CEO who summitted Mt. Everest 8 times: How to achieve success without chasing risks

Adrian Ballinger, pictured at the summit of K2, the world's second-highest peak after Mount Everest.
Source: Alpenglow Expeditions

You can't climb the world's tallest mountains without assuming some risk.

The same goes for starting your own business. Few people understand both of those concepts better than Adrian Ballinger, the 46-year-old founder and CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions.

A climbing guide for the past 25 years, Ballinger has led more than 150 international climbing expeditions across six continents. He's scaled Mount Everest eight times and in May, he recorded the first-ever fully ski descent of Nepal's Makalu — the world's fifth-highest peak, at more than 27,000 feet.

But Ballinger is adamant that he's no "adrenaline junkie." He says his primary goal, whether he's on a mountain or in his company's Olympic Valley, California offices, is to avoid any and all unnecessary risks.

"My whole career has been about recognizing that there is risk in what we do, but then managing, mitigating, and often turning back and failing versus going too far," he tells CNBC Make It. "And I think that's how I approach business, as well."

'There's no such thing' as completely avoiding risk

In business, as in mountain climbing, "there's no such thing" as completely avoiding risks, Ballinger says. After all, he passed up a career in the medical field to become a mountain climbing guide in 1997, and struck out on his own to launch Alpenglow in 2004.

"I've had to take steps and risk failure, and understand that there might be consequences when I make poor choices in my business, which I do all the time," he says. 

Research and preparation can help make sure you're at least taking educated risks. You may not be totally ready for anything that comes your way, but if you've considered enough potential outcomes, you can train your brain to stay calm during stressful situations, Ballinger says.

"It's almost like training any other sort of muscle," he says, adding that you can improve simply by facing unknown situations and either succeeding or failing. "That, I think, is the single biggest thing we can do: actually train this ability of accepting what comes and continuing onwards."

What Ballinger's risk analysis looks like

In 2019, Ballinger was leading an expedition to the summit of K2, which borders Pakistan and China and is the world's second-highest peak, when "everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

First, Ballinger contracted a parasitic illness and lost 16 pounds over the first two weeks of the seven-week expedition. Then, a major snowstorm hit, damaging tents and ropes while preventing the team's gear from reaching them on the mountain.

Out of the 185 total climbers on the mountain at the time, 160 decided to pack up and go home, Ballinger says — but he and his team stayed.

"I absolutely did not believe it was possible to summit the mountain. On paper, it was impossible," he says now. "But our team made a decision, like, 'Well, we still have three weeks left, and there's nothing actually that's created so much danger that we have to go home.'"

Instead, they stayed partway up the mountain, hoping the conditions above them would eventually settle down.

"Pieces fell together and people helped us. New equipment got in and a massive windstorm took away all the dangerous, avalanche-y snow," he says. "I finally got healthy, we stood on top and I climbed this mountain that truly seemed impossible."

In other words, even in dire circumstances, Ballinger's practiced ability to stay calm and process information logically helped his team succeed.

"I had trained this ability, over so many other times, and even when I totally didn't believe in myself anymore, I still was there doing the work," he says.

Want to earn more and work less? Register for the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Dec. 13 at 12 p.m. ET to learn from money masters how you can increase your earning power.

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