By Rich Rovito
Jim Davidson reached the summit of Washington’s Mount Rainier with his best friend, Mike Price, at his side.
Filled with joy and pride, the mountaineers took time at the mountaintop to briefly celebrate their accomplishment. But exuberance turned to tragedy on their descent from the peak when a snow bridge collapsed and plunged the pair into a glacial crevasse.
Davidson survived the harrowing experience – barely. Price did not.
It took incomprehensible resolve for Davidson to rescue himself from the deep, dangerous chasm while dealing with the harsh reality that his friend had been fatally injured.
It took years for Davidson to speak publicly about the triumph and tragedy of Mount Rainier during that 1992 climb, but he has since used that experience to talk about the importance of resiliency and overcoming adversity to reach lofty goals, in life and in business.
Davidson will deliver the closing keynote address at WMEP Manufacturing Solutions’ Manufacturing Matters! virtual conference on Feb. 25.
“The common theme that resonates with manufacturers are the lessons from my climbing stories,” Davidson said. “They can help people overcome challenges in their work lives, as well as their personal lives. When you are in the mountains, it’s one setback after another. You’re tired and then you get better. And then the rain and wind come. We have to overcome the many small challenges, and sometimes big ones, and maintain a realistic but confident air.”
Resiliency is crucial to the success of manufacturers.
“There are so many reasons that it’s so hard to go into business and manufacturer a product,” Davidson said. “There’s the constant technology shifts, money issues, changes in the economy, machinery issues and staffing challenges. Manufacturers can overcome the big challenges and the little ones, too. They need to be realistic but optimistic.”
Davidson has been delivering keynote speeches for more than 15 years, but it took him a while to figure out a singular theme in his talks.
“It’s all about resilience,” he explained. “Sometimes it went under other flags, like adaptability, facing change, overcoming challenges. Those are all part of being resilient. I decided I was going to speak about resilience and not drift off into other areas. Resiliency was increasingly coming into focus before the pandemic hit and now that the pandemic is here it is absolutely front and center for everybody in their personal lives, literally every day, and in their work lives, literally every day.”
Manufacturers have faced a seemingly endless cavalcade of challenges that have arisen throughout the nearly year-long pandemic, Davidson said.
“The pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives,” he said. “And it wears us down. But you have to find ways to face those challenges, adapt to them, dust yourself off and get ready for the next one.”
The theme of the upcoming Manufacturing Matters! conference is “Adapt & Advance,” which Davidson said is highly meaningful for the current pandemic-driven atmosphere in which manufacturers must operate.
“The theme is perfect for the times we are in right now, but it’s really what manufacturers have always done. Manufactures always keep adapting and advancing.”
The pandemic has affected manufacturers in different ways, he noted.
“Depending on what you are manufacturing and where you were in the manufacturing cycle and growth cycle, you may have been in a favorable position to adapt and pivot or you may have been in an unfavorable position, but either way the virus showed up in the early part of 2020 and it was here,” Davidson said. “I feel really bad for businesses that were just starting. What bad timing and how that must have clobbered their business plans and cash flow. Nobody knew it was going to be here like this. Unfortunately, some people were just standing on the wrong foot to pivot quickly and others were standing on the right foot. Some of it was just pure luck and some of it was the nature of the business.”
Davidson has faced challenges of his own in preserving his professional speaking business.
“When the pandemic settled in, business was going along steady. But in the first two weeks of March my entire year of sales went away. There’s no such thing as a speaking business without a meetings business,” he said.
Davidson then began adapting to delivering virtual keynote addresses.
“I had a lot to learn and I worked really hard to figure it out. We had to adapt,” he said. “It’s not quite the same as standing over a cup of coffee and leaning on a table in the lobby after a dinner, but with all the technology we can recreate a lot of things with virtual meetings.”
Although it has been nearly 30 years since that fateful climb on Mount Rainier, the memories remain fresh for Davidson, who detailed the experience in the book “The Ledge,” which was first published in 2011 and became a New York Times best seller. He’s also been featured on the international television show I Shouldn’t Be Alive on the Discovery Channel.
“That was a bad climbing situation back in 1992. I lost my best friend and I barely survived myself. It was traumatic,” Davidson said. “It took 12 years before I first started speaking about it in public and the book didn’t come until 19 years after the climb. I felt obligated to share the story of my partner, Mike, so that he would be remembered and show how he helped saved me by his actions when I fell deep into a glacial crevasse. If I just curled up into a ball and hid out in my basement for the rest of my life that would have been a shame. I said I’ve got to find a way to take what happened out there, the good things and the bad, and share them to help people overcome challenges, or crevasses, in their own lives.”
Davidson said he continues to find new examples of resiliency in himself and others in dealing with difficult challenges that arise.
“It’s not an easy thing but I am driven to find those stories of resilience and share them through my speaking and my writing,” he said.
With the pandemic raging, even Davidson’s home life became a challenge as he had to isolate at times from his wife, Gloria, who is a nurse who has worked on a COVID-19 floor at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Despite the tragedy on Mount Rainier, Davidson has remained an avid climber and has now been mountaineering for nearly four decades.
He experienced near disaster in a 2015 during what he hoped would be his ultimate climb – a trek to the summit of the famed Mount Everest in Nepal.
“I trained really hard. We were part way up the mountain,” he said. “We made it to 19,700 feet and the biggest earthquake to hit Nepal in 81 years slammed into Mount Everest. In an instant, everything changed. Our climb was over. We had spent a month in Nepal and within a minute of the quake I knew our expedition was over. Now we had to try and survive the earthquake and avalanches, help our neighbors, get ourselves off the mountain and help the people around the base of Mount Everest. And as time went by, we even raised money for the recovery in Nepal.”
The Everest lessons are ones he continues to preach in speeches.
“What I found out was that these are the same lessons about being resilient, adapting and trying to advance in spite of the earthquake, in spite of the tragic things that have happened,” Davidson said.
Davidson has even returned to Mount Rainier. He assembled a team of his four closest and highly experienced climbing companions that helped him conquer the challenge of climbing a mountain on which his life changed so dramatically.
“I was scared as heck to go back there,” Davidson said. “It was difficult and moderately challenging from a physical standpoint but psychologically it was very challenging to go back to that mountain. What I found was that by facing that difficulty, it sort of drained the scary memory of its power. It showed me that the mountain is dangerous, and it was a bad thing that happened but there is some good stuff about Mount Rainier, too. Facing that traumatic event lifted me up and that’s what helped me go back to Mount Everest even after the earthquake in 2015. I was scared and shaken up, but the challenges are always going to keep coming.”
Davidson returned to Mount Everest in 2017 and, after another period of intense training, successfully summited the mountain in May 2017.
“What happened on Rainier and then what happened in Nepal, it’s all about resiliency,” Davidson said. “You have to adapt and figure out a new plan. It’s happened to me several times in my climbing career. If you think of manufacturing over the last 100 years, how many major setbacks have manufacturers had to overcome? That’s what manufacturers have always had to do.”
Davidson’s upcoming book, “The Next Everest,” highlights the difficulties he had to face on reaching the world’s tallest peak.
“It pulls in these resiliency lessons, some from Rainier, and certainly from dealing with the Everest earthquake and then going back again,” he said.
The message remains simple and clear, even in the most challenging of times, Davidson said.
“Adapt and advance. Whether it’s a good tailwind or a strong headwind, challenges are always coming at us.”