Leading on the edge

Leaders on leadership

Wiebke Nedel

16 October 2018

Wiebke Nedel reflects on a nerve-wracking mountaineering episode, and what she learned about generous leadership.  

I’m reaching the end of my 147-day journey across the Great Himalaya Trail – the world’s longest and highest alpine trekking route. Running 4,500 km between Bhutan and Pakistan, it contains regions so remote that only locals can find their way through its forests and glaciers.

Steered by Satish Man Pati, our team’s wonderful guide (with a 2016 Everest ascent under his belt), I’ve climbed thousands of metres at high altitude and crossed 22 passes (losing 10 kg body weight in the process!).

Our experiences have been heart-warming and heart-wrenching. We laugh when our mules run away (and we track them down 48 hours later). We feel lucky when we come across a Tibetan wedding in a remote village. The air turns blue when, on a particularly wet jungle day, hordes of leeches single us out as fresh snacks. Our route skirts monasteries where monks perform ceremonies in isolated communities. We see glaciers in the morning sunlight, watch the Himalayas bask in alpine evening glow, and enjoy misty jungle days when langur monkeys follow our every move.

But today is different.

I’m hanging on a rope, the spikes of both crampons rammed into a near vertical wall of blue ice at an altitude of 6,150 metres. Around me, a vast glacier stretches like a smooth soccer field. My calves are twitching from stress and exhaustion, my goggles are clouded by whirls of snow. A bitter wind threatens to turn my fingers numb. I have no ice axe, and must grip the rope with a Jumar (a handheld ascending device) to push myself up the ice wall, one pull and one foot at a time.

I’ve never been more focused in my life. I have no time to reflect or regret. My only thought is this: “Get back up this wall!”

Hiking Nepal’s highest ridges had long been a dream trip for me. I knew there were risks. I realised that, once you climb to high altitude, use technical gear, cross glaciers and depend on the weather to turn in your favour, you also need to pray and hope. No expertise, no team of brilliant guides, no fancy gear or inexhaustible fitness can ever guarantee your safety in the mountains. Avalanches and rockfalls happen when they happen. As my Nepali friends say: “The Gods reside in the highest mountains and only they know when your time has come….”

So why am I hanging 120 metres above an ice crevasse?

Earlier today, we heard on the walkie-talkie that our crew’s head cook, Khem, had been killed by a rock fall, after a sudden change of weather. Our team must regroup at the top of the peak. It’s time to retrace our steps – vertically.

Despite a biting migraine, I make it up the 40 metres. I pour the hot tea left in my Thermos and give it to my shivering team-mates. I comfort Ramesh, our assistant cook who’s worked alongside Khem for 15 years. Satish makes an emergency plan: helicopter evacuation for the group, the injured porter and of course dear Khem’s body.

Three days later, reunited in Namche Bazaar, we’re happy and fulfilled, but also aged, humbled, tougher and wiser… I’ve had time to reflect on the last 48 hours, and the experiences that changed us forever.

Satish and the trek team showed incredible strength and perseverance. We owe our lives to them.

But how did I react? Sure, I summoned up determination, endurance and focus. But on a much deeper level, it was the connection I felt to the team that pulled me through. My surrogate family. Love glowed like a fire inside me. The kind of love that made me see clearly into the hearts of those around me – their (and my) unguarded vulnerability. The simplicity of pure humanity: ambitious and hopeful, generous and caring. Everyone in our team – from cook to trek leader, from porter to mule driver – had a say. Without the others I was nothing. Together, we made the impossible happen.

For me the mountains, and our journeys across them, have always been metaphors for life’s consequences and goals. Avalanches and storms mirror the dilemmas we face every day, as individuals and societies. Whether it’s climate change, corrupt regimes, or economic systems that deepen the divide between us.

The mountains may have taught me humility, relentless generosity and awe, but so did the people of this fabulous region. Civilisation 1.0 in a world where civilisation 10.0 is everyone’s ‘north star’!

I spent days walking among homesteads which cling to steep slopes, where terraces are carved into the mountainside. Every year, they need ploughing, sowing and harvesting. Water is scarce, landslides and earthquakes common, healthcare inaccessible. Winters are lived inside, cut off from the rest of the world by snow-covered gullies.How did these villagers’ ancestors envision the impossible and tackle it – despite the odds? Theirs is a story of Tibetan refugees crossing into Nepal on the highest of Himalayan passes, and settling where they could.

During the trip, I met hundreds of Nepali villagers, sharing butter tea with them around simple stoves on earthen floors. I found myself reflecting on their patience. Their ambition and optimism, their unfailing generosity. 

Hope is present in everything they do. They let nothing limit their capacity to survive. I learned that no slope is too steep to cultivate, no river too big to cross, no person too old to walk. These villagers carry (on their backs) everything that’s needed to build their communities – steel electricity poles, heavy school cabinets, you name it.

And then there’s Satish – who develops his staff by listening to their aspirations and paying for their training courses. He’s just launched a fund to help Khem’s wife and two sons secure a livelihood. He’s a role model of kind-heartedness, generosity and leadership. Of course, he’s the best friend you can have when going into the Himalayas!

Remembering this trip, I feel my experiences were anchored in patient ambition, relentless generosity and clear-eyed optimism.

Satish knows I’ll be back.