If you're hiking up to Sunset Rock and it starts to rain, it's usually an easy decision to hustle back down. Your biggest worry might be tracking mud from your soggy Merrells into your Subaru.
And if you're 25,000 feet up on one of the world's deadliest mountains when a storm rolls in, the safe decision might seem even more clear. That is, unless you consider the $250,000 your team raised for the expedition, the two years of planning and the dogged determination that put you up there in the first place.
Under those circumstances in 1987 - 4,000 feet from the top of Mount Everest - climber Stacy Allison learned a lot about herself, mountaineering and life.
"You have to be patient to climb big mountains. You can always come back. The mountain will always be there," says Allison, who will speak in Chattanooga on Feb. 23. "I've just seen it too many times where people aren't patient and plow through and never come back."
Allison, who the next year became the first North American woman to climb Everest, and her team had "crystal clear" weather early one day during their assault on the summit. But within 20 minutes, clouds rolled in from the Nepal side of the mountain and the concerned team descended to a snow cave at 23,500 feet.
For three days they waited as 100-mile-per hour winds ravaged the snow and ice, twisting anchored aluminum climbing spikes "like licorice whips." "We tried. We stayed on that mountain just as long as we could," Allison remembers.
"We were getting weaker and weaker."
Then, one of the other climbers turned to her and said "If I don't go down now, I'm not going to make it off this mountain."
"He spoke what we did not have the courage to speak," she says.
The team decided to turn back.
And though Allison calls it one of the toughest decisions she's ever made, she says it was the right call. "It takes strength and courage to climb a mountain," she says. "It takes strength, courage and wisdom to turn around."
Armed with that wisdom she summited the peak in 1988, becoming somewhat of a celebrity. She's appeared on Good Morning America, Late Night with David Letterman and in Nike commercials. She's runs a successful home-building business, is the author of motivational books and does speaking engagements around the country.
Virginia Anne Sharber, outgoing president of the Women's Leadership Institute which is bringing the mountaineer to the Chattanooga Convention Center, says Allison is a perfect speaker because she exemplifies everything the group advocates. "She has been able to transfer the skills she learned mountain climbing and become a successful businesswoman," Sharber says.
But while Everest made her famous, some climbers point to her other ascents as being even more impressive. She was on the first women's team to climb 22,495-foot Ama Dablam in the Himalayas. She was the first American woman to climb Pik Communism, a 24,600-foot Russian peak. She reached the top of Alaska's Mount McKinley via the Cassin Ridge route, which climbers regard as one of the biggest challenges in the world.
"Her resume's pretty impressive," says Scott Graham, a Chattanoogan who became the first Tennessean to summit Everest in 2004. Like Allison, he also sees plenty of places where life on the mountains teaches lessons that apply at sea level.
"It's all the same stuff isn't it?" Graham asks. "You have to have a well thought out plan, you have to execute your plan and you have to know when to modify your plan."
Plans, patience, leadership and teamwork will all be things Allison discusses on her first visit to the Scenic City, but she says she's also going to encourage attendees to not always go by the book. "If we don't take risks and just live in our comfort zone, we'll never know what we're capable of," she explains.
She's taken a break from some of those risks on the biggest mountains while her children were young. But now, both are in high school and once they're on their own, Allison says she may head back to the mountains. "If I'm in good shape, there's no reason why I couldn't go back."
As she says, the mountains will always be there.
HOW TO CLIMB A BIG MOUNTAIN (of any kind)
Don't feel forced forward by schedules or pressure from others or yourself. Waiting out a storm can save lives. "If you see yourself as trying to beat the mountain, eventually the mountain will win," Allison says. "You don't conquer mountains, you cooperate with them."
Know the Risks
Mountaineering takes its toll and Allison knows firsthand from friends who never made it off mountains. "I jokingly tell people I don't have any friends left," she says.
Take One Step at a Time
Allison recalls instances where she had to cross deadly crevasses on rickety ladders lashed together. Had she focused on the entire route at once, she might not have been able to make it. "That big picture is overwhelming and you have to break it down, look at the small picture one step at a time," she says. "After you get across that ladder, then you can look at the big picture again."
Be A Leader ...
"Leaders sometimes get caught up in power. As leaders we really need to understand it's not about us, it's about our team members," Allison says. "We are the leader because they are allowing us to be that leader."
... But Also Be A Team Player
Being part of a team can mean following as well as leading. Build trust and respect amongst your team. "It's not up to anybody else to get along. It's up to you to get along," she says.