Life and death in the mountains. Lessons of leadership and personal drive: An interview with mountaineer Jim Geiger

Down at base camp, decisions can be collaborative. But high on a mountain, a leader needs to call the shots with unwavering confidence, explains Jim Geiger, who, at age 68, set his sights on becoming the oldest American to summit Mount Everest from Nepal.

Geiger is no stranger to taking the lead in life. Two years ago, he attempted his ambitious goal.  A 67-year-old American man had set the previous record, summiting the 29,032-ft. peak of Mt. Everest in 2009. Geiger was ready to make history.

But as fate would have it, a massive avalanche fell onto the Ice Fall killing 16 Sherpa and closing the mountain for the season. Geiger felt fortunate just to survive and return to his family in Sacramento, he said.

Geiger’s experience in the mountains began almost two decades ago, and in that time,  he’s climbed mountains from Antarctica to the Himalayas.

I reached out to Geiger to understand what it takes to survive such perilous endeavors. What became clear through our interview is that, high on the mountain, leaders need to be decisive, and everyone needs to be prepared.

Leaders at their best bring out the best in others

On Leadership

A seasoned leader knows that leadership should adapt to the situation at hand. There is no style that best fits all scenarios.

In cases of extreme risk, Geiger says, leaders need to take full ownership and be entirely competent in making tough decisions amidst high pressure. Leadership, he says, requires a high level of trust, with little room to question the leader's direction. As someone who has been led by some of the most talented mountaineers, Geiger found the leaders he felt most safe with were those whose abilities he trusted AND whose confidence in their ability to lead the team to safety never faltered. In short, leaders in these situations need to be decisive. On every climb, something is going to go wrong, and often there is little room for building consensus. While this style of leadership may not be appropriate for all scenarios, it can make the difference between success and tragedy in high-stakes situations.

Geiger’s Characteristic of the “Decisive Leader”

Decisive - Willing to make the tough decisions and assume full responsibility

Confident -  Be confident and fully aware of their abilities

Commitment to Team - The goal does not come at the expense of the team’s lives

Integrity -  This is key in the team’s ability to trust and follow the leader

Organized -  Be prepared, efficient, and well planned

Highly Adaptable - Ability to rapidly adjust to changing conditions

Acute Awareness - Be present and attuned to your team and surroundings

Instill Confidence - Bring out the best performance in others

Geiger recalls a moment high on Pico de Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America, when his group’s guide exercised decisive leadership.

Amidst deteriorating conditions with high winds and sleet, the guide called off the ascent just below the summit. In this situation, any slip could have been fatal and sent the entire team cascading down the mountain. The team was reminded of this when they passed by the location where two climbers had fallen to their death just the day before. The guide’s decision wasn’t questioned because he was confidently decisive and openly voiced a concern many on the team were thinking. It was a moment where a decisive leader needed to make the call to abort, a decision that likely saved lives.

While the conditions many of us face on a daily basis are unlikely to be so risky, situations do occur where decisive leadership is required. The conditions of such situations generally have the following characteristics: highly time-sensitive decisions, high-stakes, and requiring high level of expertise or experience. In such scenarios, having a decisive leader might just prevent catastrophe.

When to exercise decisive leadership:

Highly Time Sensitive Decisions - High Stakes - Requiring High Level of Expertise


On Personal Leadership

“The mountains have been a great way to learn about life,” Geiger says “There is no way you can avoid learning when you are in the mountains.”

His obsession with climbing mountains began when he was 40 and grew steadily. Since then, he has found himself atop peaks across the globe. These accomplishments, however, did not come easily, and they required a great deal of personal leadership.

If you don’t prepare, you prepare to fail


The fact that Geiger stepped into such a demanding arena at a later stage in his life is a testament to how far we can push ourselves if we are dedicated  to a task. When asked what he felt were the key elements to his success as a mountaineer, Geiger gave a very clear list of the traits he felt were required to achieve any ambitious goal.

Geiger’s Personal Leadership Traits

Commitment - Be unwavering in your dedication to achieve your goal

Preparation - Understand all the variables in front of you and prepare yourself

Skill - Know your abilities, your limitations, and where you need grow

Consistency -  Do what you need to do everyday to become better at what you do

Self-Motivation - Find your source of inspiration within

I found these characteristics relevant to anyone who has set a goal for themselves. Whether it is in developing a new product, launching a business, or climbing a peak, these traits are paramount in achieving our goals.

According to Geiger, this is not about being on the mountain. This is about being always ready to climb. You set your goal and don’t worry about being five steps ahead, just the step in front of you. That is where the ease of the climb comes in. If you are consumed with what is 10 or 20 steps ahead of you, that is when life becomes difficult. Being in the moment and focusing on the next step is how goals are accomplished. Those who have committed to long term goals know that, while it is crucial to set a clear course, you only get to your destination by being present to what needs to be done in the moment.

For Geiger, these traits paved the foundation that allowed him to accomplish his goals. For a 20 year period he set out to climb one significant peak per year. During this time he found himself atop peaks from Alaska to Mexico and as far as Russia. Regardless of the location or the climb itself, Geiger focused on what training he needed to do on the day ahead of him. Instead of focusing on standing at the peak, he carefully honed his physical ability and his technical skills on a daily basis. He had no idea if climbing these mountains was possible, but he was committed to being as prepared as possible when the opportunity came. It was the accumulation of these daily tasks that prepared him for the days he would attempt to summit.

If you are interested in learning more about Geiger, check out his website: or watch the trailer for the upcoming documentary detailing his journey to Everest by clicking here.