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Author Topic: When The Rich Risk Their Necks  (Read 5279 times)


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When The Rich Risk Their Necks
« on: Mar 14 2003, 03:52 »

Sports Feature
When The Rich Risk Their Necks
James M. Clash
NEW YORK - The top of the world, the bottom of the ocean, the edges of space--all were virgin territory less than a century ago. Today, they are the destinations described in glossy brochures that tout extreme vacations and high-priced adventure treks. Chalk up the popularity of these adrenaline-pumping excursions to the collective midlife crisis of baby boomers and the tripling of the stock market during the 1990s, which created armies of millionaires intent on outdoing each other at work and play.


The catalyst for much of the adventure travel boom traces back to 1986 and the publication of a book called Seven Summits. In it, Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort owner Richard Bass and Frank Wells, the late president of The Walt Disney Co. (nyse: DIS - news - people ), chronicle their efforts to become the first to conquer the highest mountain on each continent (Mount Everest, 29,028 feet, Asia; Aconcagua, 22,834 feet, South America; McKinley, 20,320 feet, North America; Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet, Africa; Elbrus, 18,481 feet, Europe; Vinson, 16,067 feet, Antarctica; Kosciusko, 7,316 feet, Australia).

What really prompted many corporate risk takers to pack their bags and follow in the footsteps of Bass and Wells was the idea that both men were in their 50s when they made the trips and that neither was really a climber.

Amazingly, Bass made it up all seven peaks--Wells managed six. The Disney chief, after two Everest attempts, was killed in a 1994 helicopter crash while on a ski vacation and never got the chance to knock off his seventh summit. Nevertheless, the feat quickly caught the attention of armchair adventurers worldwide. "Our book definitely helped," admits Bass from his resort in Utah. "Before that, there were relatively few guiding services. It grew from there into a sizable industry."


Call it basic instinct, but the correlation between corporate risk takers and adventure travelers may date back to our prehistoric ancestors. Let's face it, evolution has extracted the primal excitement out of a workweek that used to include whale and saber-toothed tiger hunts. As a result, baby boomers who find themselves trapped behind a desk after exhausting the thrill of the corporate hunt are forced to buy excitement.

"People realize there's more to life," Bass says. "I've been successful in business. If that were all I was chasing, it would be an empty bauble of accomplishment. I know a lot of executives who suddenly wake up and think, 'My God, there's got to be more.' "


Regrettably, there are times when corporate denizens, clamoring for a piece of the action, tragically misread the risks of adventure travel. Think about the widely publicized 1996 Mount Everest disaster that claimed the lives of eight climbers--many of them amateurs--when they were surprised by a late-day storm. Some blame tragedies like that one on the irrational exuberance that swept the adventure world. It's the same type of misguided enthusiasm that inflated the Internet economy. What's more, hyper-enthusiasm inflates more than expectations.

Recall that travel catalogs during the 1980s offered guided treks up the relatively innocuous Mount Kilimanjaro for $3,000. By the 1990s, the same brochures suddenly screamed, "Climb Everest, $65,000." Furthermore, the new promotions never bothered to explain that there is a significant difference in the skill and fitness levels required to climb Everest.

Climbing suddenly became chic with the Martha Stewart crowd, and the unqualified lined up to scale the world's highest peak the same way they rushed to IPOs. To put the phenomenon in perspective, consider that in 1992, 32 climbers topped out on Everest on May 12. That's about the same number that reached the summit in the entire two decades following Hillary's historic 1953 climb. Amateurs, like socialite Sandy Hill Pittman (ex-wife of former AOL Time Warner COO Robert Pittman), rocker Billy Squire and actor Brian Blessed, became more the norm than a curiosity.

Remarkably, Hillary never got caught up in the hype surrounding his climb. "I had fears for quite some years that a disaster would occur," said Hillary, "and finally it did. Inevitably, when you've got a group that has paid a large sum of money, it puts added pressure on you and the guides to take risks you would not normally take to get to the summit."

In 1996, the Everest mountaineers kept moving toward the summit way past the 2 P.M. turnaround time, despite threatening weather below. Eventually, a late-afternoon storm hit the peak, killing eight of them. Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (Villard Books, 1997) provides an excellent account of the incident.

Deadly mistakes are not relegated to mountain peaks. With the increasing number of commercial adventures available, all companies (whether in auto racing, polar travel, whitewater rafting, etc.) must be more vigilant. In 1997, three parachuters mysteriously fell to their deaths in unison over the South Pole while jumping. Every year, dozens of clients die while whitewater rafting.

What can be done to prevent similar occurrences? Dick Bass isn't a proponent of increased regulation. "I don't think you can legislate people out of their dreams," he says. But the father of modern-day mountaineering adventure travel does place most of the responsibility on the adventure companies. "You've got to get them to police themselves. The first thing to control is the number of people you take."

Bass also says participant screening should be much more rigorous. "Before you get on Everest with clients, spend time with them up high to see how they react," he advises. "Altitude brings out either the best or worst in people."

All said, you can't eliminate risk entirely from commercial adventure--nor would you want to. Risk is a big part of the challenge. But you can be smart about it. I'm often asked if I have a death wish. I do not. Like a savvy businessman, I weigh returns against risk. To do that, one must distinguish between perceived risk and real risk. Correctly belayed, you're a lot safer traversing a ledge on the Grand Teton over a 2,000-foot chasm than free-climbing without a rope just 25 feet off the ground. A 60-mile-per-hour crash in a passenger car likely will do more damage to the human body than a wreck at twice that speed in a specially built racecar with the driver wearing a proper helmet and a five-point seat harness.

Bottom line: Everyone is dealt a fixed set of risk chips at birth. Cash them in wisely.

Adapted from James M. Clash's Forbes book, To the Limits: Pushing Yourself to the Edge--in Adventure and in Business, to be published by John Wiley & Sons and available wherever books are sold.

(excerpts from an interesting Forbes Article, click to read the entire story
« Last Edit: Feb 3 2004, 16:09 by 7summits »
"He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary." -- Friedrich Nietzsche


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Re:When The Rich Risk Their Necks
« Reply #1 on: Oct 29 2003, 08:25 »

this is not at all like the 'typical' rich climber, and how he is carried up and does no work as most climbers talk of.
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