support the USC Marshall School of Business. The school helps equip future leaders with the skills they will need to climb to the top.

Fight On!
Paul Fejtek
Managing Director, Hunter Wise, '92