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How to take risks in business and expeditions without fearing failure: Seven rules from Hongkonger who's scaled the Seven Summits

Maths whiz, mountaineer and entrepreneur Paul Niel - conqueror of highest peaks on seven continents - on how to take calculated risks in expeditions and business, the value of failure, and why he’s not planning to return to Everest any time soon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 4:27pm

Hong Kong-based adventurer, mountaineer and entrepreneur Paul Niel has been climbing mountains since before he could walk. His father was a mountain guide and mother a ski instructor, so he spent the first year of his life being carried up mountains on his father’s back.

“It took me around 15 years of my walking life to climb as many mountains as I climbed in that first year and a half in my dad’s backpack,” says Niel, who hails from a small village in lower Austria.

He’s since scaled the Seven Summits – the highest of each of the world’s continents – including back to back ascents of two peaks over 8,000 metres (Mount Everest & Lhotse).

Niel, also a speaker and social entrepreneur who has worked with various charities in Hong Kong, Nepal and Kenya, studied statistics in Vienna and Sydney. “I’m a very analytical person. My background in mathematics has really shaped the way I approach adventures,” he says. “As a statician I like to structure things, weigh off certain odds – and that plays a big role in risk management for expeditions.”

Take it one step at a time

“If you have a goal of climbing something, go about it step by step; climb something lower.

It was never my dream to climb the summits. It started with one...then another. By the time I’d done three or four and people started asking me, ‘are you going for the Seven Summits?’ I’d say, ‘No, not really.’ But you know how it is, it starts you thinking.

Build a strong team around you

It’s always great during expeditions, when you hit a low point or are in an extreme situation, to have people around you that you can trust, have an understanding with. It makes it a totally different experience.

Learn to manage risk

There are subjective risks, and objective risks. Subjective risks are things you can control, train, mentally prepare yourself for. Objective risks – such as rock falls, weather – are out of my control, so all I can do is manage them. If there’s a massive snowfall I know not go out on the slopes because there’s a high avalanche rate. So, the more experience and knowledge you have, the better your judgement.

Always do a postmortem

People often ask if I can apply the risk management learned from climbing high mountains to the financial market. I think so. When you’re climbing, you’re playing with your life, on the market you’re playing with money. With climbing you definitely have to be on the more conservative side.

It’s a constant learning process. After each expedition I write a postmortem: what went wrong? Is it the equipment that could be better? You can learn from other people’s mistakes as well. The same applies in business; when you learn where other peoples’ businesses failed, you’re already one step ahead.

Know your limits

I once turned around three hours before reaching Everest’s summit. The people who walked on lost several fingers off their hands. That was a price I didn’t want to pay – everyone has to judge for themselves. Determine ahead when would be the time for you to turn back.

The time I did Everest and Lhotse back to back, I lost about 7 kilos in four days. One climber passed out from altitude sickness at 8,000 metres. We tried to give him first aid but it was a lost cause. A proper man takes about 10 people to carry at this altitude...I could barely carry myself. We tried so hard to get him up but we were hopeless.

A helicopter tried to circle in but couldn’t. Over the radio the expedition leader pleaded with me to come down, saying otherwise I’d be next. I was so caught up on helping this person I didn’t realise I also needed to help myself.

The joy of climbing those two wonderful mountains mixed with not being able to help that man made for an emotional roller coaster that was one of the toughest things I’ve ever experienced.

Enjoy the climb

On mountains like these quite a few people don’t turn around when it’s time to, because they’ve trained a long time, they’ve spent a lot of money on permits. Remember, the mountain stays there; you can come back another time.

For me, if you embark on an expedition just because you want to reach the summit, you’re missing the main point of being out there in the first place.

It’s the whole experience that I enjoy. I know not everyone considers camping in minus 10 degrees on a snowy mountain a holiday, but for me it’s a way to distance myself from our very much connected world.

Look for less trodden paths

People ask me, would you go back to Everest? Probably not. I don’t think it’s the right risk to take right now – especially as we’re expecting a baby. It also includes quite a lot of human risk now. You climb up a rock face and suddenly someone shouts ‘rock!’, and it turns out to be a water bottle that somebody above has dropped. A filled 1kg water bottle falling 200 metres is like a bomb. Do I really want to expose myself to that?

Instead we’re going to the Gangga mountain range in Tibet. We’re going to shoot a documentary about us, a team of amateur adventurers trying to climb a sort of ‘anti-Everest’; a pure adventure. It’s like how people 100 years ago ventured out and explored. We don’t know how we’ll get up this 5,429-metre peak: there are no paths, there are no maps, no sherpas.

It’s not as headline-grabbing as Everest, but it’s much more interesting to the explorer in me. And I don’t think we’re going to have anyone kicking rocks on us, as we’ll be the first people to venture up this mountain.

Now’s the time for something different and, fingers crossed, finding out what kind of adventures we can get up to with a newborn on our backs!”