Leadership Lessons from an Avalanche Survivor

Ken Wylie has literally been to the abyss and back. On a cold January day in 2003, as an assistant mountain guide, Wylie watched his boss, the legendary Swiss-born guide Ruedi Beglinger, ascend a steep face on Tumbledown Mountain in the Selkirk Range north of Revelstoke. Beglinger led one group of ski mountaineering clients; Wylie followed not far behind with the second group. Yet his instinct told him something wasn’t right.

The slope was steep and pocked with rock outcrops that conduct cold and weaken the snowpack. Too many skiers loaded the slope, exposing the entire group to the risk of avalanche. And there was that lingering weak layer in the snow dating back to November that twisted Wylie’s gut into nervous knots. But rather than listen to his inner voice, Wylie dutifully followed Beglinger, who he saw as strong willed and often autocratic.

Minutes later hell broke loose. A skier in the first group triggered a slide and the mountain moved. Wylie’s survival instincts kicked in as he ejected from his ski bindings and swam to stay atop the moving snow, watching as some of the clients below him were swallowed in a wall of white. When the movement stopped he was buried to the waist and facing downhill.

Then suddenly a second wave of snow hit and there was blackness. Thirty minutes passed before a rescuer picked up the signal of Wylie’s avalanche transceiver and he was dug free from a metres-deep snowy tomb, remarkably still conscious. But seven other skiers weren’t so lucky. Among the fatalities was legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly, who at the time was an aspiring guide.

Wylie survived, physically unharmed but emotionally scarred. In the years that followed, he was racked with survivor’s guilt and tormented by a sense of responsibility for the loss of life. He obsessed over his fateful decision to follow Beglinger up that mountain against his better judgement. His marriage unravelled and his career foundered.

Eventually, Wylie decided to face his demons head on and spent two years writing Buried, the book published in 2014, that tells his side of the story and the long road to emotional healing. The book is an unflinching, candid confessional, both an act of atonement and catharsis. But it’s also an indictment that doesn’t pull punches in its negative assessment of Beglinger’s role in the accident. (His former boss has dismissed the book as inaccurate.) Furthermore, it takes on a guiding culture ruled by stoicism and Type-A toughness and little sympathy for emotional vulnerability.

Today Wylie, who recently relocated to Mill Bay from Calgary, is a fit 50 year old and has emerged from the darkness determined to use his skills as a guide to not only share with clients the beauty and thrill of the mountains, but also help people and organizations address personal and institutional challenges through his company Mountains for Growth.

What was your life like between the time of the avalanche and the writing of your book?
At first I thought I could mark this event like a cairn on the path of life, honour it and move on. I was wrong. Instead, I loaded a backpack full of anger, resentment, guilt and fear of what people thought of me and I carried it around for seven years … I literally got to the point where my body was failing. I had fibromyalgia, my back was giving out. I fell to the floor and the words came out, “OK, I will write.”

You also started your own company, Mountains for Growth. What makes it more than just a mountain guiding company?
Adventure can be a powerful tool for personal growth and expansion because who we are shows up in challenging environments and situations. Mountains for Growth differs from a typical “mountain guided” experience in that we have the conversation about what is actually happening in the social arena. This takes courage.

I’m often asked why this is so important. My answer is: “So that we are different than our gear. Our equipment goes on the journey, just like us. If we fail to reflect on what happens out there, we forego growth and, like our [equipment], we only wear out.

The mountain world has taught me that when it’s blowing sideways snow, there’s nothing you can do about it — you have to accept it — [and it’s taught me] about having the courage to speak up in the face of hierarchy and also about truth. There’s an Indian fable about five blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the leg and says it’s like a pillar; another holds the tail and says it’s a rope; a third touches the trunk and calls it a tree branch, and so on. The point is that all parts are true and through this layered picture, a more compete truth emerges.

What can a CEO or team learn from an experience with you?
I’m interested in working with businesses and organizations that have the courage to build strong, high-functioning teams. This requires the chutzpah to have a hard look at who we are as people. Some of us think that we can work as consummate professionals, and that who we really are can stay locked at home in a box.

But self-knowledge is the key to making good decisions in risk and business environments. We have to know and befriend our dragons, so that we work with awareness and manage the risk of the human factor. A CEO or team would learn a lot on a Mountains for Growth program, and there can be many deeply individual lessons and breakthroughs as a group. The big one that a lot of groups get is how dangerous the misapplication of hierarchy can be in leadership yet how often it is used. 

What insights about leadership did you learn that you hope to share with others?
When I met with Ruedi [Beglinger] shortly after the tragedy, I wanted to share my version of events. He put his hand up and said, “I’ll tell you what happened.” Nobody responds well to fear. We’re all embroiled at some point in our lives in hierarchies. Leaders who sit atop rigid hierarchies have a very limited field of view, but when they allow other people into the process, they broaden their field of view and make better decisions.

It takes a lot of courage for a leader to recognize that they are not in control of everything and to sometimes allow the process to determine the direction. Google is a great example. Once a week [Google] employees are permitted to work on projects that they think are cool, and look what happens — Google Docs emerged from this.

Many people have little experience with high-risk mountain sports. What lessons can others draw from your experience in this environment?
In any risk environment, self-awareness is the most important skill. How you perform your hard skills is dependent on how you perform the soft, interpersonal skills.

There were many times following the tragedy when I questioned my motivations for pursuing risk sports. As a young man, I was very ego driven, keen to get my name in guidebooks and listed on first ascents. Writing the book enabled me to uncover the layers of beauty in the mountains, the connection with a partner, the unbelievable positions and locations you can access and the ability to work in concert with nature and solve problems that you encounter. 

As a mountaineer, I’ve learned that anything I carry in my backpack must either sustain or protect me in some way. If it does neither of these then it gets switched for something that does. What we carry in life, and in business, must be of use to us. My message is carry things that serve you and the greater good.