August 22, 2020 / VOLUME NO. 119
Summit Fever

K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world, and one of the deadliest.

One person dies for every four who climb it.

The crux of the climb — the moment of greatest peril — comes near the summit.

First, you climb up the bottleneck, a steep snow-filled gully hemmed in tightly on either side by rocky cliffs.

Then, at the top of the bottleneck, you turn left and traverse 100 meters beneath a menacing serac — a giant overhanging ice cliff poised to give way at any point.

After that, it’s a clear path to the summit.

That’s when summit fever kicks in.

The top seems so close, the desire to reach it so strong, that climbers experience tunnel vision, focusing only on the upside and ignoring the downside.

Sound familiar?

It’s the same emotional urge, I believe, that leads investors and bankers to take imprudent risks at the top of a cycle.

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” wrote America’s preeminent economist, Irving Fisher, shortly before the Crash of 1929.

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated,” said former Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince in 2007. “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Few are immune to this phenomenon.

That includes Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit the world’s 14 tallest mountains without supplemental oxygen.

“One of the aspects of my mountaineering career that I’m proudest of is that on the 8,000ers, I’ve never succumbed to summit fever — except perhaps on K2 in 1992,” Viesturs wrote in No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks.

In Viesturs case, however, the lapse on K2 was an exception.

Out of 30 expeditions to scale the world’s tallest peaks — those above 8,000 meters — he summited only 20 times. A third of the time he turned back, often within sight of the summit.

What’s true in mountaineering is true in banking.

“Getting to the top is optional,” Viesturs wrote.

“Getting to the bottom is mandatory.”

John J. Maxfield, editor in chief of Bank Director
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