Meeting Climbs New Heights

November 24, 2004
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SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. - The music of the lone Indian flautist soared, dipped, and soared again, honoring generations of the Santa Ana Pueblo tribe and officially opening the annual meeting of the Mechanical Service Contractors Association (MSCA) at the Tamaya Hyatt.

According to tribal elder E.J. Lujan, management of the hotel/resort on the reservation helps fund a scholarship program and profit sharing for the tribe. The MSCA meeting itself placed a strong emphasis on education, profitability, and overcoming personal challenges.

Board of managers chairman Frank Norton (Comm Air, Boston) welcomed the group and honored the death of past chairman Robert Malia Sept. 19 at age 73. Mr. Malia served as chairman of MSCA in the 2002-2003 term and spent more than 40 years in the mechanical trades.

"Each of us has embarked on our own journey when we decided to enter the service industry," said Norton.

Explorer Jamie Clarke describes what it’s like to dine with the Sherpas.

Climbing Tools

The opening session featured insights from Jamie Clarke, the ninth Canadian to reach the summit of Mount Everest. First, Norton provided information on tools the association offers to help its members reach new heights of profitability.

"Every year there are more challenges and more competition," Norton said. The association's goal is to provide:

  • New educational programs, such as the service manager training program. The first one was held in Arizona and was a great success, Norton said.

  • Continued focus on labor and management communication. "UA-MSCA partnership is strong and effective," Norton said. "We're proud of our success," which includes a technical certification program, UA Star, and qualified contractor program, MSCA Star. "Over 1,500 techs have been certified through the UA."

  • A labor estimating manual for service that is almost complete.

  • Marketing of benefits and programs to members and prospective members. "The search for excellence and success is indeed a never-ending journey. Contractors turn to the association for education and information."

    Jamie Clarke told MSCA meeting attendees about his first two expeditions on Mt. Everest.

    Climbing Canadian

    Jamie Clarke, who reached the summit of Mount Everest and co-authored The Power of Passion, the story of his first two Everest expeditions, is a very funny guy. "My mission here [at the MSCA conference] is to be short and not to suck," he said.

    Clarke is from Calgary, directly north of Montana. He blames his passion for mountain climbing on his mother. He wanted to play hockey, "but hockey was too dangerous, mom said. Mom locked me in the basement until I was 12 - until she broke my spirit." Eventually he announced, "Mom, I'm going to climb Mount Everest." She replied, "Jamie, why don't you play hockey?"

    His first expedition took place in 1991, where he was assigned the role of "the tech," a person who stays at base camp. "I sat there, sullen and testosterone-saturated," until he remembered that "This was Everest; someone would get sick!" He did get to do some climbing, but the team did not reach the summit.

    He said one of his first speaking engagements was to tell grade school kids, "who were fed Pop Tarts before my arrival," about that first expedition. One slide showed Sherpa prayer flags. "Are those your underwear?" asked a kid. "No," Jamie replied; "we wear the same underwear 12 or 14 days." The boys were reverential: "You are cool ..."

    Why did the 1991 expedition fail? Clarke said at their return press conference, the team came up with the usual sports-like platitudes, such as, "The snow didn't bounce our way." Clarke got frustrated with the reporters. "Would you rather we died?" The headline, he said, was "Punk Climber Can't Suck Up Defeat."

    If At First You Don't Succeed

    That expedition and the two following made Clarke ask himself, "What is success? What do I think success is? I didn't know. Maybe if I got to the summit, I would understand what success is."

    The areas of improvement for the 1994 expedition included:

  • Fewer climbers.

  • Different season.

  • Different route.

  • More toilet paper.

  • More acclimatization.

    His mom, he said, taught him that "Failure is the basis upon which success could be built." He added, "Your mistakes are cut into you with an edge of embarrassment." During the first expedition, "We ran out of toilet paper on Mount Everest."

    One night before setting out, the Sherpas offered to cook a meal for the expedition party.

    The party accepted, and found that the Sherpas cook over a yak-dung fire, ashes of which floated down into the food. When the fire needed more fuel, the cook would grab a piece of yak dung, throw it on the fire, then go back to handling the food.

    At first the explorers didn't feel any ill effects, and figured that since they were mountain climbers, they might also be supermen - until about three in the morning. As a result of that dinner, the expedition ran out of toilet paper while making the climb. And because of that, the team lost its focus.

    When asked "Why did you fail?" by the newspapers, they couldn't say, "We ran out of toilet paper. We lost our focus."

    As a retailer now, Clarke said his focus is on keeping the customer comfortable. If he and his team lose that focus, the business stumbles. "I'll bet you can understand," he said to the contractors. Up on Everest, "Our team fell apart."

    He said, "I keep a roll of toilet paper around now as a reminder ... well, it's good to keep around anyway ..." Analyzing failure means you need to go past the emotions, he said.

    Ed Quinn of Fluidics Inc. won the MSCA’s D. Spence O’Brien Award of Excellence.

    ‘Mother Nature's Mountain'

    Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth, is sometimes called "Mother Nature's Mountain." Sir Edmund Hilary said, "Everest is never conquered. It occasionally tolerates success." Clarke's dad would ask Jamie, "After you conquer this mountain, why don't you go to the West Coast and conquer the tide?"

    On that second expedition, they were able to make a summit push. Four team members were in good shape to go; realistically, only two could go. "Summit fever," Clarke said, creates "passion and commitment for excellence." It also can create poor judgment.

    John McIsaac was one-and-a-half blocks away from the summit when he decided he couldn't make it and survive. McIsaac radioed that he was chucking it in; fluid was collecting in his lungs. He radioed this message in: "I want to sleep."

    "Hearing is the last sense we lose," Clarke said. McIsaac wasn't moving, wasn't responding to the radio. "We used the SAP phone" to contact his wife and daughters; the team didn't want to upset them, but this was an extreme situation. They talked for a while, and the team pretended it was a bad connection, that McIsaac could hear them but they can't hear him.

    Soon, though, they realized something was wrong. "Daddy, you gotta get up!" shouted one of the girls. "Daddy, you promised me you would come home," said the other. This got a response.

    Step by step, seven hours and a $32,000 phone bill later, McIsaac made it down. "Those girls carried their dad down the mountain," Clarke said. "His push to the summit marked the end of our 1994 expedition."

    The press conference had twice as many reporters. What did they learn from that near-death experience?

    "We gotta go back. We gotta try again."

    Success

    Areas of improvement in the 1997 expedition included:

  • Approach from the south side.

  • Use specialty teams.

  • Buy equipment.

  • Bring more Pringles.

  • Focus, focus, focus.

    Why Pringles? "Altitude sickness is like a major headache," Clarke said. "We needed those calories saturated in fat." Potato chips were the logical solution, but in 1994 they learned that "at 22,800 feet above sea level, the average potato chip bag explodes." Pringles were the answer.

    "Sometimes," he said, "solutions are simple."

    On that third trip, and even during the process of the first two trips, Clarke said he discovered what he was really there to conquer: fear.

    "Fear is like paralysis," he said. "How do you conquer it? Simply through choice. Where do you put your focus," he asked, "on the rungs or on the crevasses?

    "When you break through fear, you discover freedom on the other side. You discover this far from the summit," but the total learning experience "is a swirling together of the journey and the summit."

    Publication date: 11/29/2004

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