Building Esprit de Corps
Wowprime Tackles Everest
At first blush, climbing up to the world’s highest mountain seems completely unrelated to a corporate performance. But when Wowprime chairman Steve Day took a team of top employees on an expedition challenging their stamina and will, what insights did they take back with them?
Wowprime Tackles EverestBy Chen Ching-yi
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 470 )
"If I ever come back here again, I’m an idiot!" Climbing to Mt. Everest Base Camp four years ago, Wowprime Corp. chairman Steve Day made himself a promise never to return.
Yet four years later, the chairman of the group best known for its Wang Steak brand decided to ignore his vow and had company executives join him in climbing the same route, heading toward a predictable rendezvous with suffering.
Standing atop the 8,848-meter peak is every alpinist’s dream, and there are two main starting points to get there. One, the North Base Camp in Tibet, is accessible by car, while the other, the South Base Camp in Nepal, can only be reached after an arduous seven-day hike. Day rejected the easy option in favor of the arduous trek on the Nepalese side of the mountain. Having already summited Taiwan’s highest peak, Mt. Jade, the Wowprime team set their sights on South Base Camp as the new goal for building the team spirit at the core of their corporate culture.
This corporate outing promising nothing but pain appeared to have little to do with the company’s performance. But when it was posted on Wowprime’s calendar last October, nine misguided executives signed on, agreeing to use their own money and vacation time to take part in this quixotic quest (with a CommonWealth Magazine reporter in tow). For this half-month challenge, they trained for six months.
This march of many long days in an unfamiliar land of cold weather and high altitude offered not only sweeping views of majestic peaks, but also unknown obstacles in abundance. Trekkers often find out for themselves what one British climber once presciently observed: "You know it’s difficult, but you don’t know until the very end just how difficult it will be!"
Step by Step, the Pain Keeps Coming
Below 4,000 feet, at altitudes comparable to Taiwan’s tallest peaks, everything still seemed easy and carefree, hardly different from hiking back home. All we had to do was control our breathing, forget about how much farther we had to go, and simply concentrate on taking one step after another. When cowbells chimed, everyone happily moved out of the way to let a group of yaks carrying heavy loads pass by, taking the opportunity to catch our breaths and appreciate the short break. Then we all continued on our trek, inhaling and exhaling, realizing that proceeding slowly but steadily was the fastest way forward.
Rest lodges often suddenly appear when not expected, giving hikers the satisfaction of thinking, "We made it so quickly?" As days become simplified into walking, eating and sleeping, happiness comes easily and time slows down with each step. The rhythms of the day are constant – afternoon tea at 4 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m., in bed at 8 p.m. The first few days of the hike prove simple and rewarding, but it’s hard not to wonder what comes next.
Stanley Tsao, the president of Wowprime hot pot restaurant brand 12 Sabu, cheerfully asked the guides on a daily basis, "The worst is already behind us, right?" But he was already prepared for the worst, carrying a copy of the Book of Changes with him to read if at some point he could not continue and had to stay put while waiting for members of the team to return. Whether it was the next steep slope that lay ahead, or the ultimate goal of Base Camp off in the faraway mists, there was no reason to think far ahead. Walking steadily toward Mt. Everest peeking out in the distance was the best approach.
The 4,000-meter Challenge
The world above 4,000 meters is unknown in Taiwan and something most of the team’s members had never experienced. Blood oxygen saturation falls gradually as one reaches higher elevations, going from percentages in the high 90s at sea level to around 80 percent above 4,000 meters. The oxygen that people normally take for granted suddenly becomes a rare commodity, and simple movements such as taking two steps or folding a sleeping bag cause shortness of breath. In this rarefied air, Earth has given way to another universe.
The many physiological effects of moving in high altitudes soon manifested themselves. Richard Shen, Wowprime’s executive director of merchandising and company iron man who swims every morning, started having headaches, while Tsao developed a stomach infection and began vomiting. Annie Yang, the president of Wowprime brand Chamonix French Style Teppanyaki, who had hiked the hills of Dakeng in the Taichung area every weekend to build her stamina, experienced digestive problems, including a bout of the "high altitude runs."
Tom Huang, the vice president of administration, saw the skin on his fingers crack and bleed after he left them exposed while taking a group photo. The cold also gave many of the trekkers runny noses and weakened their capillaries, so that they constantly blew their noses, expelling mucus mixed with blood.
Maladies of varying degrees of seriousness were already becoming commonplace, even though the group had only made it to the 4,410-meter-high village of Dingboche, nearly 1,000 meters lower in elevation than their ultimate goal. "Is the worst already behind us?"
Beyond the altitude, the cold was another hostile opponent glaring at them menacingly. On the second day in Dingboche, many members of the group cried out in amazement when they woke up to the sight of snow that had fallen the night before. So alluring was the shining snow under the sun’s rays that the team members rushed to jump in, ignoring the potential danger of snow blindness.
The good weather did not last long, however. Temperatures fell quickly and by the afternoon, snow was falling again. Though a stroll in the snow may seem romantic to some, climbing through a snowfall at above 4,000 meters turns a sappy soap opera into a slow-motion action drama, where survival is the only imperative. The group’s members were greedily inhaling air, stealing deep breath after deep breath, but their intake was barely enough for one more step.
As we worked our way up the ridge in the driving snow, the high spirits we had at first, with national and company flags held jauntily aloft, was suddenly smothered by the elements, replaced by a long silence. At the sound of cowbells, we yielded like automatons to the animals, seemingly having become docile yaks ourselves. The team trudged ahead into the wind and snow, shelter nowhere to be seen. The road that day seemed particularly long, as snowflakes heaped up in the folds of our hats and coats, a vast world of whiteness stretching out endlessly.
After ascending 500 meters in the snow, the team members finally arrived at the camp where they would spend the night, still surrounded by the bitter cold. A yak dung fire was lit, stealing away some of the precious oxygen in the air, making us dizzy, as if our heads were swelling, but there was no other way. When it came down to heat and oxygen, it was either one or the other – the team couldn’t have both. There was also a clash between stamina and appetite. High altitude tends to sap the appetite, and eating the local "dal bhat" (rice with lentils) for seven straight days began to lose its appeal, no matter how novel it seemed at first. But with a long way still to go, not eating was not an option, so the hikers forced themselves to down whatever was available, one bite at a time.
After dinner, we slipped into our sleeping bags to try to get some sleep, but with the mercury falling to 35 degrees below zero Celsius outdoors and nine below indoors – not much warmer than a freezer – falling into a deep slumber was nearly impossible.
A Test of Stamina and Determination
With an assault on the South Base Camp planned for the next day, the group still retained its optimism, as members motivated each other and comforted themselves with the old refrain, "The worst is already behind us." But everybody instinctively knew that while they had to only cover another 400 meters in altitude to reach their target, the eight-hour trek would be the toughest challenge yet.
Anybody who has made the strenuous up-and-down trek to the West Peak of Mt. Hehuan in Taiwan knows how frustrating the route can be, but compared with the climb to the South Base Camp, it is nothing less than paradise.
The route’s successive slopes tested every individual’s patience and stamina. There was no rush to excitement at the sight of a descent, because that usually meant an even steeper climb was just ahead. Hopes would mount during each ascent that the rest stop would be waiting at the top, only to be rudely dashed. Just as with the trail’s ascents and descents, hope and disappointment were also constant companions. At times, the tops of the yellow and green tents at Base Camp were tantalizingly visible in the distance, but still seemingly unreachable.
But while each person’s self-determination was challenged in the final stage, it ultimately never wavered.
"In any case, if we push forward we can get there," said Yang, putting into words what everybody was thinking.
The mountain guides who led the group said only 65 percent of those who try it complete the climb to the South Base Camp. Altitude sickness, or a lack of stamina or determination, can derail people from getting close to the starting point of their dreams.
After the one-week trek during which the team’s members overcame the weather, the altitude and other obstacles, their will finally conquered the challenge presented by nature. On April 5, 2011, the Wowprime team reached the 5,364-meter-high South Base Camp, completing its "crazy" mission.
New Management Models?
The challenging itinerary was like a video game where monsters have to be overcome one level at a time. Every obstacle represented a completely new experience, and members of the Wowprime group were affected in various ways by their many tribulations and challenges at different times and different places.
12 Sabu’s Tsao, inspired by the way the Nepalese seemed to "defy gravity," has started to reconsider the possibility of a more "go-with-the-flow" management style, while the management department’s Huang became aware of "the spirit of the yak," which can always find its way on its own.
As for Yang, she discovered, "As long as the goal is clear and consistent, and people move forward with one mind, the goal will be achieved."
Wowprime chairman Day, who initiated the testing trek, was both team leader and chief cheerleader. At times when everybody was exhausted, he would join the local porters in belting out Nepalese songs, dancing along to raise the group’s morale.
"For a CEO, incompetence can be a virtue. As long as you set goals and offer encouragement at the right times, you can succeed," Day says, poking fun at himself.
Day took his colleagues out of their comfort zones, and personally led them on a trying march from which they would hopefully emerge stronger. And this year’s trek was just the beginning, because Wowprime expects to repeat the journey to the Mt. Everest Base Camp with a new group of employees on an annual basis.
For the members of the team, gaining a sense of accomplishment by relying on their own feet, determination, effort and perseverance to ultimately achieve the goal was a moment of glory that money could not buy. Thinking back on the experience during the trek down the mountain, the journey’s hardships appeared as small snapshots from along the way that captured the memories and beauty that the wondrous mountain had left behind.
Reporter’s Postscript:Insignificance in the Face of the Extreme
"Is it okay if we send you to the Himalayas?" That was the strange question the boss asked me as soon as I entered the office one morning at the end of February. It may have been phrased like a question, but, in fact, it was an order.
"Oh. Okay," I answered without hesitation. A month later with a 60-liter backpack on my shoulders, I bit the bullet, apprehensive but still ready to follow the Wowprime team to Nepal.
In fact, it was not "too" tough. Aside from being constantly on the go, we could not bathe for seven straight days and every bite of food left us gasping for air. Just being able to eat instant noodles from Taiwan left me with tears of emotion. I blew my nose to the point of bursting capillaries, climbed to the point of wanting to die I was so out of breath, constantly battled diarrhea, and froze to the point of swearing, cursing myself for agreeing to endure such hardship. Taking diuretics to prevent altitude sickness forced us out of our sleeping bags in bitter cold to urinate. But aside from that, it really wasn’t too tough.
When we arrived at the South Base Camp, snowflakes were still floating in the air. From there, another month is needed to scale the world’s highest peak. I tilted my head up to peer at the great mountain that has stood there for millions of years. All that was left in the world at that moment was my breathing and me. Our long, arduous journey through nature ended in an encounter with simplicity, and maybe that’s ultimately why people keep coming here year after year.
Originally, I thought the meaning of the trip was conquest. But at that moment what I discovered, after pushing the limits, was the insignificant size of myself. As I looked up toward Mt. Everest, the mountain god quietly looked back with a cryptic smile.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier