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Former executive's Everest trek yields a mountain of life lessons

The Right Mountain:

Lessons From Everest on the Real Meaning of Success

By Jim Hayhurst, Sr.

(John Wiley & Sons, $24.95)


Frozen with fear, James Hayhurst stood only 20 feet from his son Jim, who was about to slip over the edge of a 1,000-foot waterfall.

Hayhurst and his son were members of a Canadian team attempting in 1988 to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Just before its ascent of Mount Everest, the team was making final preparations near Kathmandu, Nepal.

Jim was crossing a river when he fell into the rapidly moving water. Tumbling toward the waterfall's edge, he got a momentary reprieve when he snagged on a rock.

Hayhurst could not help his son. "If I started toward him, I might dislodge another rock, I might change the direction or pressure of the water and he might slip off the rock that was holding him above the waterfall," Hayhurst writes in The Right Mountain, a book that is one part an adventure story and one part a guidebook to life.

Jim crawled to a group of rocks and yelled for someone to throw him a rope. Hayhurst first intended to toss the rope himself, but wisely deferred to a more experienced team member, who lassoed Jim and pulled him out of the river.

Hayhurst learned a valuable lesson about tempering the desire for control. "Even though you're the boss, or the parent, someone else may be more capable," he writes. "Don't try to be a hero. Let the most competent person do what has to be done."

The book offers many such lessons. Hayhurst, a former ad executive and chairman of Outward Bound Canada, views the Everest expedition as a metaphor for the kind of living that blends action with introspection.

Proper training and preparation, for instance, were crucial for an expedition of this scale. Hayhurst, 47 at the time, found the running, biking and hiking daunting.

Faced with a 120-mile warmup hike, Hayhurst doubted he could complete the trip. Then he decided to break down the hike into smaller, more manageable, sections. The idea worked: He completed the hike and was ready for Everest.

"When faced with an overwhelming challenge, don't back away," Hayhurst writes. "Try to break it down into a series of smaller achievable challenges. And do it, one step at a time."

Shortly after establishing a base camp on Everest, Hayhurst learned that a member of a nearby French team had died of cerebral edema, an often fatal condition brought on by lack of oxygen.

The French team member did not have enough experience climbing at such altitudes; Everest was not the right mountain for this person, the book says.

"The enormity of my realization hit me," Hayhurst writes. "It made sense. Knowing who you are, knowing how you operate, your skills, and comparing them with the challenge at hand can save your life."

After repeated attempts by the team to scale the summit, exhaustion set in. The group did not make it to the top of Everest.

But Hayhurst believes the trip was a success _ and that he chose the right mountain _ because he learned so much about his own values, abilities and limitations in taking the journey.

"Our society says you have to keep climbing up, up the hierarchal ladder to the top to be successful," he writes. "We shouldn't let bosses or society or peers push us into something that isn't a good match, a good fit, for our skills, our interests, and our values."

_ George L. Fleming is a Times correspondent.