Climber JOHN AMATT shows how the 'spirit of adventure' can motivate anyone to reach for
heights unimagined and achieve goals unattained
On a cold July afternoon in 1965, 20 year old mountain climber
John Amatt found himself alone, staring up a particularly imposing section of the sheer
face of Norway's mile-high Troll Wall. For nine days he and his companions had faced rain,
sleet, falling rocks, and gusts of icy wind while they inched their way up the vertical
mile. Their painfully slow ascent marked the first attempt at a cliff some of the world's
best climbers had declared impossible. This day the group hoped to surmount the last
series of overhangs before making a final drive to the top.
Amatt was chosen to bring up the
rear while the others attacked each overhang. Once his companions disappeared from view
overhead, Amatt was left hanging on the cliff face with a solitary section of rope as his
only connection to the people who could lead him to safety. Amatt waited for the rope to
go taut - his signal to follow.
Glancing at his watch after a
particularly long wait, Amatt realized that he had been dangling in midair over a drop of
thousands of feet for two hours. Hanging there alone, his mind began to race with
worst-case scenarios. Had someone been injured in a fall? Been knocked unconscious by a
falling rock? Or worse? Each possibility spelled serious trouble for the lone climber.
Eventually Amatt's grisly visions of misfortune came to an abrupt halt when the rope waved
and suddenly pulled taut. With enormous relief and the extra burst of adrenaline
that comes when you know your fears have been unfounded, Amatt began to climb again, soon
moving beyond the last overhang and rejoining the others. The next day the group completed
the last leg of the climb, becoming the first adventurers to conquer the sheer face of
Today Amatt says that he has never experienced
such incredible feelings of isolation and helplessness. Rather than reevaluating whether
mountain climbing was still a worthwhile endeavour however, Amatt says that after Troll
Wall his thirst for adventure became even more unquenchable.
In the intervening 30 years, Amatt has
conquered hundreds of other peaks both large and small. By far his most ambitious climb,
however, occurred in 1982 when he led the first group of Canadians to scale Mount Everest.
This incredibly arduous yet rewarding experience, described in his book Straight to the Top and
Beyond, helped Amatt develop what he calls the "Adventure Attitude"
philosophy. Today, as CEO and president of One
Step Beyond Worldwide, Amatt uses the themes of adventure, risk, courage, and pushing the
limits of human potential to help people from executives to schoolchildren face the
challenges and obstacles of a fast-changing world.
"My definition of adventure is very tied into
our goals and philosophies at One Step Beyond," Amatt says. "Adventure isn't
hanging on a rope of the side of a mountain. Adventure is an attitude we must apply to the
day-to-day obstacles of life - facing new challenges, seeking new opportunities, testing
our resources against the unknown and, in the process, discovering our own unique
potential. To me an adventure is a journey with an uncertain outcome. In the arena
of mountain climbing Everest was one challenge where I chose to pursue the spirit of
adventure. But everyone operates in a different arena. To some, selling products is
the arena of challenge. To others it might be the football field. But the philosophy of
adventure applies no matter what the arena."
No matter what
changes are going on around us, fear of the unknown often drives people to avoid risks.
While this fear can protect us from self-destructive or foolish acts, it may also hinder
us from the reasonable risks that can lead to growth and accomplishment. Amatt believes
that only those individuals who embrace the risks associated with change will achieve
"Change has always been with us," he says.
"In fact change is the only constant we can expect throughout our lives. What's
different today is that the pace of change has increased so dramatically that people have
become very uncertain about the future. Life involves risk, but today we've created social
structures that have some people believing we can lead life without taking risks. By
nature we seek comfort and predictability, using all of our financial resources and
intellectual powers to devise technologies that will make our lives easier and less
stressful. It is one of the great paradoxes of human existence that once we have created
the comfort we desire, we must leave it all behind if we are to move forward.
"In point of fact we take risks every day,
whether we acknowledge them or not. When we make an investment we take a risk. When you
talk to a stranger, that's a risk. If you expose an idea to someone else, you risk
ridicule. I believe that in the future the people who succeed will be those who are
proactive about taking risks. People who wait until they are forced to take risks will not
succeed. That is the choice that each of us faces: Do I want to be proactive and move
forward or am I going to try to just protect what I already have and be reactive?"
Whenever he travels
and speaks to groups, Amatt says he inevitably encounters people who admire him for his
accomplishments but can't seem to tap into their own spirits of adventure. His advice to
them? Just take the first step.
People are always coming up to me and saying,
'Boy, I really wish I could do what you've done,'" Amatt says, "My answer to
them is always, 'Just go and do it.' It's no good saying 'Gee, I wish I could do it,'
because in truth you can do it if you just take control and set your mind to figure out
how you're going to accomplish your goals.
"A lot of people dream of doing great
things but never act on those dreams. And that's where they lose out. I always tell
people, 'Unless you make a committed step forward, nothing happens. As long as you're in
the procrastination mode, nothing will occur. It's only when you make that first step that
things start to happen to you."
While Amatt acknowledges that fear plays a
significant role in keeping people from pursuing their dreams, he does not feel that
success stems from eliminating fear. In fact, he says, fear is a very important facet of
life and one that we should embrace.
When we move from the known world into the unknown,
no matter what field of endeavour we're talking about, we experience fear. Often these
feelings cause us to create in our minds a whole host of worst-case scenarios. We can all
think of times when we've been lying awake at night worrying about something we had to do
the next day. But then once we have confronted the situation the next day, the reality of
the event was not as bad as our minds had conjured up. "But that's what we've got to
realize when we feel fear - that when you move toward fear, it recedes. When you run away
from it, it grows in your mind. I believe that fear is merely nature's way of focusing all
your mental and physical resources on the problem you face. That's why it is so important
to confront the fear directly. That allows you to move forward and get on with the job at
hand. This ability - to confront fear and move forward despite all the anxiety and
uncertainty you feel - that's courage."
Life's Greatest Teacher
While today many may admire John Amatt, the adventurer
and conqueror of great mountains, he is the first to admit that each of the lessons he
espouses came to him only through years of personal struggle. "This surprises some
people," he says, "but when I was growing up I was a very shy, insecure person
who took few risks. It wasn't until I started climbing mountains that I found something I
was good at that gave me the self-confidence to keep exploring. And then I started to
realize that there was all kinds of potential hidden inside me."
In 1968, the English-born Amatt moved to Canada and,
after trying his hand at a variety of business ventures, took a job teaching high school
students in the town of Banff. Banff is situated in the heart of the Canadian
Rockies, and Amatt took advantage of the local topography to organize physically
challenging outing trips for the students. Through these expeditions, Amatt soon realized
he could help his students confront their fears, overcome physical adversities, and build
in teaching school was not to teach math, social studies, or physical education," he
explains. "My objective was to teach kids - to help them discover what they
were good at so that they could develop their potential the same way I had through
"That helped me to understand that in life
it's important that we help people discover their potential by applying this same
philosophy. And a major part of it is by learning through personal experience. People
don't just learn by reading a book about something; we learn by applying what we've read
in a book to a real-life challenge.
Conquer Your Personal Everest
Today, when speaking to groups of business executives, Amatt likes to relate
his experience climbing Mount Everest to the challenges everyone faces when trying to
accomplish a daunting goal. "People are always fascinated by the Everest
experience," he says, "because that accomplishment represents the utmost
achievement in the arena of mountain climbing. But it seems that sometimes people think I
must be different from them because I've climbed Mount Everest. Well, I'm not different
than them; I just operate in a different arena. And I think it's important for people to
realize that they can conquer their personal Everest if they just apply the same kind of
dedication, commitment, and endurance."
Amatt says that you can view any goal as a kind
of mountain waiting to be climbed. And just like an assault on an imposing peak, a sales
target can only be achieved through a series of stages.
"If you view that sales target as a
mountain," Amatt explains, "then you can also view the stages along the way to
the top. You don't climb Mount Everest by starting at the bottom and just walking up the
mountain. You climb Everest by first establishing a base camp at 18,000 feet - a place
where you can sleep in safety. Then you establish Camp One at 20,000 feet. And it might
take you two weeks to get to Camp One. Then you go back and forth between base camp and
Camp One carrying eight tons of equipment up. And then you start moving towards Camp Two
and so on. Finally you get your fourth camp into place 3,000 feet below the summit and
it's from there that you launch the summit bid.
"We can apply this same philosophy to a sales
target, where you don't shoot for the summit right away, but rather make your way
incrementally toward the goal. Focus on the small steps along the way. Don't ever forget
the big goal, but also don't try to get there in one quantum leap because that's not the
way it happens." Vision is the ability to keep your eye on the big goal while
accomplishing the necessary smaller goals along the way. In my life, some of the things
I've always wanted to do have taken me 20 to 25 years. Everest was a goal I set for myself
when I was 18 years old and I didn't get there until I was 37. I think that if we can view
the great challenges in life in the same way, then nothing's impossible."
Sleep In Safety, Otherwise Explore
In addition to being one of the world's top mountain
climbers, Amatt has also researched the lives of other great adventurers, pioneers, and
explorers. His favourite quote comes from eminent French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the
first European to navigate the Great Lakes. Champlain said...
Advice I give to all adventurers is to seek a place where they may
sleep in safety."
"To me, that is the essence of life
today," Amatt says. "We need a secure place to sleep in safety, but we've got to
leave that behind every day as we push forward into the unknown, confident that there is a
place to sleep in safety. Security is a foundation to come back to. Security is not an
all-encompassing comfort zone to live our lives without risk."