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Conquering the Seven Summits started in Craigleith (Posted On: Monday, January 29, 2007)

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Life is about pushing boundaries, stretching your limits, and conquering summits. Meet Rob and Katrina Follows who have set world records and conquered the tallest peak on each of the 7 continents.

Rob Follows has spent a lifetime building businesses, starting his first at the age of 12. He has studied at Oxford for a PhD, and at this particular moment, he’s in Boston busy preparing for a presentation as part of an intense program he takes through the Harvard Business School.

That’s on top of the businesses he’s involved with. Rob Follows is a guy with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

“My wife says I hardly sleep; I figure I ought to be productive and contribute now, because I’m going to be dead for a long time, and I can rest then,” he laughs.

Follows is also a big proponent of life planning, of stopping and taking stock.

“People do business planning, they do city planning,” he said. “But people don’t stop and think about different ways to consider life.”

He has spent a lifetime stretching his limits – or so he thought.

“I was explaining my philosophy (of life planning) to my girlfriend, Katrina (now his wife), and she said, ‘Rob, let’s set a stretch goal that we could do together.’

The couple was in the midst of a cross-Mexico drive, when Katrina told Rob her idea of her first idea/goal: she wanted the couple to climb the Seven Summits.

The Seven Summits are not a mere stroll up the side of a hill; it requires conquering the challenge of climbing the tallest peak on each of the seven continents: Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mt. Aconcagua (South America), Mt. Elbrus (Europe), Mr. McKinley (North America), Mt. Kosciuszko (Australia), Mt. Vinson (Antarctica), and the ‘Roof of the World’, Everest. The Seven Summits (depending on which ‘list’ a climber undertakes; there are two lists, one of which considers the seven peaks already mentioned, the other which inserts the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia in place of Mt. Kosciuszko) is the premier challenge in mountaineering, with a little more than 150 climbers successfully completing the list. It’s expensive, physically demanding, and the danger is immeasurable.

“I remember telling Katrina that ‘I don’t climb and neither do you…. and we could die on Everest’.”

Rob and Katrina set the goal of climbing as many of the Seven Summits that they would be comfortable with – and went for it.

A big part of that was training.

Follows had learned to ski at Craigleith, and it was to Craigleith the couple headed – not to ski down, but to walk up. And not just walk up, but walk up wearing ‘crampons’, metal spikes that attach to boots in order to grip the ice. An added ‘bonus’, as it were, is the crampons collecting big balls of snow under each foot – forcing the walker to learn some balance.

“It’s obviously not a technical challenge (going up the side of Blue Mountain), but it works the muscles,” Follows said. “People thought we looked pretty odd wearing these things.

“We climbed the hill many, many time - it’s hard to develop the muscles without practicing for hours and hours.”

The first mountain was Kilimanjaro in October, 2003, and the couple learned to manage not only the climb, but to deal with the lack of oxygen. The next was Aconcagua; on that summit, the couple got engaged. They married on top of Vinson in December, 2004, and honeymooned on the summit of McKinley the following July.

And then there was Everest. A person just does not merely climb Everest over a few days; it is an odyssey that takes a couple of months as climbers stop at various base camps up the mountain, in some cases spending two to three weeks at the first base camp in order to acclimatize to the altitude. The couple had already tried to make an ascent in 2005 that needed to be called off because of the jet stream.

“It was nine weeks and it’s very tough,” Follows said. “You’re at 18,000 feet, acclimatizing and training on ladders and ice walls, then up to 22,000 feet. You’re on the edge of death all the time – and unfortunately, you see people who have died – reminding you of the danger, but you keep your eye on the goal, you continue to assess the risk and make sure you are reducing it everywhere you can, and if you are blessed with good weather and good luck, you know you might reach your goal – the top of the world.”

Calling off the 2005 climb was “one of the hardest decisions we ever made, but we decided that it was the right decision. It is hard to turn around after 8 weeks of climbing and to arrive home to people saying ‘Oh, you didn’t make it’ – when you know in your heart it was the right decision”.

The next year, the couple went back. On May 24, at 6 a.m., Rob and Katrina made the summit, and became the first couple to get engaged, married, and honeymoon on three of the seven summits, and the first North American couple to climb all seven.

“Katrina started crying when we were 300 or 400 yards from the summit (of Everest),” Follows recalled. “It was cool to look down the Tibet side, and then look down the Nepal side; we were so blessed with a beautiful day.”

Coincidently, the morning they finished their seven summits, Canadian climber Daniel Griffith was starting his; Everest was the first of the Seven Summits for Griffith, who went on to set a world record climbing the seven summits (using the Carstensz Pyramid) in 187 days.

“Dan and I are good friends, and he was there for the first (attempt) in 2005,” Follows said, noting the day he and Katrina summitted, there were four Canadians on top of Everest, including Griffiths.

There are personal summits, there are the real ones as conquered by Rob Follows and his wife Katrina. And then there are the ones faced by charities across the country.

Among his many endeavours, Follows is the founder and chairman of Altruvest Charitable Services, a company that assists charitable organizations build better governance structures and serve their community more effectively. The climb up the seven summits – coined Everest for Altruvest - was done in aid of creating a $1-million endowment so that Altruvest can continue helping hundreds of charities improve their performance.

According to the Altruvest web site , with over 250,000 board volunteers needed annually, most Canadian charities need help to find the skilled and dedicated volunteers to build better governed organizations and deliver more services to their communities. Altruvest is a bridge between new business and professional volunteers who can contribute a lot to the charitable sector and charities that need and want new board members.

“We build tools for charities to help charities with their challenges and to help maximize the amount of donations get to the cause,” Follows said. “Just as mountain climbers need tools to climb summits, charities need the tools to climb their own mountains.

“The goal of Everest for Altruvest was to raise funds and also awareness of the good work Altruvest is doing.”

The couple paid for their own expedition, with all the money raised through the climb going to the charity.

Follows does what he does because “we in Canada have been born with many resources. When you look at the big picture, one of the things I have decided to do with my good fortune in business is to contribute as much time and energy and money to charity as I can – as well as to encourage others to help charities too”. His new business STS Capital Partners is focused on exactly that – helping entrepreneurs and families sell their business for the maximum dollar so that they can contribute more of their time and energy to charity – which he has trademarked from Success to Significance.

What’s next for Rob and Katrina? Well, they intend to go to the ends of the earth for charity – literally; at some point in the next two years, the couple will begin treks to the North and South Poles.

To view exciting photos of Everest check out the photo gallery

Written by Ian Adams
Pictures: Rob & Katrina Follows


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