Seven things about teamwork I learned from climbing Mount Kazbek

It’s last weekend of February. We’re sitting together with our friends, talking about everything and nothing, when one of them mentions ‘we’re going to climb Kazbek’. ‘Huh?’ I say, which is typical open question when you’ve no idea about what, where and why. ‘Oh, it’s a mountain in Georgia. Over five thousand meters high. Check videos on youtube.’ So I do.

I hope you did the same right now. If not, let me just give you few facts. It’s a few days trip. The summit takes around 12 hours and requires usage of crampons, ice axes and ropes. Scary, isn’t it?

Two weeks later we’ve our plane tickets and start preparing for the quest. To build up some fitness I start running (and if you know me, you also know how challenging it was). I also pay regular visit to gym (and yes, if you know me…) and work with the coach on building muscles and condition.

Saturday, July 23rd we’re on the plane to Tbilisi. We land next day in the morning, and the same day we go to Stepantsminda (1700m), better known as Kazbegi, laying at the foot of Kazbek Mount. In the evening the clouds move away and we can finally see majestic Kazbek high above us. Next day we get a ride to 2200m from where, for several hours, we climb to Base Camp (3650m). This is the first day we meet glacier, snowfall and tents that will be our homes for next few nights. Tuesday is a rest and acclimatization day. We climb to 4000m and practice skills that will be required during our trip to the top. This include walking in crampons, ice axes self-arrest and moving in a group tight together with a rope. There’s lot of fun and snow.

Wednesday, July 27th. We wake up at midnight, after just few hours of sleep. We get some breakfast (or maybe late supper?) and leave base camp. It’s completely dark outside so we use head lamps. There are few more groups coming along, so the trail looks like Christmas tree lights, put on the mountain. An hour later we reach glacier, take on crampons and tie up with rope.

The crampons are really great on ice, although you need to make sure you won’t accidentally step on someone’s else shoe. Can be painful. The rope is for security, to avoid falling to crevasse or down the slope. That can be way more painful. However it makes climbing more difficult, as you cannot go either slower or faster than the person in front of you. Being 6th in a line, I learn a lot about consequences of variation and ‘wipe effect’ – any time someone in front slow down or speed up, even a bit, the difference in speeds increase with every person tied up, making the last people to stop or try to catch up every now and then.

We walk for the next two hours, reaching plateau at 4400m. Now the climb become even more difficult. There’s not enough air to breathe, so I pant like a dog, even when we don’t move. But we do move and the slope is around 30 degree. It’s getting brighter and we finally see the sun rising. At 8am we reach saddle at 3900m. We are already dead tired and can hardly breathe, but there’s one more step to be made. 150 meters up at 45 degree slope, using ice axes and zig-zagging to the top. The temperature is around -8 Celsius and the wind is strong. Every step is difficult and every breath don’t provide enough oxygen. Finally at 9am we made it. High fives and big hugs to everyone! The view is astonish, but we’re too tired to fully enjoy it.

For the next few days we’re resting, celebrating the success and enjoying Georgia climate, culture, food and drinks. I have time to retrospect on what happened and what I can learn from that. Here are five most important lessons I’ve taken from my climb to Mt. Kazbek:

1. Having the right team is essential

Most organizations  worry more about  selecting their servers than team members and spent more time building code than building the team. However, I wouldn’t make it if it wasn’t for the friends I’ve been with to the top. I cannot overstate the importance of our common support to each other. Both, when we were climbing last steps tied together, but also when we’re preparing for the trip.
You really need to trust people you'll depend on in difficult situations. And you need to build this trust before these situation came up, not when they show up. Spent time setting ground rules and expectations. Get to know each other. Learn to work (or climb together). Know your speed and comfort zones. Build relationship. Make sure you know your strengths and weaknesses.

2. It’s not about fastest team members

When the whole group climbs or descends together guides must make sure that the speed is right for the whole group, not just himself. If he go too fast, then people will became exhausted too soon and will not make it to the top. If he go too slowly, then the whole trip will take more time and group will become more tired too. However, different people can travel with different velocity depending on surface, slope, altitude (as reaction to reduced oxygen), direction (if we go down or up), or the length of the trip (as some get tired faster). Therefore, there’s no one ‘weakest’ or ‘strongest’ team member. I was almost dying when we were climbing the last 100 meters, but feel pretty well during our descend, when other team members almost fell asleep from exhaustion.
If we want to climb (or work) together, we need to understand what is realistic speed for each of team member.    You need to set up realistic velocity, or you’ll risk people’s burnout. On the other hand, if you move too slow, then people became bored. Make sure the speed is right for everyone, not just for the leader.

3. Remember that you need to get back

Getting to the top is one thing, however most accidents happens during way back. In our group several people slip on the ice during descend. After eleven hours of walk we were tripping over more often. Trust me, it’s no fun when you do it in crampons.
It’s one thing for your team to deliver. The other is to maintain your product for the next decade or so. I’ve seen many product failing because there was no way to develop it any further. Make sure that you plan for both development and maintenance.

4. Prepare well

Hardly no one can reach Mt. Kazbek without preparation. I’ve spend weeks getting fit and working with personal coach to strengthen my muscles and build my stamina. However in our work we often forget to do workouts regularly. Climbing Mt. Kazbek is not practicing, it’s putting your experience and skills into practice. And so is creating your product. If you don’t find time to learn how to do it better, you rarely will improve your knowledge and abilities.
Learn from each other. Code together. In pairs, in groups. Organize coding dojos. Get help from coaches and experts from other teams or companies. Join conferences and courses. It should not be one-time event. Put some slack into your plans to ensure learning. Make sure you get better every day, every week, every month.

5. Leave your comfort zone

You don’t make decision about climbing to 5000m lightly. On the other hand I know that will never be able to climb seven-thousander. Kazbek was for me challenging but doable. Sweet spot between my comfort zone and unrealistic goals. It required several months of preparation, so I had to focus on this quest and prioritize this work accordingly. I knew that if I won’t try now, then I would not try ever. In the end, all hard work, strain and fatigue let me learn a lot about myself. I’ve got better understanding about my potential and my limits. Strengths and weakness. I might decide for another mountain next year, but most likely I’ll set up a new goal, a new challenge.
If you, or your team want to learn, you need to leave your comfort zone too. Only then you develop your skills and your knowledge about yourself and your environment. To set up challenging goal, start with defining specific area, such as public speaking, networking or code development. Then decide what is the best you potentially could do. And then push your target few steps from there until you’ll feel uncomfortable with it.

6. Celebrate Success and Retrospect

Climbing is not just about reaching the peak. We all knew that any of us can decide to withdraw anytime due to any reason, including altitude sickness. Getting to the top was a great success as well as getting back to base camp. It also gave me a food for thought about myself, our team and our quest.
Do you and your team find time to celebrate your successes? Do you give yourself high fives when you achieve your challenging goals? And finally, do you find time to discuss, what you’ve learned and how can this new knowledge be used in the future?

7. You need to breathe

At 5000 m there’s only 55% of the oxygen available at sea level. Which means you need to breathe very heavily. All the time. Even if you just sit down. Otherwise you immediately start to choke. From plateau (4400 m) I’d my mouth open all the time, despite strong wind and cold that were freezing my throat. Breathing was necessary to survive and good ventilation was critical on Kazbek. It’s important as well now. However it was neither a main goal for my trip nor my focus on every day. I need to breathe, so I can do other important things. Live, explore, learn and enjoy what I do.
For everyone, every team and every company, there are both challenging goals and the ‘air’ we must have to survive. Money is just one of them. If you don’t provide your company with revenue, then you’ve a problem. But focusing only on money usually will drive you away from the mission you or your group have. You need to identify, what are your dreams to chase and what’s just necessary, like an air, to survive.