I have three stories from the mountains for your graduation today, though the first one improbably starts in New York City.
Like today, I’d been invited give a talk. But this talk was for a foundation to raise money to take books to Nepal. The founder, John Wood had visited a school in Nepal, and seen what they called a library. The few scruffy books they had were locked up inside a cupboard.
John decided he wanted to do better.
He talked to the headmaster who said:
“Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.”
A year later, after reaching out to all his friends for their old books, John returned with nothing less than 3,000 books for the Nepali school library. So he started a foundation, Room to Read, and came up with some novel ways to not only collect books, but also raise the money to build real libraries in the schools.
He would raise money by asking the more illustrious and successful of his supporters to host fund raisers in their homes. I was invited to speak at one of those – it sounded interesting, a cause that as a writer of books and lover of libraries was close to my own heart. So I agreed.
Then the evening came, and after a long, hard day at work in the world of advertising in New York, the last thing I felt like doing was giving a talk, no matter how illustrious the audience or the cause. I was tired.
I could of made an excuse, there is always an excuse.
But I’d promised, so I dragged myself out of the office, into a taxi and down to Greenwich Village.
The rooftop looked out over the lights of New York. There were prayer flags and Tibetan singing bowls. There was a crowd of very well dressed people. But it was a long evening of socializing first and after 2 hours I was ready to sneak out the door. I talked with the John Wood, “maybe I can just leave now, without speaking?”
“Oh no, you are the reason people are here, just a short talk, we are all set up.”
They had a big screen, they had a projector, there was a suitably light breeze, a touch of the outdoors even in New York. So I showed my photos, told my stories and took the crowd quickly up and down Mount Everest.
After an Everest talk there are always many questions. How hard is it? How cold? Maybe even, ‘how can I do it?’
The crowd eventually thinned and a woman came up to me, a quick hello, then grabbing the younger man behind her, thrust him forward and said, “this is my little brother Chris, he is a climber too.”
Chris and I introduced ourselves, we made small talk about mountains. He mentioned he wanted to go to Antarctica, a place I had been once and had always wanted to return to.
It is a magical continent with magical mountains, there is no other place like it on earth. But it is hard to get to, it is far, far away, it is very expensive. I hadn’t been able to get back in 10 years since my first expedition.
But we worked out the details, and with a another friend along as well, six months later we were in Antarctica, climbing a new route up the tallest mountain on the continent.
And then we even went back again 10 years later, and climbed another peak that had never before been climbed.
We have a friendship that now goes back 20 years, all because I decided too step forward, to stand up and speak, when it was the last thing I felt like doing: to not step back, but to step forward and make a new connection .
We now have a friendship that extends from the heights of Antarctica, to adventures in Morocco and Greenland. Chris and his family recently visited Dubai, and of course we went up the tallest thing we could find, the Burg Khalifi together.
Deciding to step forward that night in New York, make a new connection, created a lifelong friendship.
The new connections you can now form in your own life will no longer be ones dictated by your parents, or your teachers or your friends. The connections you have today have occurred mostly without thinking about them.
But your new connections will be made by you and you alone.
So don’t step back, step forward.
Embrace the adventure of meeting and connecting with new people.
The second story I have is about the very first time I was invited to climb Everest.
We were of course a bit scared.
Everest is high, is hard and it is dangerous, you can die there. So we took a big team, 19 people.
But our climbing team were all much the same. We were more rock climbers than mountain climbers, we liked warm weather, not cold.
And we really didn’t know what we were doing. So much so we called ourselves “Beginners on Everest.”
We took oxygen to make it easier and lots of heavy equipment. We were trying to counteract our fear with stuff. Counteracting fear with stuff is usually a big mistake.
Bigger things, more things, more expensive things, don’t naturally lead to success. In fact, stuff can make it harder to accomplish your goals. Stuff just gets in the way.
So on this first attempt at Everest, two of us got very high, almost to the top actually. But we were weighed down by all thinking the same, all climbing the same, not having the diversity of thought and perspectives needed for something as big as Everest.
And my real goal, having almost climbed Everest the first time, was to climb it differently.
I wanted to climb the way I liked to climb. A small team, no oxygen, no support team.
All lead climbers.
I had a lot of climbers I knew. And some were very good climbers. But many of us were quite similar.
I needed a team who wanted, more than anything else in the world, to climb Everest: by a new route, without oxygen.
Even today, there are very few of those people in the world.
Everest demands a lot. And doing it in the style I wanted to do it in demanded far more than collective thinking. It demanded a broad range of skills and temperaments and personalities.
In a way, the mountain would dictate the team, not I.
I not only needed the best climbers in the world, I needed climbers who were good on rock, on ice, on snow, and everything in between. They needed to be strong enough to climb day after day, carrying all their own gear up the mountain.
Most importantly, they had to respect each other. I didn’t need friends, I needed professional climbers who were best across a whole range of skills with the confidence they could reach the top of the world without using oxygen.
And we were doing a new route, we weren’t following in anyone’s footsteps, unless there may have been a Yeti that went before us.
I invited people from different countries: Canada, the USA, England and I lived in New Zealand.
We had all done a host of first ascents, climbing routes no-one had done before. We knew how to get up challenging mountains, and we knew how to deal with adversity and bad weather.
Before we even got to Everest we were delayed for three weeks in a snowstorm in Tibet. We could of given up, we could easily have gone home, nobody thought we were going to make it anyway.
But we didn’t.
And what got us through was a whole range of personalities. We had an Oxford Graduate who was also a Carpenter. And a Carpenter who spent most of his time climbing frozen waterfalls.
We had a big wall rock climber who could get up anything given the right equipment.
So we divided up the tasks, we meted out the work, we climbed by day (starting at midnight) and by night. And after 6 weeks we were successful, placing Stephen Venables, thé first British climber to do Everest without oxygen on top, by a new route.
Our success was not because we were the same, or thought the same, or started out as friends. Our success was because we were very different people.
We had different styles, we came from different countries and we had different ways of thinking.
We were a very diverse mix, that was our strength.
So when you go out to meet people, don’t always go for those you know, those who are easy, those who you think will be friends.
Go for those who are dreamers and have goals like you do. Because when you want to do what is impossible, those are the people you want around you.
You want people who think differently than you do. Who will react differently and who will introduce you to news ways to accomplish your goals. Otherwise you will just end up doing the same old thing, not a very good recipe for success.
You need to step out to meet these people, step away from what is comfortable, away from what you are used to.
The great thing is you can start that now, with your new adventures and new potential friends you will all be meeting in your new adventures in life.
Step out and meet somebody new, that you never expected. After all, it’s your life and what have you got to lose?
You will connect with new people, you will connect with people you never imagined. And then you can accomplish what many think may well be impossible.
My last story is about reaching the top of Everest, the very top of the world, the first time I climbed to the summit.
I was leading the expedition, and we had a host of great Sherpas and some very talented climbers who desperately wanted to reach the top with me. It was the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest and we had climbers and trekkers and a BBC film crew along with us.
One of the climbers was African, Sibusisu Vilane, a black African. At that time, no Black African had reached the top of Everest. There just aren’t a lot of big tall mountains in Africa, besides Mount Kilimanjaro, which isn’t really in the same league.
There was a man sponsoring his climb, as they had met on bush walks in South Africa and he had high hopes for him. So I asked his sponsor about his climbers experience.
I discovered that Sibusisu who I would be guiding up Everest, really didn’t have much experience. He had climbed some smaller peaks, and a few smaller mountains in Nepal. He mostly guided clients in the game parks in Africa, he was comfortable with Lions and Elephants, Wildebeests and being out on Safari. He wasn’t really a climber at all.
I remember thinking “Oh no, he is going to kill us all!”
One of the first days, Sibu and I were up in the icefall. It’s a very dangerous place. Ice above you, around you, ladders to balance across, holes to fall into. I was giving Sibusisu a hard time, he needed to know how to use his crampons very well, very quickly, if he ever wanted to climb Everest. It’s the most important thing on the mountain, staying balanced and connected to the mountain at all times.
He was getting better, but I didn’t have much patience. We paused for a rest and I asked how he was doing.
“Robert,” he said, “see that ice tower over there, it is shaped just like a lion I know in the park where I guide.”
Perhaps this man was a bit crazy?
We were in a very dangerous place, he was having some very stressful lessons. And he was talking about lion shapes in the ice.
But I also realized that in the midst of a life threatening adventure, he was able to see the beauty, to admire the incredible landscape, even if it could kill us. He was enjoying life no matter what it threw at him.
And because Sibusisu was enjoying the climb, I really started enjoying the climb and everything around me.
As a guide I’d taken what I learned in the mountains, and I’d learned to give back, to help others realize their dreams. And now Sibusisu was helping open up my own eyes to what was important.
Two weeks later, Sibusisu and I stood atop Everest. That was my first time to the very top.
And Sibusisu stood atop it as the first Black African to the top. I’d helped him reach his goal, but he had also helped me realize one of my own, finding beauty and joy even in the most difficult and dangerous surroundings.
So those are my three stories.
So as you step forward today on your graduation, don’t hesitate to also step out to meet new people that you might never expect to.
And one day enjoy walking together, to achieve all you truly deserve.
Thanks to your parents, your families and your teachers for bringing you so far.
Thank-you and congratulations again on your graduation, as you step out and up into the big wide world.
Address to the graduation class, Ail Ain English Speaking School, Abu Dhabi, UAE.