Tech professionals gravitate toward high-altitude mountaineering

The slow slog through thin air atop a glacier-capped Himalayan peak is about the farthest you can get from Silicon Valley's fast-paced tech world, where digital screens are often the only view and the instruments for survival are lines of code.

And yet there is a small but determined band of tech workers who oscillate between the two worlds, spending one month hunched over computers and the next strapping on crampons and gaiters for a 20,000-foot ascent. Google engineer Dan Fredinburg, 33, who died last month on Mount Everest in the avalanche triggered by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal and killed more than 8,000 others, was a member of this community of tech professionals who take weeks or months off their jobs to bag some of the world's tallest peaks. Fredinburg was joined on Everest by three other Google employees who survived.

"There are lots of people in tech who are drawn to mountains, and have the disposable income needed to go on a commercial Everest expedition," said Richard Bothwell, program director and guide at the Outdoor Adventure Club in San Francisco. "To some tech workers, climbing mountains is a true passion. To others, it's the next trophy in their life; the next story to impress their friends."

In many ways, the overlap between the Himalayas and Silicon Valley makes sense, say expedition leaders: Tech workers can be meticulous people who like problem-solving, and few activities require these skills more than high-altitude climbing. Many ambitious tech workers have lists of the tallest peaks to conquer, their quest to "win" on the mountain drawn from working in the highly competitive tech industry, and their desire to share their stories of triumph fitting nicely within the self-celebrating Silicon Valley culture.

"My fear of failure is pretty strong. I live to win," said Neal Mueller, 37, who works at Mountain View startup Shape Security and who climbed Everest in 2005 without a guide and has climbed the highest mountain of each of the seven continents. "I want to do something that everyone can win at. It's not like a game of tennis where one person wins and the other person loses. ... On the mountain, everyone can win."

Except sometimes, the mountain wins. At least 19 people were killed in the avalanche triggered by last month's earthquake.

There's no one reason among climbers for taking the risks that they do, say longtime climbing leaders. Some want the badge of Everest; others prefer to find paths less traveled, reveling in the quiet vastness of the mountains. Then there are those who see mountaineering as an expression of spiritual devotion, while others crave the adventure and physical challenge it presents.

For Fredinburg, the Himalayas offered a place where he could couple his love for the extreme outdoors with tech innovation. He and fellow Googlers had trekked on famous peaks from Nepal to Argentina as part of a project to map the world's tallest mountains.

There's no data to suggest tech professionals climb any more than teachers, mechanics, pharmacists, writers, nonprofit workers, doctors and mothers. But, there is a unique aptitude within the tech industry for high-altitude mountaineering, say expedition leaders.

"There's a lot of people in America who are wealthy enough to put out the $55,000 or $75,000 to climb Everest today, but the tech industry does have that interesting combination of being young enough to endure the pain and wealthy enough," said Phil Powers, chief executive of the Colorado-based American Alpine Club.

There's also a personality type that's attracted to both building tech and climbing big mountains: one that likes challenges and has an appetite for testing the unknown. For some, it offers a comfortable level of calculated risk-taking in the name of accomplishing something bigger than yourself.

"What helps on the mountain is an entrepreneurial spirit," said Michal Skiba, 29, of San Jose, who works for Cisco and has completed four Himalayan expeditions. "You've got to have a lot of conviction in what you're doing."

Earning a salary helps, too. Any mountain over 20,000 feet is likely going to carry a big price tag - at least $8,000 to north of $60,000, climbers say - because climbers need to carry more supplies and pay more porters.

"Having a decent job in Silicon Valley where everyone is overpaid is good, it does enable me to do it," said Arun Mahajan, 52, a software engineer who began climbing 20 years ago. "I have a mortgage to pay. Having that cushion definitely helps."

One challenge is finding the time to train for expeditions and then taking sometimes months off work.

"I have walked away from jobs before and mountaineering was a factor in that," said Ted Hesser, 29, a San Francisco climber who works in clean tech. But in an age of fierce competition for talent, climbers say, more big tech companies are emphasizing work-life balance, such as offering exercise classes and on-site day care, and sometimes long sabbaticals for mountaineers.

Within the tech community, there are two types of mountaineers: those who sign up with a pricey guiding service to climb the world's best-known peaks, and those who choose to trailblaze new traverses.

Mahajan, of Palo Alto, in 2011 summited three previously unexplored peaks in the Indian Himalayas, and named them "the Sisters."

"To me, it's all about the adventure," he said.

But more common among professionals is the guided Everest climb.

"There are people who want to accomplish certain things not because they are climbers but because this is the biggest and the best, and they want to get it done," Powers said.

The number of wealthy adventure seekers climbing big peaks because they can afford the expense of an Everest victory worries longtime mountaineers, who say Everest is already over-climbed by novices who aren't invested in the mountain or the Sherpas who make a living there.

And the recent earthquake and avalanche is unlikely to deter any of them.

Powers said: "The cocktail party story is even better if you went in the year following ... disaster."


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