Being First: Ten Innovation lessons from Mount Everest

Reaching the highest point of the Earth is one of the greatest expeditions of mankind. It made Edmund Hillary famous. After reading Hillary’s ‘View from the Summit’ Gijs van Wulfen shares ten innovation lessons on being 1st.

“Well George, we knocked the bastard off”. These were the first words of Edmund Hillary to his old friend George Low meeting him near the South Col of Mount Everest¹. It was just after his historic climb with his Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29th 1953. George welcomed Ed with hot tomato soup from a thermos flask. Hillary and Norgay were the first ones confirmed as having reached the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary’s book View from the Summit describes his adventures in detail.

In the fifties, the route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. Nepal only allowed one expedition per year. Hillary had been part of a British reconnaissance expedition to the mountain two years earlier in 1951. The 1953 Everest expedition consisted of a huge team of over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and almost 5.000 kilogram of baggage. Expedition leader Hunt named as the first assault team two British mountaineers: Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans.  Hillary and Norgay were the second assault team. Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but due to a failing oxygen system only reached the South Col, around 100 metres below the summit. Then Hillary and Norgay got their chance. A crucial last part of summiting Everest is a 12 meters rock face, which Hillary managed to climb. It’s now known as the Hillary Step. They reached the 8,848 meters high summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am on May 29th 1953.

Reaching the highest point of the Earth is one of the greatest expeditions of mankind. It made Hillary famous. Reading Hillary’s View from the Summit ten innovation lessons popped into my mind on being 1st.

  1. Passion. As a youngster, Hillary was a great dreamer. He read many adventure books and walked many miles with his head in the clouds. He was unaware his passion of adventure would make him, together with Tenzing Norgay, the first man on the highest point of the Earth.
  2. Urgency. In 1952 the British heard that in 1954 the French had been given permission to attempt Everest. They just had to be first. The expedition could not fail again.
  3. Teamwork. Getting to the summit of Everest is all about teamwork. As Hillary wrote: “John Hunt and D Namgyal’s lift to the depot on the South-East Ridge; George Low, Alf Gregory and Ang Nyima with their superb support at Camp IX; and the pioneer effort by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to the South Summit. Their contribution had enabled us to make such good progress”.
  4. Courage. The Khumbu Icefall is the first major hurdle to cross at Everest. It is vast and unstable, and has claimed more lives than any other part of the South-East approach. The higher you get on Everest the more courage you need. At 7.800 metres Hillary wrote in his diary “Even wearing all my down clothing I found the icy breath from outside penetrating through my bones. A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated my thoughts. What is the sense of this all? I asked myself”.
  5. Test. On the reconnaissance expedition of 1951 team members tested oxygen equipment and did research on high-altitude physiology. The results of both studies were important deciding on the right approach for Everest in 1953.
  6. Initiative. Hillary read in a newspaper in India that the British were taking an expedition to the south side of Mount Everest in 1951. He wrote a letter to expedition leader Eric Shipton suggesting a couple of members of a New Zealand climbing expedition could make a substantial contribution to the team. And so two New Zealanders were invited. If you want something you have to take the initiative.
  7. Choices. The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt, a climber. After eight failed attempts on Everest they needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance.
  8. Overcome setbacks. Along the way there are always major setbacks. After the reconnaissance expedition of 1951, when they found a new route up Everest, the British heard that the Swiss had obtained permission for two attempts on Everest the following year. The only thing they could do was wait and see if the Swiss would succeed.
  9. Competition. Who would be the top teams? And which of them would get a first chance? That was the question. Hunt proposed that Evans and Bourdillon should use the closed circuit oxygen equipment to reach the South Summit and Norgay and Hillary would push to the top with the open-circuit oxygen. Hillary describes the terms first – and second assault team as completely misleading.
  10. Luck. With so many possible setbacks you also need some luck. As New Zealander Hillary first of all was lucky to be classified as a British subject and was therefore invited by the British. The second time Hillary was ‘lucky’ was when the Swiss had their chance on Everest in 1952, before the British Everest expedition of 1953. In their first attempt the Swiss climbed Everest up to 300 metres below the summit before they had to retreat from utter exhaustion. Autumn 1952 their second attempt only reached just above the South Col due to cold temperatures and strong winds, leaving Everest unclimbed.

Hillary was first on Everest. It changed his life. May his lessons inspire you to follow your passion and realise your innovation dreams. It inspired me to the FORTH innovation map, a structured approach to innovation.

By Gijs van Wulfen

 


[i] Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘View from the Summit’, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000

About the author

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.
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