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Mountaineering and business success may seem worlds apart, but striking similarities can be drawn between the two. To reach the pinnacle, both demand perseverance, determination, planning, risk management and training. Teamwork, effective leadership and personal accountability are equally critical on the mountain and in the workplace. The key difference is that poor business decisions rarely carry lethal consequences.
Few people in the plumbing and HVAC industry are uniquely positioned to make these comparisons as Taylor Grist, director, sales operations and national sales manager at Watts Water Technologies, who summited Mount Everest at 8:33 a.m. on May 17, 2023.
“You don’t graduate from tech school and immediately become head of a commercial plumbing division,” Grist says. “And you don’t go on your first four-mile hike then climb Everest the following week.”
Grist’s journey to the top of Everest (29,032 feet above sea level) began as a child. He’s an Eagle Scout, grew up outdoors and began climbing 20 years ago. He’s scaled Mount Washington in winter and attempted to climb Mount Rainier three times, though the peak still eludes him. He’s stood atop Aconcagua (22,837 feet), Illimani (21,122 feet), Denali (20,310 feet), Huayna Potosi (19,974 feet), Cotopaxi (19,347 feet), Cayambe (18,996 feet), Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet), Iztaccihuatl (17,159 feet), and was rebuffed by avalanche conditions near the summit of Chimborazo (20,548 feet).
While alluring, Everest had never been on Grist’s bucket list, mainly because of the time commitment that is required. The average Everest expedition takes two months. Years of preparation and long hours of training are necessary.
“My job requires me to spend about 70 percent of my time on the road,” Grist adds. “It’s extremely difficult to dedicate the time needed to physically prepare for Everest if you have a ‘normal’ job. But COVID changed everything. The pandemic halted my work travel.”
Grist’s wife, Lindsay, pointed out that during the pandemic, he’d have the flexibility to train for Everest.
“I was only half convinced, but I asked my boss [Senior Vice President of Sales], Andrew Windsor, and he encouraged me to pursue it,” Grist adds. “In fact, the two of them became my loudest cheerleaders.”
Grist found a trainer and began the most grueling exercise regimen of his life before travelling to Everest in 2021. After 50-plus days on the mountain, their summit attempt was cancelled due to sickness that moved through his Sherpa team. He returned home unsuccessfully, but he’d gained valuable Himalayan experience for another attempt in the future.
“Lindsay and Andrew wanted me to give it another attempt,” Grist adds. “I made a commitment to take a year off from climbing. Leaving my family and work team weighed heavily on me. When an opportunity presented itself for the 2023 season, I knew I’d have to redouble my training efforts, considering that work was back to normal.”
Training For Success
The upper portion of Everest lies within the “Death Zone,” which is generally considered to include elevations above 26,000 feet. Air on the summit of Everest contains roughly one-third the oxygen available at sea level.
Within the Death Zone, the human body slowly begins to die, regardless of precautions taken or the use of supplemental oxygen. Hypothermia, cerebral edema and pulmonary edema can take a life very quickly, as can any hypoxia- and fatigue-induced mistake.
“Margins for error are nonexistent and your brain doesn’t function properly,” Grist explains. “You can hardly breathe, your hands don’t work, and decisions are extremely difficult at a time when being decisive is critical.”
The only way to survive the mountain is to move quickly and efficiently. That requires physical endurance and technical skills training.
“Before both of my Everest trips, I did everything I could to further develop my ‘bag of tools,’” Grist adds. “For example, I spent time ice climbing in New England to increase my technical climbing skill. One of my responsibilities at Watts consists of bringing customers in for training, and I’ve seen time and again how training translates to success in their businesses. It’s no different on the mountain.”
Grist leads a team in charge of perfecting the Watts training experience for end-users, contractors, engineers, sales reps and wholesalers. When a group of contractors or engineers have been equipped with the product knowledge to provide solutions at any facility in North America, Watts achieves success. That training may take place online or at one of Watts’ many learning centers.
“Our headquarters in North Andover, Massachusetts, can host training on all products,” Grist says. “There we have wet labs for backflow and PRV training, IntelliStation DHW mixing stations, drains and more. Our Woodland, California, facility focuses on Ames fire protection, backflow, control valves, etc. In St. Pauls, North Carolina, we cover Orion product, drains, rainwater harvesting and Mueller Steam valves. At the Fort Worth, Texas learning center, training revolves around PVI water heaters and BLÜCHER stainless pipe and fittings.”
“Training provides better understanding of a product or a solution, allowing you to solve a problem,” Grist continues. “It gives you the tools to accomplish a task. Adding more tools to your toolbox creates efficiency. Without training, you’re at an extreme disadvantage. In business, this means lower profit. On the mountain, it could be the difference between life and death.”
Having decided to make another Everest attempt, Grist spent 2022 and early 2023 juggling work and training with his friend, trainer, and guide Mark Postle at Evoke Endurance. Weighted hikes filled the time between work hours, and quick summits of Grand Teton and Aconcagua refreshed his alpine skills.
Back To Kathmandu
More fit, better prepared, and as excited as ever, Grist flew back to Kathmandu, Nepal with a small, elite team of mountaineers in late-March and made the 15-day trek from Lukla, Nepal, to Everest Base Camp.
Along with his guide, Naren Thakuri, Grist made a seven-day acclimatization rotation climb from Base Camp to the base of Camp 3, crossing the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. Here, in the deadliest segment of the climb, Grist had a brush with death.
“As I was jumping over a three-foot wide crevasse between Camp 1 and 2, a lip on the edge of the chasm broke and I fell in,” he says. “During the time it took three people to pull me out by my rope, I recall looking down, unable to see the bottom of the crevasse.sThe crack in the glacier just disappeared out of sight.”
After reaching the base of Camp 3 and returning to base camp, they waited for a good weather window and made their summit bid. The trip back up to Camp 3 went as well as any Everest ascent can. The weather was not ideal, and the altitude began taking its toll.
“After a fitful night at Camp 3 (23,500 feet), we pushed up to Camp 4 (26,000 feet), now breathing the compressed oxygen that we’re so careful to conserve,” Grist says. “Every ounce you’re carrying feels like a pound. At this point, you’re dehydrated, malnourished and sleep deprived.”
Into The Death Zone
The team arrived at the inhospitable wasteland of Camp 4. Destroyed tents were strewn everywhere. The weather was uncertain, and they were lower on bottled oxygen than they’d planned to be.
“Most teams rest at Camp 4,” Grist explains. “We removed as much weight from our packs as possible, took a two-hour break and made our summit push to beat the growing crowd of climbers. It became shockingly apparent that many of the people on the mountain were totally out of their element. That spelled danger for everyone.”
As Grist’s team ascended the mountain for torturous hours, they came upon groups of slower climbers. Each time, they risked unclipping from the fixed ropes to move around the large groups. One slip in this situation could be fatal.
“The skill of my guides gave me the confidence to make such a bold move,” Grist says. “Eventually, we reached ‘The Balcony’ (28,700 feet), where the wind began to pick up and the temperature plunged.
As the team moved from the Balcony to the South Summit (28,704 feet) in the dark, Grist’s hands grew so cold that he was at high risk of frostbite. He traded his gloves for mitts, which offer better insulation at the cost of dexterity, increasing the likelihood of making a fatal error. Then, the drain on his oxygen mask froze, making it impossible to breathe. He exchanged masks. Looking below, all he could see was a long line of headlamps ascending the mountain.
After passing the South Summit, the only thing standing between Grist and the summit was the Hillary Step (28,839 feet), a technical rock feature with extremely high consequences for the smallest slip. Dawn was breaking and Grist took an awestruck moment to witness the sun rising and the curvature of the earth. That euphoric moment was shattered when one of his Sherpa guides insisted the team move faster. In his hypoxic state, Grist had hardly noticed the growing crowd of climbers.
“I looked around at the other people at the Hillary Step,” Grist adds. “You could see the absolute fear in their eyes. Many of the climbers were too scared, too cold or too tired to move. Above Camp 4 there’s very little humanity. It’s dog-eat-dog in the Death Zone. Everyone is just trying to survive.”
Summoning the energy for one final push, Grist’s team summited Everest. They remained on top for 15 minutes, giving him enough time to unfurl the Watts flag for a photo before heading back down.
What Goes Up …
“Going up is hard, but going down is harder,” Grist adds. “Most fatalities occur on the descent because climbers are utterly depleted. We passed one fatality and met another climber who was out of oxygen. We gave him one of our mostly depleted bottles, then passed another climber who was so delirious that he couldn’t operate his belay device, so he was stuck to the fixed rope, further congesting the route.”
By the time the team made Camp 4, they’d been awake for 72 hours. They slept for 14 hours before embarking on the final two-day descent. They were back in Kathmandu on May 19th, gorging on sushi and celebrating. Grist had lost 15 pounds.
“This was the worst season for deaths in Everest climbing history,” Grist says. “Seventeen people died; 10 of those bodies were never recovered. No doubt some of those casualties were the result of a record cold year. It was the coldest May on Everest in 30 years.”
Each time the climbing season on Everest has had high fatalities, like in 1996 and 2014, poor planning and disorganization were contributing factors. This season was no exception.
“It’s hard to explain to someone that’s never been involved with an alpine ascent,” Grist adds. “The human body doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. You can barely digest food. You’re not thirsty, yet you’re dehydrated. Small, seemingly insignificant problems compound and spin wildly out of control, creating a deadly snowball effect. Preparation and teamwork are so critical.”
Only As A Team
“I succeeded on Everest thanks to my two support teams,” Grist says. “First, my trainer, guides and Sherpas. Second, my family and my work team.”
Grist has been in the industry for 25 years, 18 of which have been at Watts. Grist places great emphasis on empowering those that report to him. That alone created an atmosphere where he could pursue something as daunting as Everest.
“Whether you’re an individual or a manager, set yourself up for success by empowering others,” Grist says. “My team executes flawlessly in my absence. I can’t be at every meeting, and they don’t need me to be. The support given to me by my superiors and the initiative taken by my direct reports are more than anyone could hope for.”
Giant mountains and human struggle have a way of changing a person, and Grist was no exception. He can identify two distinct patterns.
“I was immersed in Buddhist culture for two months for the second time,” Grist explains. “That culture, displayed by the guides, Sherpas and porters I lived with, is incredibly generous. I’ve spent long hours contemplating how I can give back in my personal and professional life. I’m actively trying to help others reach their goals. I’m now more concerned about the goals of others, and less about my own.”
“Living in fight-or-flight mode for two months has an impact on you,” Grist continues. “It changes the way you approach decision-making. On Everest, climbers are concerned about survival. All your decisions carry potentially lethal consequences. You get comfortable being uncomfortable. Challenge and risk cause personal growth. Ordinary decisions are simplified because they’re not life threatening.”
Grist says that when he’s on the mountain, he disconnects and reflects, completely present in his surroundings. He becomes a more peaceful person. Most notably, he realizes how many distractions we have in our everyday lives.
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that our lives are so congested,” he explains. “We need to be more present. To untangle ourselves from the distractions and really try to prioritize. That’s made me a better listener and a better person.”