Ellen Lapham Entrepreneur, CEO and Executive Coach
During the lowest point in her life, Ellen spent a night alone in an ice cave on the highest mountain in the world. Heading down the slope the next morning in a raging blizzard, she had an epiphany: true success isn’t always about how high you can go.
I’ve always known that I was born to climb. As a little child, I loved to climb anything vertical including stairs and trees. Growing up in the flat Midwest, there weren’t any big hills. No one in my family had ever climbed a mountain. Still, a passion for climbing was inside of me from the get-go, and I was always looking up to see how high I could reach.
One cold wintry night, during the lowest point in my life, I slept in an ice cave on a shoulder of the highest mountain in the world. My business was not where I wanted it to be; as a mother I felt estranged from my son during his teenage years, and I was grieving the loss of both my parents. Filled with self-doubt, I wondered if there was anything that I could do well.
People said I was crazy to join an expedition to put the first American woman on the summit of Mount Everest. In some ways, they were right. I had climbed mountains in Asia before, but never anything as high and as dangerous as a Fall season climb on the North side. This was not a “guided” climb, so I had to be self-reliant and really know what I was doing. But it was exciting to think that I could play a role in proving to the world that an American woman could take on something as big as Everest and succeed.
Climbing up the west ridge of Mount Everest earlier that day was particularly challenging due to the high altitude, low oxygen, and ferocious winds. My throat hurt, my eyes burned, and every muscle in my body ached from carrying my 40-pound pack. After taking a few steps forward, my five-foot-two-and-a-half inch frame was repeatedly slammed to the ground. At seven thousand meters (23,000 feet) my Sherpa teammates decided to return to base camp, but I was too worn out to take another step. So, I decided to spend the night alone and return in the morning.
Outside the cave, the wind was howling and snow was falling. Inside, I struggled to stay warm and got up every hour to make sure the entrance tunnel was still open. It’s possible to suffocate in an ice cave blocked by snow. At sunrise I awoke to a spectacular heart-stopping view of northern Tibet’s snow-covered mountain peaks and the snaky Rongbuk Glacier way below. I remember feeling so serene, proud that I had actually done something quite remarkable! What I didn’t know was that the true test of my ability was only a moment away.
Making radio contact with base camp, I learned that a blizzard was headed in our direction. I packed my gear and started down the mountain, but in a matter of minutes, I was in a total whiteout. I tried to stay on the route we had taken on the way up, but even the most experienced climbers can get lost and become disoriented in a blinding snowstorm.
Descending Mount Everest proved to be harder than climbing up, and without my team, I had to totally rely on myself. I had no idea if I could even make it to base camp alive. But something inside pushed me forward saying, “Stay calm and focused. Give it everything you’ve got. You have pulled through difficult situations before.” It suddenly hit me that life had been preparing me for this daunting challenge for a very long time.
I knew there were deep crevasses underneath the snow, and in the blink of an eye, I could disappear without a trace. I thought about a particular saying among climbers—“The Mountain will decide.” The only thing I could do was just put one foot in front of the other, step by step. Ten hours later, nearly frozen to death, I reached the safety of base camp—all on my own!
For me, climbing has always been less a public performance and more of an internal endeavor. But now I can see that I learned more about myself on the way down the mountain than I ever learned climbing up. I didn’t really have a choice that day, and I did what I had to do, but succeeding on my own in the face of tremendous adversity gave me my self-confidence back!
I realized that success isn’t always about how high you can go. Sometimes, it’s having the courage to just stay calm and focused during the dark hours of life, putting your best foot forward and giving it everything you’ve got—one little step at a time. There will always be days when it’s enough to just wake up and show up! No one can stand on the top of a summit for very long before having to come back down to reality again.
Climbing will always be one of my greatest passions, and I’ll never stop trying to reach as high as I possibly can. After all, there will always be another mountain to conquer in the remarkable journey that is life.
Ellen Lapham is a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and turn-around CEO for high tech, high goal companies. Her executive coaching helps entrepreneurial women overcome roadblocks to success. Her community work focuses on two themes: the mountain environment and the status of women. Ellen is a member of the International Women’s Forum and was a C-200 Foundation director. A director of the American Alpine Club, in 2011 she co-led a scientific expedition to Peru’s high Cordillera Blanca.